Cycling enthusiasts who fancy a wager at decent odds on this weekend's Paris-Roubaix one-day classic would do well to steer clear of betting on Swiss strongman and bookmakers' favourite Fabian Cancellara.
Cancellara, the Saxo Bank team's Olympic time trial champion, crossed another lifelong objective off his dwindling list last week when he soloed to victory in the second of the season's 'monuments' at the Tour of Flanders.
The reverberations of that stylish win, complete with a humbling of two-time Flanders champion Tom Boonen of Belgium 15km from the finish, are still being felt ahead of the third monument of the season. And, judging by his cramped price, few are now betting on Cancellara not pulling off a rare Flanders-Roubaix double - a delicacy that Belgian star Boonen has already tasted.
"Fabian achieved a huge dream of his in winning at Flanders last week, but now the celebrations are over. He believes he can do the double, and so do I," said Saxo Bank's team manager Bjarne Riis
As Boonen and many others will testify, however, Paris-Roubaix is one of the toughest, hazardous and unforgiving endurance tests in bike racing. And, the 53km of cobblestones - spread across 27 sections of varying difficulty - make the cobbles of Flanders look like newly-laid Macadam.
The 'Hell of the North' is full of career-defining moments, heart-breaking crashes and stomach-churning drama which does not dispel until the race comes to an end in Roubaix's outdoor velodrome. It is there, after one and a half laps in front of thousands of cheering fans, that the winner gets to hold aloft the famous Roubaix cobblestone trophy.
Although Cancellara has already won in Roubaix, in 2006, it is Boonen who currently holds the bragging rights to the 'Queen of the Classics'.
A three-time winner, including the past two years, the 29-year-old from just outside Antwerp is now just one win away from equalling the four wins of Belgian great Roger De Vlaeminck.
A crash midweek during the Scheldeprijs was not the best preparation for Boonen's weekend, but after dusting himself off he was happy with his day of training at race pace.
"That was perfect preparation for Roubaix," said Boonen.
Tom Boonen has won Paris-Roubaix three times
Come Sunday, his years of experience and success on the race will however face the extra test of Cancellara.
The Swiss's time trial skills proved decisive during both his win in 2006 when he escaped late in the race to solo home, and last week in Flanders.
Among the challengers are Norwegian Thor Hushovd (Cervelo), American veteran George Hincapie and his Italian teammate at BMC Alessandro Ballan, Spaniard Juan Antonio Flecha and Belgian Leif Hoste.
Although Hincapie has suffered more than his fair share of hardship in Roubaix, it is Hoste who has the unenvious reputation for suffering the most calamity on the cobbles.
A three-time runner-up in the Tour of Flanders, Hoste missed out on victory in Roubaix in 2004 when a Belgian fan's flag got stuck in his wheel as he was in contention for the win.
The following year he suffered a heavy crash, finished the race but was rushed off to hospital and in 2006 he finished second to Cancellara - only to be relegated with two other riders (Peter Van Petegem and Vladimir Gusev) after they broke race rules by riding through a level crossing when the barrier was down.
"I don't even dare to dream of victory these days," Hoste said after his midweek reconnaissance of the course.
Facts and figures
The 259 km course features 27 cobblestoned sections of varying difficulty, which race organisers ASO (Amaury Sports Organisation) have rated one to five - one being the least difficult and five the most difficult.
Only three sectors - Arenberg, Mons-en-Pevele and the Carrefour de l'Arbre - have been given a five-star rating (rating in brackets)
- 27 (Troisvilles, Km 98): 2200m (3 stars)
- 26 (Viesly, Km 104.5): 1800 m (3)
- 25 (Quievy, Km 107): 3700 m (4)
- 24 (Saint-Python, Km 112): 1500 m (2)
- 23 (Vertain, Km 119.5): 2300 m (3)
- 22 (Le Buat, Km 126.5): 1700 m (3)
- 21 (Verchain-Maugre at Querenaing, Km 138): 1600 m (3)
- 20 (Querenaing at Maing, Km 141): 2500 m (3)
- 19 (Monchaux-sur-Ecaillon, Km 144): 1600 m (2)
- 18 (Haveluy, Km 155,5): 2500 m (4)
- 17 (Trouee d'Arenberg, Km 163.5): 2400 m (5)
- 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): 2600 m (3)
- 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)
- (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, Km 257): 300 m (1)
© AFP 2010
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