The forecast says it?s going to rain.

Mind you, they said the weather would be appalling for last Sunday?s Tour of Flanders, but it eased off after drenching the cyclo-sportive riders on Saturday. Hopefully this week?s forecast is accurate.

Is it wrong to hope for rain? Is it unfair to wish for the cobbles to be covered in mud for what is already a punishing, painful journey across the broken tracks of northern France?

If you want to see an epic, no, it?s not. Remember 1994, when Andrei Tchmil was almost the last man standing? It took him seven and a half hours and he had a large slice of luck as he escaped a single puncture. Only 48 riders finished. Fabio Baldato fell off three times and had five punctures ? and he finished second. Britain?s Sean Yates was fifth.

It was miserable and wet again in 2001, when Servais Knaven led a Domo-Frites one-two-three and although not an the same immense scale as 1994, it was a day when survival topped the list of priorities.

So, after several dry editions and last year?s recording breaking high temperatures that turned the cobbled tracks to dust, we?re due a wet one.

And if it is wet, the number of potential winners is slashed to little more than a dozen before they even roll out of the town square in Compiègne. Half will already be defeated mentally. The others won?t be up to it physically. And then there?s Lady Luck, who like the German Devil who stands by the side of the road, seems to hire a camper van for Paris-Roubaix day and is omnipresent at every section of cobbles.

What of the favourites? Tom Boonen is in desperate need of a result. After two years of greatness, he?s settled back into the pack. Okay, so Quick Step won Flanders but Boonen is in danger of losing his aura.

Fabian Cancellara, then? Absolutely untouchable at Milan-San Remo, he was found wanting on the Muur. Paris-Roubaix suits him better.

For us, it could be Juan Antonio Flecha?s day. The Spaniard is always in the mix and at the Tour of Flanders last week, he almost managed to catch Stijn Devolder.

British fans will hope Roger Hammond, who is in the best form he?s been in since he took third place at Roubaix in 2004, can do something extra special.

Here, then, is our Paris-Roubaix preview ? all you need to know about the race. We weigh up our top ten favourites, look at the best British performances in the race and help you become an expert in five minutes.

WHY PARIS-ROUBAIX IS THE GREATEST RACE IN THE WORLD
As victory speeches go, it?s an absolute classic. In 1981 Bernard Hinault battered himself across the pavé, crossed the line first and said: ?Paris-Roubaix, c?est une cochonnerie.?


Politely translated he meant it was junk, rubbish, a disgrace. But with the anger and resentment in his voice what he really meant was: ?Paris-Roubaix, it?s bullshit.?

You can see his point. A race that is so rich in imagery, so relished by spectators and dreaded by the riders.

It?s no longer than any of the other Classics, there are no hills to speak of and the cobblestones make up much less than a quarter of the route.

But it?s the nature of those broken beasts, stones dropped from a great height into muddy tracks by an angry God. Hell of the North, hell on earth.

If it?s wet it?s brilliant, if it?s dry it?s brilliant. In an era of clinical calculation, power metres and stifling tactics, Paris-Roubaix is an anachronism. A race stuck in time, on ancient roads, the Forest of Arenberg, the Carrefour de l?Arbre and even the tatty, run-down velodrome belong in the past.

So what if only a dozen or so riders truly have a chance of winning, and not many more actually dream of doing so. Paris-Roubaix can create a legend in six or so hours. And break a champion in the blink of an eye.

THE LOWDOWN
Sunday, April 13
259km
28 sectors of pavé
52.8km of cobbles
British Eurosport: 15.30-16.30

O’Grady wins in 2007

RECENT WINNERS

2007 Stuart O?Grady (Australia) CSC
2006 Fabian Cancellara (Switzerland) CSC
2005 Tom Boonen (Belgium) Quick Step
2004 Magnus Backstedt (Sweden) Alessio-Bianchi
2003 Peter Van Petegem (Belgium) Lotto-Domo
2002 Johan Museeuw (Belgium) Domo-Farm Frites
2001 Servais Knaven (Holland) Domo-Farm Frites
2000 Johan Museeuw (Belgium) Mapei-Quick Step
1999 Andrea Tafi (Italy) Mapei-Quick Step
1998 Franco Ballerini (Italy) Mapei-Bricobi

INSIDE THE TIME LIMIT

The number of riders to make it to the Roubaix velodrome inside the time limit. Of the major one-day Classics, Paris-Roubaix has the lowest ratio of finishers.
2007 96
2006 112
2005 80
2004 93
2003 63
2002 41
2001 55
2000 66
1999 66
1998 49

OUR TOP 10 FAVOURITES

Key:
? means DNS or DNF
DQ means disqualified
HD means finished course but outside time limit

1 Juan Antonio Flecha

Spain / Rabobank
Last five years (2003-07): 25th / 13th / 3rd / 4th / 2nd
Results this week: Tour of Flanders 3rd, Ghent-Wevelgem 69th
Unibet.com?s odds to win: 10.00
In his favour: In sparkling form. Edging ever closer to a win at Roubaix. Boosted by team-mate Freire?s win at Ghent-Wevelgem.
Against: It?s a cliché to say he won?t enjoy mud and rain but the weather could be his biggest enemy.

2 Fabian Cancellara

Switzerland / CSC
Last five years: ? / 4th / 8th / 1st / 19th
Results this week: Tour of Flanders 23rd, Ghent-Wevelgem 67th
Unibet.com?s odds to win: 3.25 (favourite)
In his favour: Race-winning experience, huge engine, incredible power. Pedalling style seems to smooth a path for himself on the cobbles. Great team support. Excellent form.
Against: Is he on a slight downwards curve after peaking at Milan-San Remo? It?s hard to tell. The Muur caused him problems last Sunday when he?d looked so strong. No hills here though. And if he really was on the slide, would he have bothered riding Ghent-Wevelgem?

3 Tom Boonen

Belgium / Quick Step
Last five years: 24th / 9th / 1st / 2nd / 6th
Results this week: Tour of Flanders 17th, Ghent-Wevelgem 150th
Unibet.com?s odds to win: 4.00
In his favour: Really needs a result. Strong team, dedicated to helping him.
Against: Really, really needs a result. Will the pressure be too much? No one will co-operate with him on the road. His team-mate Gert Steegmans is out injured. Not as good as he was three years ago. In fact, nowhere near as good.

4 George Hincapie

United States / High Road
Last five years: ? / 8th / 2nd / ? / ?
Results this week: Tour of Flanders 5th, Ghent-Wevelgem 53rd
Unibet.com?s odds to win: 11.00
In his favour: A very strong team, packed with riders capable of making the top ten. He looks to be thriving in a team that actually gives a damn about the Classics. Rode strongly at Flanders.
Against: Often suffers terrible luck at Roubaix. Seems to have a mental brick wall in front of him.

5 Thor Hushovd

Norway / Crédit Agricole
Last five years: ? / 17th / 9th / ? / 43rd
Results this week: Tour of Flanders 27th, Ghent-Wevelgem 15th
Unibet.com?s odds to win: 22.00
In his favour: Good form ? better than in recent years. The move he tried at Flanders was odd, though. No hills here, this course suits him ideally. Will cope will even the worst conditions.
Against: Not much team support once the race hits the cobbles.

6 Alessandro Ballan

Italy / Lampre
Last five years: ? / ? / 47th / 3rd / 61st
Results this week: Tour of Flanders 4th, Ghent-Wevelgem 52nd
Unibet.com?s odds to win: 13.00
In his favour: Class act. The equal of Boonen, Cancellara and Flecha here.
Against: Might go missing in the rain and the wet.

7 Roger Hammond

Great Britain / High Road
Last five years: 17th / 3rd / HD / 24th / 7th
Results this week: Tour of Flanders 32nd, Ghent-Wevelgem 10th
Unibet.com?s odds to win: 35.00
In his favour: Burning desire, excellent tactical sense, under-rated by media and possibly other riders. This is his race. A good sprint finish if he?s in a small group.
Against: Team orders? With Hincapie, Knaven, Klier, Eisel all in good form could there be too many High Road chefs spoiling the Paris-Roubaix broth?

8 Leif Hoste

Belgium / Silence-Lotto
Last five years: 37th / 12th / 33rd / DQ / 13th
Results this week: Tour of Flanders 19th, Ghent-Wevelgem DNS
Unibet.com?s odds to win: 10.00
In his favour: In top form. He was stood still by the side of the road at Steenbeekdries with a broken bike for an age on Sunday but still got back to the front group.
Against: Railway crossings. Remember, Leif, you?re not allowed to duck under them. His number one team-mate is a giraffe, Johan Van Summeren. No use if Hoste has another mechanical and needs to take a team-mate?s bike.

9 Stuart O?Grady

Australia / CSC
Last five years: 18th / ? / 18th / ? / 1
Results this week: Tour of Flanders DNF, Ghent-Wevelgem 8th
Unibet.com?s odds to win: 20.00
In his favour: Defending champion
Against: Still on the way back from last year?s Tour de France crash, not 100 per cent fit, will have to work for Cancellara

10 Filippo Pozzato

Italy / Liquigas
Last five years: ? / ? / ? / 15th / 35th
Results this week:
Unibet.com?s odds to win 18.00
In his favour: Good at reading a race, rarely caught on the hop.
Against: Mud may ruin his shoes and hair. Team-mates Enrico Franzoi, Mauel Quinziato and Frederik Willems could be better bets.

THE DARK HORSES

Nick Nuyens (Quick Step) ? A little fragile for Roubaix, no real pedigree.

Sebastian Langeveld (Rabobank) ? The revelation of Flanders but won?t be given much rope.

Erik Zabel (Milram) ? Could be a threat but getting on a bit.

Bernhard Eisel (High Road) ? Will be a key player for the team. Was fifth a couple of years ago

Frédéric Guesdon (FDJ) ? Won 11 years ago. Now 37.

Steffen Wesemann (Cycle Collstrop) ? Sixth in 2006 but no team to speak of.

Greg Van Avermaet (Silence-Lotto) ? Not much more than support for Hoste at the moment.

Enrico Franzoi (Liquigas) ? Could be the surprise package.

Philippe Gilbert (FDJ) ? This isn?t for him. There aren?t any hills.

Stijn Devolder (Quick Step) ? Must be tired now so will work for Boonen.

Magnus Backstedt (Slipstream) ? Former winner who is owed a favour by Lady Luck.

THE BRITS
Jeremy Hunt (Crédit Agricole)
Ian Stannard (Landbouwkrediet)
? Paul Manning (Landbouwkrediet) and Mark Cavendish (High Road) are named as reserves for their respective teams.

BEST BRITISH RESULTS

Barry Hoban and Roger Hammond are the only British riders to make the podium at Paris-Roubaix.

Arthur Linton was fourth in the very first edition in 1896. Hoban was 2-13 behind winner Roger De Vlaeminck in 1972. Hammond contested the sprint at the finish in 2004 and was edged out by Magnus Backstedt and Tristan Hoffman. Here are the Brits who have made the top 20.

3rd
Barry Hoban 1972
Roger Hammond 2004

4th
Arthur Linton 1896

5th
Sean Yates 1994

6th
Tom Simpson 1965

7th
Roger Hammond 2007
Hammond at the end of the 2007 race

8th
Tom Simpson 1963
Sean Yates 1993

9th
Tom Simpson 1960

10th
Tom Simpson 1964
Barry Hoban 1969

12th
Max Sciandri 2001

13th
Michael Wright 1969

15th
Paul Sherwen 1983

16th
Barry Hoban 1968
Barry Hoban 1971
Max Sciandri 2002

17th
Roger Hammond 2003

18th
Max Sciandri 1999

20th
Jeremy Hunt 2005

BECOME AN EXPERT IN 5 MINUTES

A potted history of Paris-Roubaix

? Started in 1896 by a pair of textile manufacturers from Roubaix, Theo Vienne and Maurice Perez. From 1896 to 1909 the race was actually paced by either moped or car. In 1908 and 1909 the pacing was only as far as Beauvais.

? Only the two world wars halted the race.

? The phrase l?Enfer du Nord (Hell of the North) was coined by journalists covering the race after the First World War. The race followed the line of the Western Front, through areas that were ruined by the war. It was later adopted as a nickname for the race.

? In 1949 Frenchman André Mahé was part of a three-man break misdirected by officials. In a bid to get into the velodrome as quickly as possible to get back on track, he took a back route and won the sprint. Several minutes later Serse Coppi, Fausto?s brother, won the sprint for a minor placing. When it was realised what Mahé had done, he was stripped of the win. Eventually, after months of wrangling, Mahé and Coppi were made joint winners.

? In the 1950s and 1960s local authorities in northern France undertook a huge road improvement programme. The old cobbled main roads were relaid, robbing the race of its character.

? Peter Post set the record average speed of 45.129 kph in 1966. That was the final straw for the organisers. The race, mostly flat, had become characterless without its pavé.

? Jean Stablinski was sent to scour the region for cobbled backroads. He unearthed a host of farm tracks, most in awful condition, and the race was restored.

? In 1966 the start was moved to Chantilly, 50km north of Paris, to allow a more twisty route in the latter stages to seek out the cobbles. The start moved again, to Compiegne, in 1977.

? In 1968 the Forest of Arenberg was first used, a cobbled road that runs through the heart of the coal mining area and is sunken, shaded and uneven. Truly a trip into Hell.

? Belgian Roger De Vlaeminck won his fourth and final Paris-Roubaix in 1977, earning the nickname Monsieur Paris-Roubaix.

? Francesco Moser won three in a row from 1978.

? In 1981 Bernard Hinault ? who hated the race ? won it and immediately condemned it as ?bullshit?. He said he?d never ride again but, under pressure from his sponsors to defend his crown, finished ninth in 1982. But that was it.

? For a few years in the mid 1980s the race finished on a wide boulevard on the outskirts of Roubaix instead of in the velodrome.

? In 1988 a plastic bag blew into the rear mech of Thomas Wegmuller as he and Dirk Demol fought out the finish. De Mol won.

? Steve Bauer and Eddy Planckaert couldn?t be separated by the naked eye when they flashed across the line in the velodrome in 1990. In the end, Planckaert got the verdict.

? In 1996 controversy raged as three Mapei riders headed towards the velodrome together. It is alleged that the team manager, Patrick Lefevere, telephoned the owner of the sponsor, Dr Giorgio Squinzi, to ask him who he wanted to win. Johan Museeuw won.

? France?s last victory came in 1997, thanks to Frédéric Guesdon.

? Museeuw crashed and broke his knee in the forest of Arenberg in 1998. The following year the direction through the forest was changed so it was slightly uphill and therefore slower.

? The forest of Arenberg was dropped completely in 2005 because the condition of the road had deteriorated so much.

? In 2006 Leif Hoste, Peter Van Petegem and Vladimir Gusev were stripped of second, third and fourth places because they ducked under a closed railway crossing.

? There are 28 sections of cobbles now, numbered from 28 to 1 the closer to the finish they are.

? Astana are not in the race this year because ASO declined to invite the team to any of its races ? meaning no Vladimir Gusev or Tomas Vaitkus.

RELATED LINKS
Hammond ready for Paris-Roubaix
The Paris-Roubaix video clips on the web