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Paris-Roubaix 2021: Who are the favourites and who should you be backing?

Joe Robinson
29 Sep 2021

We run down on the decisive points of the 'Queen of the Classics' and who you should back for victory in the men's race

899. The number of days since we last witnessed the greatest race in cycling’s calendar, Paris-Roubaix. Covid has been responsible for a lot in the past 18 months or so and canning the ‘Hell of the North’ has been one of those things.

Thankfully, the wait is over and the one race in the year we annually chalk out in our calendars to ensure it does not end up clashing with a wedding, christening or two-year old’s birthday party is back. Better yet, this year sees history as after 120 years of waiting we finally get to see a women’s Roubaix. Embarrassingly, cycling’s blue riband event had been just for men until organisers eventually saw sense and decided it was high time to send the women’s peloton over the pavé of Northern France.

This particular analysis, however, is focussed on the men’s race taking place on Sunday 3rd October and who we should be considering as favourites to take home that infamous cobbled trophy.

If those at the Met Office are to be believed, we should be in for our first wet Paris-Roubaix since 2002 and further to that, we could also be looking at the peloton racing through extreme winds of up to 80kmh. In essence, this should be a spectacle not to be missed.

To pin your hopes on just one favourite would be foolish so instead we have broken down the main protagonists you need to be watching at Paris-Roubaix this weekend and the riders who may just cause an upset too.

The Van der Poel/Van Aert show?

Water is wet, so of course Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert are considered five-star favourites for Roubaix this weekend. It does not matter that Van der Poel is still recovering from a back injury sustained at the Tokyo Olympics and that Van Aert looked to be burned out at the World Championships last weekend. If these two riders are on the start list, they are your riders to watch.

Poster boys of cycling’s golden generation, these two lifelong rivals just race differently. No longer measured by numbers and racing instead on instinct and feel, both have routinely set the touchpaper alight for the past few seasons and have reinvented the requirements needed to win bike races.

There is no doubt that one of or even both Van der Poel and Van Aert will be major protagonists come Sunday, it is just a question of when? Both can rely on a sprint if it comes down to the velodrome but that is not their style. Persistent accelerations across the cobbled sections from the Forest of Arenberg through to the finish feels more in character before a hail mary attack close to the Carrefour de l’Arbre.

You would also suspect with the inclement weather forecast (and that’s putting it lightly), that both riders will be licking their lips at the possibility of a muddy, wet Roubaix considering their wizard bike handling skills honed from cyclocross. Both are also coming armed with decent teams, too.

The biggest hurdle for both will be experience. This will be Van der Poel’s debut at Roubaix while Van Aert has only managed a best finish of 13th (2018) in the two occasions he has raced. Usually, such a lack of experience counts against those looking to conquer Roubaix, traditionally a race suited to those who have learned the ways after many failed attempts at glory. Just ask Mat Hayman who took 15 bites at the cherry before victory. Yet, if anyone can win on debut, it is probably Van der Poel, isn’t it?

The Deceuninck-QuickStep project

The biggest thorn wedged into the sides of Van der Poel and Van Aert will be that of Deceuninck-QuickStep, Patrick Lefevere’s all-conquering Classics juggernaut from across the border in Belgium. With experienced sports directors Tom Steels and Wilfried Peeters in the car, the moniker of the team of the last defending champion – thanks to the victory of now-departed Philippe Gilbert in 2019 – and six previous wins at this race since 2003, they are always the ones to watch. For 2021, mind, the ‘Wolfpack’ are in an unfamiliar position of racing Roubaix sans previous winner given the likes Gilbert, Tom Boonen and Niki Terpstra no longer around.

Not that that is a concern for old man Lefevere, as his team still comes stacked with experience. Tractor-loving Yves Lampaert finished third in 2019, local lad Florian Sénéchal rolled over the line sixth and Kasper Asgreen is defending Tour of Flanders champion.

Yet the one QuickStep rider we should all be keeping eyes on is Zdeněk Štybar. Another from 'the church of cross’, the Czech Classics man has been frighteningly consistent over the stones on his seven previous attempts. Besides the anomaly of 2016 where he placed 110th, Štybar has finished Top 10 on his every Roubaix attempt, including second in both 2015 and 2017. For those watching closely, you will also have noticed at last week’s road race World Championships that Štybar was flying, eventually finishing seventh behind trade teammate Julian Alaphilippe.

With the perfect storm of awful weather, eyes on Van der Poel and Van Aert and the multi-card options of the QuickStep stable, it feels entirely plausible that Stybar will finally piece together what is needed to win Roubaix at the weekend.

How about Trek-Segafredo?

Another team we should all be paying close attention to this weekend is Trek-Segafredo. Slowly but surely, this team has transitioned away from Grand Tours to Classics and has now assembled a fearsome Classics roster.

They took victory in the season’s first Monument, Milan-San Remo, with Jasper Stuyven – a victory that, while deserved, surprised many. It should not have, however, as Stuyven has slowly but surely cemented himself as one the best spring Classics riders in the peloton. With fourth at his home World Championships last weekend, we know the chocolatier from Leuven is in good form and could cause headaches if still present at the pointier end of this weekend.

Especially if he is surrounded by teammates. Former World Champion Mads Pedersen looks like a man who should suit Roubaix, doesn’t he? Big, barging, broad, able to pin the pavé into submission with his incredible power. Add in Quinn Simmons, Eduard Theuns, Alex Kirsch et al and you quickly discover a team that can play many different hands if the cards are dealt right.

Sure, they do not have the same firepower as QuickStep but you would be a fool to ignore Trek-Segafredo entirely.

Been there, done that

And what about the previous winners of this race? Those that have been there, done it and taken home the dusty, mud-splattered T-shirt?

Defending champion Gilbert forms part of a Lotto-Soudal team that should also boast 2015 winner John Degenkolb. Neither are in sterling form – especially Degenkolb, who suffered a horrible crash at the Worlds – but both of them fundamentally understand the requirements needed for this race.

And Gilbert, in particular, has this weird knack of just simply rolling back the clock and reminding us all that he really is one of the great riders of the 21st century. In fact defending his title on Sunday would be such a Phillippe Gilbert thing to do.

Good guy Greg van Avermaet will also be there with AG2R-Citroën, likely still apoplectic at his omission from the Belgian squad at their home Worlds. Can he replicate his win from 2017? No but he can cause headaches especially if he and teammate, friend and training partner Oliver Naesen dabble in some kamikaze tag team attacks.

And we almost forgot Peter Sagan! Such has been the rise of the new generation, the three-time World Champion and Roubaix winner from 2018 has almost become an afterthought. Doing that with Sagan is something you do at your peril. Sure, Sagan is not the rider of years gone by but you get the feeling that he could quite easily lose the race for others around him with dangerous attacks from afar.

Then, finally, Niki Terpstra, cycling’s biggest techno head. He won’t win but it would be rude to leave him out. A special Classics rider who will always live long in our hearts ever since that time he purposely ran over Peter Sagan’s sunglasses.

The bolters

This year has been somewhat revelatory for Bahrain Victorious mainly because they have actually lived up to their name. I mean, who knew Sonny Colbrelli could actually do better than fourth? With the newly crowned European Champion Colbrelli, Slovenian Matej Mohorič and veteran hardman Heinrich Haussler among their ranks, you just never know. The firepower is there as is the team’s confidence – half the battle at Roubaix.

If the weather really is as bad as forecast, we like the look of Groupama-FDJ’s Stefan Küng and Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Materiaux’s Taco van der Hoorn for decent results as both have proven more than handy in grim conditions. Ineos Greandiers will be present at Roubaix but are they ever actually there? Their history at the race would suggest otherwise.

And if you want our true outsider, a rider whose odds would have even made Mat Hayman’s look short back in 2016, then we present to you Lithuanian Delko rider Evaldas Šiškevičius.

In 2018, Šiškevičius finished Roubaix after the time cut, arriving so late that the gates to the velodrome had already been shut and locked. A year later, he managed to finish ninth. So if he continues that trend of improvement, Šiškevičius should win this year’s Roubaix solo by about two hours!