Blazin' Saddles: The 12 riders who need to win 2019 Paris-Roubaix
Practically everyone with any ambition in the peloton wants to win this Sunday's 117th Paris-Roubaix but only a dozen riders need to win it. Felix Lowe looks ahead of the Hell of the North, weighs up the main contenders and focuses on those who could really do with that cobblestone trophy on their mantlepiece.
There's nothing quite like it: the 257-kilometre race from Compiegne to Roubaix via 29 sectors of bone-jangling, frame-cracking, puncture-inflicting pavé – that's a total of 54.5km of the rough stuff.
It's the race us fans all dream of watching and a race just a select tranche of the peloton can realistically win. But with this year's 117th edition of the Hell of the North set to be more open than ever, it's a race which, for various reasons, some riders really need to win.
Here they are, in no particular order…
Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe)
The defending champion is riding like Austin Powers in search of his lost mojo. It's almost Easter and the bunny-hopper has only won once in 2019 and that didn't really count because it was the Tour Down Under.
Sagan's Slovakian national champion's jersey mirrors his former rainbow stripes but it lacks three colours – one for each gear the 29-year-old seems to be lacking. But he could save his spring campaign on Sunday and set things up nicely for the Ardennes with a win over the cobbles, a surface which plays into the hands of Sagan's supreme bike-handling skills.
Anything but victory on Sunday will see Sagan drop even further behind Julian Alaphilippe on the panache scale.
Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team)
The Belgian veteran has arguably the best record at Roubaix having notched four top fives in six years, including victory in 2017. But Van Avermaet has been riding this season as if someone's just told him that he'll have to wear an orange-black fade for the rest of his life: without hope, purpose or intent.
Reigning Olympic champion Van Avermaet's only win since joining CCC came in his opening race of the season at Valencia. But a second cobblestone trophy would mark a positive end to this period of transition from BMC – and would see the 33-year-old's stock rise in his native Belgium after ending the country's winless run in classics this year.
Oliver Naesen (Ag2R-La Mondiale)
In a year where the former Belgian national champion has been feted for being in the form of his life, the only thing Naesen has got from his regular visits to the lower echelons of the podium is a bout of champagne-induced bronchitis.
For someone as revered as 28-year-old Naesen, his palmares are still achingly empty – just four career wins and no major WorldTour scalps. He has undoubtedly been in stellar form, with top 10 finishes at Omloop, Milano-Sanremo (where he was second), Gent-Wevelgem (where he was third) and the Ronde van Vlaanderen last weekend. But he needs a win soon otherwise he threatens to wander in to Sep Vanmarcke territory…
Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First)
Talking of whom, just how good was Vanmarcke in last week's Ronde, in which he selflessly helped pave the way for team-mate Alberto Bettiol's surprise win? But does the once next-big-thing from Belgium really want to go down merely as the man who helped an Italian rookie win a Monument?
For years now we've been talking about Vanmarcke's potential, but for years the Belgian has rather conveniently taken the pressure off his shoulders by crashing at inopportune moments of races or the season, or picking up untimely punctures at the business end of races.
All of a sudden, Vanmarcke is 30 years old and his list of (seven) career wins reads like a bad joke from a Christmas cracker (that debut Omloop win back in 2012 aside).
But it's not too late for Vanmarcke. His crash in E3 perhaps extinguished his personal chances at Flanders but played into the hands of his team-mate Bettiol. Now Vanmarcke can enter Roubaix feeling fresh and with a realistic shot at pulling off the big win he's always promised. This genuinely could be a last-chance-saloon situation for the rangy Belgian.
Philippe Gilbert (Deceuninck-QuickStep)
It's not through lack of talent that Belgium lack a major classics win this season. Gilbert is the fourth Belgie on this list of need-to-wins and his urgency is perhaps the most pressing of them all.
The 36-year-old's ambitious (read: unlikely) target of winning all five Monuments in his career requires success at Roubaix and Milano-Sanremo. If victory on the Via Roma looks to be the major stumbling block (he could only muster 68th last month as team-mate Julian Alaphilippe triumphed) then, on paper, his chances in the Roubaix velodrome should be far better.
But time is precious for the veteran QuickStepper. The cobbles may be his natural habitat but he hasn't finished his last two races – the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Dwars door Vlaanderen – and his position in the Deceuninck hierarchy is gradually slipping day by day. Just one win last season and one this year – both in minor races – mirrors Gilbert's slide. It's win-or-bust on Sunday.
Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott)
Let's take a break from the Belgians, shall we? Italian Trentin left QuickStep the year before last in order to play a leadership role in the classics – only to crash out badly of last year's Roubaix. Now in his second year at Mitchelton-Scott, the 29-year-old doesn't have that much to show for his efforts besides a European champions jersey.
Trentin has been consistently in the mix in one-day races this year, with top tens pretty much everywhere until his 21st at Flanders last week. While his record in Roubaix is pretty dire – the best finish being 36th in 2016 – he's traditionally had to ride in the service of others.
Now's the chance for Trentin to show what he can do when riding for himself and with a team fully behind him. The critics might say that, until he can prove himself capable of such a role, he was arguably more effective doing what he did previously. Win on Sunday, and Trentin can take the power back and justify his position at Mitchelton-Scott before focus shifts to the Grand Tours and the team's GC riders.
John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo)
Just as Degenkolb needed last year's emotional stage 9 win at Roubaix in Tour de France to draw a line under the horrific training crash he sustained in 2017, the German needs to win a second bona fide Roubaix crown to cement his place in the pantheon of the greats.
Degenkolb's imposing victory in 2015 – ahead of Zdenek Stybar and Van Avermaet – saw the then 26-year-old touted as a future cobblestone great. Bad luck and ill fortune has not shined kindly upon the Trek rider, but he's been knocking on the door again this spring.
Second in Gent-Wevelgem a fortnight ago, Degenkolb, now 30, really needs to win in Roubaix in April again to tee up an Indian Summer for the rest of his career.
Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates)
The man who beat Degenkolb to the line at Wevelgem was the renaissance man Kristoff, who seems to have hit another gear in the one-day races since Fernando Gaviria's arrival at UAE knocked him down the Grand Tour sprinting pecking order.
Another encouraging ride in Flanders last weekend saw the Norwegian win the sprint for third place in a race which, had it panned out a little differently, he could well have won. Now Kristoff enters Paris-Roubaix as many people's favourite to cause an upset.
His record in the Hell of the North is hardly inspiring: DNF, DNF, 57, 9, DNF, 10, 48, DNF, 57. But in the right circumstances – an attritional race coming down to a reduced bunch sprint – Kristoff could well change all that on Sunday. He'll maybe never have a better chance at winning a third of cycling's Monuments.
Wout Van Aert (Team Jumbo-Visma)
Let's flitter back to the Belgians, shall we? It's been another promising spring for the cyclo-cross star, whose seemingly effortless transition to the road continues to reap all rewards besides actual victories.
In fact, a critic might say that the 24-year-old has been "all fart and no poop" – especially when set against the human diarrhoea factory that is Mathieu van der Poel, who can't seem to stop following through with a steady stream of victories.
Having taken podium places in Strade Bianche and E3, plus a solid sixth in Milano-Sanremo, Van Aert's level dropped a bit in Gent-Wevelgem and the Ronde. With his old rival Van der Poel sitting this one out because of Corendon Circus' non-invitation, Van Aert could really do with a maiden WorldTour and Monument win to put the Dutchman in the shade.
Extra pressure comes from the fact that, for the first time since World War II, no Belgian rider has won a spring classic ahead of Roubaix. Can Van Aert afford not to be the Belgian who ends that run?
Luke Rowe (Team Sky)
It's all very well licking your finger, smiling at the evidence of wind, then blowing the peloton into several echelons on a daily basis during a particularly blustery Paris-Nice en route to setting up a rookie team-mate to the overall victory.
We already know that Welshman Rowe is one of the best in the business when it comes to bicycle butlering. But this Sunday will mark the last day of the season when Rowe is the one being served on, before he drops back to his natural habitat as a domestique for others.
For all their excellence in Grand Tours, Sky have never managed to crack Paris-Roubaix. Juan Antonio Flecha had three top tens to his name; Bradley Wiggins, Luke Rowe and Geraint Thomas have made the top ten, Gianni Moscon the top five, and Ian Stannard the podium in 2016; but no Sky rider has ever stood on the top step.
With Rowe having crashed out the previous two editions, he needs a commanding performance to put himself back on the map. Now 29 yet still not considered one of the favourites, this could be his last chance to go under the radar and end his – and Sky's – barren run over the cobbles of northern France.
Heinrich Haussler (Bahrain-Merida)
In 12 appearances, the Australian has twice finished sixth at the Roubaix velodrome but has never fared better. Then again, the same could almost be said of fellow Aussie veteran Mat Hayman when he finally delivered the goods in 2016 aged 38.
And the word on the street is that Haussler could well be a dark horse for Roubaix on Sunday.
Although we should add the not-insignificant caveat that the same commentator made similar claims about Haussler ahead of last year's Ronde van Vlaanderen and, well, the less said about his 25th place, the better…
But the point is this: Haussler's days of being named anyone's "hot take" for a major race like Paris-Roubaix must be numbered if he doesn't win something one day. It's not been over four years since the 36-year-old has crossed the line first in a bike race. It won't get any easier.
Damian Gaudin (Total-Direct Energie)
There's rarely an edition of Paris-Roubaix without Gaudin's curtain-rail shoulders bulldozering their way off the front of the pack at some point. In 2013 the Frenchman even finished fifth before going off the boil a little.
Having dropped a level to the French army team, Gaudin won over the farm tracks of Tro-Bro Leon in 2017 before returning to the (relative) big time with Jean-Rene Bernaudeau's men. Niki Terpstra's arrival over the winter seemed to demote the 32-year-old to Plan B status over the cobbles, but the Dutchman's concussion in last week's Ronde has suddenly elevated Gaudin back to top dog.
No one expects him to win; it would take a bloody miracle if he did so. But you can bet your maison on Gaudin giving it a good go. There will come a time, though, when ubiquity becomes parody. There isn't much sand left in Gaudin's upturned sand-timer. What's more, Gaudin offers his team their only absolution from those terrible new jerseys…
The route, the weather, the favourites, the ratings
It's with around 90km to go of the 257km race that things hot up, with the first of the three five-star sectors of cobblestones getting underway with the most legendary of all: the Forest of Arenberg.
The Arenberg is sector 19 of 29 and will be the 11th cobblestone segment tackled on the day. The opening 500 metres of the 2.3km sector have been painstakingly restored this winter by Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix, who cleaned out the grass and moss, reset some broken cobbles and filled the joints with special mortar.
Despite the complaints of many fans, the volunteer group was quick to stress that there actions, while making the sector safer for the riders, will actually make it harder.
With the riders entering the narrow section at speeds of 50kmph due to a slight downhill, it always plays a pivotal role in the thinning out of the peloton – much in the same way as the Muur van Geraardsbergen did on last Sunday's Tour of Flanders.
Two four-star sectors – sector 17 (Hornaing to Wandignies; 3.7km) and sector 15 (Tilloy to Sars-et-Rosieres; 2.4km) – often whittle things down further, with multiple riders tailed off due to crashes and punctures. As was the case last year when Sagan rode clear, they often provide a launchpad for long-range attacks ahead of the next five-star sector, the 3km sector 11 at Mons-en-Pevele.
With around 18km remaining, the riders tackle sector 5 (Camphin-en-Pevele; 1.8km) followed by the third five-star sector of the Carrefour de l'Arbre (2.1km) where the crowds are usually as loud as they are well-oiled. Three sectors remain until the final loop of the track in the Roubaix velodrome.
For the 17th successive year it will be a dry edition of the Hell of the North, with the sun out despite temperatures not hitting double figures.
There will be three former winners on the start line in Peter Sagan (2018), Greg Van Avermaet (2017) and John Degenkolb (2015), all of whom should be in with a shout of victory.
The form rider entering the race is Alexander Kristoff, who finished an impressive third at Flanders after his victory at Gent-Wevelgem. But the Norwegian does not have a great record at Roubaix, which puts Sagan and Van Avermaet above him in the packing order.
A lot of eyes are on Wout Van Aert after he finished 13th in his debut Roubaix last year. But in terms of experience and form, the stand-out rider to watch is probably Zdenek Stybar, who spearheads the ridiculously strong Deceuninck-QuickStep team.
Although his results have stalled a bit since his victory in E3 last month, the 33-year-old Czech has twice finished runner-up in the Roubaix velodrome and rarely disappoints on the cobbles (his 110th place in 2016 was his only finish outside the top ten in his six appearances.
Could this be the year that Stybar finally breaks his Roubaix duck?
Follow the race live on Eurosport from 10:00 UK time with live comments and analysis on also Eurosport.com.