Classics star Tom Boonen believes that Bradley Wiggins will be the man to beat at Paris-Roubaix on Sunday.
“He has the skills to do it. Especially now, with me and Fabian Cancellara out of the race, Wiggins having a really strong team and the shape he’s in; I think he’s the big favourite for Paris-Roubaix,” Boonen said.
What about team-mates Ian Stannard or Geraint Thomas, both of whom have enjoyed fine Spring campaigns so far? “I think there’s only one leader at Sky for this race,” Boonen said, talking to Rouleur on Friday at Etixx-Quick-Step’s pre-Tour of Flanders press conference. “I think Bradley gives something to Geraint in Flanders, but he will expect the team entirely for him at Roubaix.”
The four-time Paris-Roubaix winner has observed Wiggins closely on the pavé, not just during the Briton’s ninth place ride last year, but also his past forays in the mid-Noughties.
Bradley Wiggins races the cobbles in the 2014 Paris-Roubaix: Offside/L'Equipe
“He’s grown as a rider in the last two years, he’s been in every step and now he’s back at his first love, the Classics, as another rider, a much stronger rider than he was before,” Boonen said.
“If you take him to the track, it’s going to be be difficult, eh? He has a lot of experience there. I told the [Etixx-Quick-Step] guys already: ‘if you take Wiggins with you onto the velodrome, I think he’s gonna beat you.’”
Roubaix: an unusual sprint
While the 27 pavé sectors are the chief challenge of Paris-Roubaix, even the final sprint in the historic velodrome is tough to judge. Being a stronger sprinter on paper doesn’t always matter after the preceding 253 kilometres. “It’s a very tricky sprint. You’re sprinting on a track, you’re in this arena, you have the public, everybody’s watching you, a lot of guys do stupid things in this situation,” Boonen said.
“It’s a big difference compared to a normal finish line when there’s a 400-metre, 300, 200 metre sign. On the track, there’s nothing: just people watching, you hear all this noise, a lot of guys get nervous and react differently.”
Etixx-Quick-Step talisman Boonen will miss the race as he continues his recovery from a shoulder dislocation, sustained in a crash at Paris-Nice. He rues missing the chance to go mano-a-mano at Roubaix with the British star in his final season on the road.
Bradley Wiggins hurts his rivals at last year's Paris-Roubaix on the way to ninth place. pic: Offside/L'Equipe
“I would have been really happy to do the final with him, this year or last year, to really race him for a victory. That would have been nice,” Boonen said. “I admire his ambition. I think Bradley is an amazing guy, a super good athlete. It’s nice that a winner of the Tour de France appreciates the Classics and says himself ‘this is the biggest objective I’ve ever gone for’.”
Boonen also missed his first Tour of Flanders since 2001 at the weekend. However, he was in a relaxed mood, having Easter lunch at his mum’s house and watching De Ronde on TV.
Road to recovery
Reflecting on the crash that wrecked his Classics campaign, Boonen said: “I was in really good shape, I was ready to do some decent things in the Classics. That’s probably the worst feeling I had about it. It’s always easy afterwards but for sure I was gonna be one of the big players. It’s six months of work you throw away, that’s the only problem.”
Now 34, will the injury make him hungrier to add a record fourth Ronde victory or a fifth Roubaix title? “I think it’s one of the reasons that I’m already here, and not still at home wearing a brace. When I first got out of hospital in a lot of pain, I called my osteopath straight away, asking ‘you think it’s possible that I can do the Classics?’
Team-mate Zdenek Stybar embraces winner Niki Terpstra at last year's Paris-Roubaix. The duo are expected to lead Etixx-Quick Step's challenge on Sunday. pic: Offside/L'Equipe
“Five days after surgery, I started training straight away and now I’m four weeks ahead of schedule. For a moment, I thought that maybe I could race some Classics, but it’s just not possible.”
While his words about Wiggins might be seen as a ploy to pile pressure onto the Sky man, Etixx-Quick-Step, thus far winless in the spring Classics, will be desperate for a result on Sunday too. Defending champion Niki Terpstra and Zdenek Stybar are expected to lead the squad at Paris-Roubaix.