The 2022 Paris-Roubaix is almost upon us, back in the spring where it belongs. The famous cobbles, the secteurs pavés, are waiting for the peloton to return just six months after the autumnal 2021 edition of the Hell of the North brought rain and mud to the race.
Last year's champion Sonny Colbrelli won't return to defend his title at Paris-Roubaix, meaning a new victor will be crowned in the Roubaix velodrome on Sunday afternoon.
Who are the hot favourites to take victory in the Queen of the Classics, and who are a few wildcards who could spring one of Roubaix's famous surprises?
Mathieu van der Poel en route to victory at the Tour of Flanders (Credit: Kristof Ramon)
Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix)
When Mathieu van der Poel romped to victory in the Tour of Flanders earlier this month, the back injury that delayed the start of his season until Milan-Sanremo seemed like ancient history.
At Amstel Gold Race, however, the Dutchman didn’t have quite the same monstrous presence and missed the winning move. He still won the sprint for fourth.
Van der Poel, third in Roubaix last season, should be hot favourite for Sunday. But questions do remain over whether Amstel was a small blip in form for the 27-year-old or the start of a downward trajectory of form.
Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ)
As Stefan Küng rounded off his media obligations after finishing fifth at the Tour of Flanders, his manager Marc Madiot was trying in vain to argue his way into the mixed zone. The security guard was having none of it (“wrong accreditation”) but Madiot managed to shout one word to his young Swiss protégé over the burly bouncer’s shoulder.
Küng smiled. Madiot knows a thing or two about the race, having won it twice himself in 1985 and 1991. Küng is a powerful, heavily-built rouleur who could have been hand-crafted for the Roubaix cobbles. Fifth at Flanders and eighth at Amstel Gold Race show he’s in form. What can he do in a race that really suits him?
Kasper Asgreen (Quick-Step-Alpha Vinyl)
Quick-Step-Alpha Vinyl have been decidedly off colour this spring, with Asgreen’s slipped chain at the Tour of Flanders adding insult to an injured (and ill) squad.
The Belgian team have placed their hopes on things coming good just in time for Roubaix, and after an impressive showing at Amstel Gold Race it appears that for Asgreen this is the case.
Quick-Step wins at Roubaix have often been built on strength in depth, and if Yves Lampaert and Tim Declercq can also start firing on all cylinders, not to mention local boy Florian Sénéchal, then Asgreen is in with a real shout.
Alexander Kristoff (Intermarché-Wanty Gobert)
Sometimes we can forget that Alexander Kristoff has won two Monuments: Milan-Sanremo and the Tour of Flanders. And he has won Gent-Wevelgem. And four Tour de France stages.
A move to Intermarché-Wanty Gobert has rejuvenated the 34-year-old Norwegian who backed up tenth in De Ronde with a superb solo win at Scheldeprijs. This will be his 12th Paris-Roubaix start.
The Belgian team don’t have the strongest squad to back him up but plenty of riders will have their eyes on Kristoff, and not only because of the day-glo yellow kit.
Easy as one-two-three for Wout, Christophe and Primož at Paris-Nice
Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma)
It was, as Wout van Aert said, the worst possible timing. A Covid-19 positive and mild symptoms on the eve of the Tour of Flanders kept the Belgian champion out of his home Monument and jeopardised his participation in the Hell of the North.
Yet Van Aert is on the start-sheet for Paris-Roubaix. Whether he has kept any of the form that saw him (and Jumbo-Visma) blitz the month of March will determine whether he stands a chance. Roubaix doesn’t give anything away for free.
Christophe Laporte (Jumbo-Visma)
Plan B for Jumbo-Visma begins with a C. Christophe Laporte rode to a fine sixth place at Paris-Roubaix last year while at Cofidis and has looked like another rider altogether since his transfer to the Dutch squad over the winter.
The question is this: do his stellar performances this spring (runner-up in both E3 SaxoBank Classic and Gent-Wevelgem) stand alone or did they depend on the presence of Van Aert as a tactical and physical foil? The jury is out after ninth at Flanders; Roubaix could see them return a verdict.
Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo)
Nine years ago, Mads Pedersen hoisted the mini cobble awarded to the winner of junior Paris-Roubaix over his head. Fast forward to 2022 and the Dane is once again a favourite for the elite race.
The former world champion has gobbled up stage wins for fun in France this season at Etoile de Bessèges, Paris-Nice and most recently Circuit de la Sarthe. Thanks to a handful of top-tens in Milan-Sanremo and the cobbled Classics, the form book suggest Pedersen will be up there in Paris-Roubaix.
The down side? He has never finished in the top 50 of elite Roubaix before.
Who will succeed Sonny Colbrelli as Paris-Roubaix champion?
After winning Milan-Sanremo with a daredevil downhill off the Poggio, Matej Mohorič (Bahrain Victorious) has been there or thereabouts at crunch times in the Classics this spring. He has never cracked the Roubaix code before but likes long days and big gears.
What about Filippo Ganna? The Ineos Grenadiers powerhouse won the U23 Roubaix and has reportedly been tuning his form this spring with 60kmph track efforts to replicate the cobbles, yet for all his pedigree he has never finished the elite race and pulled out of the recent Circuit de la Sarthe with illness.
Florian Vermeersch (Lotto-Soudal) will be out to prove last year’s second place in the mud on debut wasn’t a fluke. The Belgian press have been hyping up this 23-year-old history student and local councillor; the last rider to podium at his first Roubaix was a certain Tom Boonen. Also look out for Anthony Turgis (TotalEnergies), twice top-20 in Roubaix, second in Milan-Sanremo this year, and knocking on the door of a big win.
Want a real wildcard? Jan Tratnik. The fourth man of Slovenian cycling and third man of Bahrain Victorious has spent his spring freestyling his way to ninth at Sanremo, ninth at Dwars Door Vlaanderen, 12th at Flanders and 12th at Amstel Gold Race. Every now and then in Roubaix a form rider gets in the right move and makes it to the velodrome. Just ask Mat Hayman and Johan Vansummeren.
Images: Getty Images & Kristof Ramon