Paris Roubaix for me was a horrible race to ride but a beautiful race to win. On a wet day the cobbles are real slippy and the bike almost has a mind of it's own. You have to be able to relax and almost let the bike find its own way. In the dry it's almost as bad. The dust from the cars and motorbikes is so dense up at the business end of the race where the action is that you cannot see what's in front of you. It's almost like riding through a sandstorm.
My first victory was in 1984. I was in real good form and felt strong all day. In a race like this which is over 260k long you have to be patient. The race is won in the last hour, not the first. Two riders, Gregor Braun and Alain Bondue had broken away and were going strong. After Arenberg I wanted to attack and jump across to them but 'DeGri' told me that it was too soon and to wait.
On 'Orchies' I went to the front and drove it on. Rudy Rogiers, a big Belgian came with me and we soon caught the two up front. Braun was gone straight away but Bondue hung on for a while before falling off.
I was real nervous approaching the finish in the velodrome and was not taking any chances. I should have been able to get the better of Rogiers in a sprint most of the time but I still made him lead it out and was happy to go around him on the final bend to take my first victory in 'The Hell of the North'.
In 1985 I felt even stronger than the previous year but luck was not on my side. In a race like Roubaix crashes are almost inevitable and I crashed at the wrong time which probably cost me the race. I still managed to finish third so at least I made the podium.
In 1986 I had finished second in The Tour of Flanders the previous Sunday. That evening I took a plane down to Spain to start the Tour of The Basque country the following morning. A five day race with plenty of short steep climbs I still managed to find myself within fighting distance of the leader going in to the final time trial on the Friday having also won 2 stages. My legs were good so I really gave it everything to win the time trial and also managed to win the overall too. Next day I jumped back on a plane to Belgium and drove down to the start of Paris Roubaix.
I felt a bit fatigued for the first hour but once I came around I knew that the legs felt strong. In the end 4 of us came to the finish together. When Van Den Haute attacked, I remembered Flanders the previous Sunday and let Van der Poel chase. When I started my sprint I gave it everything and managed to have a good enough gap to savour the moment as I crossed the finish line.
This years race could be pretty open. Etixx Quick Step are unlikely to try to control it early on. Sky will have a big interest with Wiggins. If he wins it will do away with all the traditional approaches to riding the classics. Instead of racing to get fit he has been mostly training alone, concentrating on watts and power. He puts this method to remarkable use for Time Trials and on the track but it will be interesting to see how it will work out after 260k of Paris Roubaix. Last year he was in the big group towards the end but did not attack when a podium place was still available after Thomas had been doing a lot of riding.
Some years, an attack goes from a long way out after Arenberg when the top favourites are watching each other. There is a long section here between the cobble sectors. O'Grady and Van Summeren both made their moves at this point and this could happen again this year.
Terpstra was strong in Flanders last week and already knows how to win this race. Kristoff was really impressive, but Geraint Thomas would be my pick for the race, as long as he stays upright.
The Tour of Flanders is a race that I look back on with mixed emotions. Some good, some not so good. It is a race that I finished second in three times and is the one major classic that got away on me.
In 1986 I was having a pretty good start to the season winning Paris Nice and Milan San Remo. I headed to Flanders in good form and part of me was already looking towards Paris Roubaix the following week. I was feeling really good and was probably a little over confident. I led out the sprint and Van der Poel came around me to take it on the line. Why did he win? Because on the day I wanted to win, but he really really wanted it more.
In 1987 I was again in the break as we approached the finale. I suppose having been beaten the previous two years I was a little more cautious about the finish. When 'Criq' attacked I was not going to be the one to go after him immediately. We sometimes worked together in races so it was really up to the Panasonics to do the chasing. Criq held on and once again I finished second beating Vanderarden in the sprint.
And so, to this years race. With Cancellara and Boonen out, the whole dynamic of the race will change. Etixx Quick Step will be less inclined to take control of the race early on so it could be very open.
Peter Sagan would be an obvious choice normally but he looks like his legs are staying a little too long under the dinner table at present. This year he faces a new challenge. Liquigas had a small budget so his contracts were never really huge. This year however, he has signed a real big contract with Tinkoff. Sometimes, when that happens it can be very difficult to have that real hunger that you would have in the lean years. It can take a while to get that hunger back, but when he does the victories will follow again.
Last year John Degenkolb was just a few bike lengths off the Cancellara/Vanmarke train when it left the station on the Oude Kwaremont, but this year, just like Milan San Remo he would again be my top choice for victory.