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Paris-Roubaix 2018: Could Wout van Aert win?

Joe Robinson
6 Apr 2018

Wout van Aert will swap the mud for the cobbles to follow his dream of winning Paris-Roubaix in 2018, but can he do it?

Cyclocross World Champion Wout van Aert will be swapping the mud of cyclocross for the cobbles - and potential mud - of Paris-Roubaix this Sunday. The 23-year-old Belgian has made no secret of his ambition to win the Hell of the North and this year will be his first attempt.

The current cyclocross World Champion structured his season differently to years previous, shortening his race schedule in order to be fresher for April, leading his Verandas Willems-Crelan ProContinental team at Paris-Roubaix.

A clearly talented rider, van Aert has already shown the capabilities of someone who could win the 'Queen of the Classics' despite being soon in his career.

He has already finished in the top 10 at the Tour of Flanders and Gent-Wevelgem with a rather impressive third at Strade Bianche.

Having the capability to win and actually doing it are two largely different things and below we have looked at the main obstacles standing in his way.

Team 

While Paris-Roubaix may appear to be every man for himself, and in some respects it is, having a strong team around you can be vital. Just look at how the team of Quick-Step Floors have swept up the Cobbled Classics so far this Spring.

Beyond the usual jobs of getting bidons from the car and protecting you in the wind, having a teammate with you at all times could be race-defining if you suffer a puncture, something that can happen at any time on the cobbles.

Crucial to any potential success for van Aert will be veteran teammate Stijn Devolder. Twice a winner at the Tour of Flanders and a former top 10 finisher at Roubaix, Devolder will have experience that van Aert lacks.

The old Belgian is now 38 and far beyond a result himself, yet his indispensable knowledge could prove key.

As a ProContinental team, Verandas Willems-Crelan lack the obvious strength in depth of their bigger and badder WorldTour siblings and this could fundamentally be van Aert's undoing.

Look across to Team Sky, Quick-Step Floors and even Bora-Hansgrohe - who acquired Daniel Oss this year - and they will enter the race with multiple contingency plans for victory, with three or four riders capable of taking the role of leader. 

Vernandas Willems-Crelan will just have one plan: Wout.

Distance

Cyclocross races are one hour of intense effort over less than 25km. Paris-Roubaix is seven hours of tactical racing, sudden changes in pace and constant concentration over 260km.

These two disciplines are worlds apart and could spell a major bump in the road for the young Belgian.

These doubts surrounding van Aert and his ability to ride for multiple hours are being silenced as we speak. He rode strongly in Flanders and at Gent-Wevelgem and the distance and time in the saddle seemed to have little impact on the 23-year-old.

That being said, this crest of good form that van Aert has ridden since winning the cyclocross World Championships in Febraury can only go for so long.

Balancing two contrasting ambitions of Roubaix victory in April and cyclocross World Champion glory in February could just be a step too far for van Aert this year.

Could this Sunday's journey through Hell be a step too far for Wout?

Experience

Winning Paris-Roubaix on your first attempt is not something that happens. It takes years of riding the cobbles, perfecting your approach and banking your luck.

Merckx, Boonen, De Vlaeminck, Museeuw all took a few attempts before taking their first victory cobble. It took Mat Hayman 15 attempts to win Paris-Roubaix, his only WorldTour victory. 

This will be van Aert's first attempt at Roubaix glory and history certainly isn't on his side. The best case in point is to look at fellow multiple cyclocross World Champion turned road rider Zdenek Stybar.

In the Czech's first Roubaix, it looked as if he was defying the odds. In a lead trio with Fabian Cancellara and Sep Vanmarcke, Stybar looked to be guaranteed a podium at worst, a phenomenal result for a debutant.

However, a moment of bad luck and lapse in concentration saw the rider hit a spectator on the Carrefour de l'Arbe. He finished sixth.

Skill

Former cyclocross riders often fare well on the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix. The aforementioned Stybar has finished second twice while Lars Boom took a stage of the Tour de France when it visited the Roubaix pave in 2014.

Van Aert is not the most capable bike handler in cyclocross, but transfer him over to the road and he will simply be able to manoeuvre himself better than most.

Cyclocross calls for constant minor adjustments to your line whether in sand or mud. The cobbles of Roubaix ask the same of a rider, so van Aert should feel comfortable here.

If it rains then van Aert's chances will certainly increase. Currently the cobbles are sodden with mud which could only suit the young rider and play directly in to his hands.

We have not had a wet Roubaix since 2002 but if the heavens open this year, or the current muddy conditions fail to dry, expect van Aert to be among those who benefit from the treacherous conditions.

Maybe next time

At only 23-years-old, van Aert has his whole career ahead of him. Having achieved a lot in cyclocross in a short space of time, it looks likely that he will make the transition to road soon.

It is unlikely that van Aert will win Roubaix this year, too many odds stack against him. 

Yet if the Belgian transitions over to the road, presumably signing for one of the world's biggest road teams, it is something that will definitely be within his grasp in the future.

The raw talent, strength and skills are there to win cycling's toughest single day of racing, but maybe not in 2018.

Image Credit: Veranda's Willems-Crelan twitter page

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