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Hell of the North – Clash of the Titans!

Can anyone stop Cancellara who in this form looks unbeatable? Don’t write off Boonen yet, he has come back from losses at Flanders to win Roubaix both of the last two years!

For most “Classics” fans the Hell of the North (or Enfer du Nord in French) is the best of the cobbled classics. For me it’s hard to choose between Flanders and Roubaix.

Maybe Roubaix is more raw, more of a battle of survival. The winner is invariably the strongest rider, but there are always hard luck stories of race favourites being put out of contention, by crashes or flats at crucial times in the race.

Last year was a great example. A lead group of six favourites Boonen, Thor Hushovd, Leif Hoste, Johan Van Summeren, Juan Antonio Flecha and Filippo Pozzato were working well together until about 20km to go. At that point anyone who wasn’t wearing a St Christopher or carrying several Rabbit’s Feet had some major bad luck!

Boonen and Hushovd had a small gap on the other four coming into the Carrefour de l’Arbre sector of pavé. Flecha, chasing after the two leaders, came into a dusty turn on the entrance to the sector too fast, and went down. Hoste, hit Flecha and went over the bars, Van Summeren, showed cat like reflexes and did a complete “180” to stay up! Pozzato had to brake heavily to avoid the crash and then set off after the two leaders.

Shortly after Hushovd misjudged a turn and he too hit the pavé, leaving Boonen away on his own to solo to the velodrome in Roubaix for the win. He probably would have won anyway, but Lady Luck gave him a big helping hand!

So that was last year – what about this year?

Surprisingly Cancellara has only won Paris-Roubaix once, while Boonen will be going for win number four. Boonen also rides for Quick Step, managed by Patrick Lefevere who has an amazing record here. His teams have won 10 out of the last 15 editions of Paris-Roubaix and even finished 1-2-3 three times in the 90s!

One of his best riders at this race was Franco Ballerini who was sadly killed earlier this year. Ballerini was truly one of the greats on the cobbles. I couldn’t resist putting in a picture of the Man himself going “A Bloc”, covered in dirt and still looking stylish!

For Boonen the tactics seem simple. As he says himself, he has to stay on Cancellara’s wheel, but he couldn’t do it at E3 or on the Mur, where both times Cancellara simply rode away from him!

Quick Step may try to play more of team game, getting numbers up the road was always the strategy in the Mapei days, but Saxo can play this game too with previous winner Stuart O’Grady and the in form Matti Breschel.

So it probably will come down to Cancellara v Boonen at the end, with maybe some of the other favourites like Pozzato and Flecha in the mix. Who wins? I’m going for Boonen, but I really won’t be surprised if I’m proved wrong by Sunday afternoon!

Oh, one last point, if you’re not convinced how hard this race is; take a look at the picture of Pedro Horrillo showering after the race! “A Sunday in Hell”.


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