Filippo Ganna is one of the bookies' favourites to win Paris-Roubaix on Sunday. He’s been included in a host of pre-race previews, and the addition of his name to the start list ignited a swarm of Twitter excitement. But the Italian rider has never performed in Paris-Roubaix as a professional rider. While he took victory in Paris-Roubaix Espoirs in 2016, the U23 version of the race, he has only ridden it twice as an elite. Of those two times, once he finished over the time limit, and the other he didn’t finish at all. So, why does he enter the race as a top contender for victory?
Don’t ask Filippo himself, for a start. “I don't know why people think I'm the favourite. I want to say thank you everyone for the big support,” he said a few days before the race. “I did Roubaix two times before and one time I punctured in the Arenberg and another one I jumped in the car after two sectors.”
His results on the road so far this season don’t hint that Ganna will pull a Roubaix win out of the bag this year, either. His last race was the 2.1 Circuit Cycliste Sarthe where he was hampered by stomach problems and abandoned on stage four. This means that the Italian has missed all of the Spring Classics so far, without a taste of the cobbles since his last Paris-Roubaix recon at the end of March.
Image: Zac Williams/SWpix
While many of his competitors have been getting familiar with the rough and tumble of the pavé, Ganna has remained at home in Italy, training with the national track team. “We have the World Cup in Glasgow three days after Paris-Roubaix,” he says. “We’ve tried to do shorter efforts around the distance of a sector of pavé [on the velodrome], trying to use the same average power, it's pretty simple. I wanted to try something like this and we will see if it's a solution.”
The smooth wooden boards of an indoor track don't seem to be an ideal simulation for the savage Roubaix cobbles, but, as history has proven, you never know with Hell of the North. It’s a race where sprints that would usually be easily won by one rider end up dominated by the underdog, where lone, long-range attacks can sometimes make it to the line, where someone in the early break of the day can finish on the podium. Think Mat Hayman’s 2016 shock victory after months of just training on the turbo, or Lizzie Deignan’s 80km solo attack last year. Anything can happen on the Paris-Roubaix Sunday in Northern France.
Ineos Grenadiers Sports Director, Roger Hammond, thinks that Ganna might just pull it off: “It’s a pretty hard one to predict. He’s got the qualities, hasn't he?”
It’s true that Ganna’s strengths will come to the fore on the flat, exposed roads of Roubaix. A powerhouse rider, he showed in his 2016 victory as an under-23 that he can handle the tough cobbles. “We will see in two days if I can do Ctrl C or Ctrl V of that race or not,” Ganna joked when asked about a repeat performance in the elite category this year.
Image: Zac Williams/SWpix
The Italian will also be helped by the Ineos Grenadiers’ intriguing new race strategy that has been paying dividends in the Classics so far. With a host of young riders who have an explosive motivation and a hunger to attack, the team have been riding without a fear of losing, taking the Classics by the scruff of the neck and ripping up the rule books.
It’s given them a win in the Amstel Gold Race, a podium in the Tour of Flanders and, most recently, victory in Brabantse Pijl with 19-year-old Magnus Sheffield. Combine these strong, keen beans with the experience of riders like Luke Rowe and Michal Kwaitkowski, and Ganna thinks you have a recipe for success.
“It's a good mix, because we have a lot of experience like Kwiato like Luke and a lot of young riders like Ben Turner, Magnus Sheffield and me,” he says. “I will be following those more experienced.”
It also gives the team cards to play, something that DS Hammond expects to be an asset in Paris-Roubaix, “We’ve got numbers in this team. That’s the beauty of the team at this moment, it’s how we won Brabantse Pijl and Amstel,” he says. “I don’t think it’s any secret that we’re a strong team in numbers. That’s what we have to use, and he [Ganna] is going to be one of them, that’s it. We’d be foolish not to.”
Happy with the team around him and with plenty of track speed in the bank, perhaps Filippo Ganna could pull off something impressive on Sunday. If there’s one thing that this Classics season has taught us, it’s that years of experience and practice isn’t always the key to a race win. Biniam Girmay secured his Gent-Wevelgem win during his first appearance of the race, for example, and Tadej Pogačar finished fourth in Flanders on his debut.
As Ganna himself says, right now, it’s all about “recovery, saving energy and arriving at the day of the race with special legs.”
Cover image: Getty