We all know the script. The early break goes up the road, the bunch reel them in sometime after the Arenberg, and the true racing for the win can begin.
But on an unusually hot day in April, 2007, Stuart O’Grady completed his lap-and-a-half of the Roubaix velodrome the best part of a minute before runner-up Juan Antonio Flecha crossed the line, having been part of a 30-plus strong group who made their bid for freedom prior to the opening pavé at Troisvilles.
O’Grady attacked with over 20km remaining to become the first Australian to win Paris-Roubaix, and with a memorably gutsy performance too.
He’ll be at Roubaix this year, working with Australian travel company Mummu Cycling. Who better to run his eye over the runners and riders for one of the finest days of the racing calendar?
The defending champion
As Greg van Avermaet tells us in the latest issue of Rouleur, two mechanicals earlier in the 2017 race may have actually changed his tactics and improved his chances of winning – which sounds counter intuitive, but contains some logic.
“I thought I should save myself as much as possible, because it is not possible to do the whole final going hard. Maybe I would be pushing it too much,” he told us.
O’Grady concurs with the sentiment: “I get that. You take things as they come and you deal with it; get angry, but bottle it up and use it. It’s one of those things that comes with experience.
“Once you have won Roubaix, you go in the next year with a level of confidence you never had before. In 2008, I was asked how I was going to go and replied: look, I won it last year so I’m expecting a top-ten.”
O’Grady was fifth in 2008 to back-up his theory. As for Van Avermaet, his extraordinary Spring Classics campaign of 2017 has not been replicated in recent weeks. “He hasn’t been on the level that he was last year, but he’s got a super strong team,” is Stuart’s assessment. Don’t count him out.
Super Sagan’s time to shine?
Peter the great just keeps on winning: any race, any style. Yet Roubaix seems to be one of the few targets the world champion has not taken in recent years. His last three finishes in the velodrome – 38th, 11th and 23rd – suggest this may be one beyond his reach. But then, he is Peter Sagan. Anything is possible.
“He wins Flanders by attacking on the Paterburg or wherever and he’s gone. Roubaix is very different, much more strategic,” O’Grady thinks.
“Peter seems almost too strong in Roubaix. But after me saying that, he’ll probably come out and smash it! I love watching Peter and so does the whole world. For him to win it in the rainbow jersey would be incredible.”
O’Grady points to a stronger line-up for Bora-Hansgrohe this year, with older brother Juraj Sagan providing assistance and last year’s counterfoil for Van Avermaet at BMC, Daniel Oss, switching teams to join the world champion.
“Oss could win it himself. He’s an old warrior, strong as an ox, doesn’t crack, and he can sprint.” You have been warned.
Stybar: ever the bridesmaid
Remember 2017, when Stybar glued himself to Van Avermaet’s wheel for mile after mile before reaching the velodrome, yet still couldn’t beat him in the sprint?
Or 2015, when the Czech had the misfortune to approach the line in a group containing John Degenkolb? Second again…
Or 2014, when Quick Step team-mate Niki Terpstra made the killer move, leaving Stybar and Boonen to police the bunch of nine riders contesting the remaining podium positions?
For Stybar to finally hit the top spot and raise that famous cobbled trophy, he will need to repeat the 2014 scenario, but ensure he – not Terpstra – makes his attack count. The in-form Dutchman, on the evidence of E3 Harelbeke and Flanders, might be the better bet.
“Stybar’s got every attribute – his cyclo-cross background, he’s pretty quick, definitely not shy of laying it on the line,” O’Grady says. “He deserves it. He’ll be up there again.”
Sebastian Langeveld: as good as it gets
Langeveld’s joy at being on the podium in 2017 was clear to see. What are the chances of a repeat performance? “Sebastian is very professional, a great bloke, but I think last year was probably the best result he could ever hope for.” A fair assessment from Langeveld’s former team-mate.
Pick of the Aussies
“Luke Durbridge has got the potential to do a good ride,” says O’Grady. “Then you’ve got Mat Hayman in there, who rode one of the best Roubaix’s in history. Durbo and Hayman come to mind for me.”
And what about the French?
The last French winner, Stu?
“Guesdon, wasn’t it?” Correct. Frédéric Guesdon in 1997 was the last home rider to give the locals something to shout about. It seems like an age ago.
Arnaud Démare, pictured above at Tro Bro Leon, rode a very solid race last year, however, to finish 6th. In recent weeks, he’s been 3rd at Milan-Sanremo, 3rd at Gent-Wevelgem and 15th at Flanders. Were we of a betting persuasion, the Rouleur fiver might be put on Démare – each way, at least.
O’Grady needs some convincing, though: “You could make a Hollywood movie if Sylvain Chavanel could pop out a victory. There’s usually a couple of young emerging Frenchies who pull off a decent result, but nobody springs to mind for the podium.”
Young contenders and old hands
That’s Jasper Stuyven and Gianni Moscon, above, desperately trying to reach Van Avermaet, Stybar and Langeveld last year. The talented Trek-Segafredo rider and the wayward, controversial Italian were the surprise packages in 2017. But who will be in the mix on Sunday?
This season, Wout van Aert is the bright young thing attracting the plaudits for his performances at Strade Bianche and Flanders. It’s a stretch to see him on the podium at Roubaix, but give him a year or two and his time will surely come.
We also threw a few regular contenders at O’Grady: John Degenkolb, Sep Vanmarcke, Alexander Kristoff, Philippe Gilbert, Niki Terpstra, Edvald Boasson Hagen…
“The beauty of Roubaix is it’s such a unique race,” says the 2007 winner. “All eyes will be on the favourites, but any of those names could win. Flanders, there are realistically about eight guys who could win, Milan- Sanremo is similar, but Roubaix could be any of 25 riders. Kristoff is one for sure. When Boasson Hagan rocked up on the scene, I thought he’d have won three Roubaix’s by now. Anything is possible.”
Stuart O’Grady leads VIP race tours for Mummu Cycling, including Paris-Roubaix and the Ardennes Classics