In one last salvo for the Classics riders, the famous pave of Northern France is tackled this Sunday by the world’s top U23s at Paris-Roubaix Espoirs. Unlike races like the Tour of Flanders and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the final of the U23 Roubaix is very similar to the pro race, including a finish in the famous Roubaix velodrome, after 26 gruelling sectors totalling almost 37km of pave.
In another unusual event, at least for U23 races anyway, two of the podium finishers from last year’s race are back again in 2018. Sunweb bring a team to support defending champ Nils Eekhoff, while runner-up Guillaume Millasseau of VC Rouen hopes to go one better than last season.
Given it is a French race, a lot of the top French teams are here, with the national squad led by Pierre Barbier, Chambery bring on-form Clement Champoussin, C.C Etupes bring Classics star Alexys Brunel and Sofiane Merignat, Milasseau leads his team, Maxime Gressier leads CC Nogent-Sur-Oise and Maxime Bonsergent is the headliner for U.C Nantes.
Unsurprisingly, given the quality of the race, the international field is stellar. Eekhoff leads Sunweb along with Max Kanter, whilst Mitchelton-BikeExchange are led by Robert Stannard, Callum Scotson and Jacob Hennessy, fully recovered from a bad crash. Soon-to-be pro Sasha Weemaes leads EFC with Cedric Beullens, while Gabz Cullaigh is part of a dangerous three-pronged attack for Wiggins with last year’s junior event winner, Tom Pidcock and New Zealander James Fouche. Hagens Berman Axeon have Jasper Philipsen, who looks to be OK after crashing with a couple of days left in Tour of California, as well as on-form Sean Bennett, second in a hard stage there too. David Dekker and Justin Timmermans lead the Dutch national team. Lotto-Soudal have the ever-reliable Stan Dewulf, whilst Barnabas Peak leads the UCI team and Tom Wirtgen leads the Luxembourg national team. SEG Racing Academy have three strong riders in Edo Affini, Julius van den Berg and Marten Kooistra. Anyone else beginning to salivate at the potential race we will have on our hands!?
Despite being 80km or so shorter than the elite men’s race, there are some similar qualities between the two events. Firstly, there is an hour or so’s worth of tarmac for a break to form before the first cobbled sector hits, which in this race is 44km in, with two 1* sectors just 2.5km apart.
The second similarity is that the following few sectors, also used in the pro race, are designed to quickly begin weeding out those who do not have the legs, whilst sapping the legs of the favourites. Sectors 24 (Troisvilles, 2*, 900m), 23 (Viesly, 3*, 1.8km), 22 (Quievy, 2*, 3.8km) and St Python, 3*, 1.5km) are all pro race favourites and come between 54 and 68km raced. After a long gap of 40km that contains just two sectors, the 3*, 2.7km long Avesnes le Sec and the 4*, 3km Wandignies sector, the finale really begins.
It is at this point where, disappointingly, the pro race does differ from the U23 event: no Arenberg Trench. Despite the most famous sector of the race not being included, a lot of others are, starting with sector 18 at Warlaing, a 3* section lasting 2.5km, and it comes with just over 70km remaining. Five more sectors follow in the ensuing 20km, including the 4* section at Sars-le-Rosieres. However, these are just whetting the appetite for Mons-en-Pevele, the first 5* sector of this race.
Mons arrives with just over 50km to go and is just over a kilometre in length, but features some of the most brutal cobblestones in Northern France. After its conclusion, an easier 2* section is chased quickly by the three star sector of Pont-Thibaut, famous for the Pont Gibus bridge halfway along, and that sector is dealt with just over 40km from the line.
Two sectors of 1 and 2 stars follow Pont-Thibaut, before the three star sector at Cysoing appears with 25km to go. Those who know the pro Roubaix know the 900m road is chased just a few hundred metres later by sector six at Bourhgelles, another 3* sector, just 500m long.
After Bourghelles, the famous 4* Camphin-en-Pevele, the prelude to the mighty Carrefour de l’Arbre rears its ugly head. Lasting for 1.8km and coming just under 20km from the line, this sector offers the first real chance to gap the contenders who suffered on Mons-en-Pevele. Riders cannot be too wasteful though, as the 5* Carrefour is just 3km down the road, and over its 2.1km, many dreams have been shattered, both in the U23s and elite race alike. This is where a final selection, if it hasn’t already been made, will be clear.
The remaining sectors, of which only two are properly cobbled, serve as launchpads for attacks, or provide a chance to rip the legs off of your rivals before a velodrome sprint, which was the case in 2017. First is the 2* Gruson sector, 1km long and arriving just after the Carrefour is over. If this race is like the pros, there is an option to ride on gravel on the side of the road and avoid the stones all together.
Hem is the last real chance to get clear, and the 3* sector, 1.4km long, is just 7km from home. After that, it is flat, twisting roads all the way to the small industrial town of Roubaix, where just the 300m long cobbles in the town-centre (and these are cobbles, not pave) separate the riders from the famous open-air velodrome. Once the sweeping right-hand bend into the track is over, the riders face one and a half laps. Will a group sprint be the case, or will someone get to solo home?
THE FAVOURITES (*going off provisional start list)
Podium Contenders: Sasha Weemaes (EFC), Gabz Cullaigh (Wiggins), Julius van den Berg (SEG Racing Academy)
Outsiders: Tom Pidcock (Wiggins), Stan Dewulf (Lotto-Soudal), Nils Eekhoff (Sunweb)
A lot will depend on how he has recovered from crashing during the penultimate sprint stage at the Tour of California, but, like we have done in most of our one-day previews, we make Jasper Philipsen the man to beat. However, despite being great in pro races and winning the Triptyque des Mons et Chateaux, things have not gone that well for the Belgian in the one-day events. After a break won Gent-Wevelgem, Philipsen suffered an untimely puncture in De Ronde, stealing his chances of winning a race he was runner-up in last year. After taking 27th last season here, Philipsen has all the credentials to win this race. He handles the cobbles well (I know, shocking, a Belgian riding well on cobbles) and possesses a very fast finish. Furthermore, in Rui Oliveira, Sean Bennett and Maikel Zijlaard, he and his Hagens Berman Axeon team have the numbers to control the race. will this finally be the race where lady luck shines for Jasper?
Back in April, we listed Rob Stannard as a “Joker” candidate for Flanders, as he had never raced on cobbles before. He finished 3rd. That’s third place. Despite having never raced on cobbles. It’s got to the point where it is time to stop doubting the future WorldTour rider. With Jacob Hennessy back from injury, as well as the ever-reliable duo of Callum Scotson and Sam Jenner, Stannard also has a brilliant team. The only real concern is that he is a favourite for next month’s Giro, so is he at a weight that will allow him to challenge here, or is he too light as he prepares to scale mountains in a quest for the Maglia Rosa? That question will soon be answered, but he will be up there amongst the favourites come Sunday regardless of his weight, g=because that is just how prodigiously talented he is.
Max Kanter has quietly become one of the best one-day racers in the U23 peloton, with the German racing to top ten finishes in Trofej Umag and Gent-Wevelgem earlier in the season, before taking 2nd in Flanders and 3rd in the ZLM Tour. Another very fast finisher, Kanter is one of three riders (the other two will be mentioned later) who will not be afraid of sprinting against Philipsen. Kanter also handles the stones very well, and has defending champ Eekhoff with him, forming a formidable duo of riders who can both attack and sprint well. Kanter has the form too, taking third in Ronde van Overijssel two weeks ago.
Sasha Weemaes, like Kanter, will not fear his compatriot Philipsen. Weemaes has been on-fire all year and has been rewarded with a contract with SportVlaanderen starting in July. Weemaes recently won a stage at Paris-Arras Tour, as well as the National U23 Time Trial title in Belgium, and was 2nd in ZLM Tour. In Cedric Beullens, he has a strong teammate who can help him chase moves down, and Weemaes will be keen to show he is an all-round talent, not just a sprinter, with this race being the perfect chance to prove he is worth that pro deal.
The final rider likely to not be afraid of Jasper Philipsen is Wiggins’ Gabriel Cullagh. “Gabz” has been going well lately, winning round one of the Tour Series in the UK, as well as taking out the country’s answer to Roubaix, the Rutland-Melton Cicle Classic. Cullaigh is fast, but is not afraid to attack either, and will be hard to shake once the race hits Mons en Pevele and the action kicks off. A perennial podium finisher in the U23s, can the Brit take one big Classic win before he ages out at the end of the year?
SEG Racing have been the team to beat in recent races, with Cees Bol being very impressive. He is too old to race here, but Julius van den Berg is a more than capable deputy. A stage winner in both the Tours of Normandie and Brittany, as well as Profronde van Noord-Holland, the Dutchman reminds us a lot of his elder compatriot Niki Terpstra. He will not fancy himself in a sprint, but Terpstra won this race with a solo move after the last sector of pave, and van den Berg is likely to try a similar move. The current Dutch U23 TT champ will be very hard to catch is he gest clear, and Edo Affini and Marten Kooistra are very good back up plans. Will the Dutch win for a second straight year?
Let’s be real, there is a very high chance last year’s junior race winner Tom Pidcock wins this race as an U23 rider. The real question is whether he can already win here in 2018. Given the success he has had already this year, winning the Klondike GP in the UK and finishing 9th as teammate Cullaigh won Rutland-Melton showcase the 18 year old is unphased by a step-up in competition. Having Cullaigh behind him may actually help, as the young Brit will be free to attack as he pleases, leaving his faster-finishing teammate fresher behind. Picdock is such a brilliant talent, and in his first big U23 race, we hope the world is ready to witness it.
Despite having yet another amazing season, Stan Dewulf remains unable to win a big one-day race. He has been the nearly man so many times this year, grabbing two stages in Mons et Chateaux, but finishing 2nd on GC, before taking 6th in Liege, 2nd overall and best young rider in Brittany, 3rd in Ringerike GP and 9th overall in Paris-Arras. There are likely to be a few pro teams after him this offseason, especially his parent team Lotto-Soudal, so winning this race would be the perfect send off. Unfortunately for Dewulf, he needs to get rid of a few sprinters, which will not e an easy task given how strong a lot f the fastest guys’ teams are. If Dewulf can pull this off, it will be a special win for the Belgians, who have not won here since 1997, despite having 12 podiums since 1998.
Defending champion Nils Eekhoff may wear number one, but he doesn’t seem to have the usual pressure a defending champ has in races like this. The Dutchman is a strong overall rider, who goes well on cobbles, can time trial and sprint from small groups, which was how he won last year. however, with so many faster riders here, his real chance at doubling up here will be via an attack. If he cannot get away early, he faces the dilemma of either racing for himself, or racing for Kanter. Between the fact that an attack sticking has lower odds than a sprint does, and the fact he may need to help Kanter, we have left Eekhoff as an outsider. He will relish the chance to get away in small groups, as he will probably win any sprint. There is a chance he can become only the second rider in the history of the race to win it back-to-back, after Taylor Phinney in 2009 and 2010.