Danish outfit CSC will be fired up to make amends for their debacle on the cobble of the snow-hit Flanders last week when they line up two former champions at Paris-Roubaix this Sunday.
CSC go into the 259.5km cobblestoned classic, known ominously as the 'Hell of the North', as big favourites having won the past two years through Swiss Fabian Cancellara and Australian Stuart O'Grady. A rare hat-trick of wins is credible, and will be further boosted by their bid to banish the demons of last week's Tour of Flanders where they were decimated by crashes and punctures.
But CSC, and every other team lining up for the second of the cycling season's one-day 'monuments' - after Milan-San Remo - are aware the race has a flavour all of its own that can leave even the best prepared, and most determined teams with a painful aftertaste.
It was in dry and sunny conditions last year that O'Grady rode off the front to become Australia's first winner in Roubaix. But after years of being chewed up by the tough northern classics, he knows the ride into 'Hell' - which this year could be hit by cold and rain - can be fraught with danger, and tough opponents.
"We'll be one of the teams to beat. But there's a lot of good riders and a lot of good teams out there," O'Grady told AFP after he failed to finish in Flanders last Sunday. "To win these big classics it takes a lot more than a lot of good luck. Everything has to fall in your favour on the day."
Luck becomes arguably the number one factor in Paris-Roubaix, which this year includes 28 sectors of cobblestones totalling 52.8 of the race's total.
The ever-present likelihood of punctures is the reason most of the peloton try to ride on the side of the road where the rugged cobblestones are flatter. But even with the possibility of being handed a replacement wheel or bike from a team car, the reduced chances - in the event of disaster - of catching runaway rivals makes puncturing or crashing something everyone wants to avoid.
It's exactly what happened to former three-time Tour of Flanders runner-up Leif Hoste when, despite being given a new bike by his team car after his gears broke, he was left playing catch-up for the remainder of Sunday's race. Hoste, who also has a solid record in Roubaix but has yet to win, knows good fortune plays a major role.
"The most important thing I can do is hang with the best. Winning depends on the details," he told Sporza.be.
Predicted rain and cold temperatures will also be giving the peloton cause for concern and will barely hearten O'Grady, who suffered in the chill of Flanders last week.
The Australian is still searching for full form following the serious crash at last year's Tour de France which has compromised his early season, and so CSC are likely to ask Kurt-Asle Arvesen, Lars Bak and Matti Breschel to do their best to support Cancellara.
The Milan-San Remo champion will still have to fight off the threat of Belgium's 2005 champion Tom Boonen, and a handful of other contenders.
Boonen is possibly still smarting after his Quick Step teammate Stijn Devolder rode away with 26km to go to claim victory in Flanders last week, and victory Sunday would more than make amends for what has been a comparably mediocre season so far for the former world champion.
Rabobank's Juan Antonio Flecha is another contender, and he could give Spain their first win on the race having finished second behind O'Grady last year and placing third last week in Flanders.
American George Hincapie will be backed by a confident High Road team that will be dedicated to grinding out a win - if they get luck on their side.
"All we need is a bit of luck because luck is a key factor in Roubaix," said team manager Brian Holm. "I always spend the whole of the race with my fingers crossed, hoping that nobody will puncture at the wrong moment or crash."
The cobblestone sectors
Race organisers ASO (Amaury Sports Organisation) have ranked each of the 28 sectors on a scale of one to five, five being the most difficult. Only three sectors are ranked five - the Arenberg forest at 163.5km, Mons-en-Pevele at 210.5km and the Carrefour de l'Arbre at 242km.
In total, cobblestoned sectors make up 52.8 km of the race's total, 100 metres more than last year.
- 28 (Troisvilles, Km 98): 2200 m (ranked 3)
- 27 (Viesly, Km 104.5): 1800 m (3)
- 26 (Quievy, Km 107): 3700 m (4)
- 25 (Saint-Python, Km 112): 1500 m (2)
- 24 (Vertain, Km 119.5): 2000 m (3)
- 23 (Le Buat, Km 126.5): 1700 m (3)
- 22 (Verchain-Maugre at Querenaing, Km 138): 1600 m (3)
- 21 (Querenaing at Maing, Km 141): 2500 m (3)
- 20 (Monchaux-sur-Ecaillon, Km 144): 1600 m (3)
- 19 (Haveluy, Km 155.5): 2500 m (4)
- 18 (Arenberg forest, Km 163.5): 2400 m (5)
- 17 (Wallers at Helesmes, Km 170): 1600 m (4)
- 16 (Hornaing at Wandignies, Km 176.5): 3700 m (3)
- 15 (Warlaing at Brillon, Km 184): 2400 m (3)
- 14 (Tilloy at Sars-et-Rosieres, Km 187.5): 2400 m (3)
- 13 (Beuvry-la-Foret at Orchies, Km 194): 1400 m (3)
- 12 (Orchies, Km 199): 1700 m (3)
- 11 (Auchy-lez-Orchies at Bersee, Km 205): 1200 m (2)
- 10 (Mons-en-Pevele, Km 210.5): 3000 m (5)
- 9 (Merignies at Pont-a-Marcq, Km 216.5): 700 m (2)
- 8 (Pont-Thibaut, Km 219.5): 1400 m (3)
- 7 (Templeuve, l'Epinette, Km 225): 200 m (1)
- (Moulin de Vertain, Km 225.5): 500 m (2)
- 6 (Cysoing at Bourghelles, Km 232): 1300 m (4)
- (Bourghelles at Wannehain, Km 234.5): 1100 m (4)
- 5 (Camphin-en-Pevele, Km 239): 1800 m (4)
- 4 (Carrefour de l'Arbre, Km 242): 2100 m (5)
- 3 (Gruson, Km 244): 1100 m (2)
- 2 (Hem, Km 251): 1400 m (1)
- 1 (Roubaix, espace Charles-Crupelandt, Km 257): 300 m (1)
© AFP 2008