Rain to chill peloton at 'Hell of the North'

Wet Sunday predicted

Paris-Roubaix organisers might be feeling "reassured" after a favourable, midweek preview of the famed cobblestone sectors that will feature prominently on the race.

But weather predictions for Sunday could make the world famous one-day classic, known ominously as the 'Hell of the North', an even less inviting affair for some.

The 2008 edition will be held over a total of 259.5 km, from Compiegne to the north of Paris to Roubaix just outside of Lille.

Although the cobblestones are an annual feature, 100 metres have been added to the course thanks to teams of students who have helped in the 'de-tarmacisation' of the 'Vertain' sector, at 119.5km.

After spells of rain at the beginning of the week, race organisers Christian Prudhomme and Jean-Francois Pescheux said optimistically after their traditional preview of the 28 cobblestone sectors - the cause of numerous crashes, retirements and punctures - that all would be well for Sunday's race.

"Apart from the end of the first sector (of cobblestones) at Troisvilles, which should be cleaned up ahead of Sunday, all of the cobblestones are raceable," said Pescheux.

Stuart O'Grady is the reigning champion, however the CSC rider admitted after Sunday's snow-hit Tour of Flanders that he is still only 85 percent fit. As a result the Australian - whose season has been compromised by the long layoff caused by a career-threatening crash at the 2007 Tour de France - could dedicate his day of racing to getting team leader Fabian Cancellara, the 2006 winner, into a winning position.

CSC will be doubly keen to figure, after a Flanders debacle which saw them lose over half their team due to punctures and crashes. But the Belgian Quick Step team of two-time Roubaix champion Tom Boonen and Flanders winner Stijn Devolder will be among the handful of contenders for victory in the Roubaix velodrome which hosts the finish line.

The latest weather reports from France, meanwhile, will likely dishearten anyone who rode Flanders in the wind, hail and snow on Sunday when only half the 200-strong peloton finished. According to national forecasters at Meteo France Thursday, the forecast for this Sunday is "persistent rain and fresh temperatures", beginning with six degrees Celsius in the morning to reach a maximum of 12 in the afternoon.

Some of the peloton, heading in a north-easterly direction, may not be happy to hear that a light south to south-westerly wind will add to their obstacles throughout the day.

Elsewhere, the hundreds of beer-swilling fans expected to make the short trip from Flemish-speaking Belgium will not be buoyed by the news that local police are to multiply alcohol breath tests for drivers.

"We've tightened things up this year," said Colonel Stéphane de Kerle, whose section will be boosted by officers from the Netherlands and Belgium. "The idea is to promote prevention not repression."

© AFP 2008

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