Who will master the cobbles of Paris Roubaix?

After last year’s mud-splattered edition, the 2022 Paris-Roubaix cycling race will be run in bone-dry conditions Sunday over its fabled cobbled mining roads that usually bring falls galore. The grueling 160-mile-long race features 34 miles of rough-hewn cobbled sections where Dutch favorite Mathieu van der Poel awaits the challenge from bitter rival Wout van Aert of Belgium.

“Sunday will be different,” Van der Poel promised when asked this week about his narrow failure in the 2021 deluge when the race was staged in October after a Covid-19 delay.

Van Aert is over a recent bout of coronavirus and his Jumbo team say they have been testing his heart rate before, during and after training to make sure of his fitness. The Belgian champion was taking a tactical approach ahead of the race, saying the cobbles may not be the key.

“The race can also be won between the cobbled sectors if you have two or three riders with you in the closing stages,” he said.

Van Aert will likely have French rider Christophe Laporte alongside him. The pair have struck up a formidable winning partnership this season, dominating Paris-Nice most notably.

British outfit Ineos bring a strong team to the start line with world champion time-triallist Filippo Ganna named as team captain. Ganna will be backed up by the winners of two recent classics, American teenager Magnus Sheffield, who took the win at Brabantse Pijl this week and Poland’s Michal Kwiatkowski, who won the prestigious Amstel Gold. Ineos also have a potential winner in Dylan van Baarle, runner up at both the Tour of Flanders and at last year’s world championships.

Belgian team Quick Step is in the reckoning too.

“I don’t care who wins so long as he has a blue jersey,” team chief Patrick Lefevere said this week.

“We’d like three or four riders in the finale and for the first time in ages we have seven riders with no excuses about Covid.”

Mathieu Van Der Poel (NED – Alpecin – Fenix)

Five-star cobbles

The cobbled sections are ranked from one to five, with the three toughest carrying a five-star warning for riders. The Trouee d’Arenberg, at the 650m deep Arenberg coal-mine, is the first major difficulty. Organisers said this week that the road, where no cars or tractors run, was covered in grass last week before a last-gasp rush to clear  it and they are considering grazing sheep there next year. There are 94 starters, one less than 2021 with the race potentially decided on either the 2 mile-long Mons-en-Pevele, a five-star section 30 miles from the finish, or the Carrefour de l’Arbre which is just 10 miles from home. Race designer Thierry Gouvenou also predicted the 2022 edition would be different.

“It’ll go really fast,” he said. “We have often hoped for rain, and we got a good dose of it last year so we’ll be happy for a bit of sunshine this time.”

Last year’s winner Sony Colbrelli fell to the floor at the finish line, unrecognizable in a coat of mud. This year’s winner is likely to ride into the Roubaix velodrome cloaked in dust.

RBA/AFP Photos: Sprint Cycling Agency

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