Peter Sagan is arguably cycling's biggest star right now. Still only 28, the Slovakian showman has won the past three world championships, owns as many green jerseys as most of us have fingers on a single hand, plus has over a century of pro wins to his name.

And yet it's crazy to think that Sagan – the saviour of cycling! The best rider of his generation! the natural heir to Merckx! – has won fewer Monuments than a supposed journeyman like Niki Terpstra, a sluggish sprinter like Alexander Kristoff, a fallen giant like John Degenkolb, a Grand Tour rider like Vincenzo Nibali and even the spindly enigma that is Dan Martin.

Paris - Roubaix
Blazin' Saddles: Five things we learned from Paris-Roubaix
09/04/2018 AT 11:50

Sagan takes first Monument with Tour of Flanders win

With just one victory in the 2016 Ronde to his name, Sagan is yet to make as big an impression on cycling's major classics as he has elsewhere in the sport. One Monument is paltry return for a supposed architect of glory.

Last weekend, the Bora-Hansgrohe rider was left frustrated once again as Dutchman Terpstra exploited Quick-Step's power in numbers and rode clear to win the Tour of Flanders, four years after doing pretty much exactly the same in Paris-Roubaix.

On both occasions, Sagan finished a frustrated sixth place in an elite group of favourites who found themselves unable to cope with Quick-Step's numerical advantage.

"I'm not the only rider to beat," Sagan harrumphed after his latest setback, blaming his rivals for cutting off their own noses to spite their collective faces. "There are 200 of us in the race. They made a mistake, I think, because that way Quick-Step will go on and win all the races."

Terpstra adds Flanders to Paris-Roubaix in style

So far, the Belgian team has notched 24 wins all season – adding three more since Terpstra's triumph in Oudenaarde. Not only has the team proved there is life after Tom Boonen, they've demonstrated that the grass is perhaps even greener.

As their successes increase, so too does the momentum behind the snowballing 'Wolf Pack' mentality which strengthens team spirit and sees Quick-Step celebrate their victories collectively. This logo now appears on the team bus, on its jersey and with increasingly regularity as a hashtag on social media.

It's even rubbing off on the vernacular of their riders, with Dwars door Vlaanderen winner Yves Lampaert goading Quick-Step's lamb-like rivals after Terpstra's win with the declaration that: "For Roubaix, they'll have to adjust their tactics, or they'll be led to the slaughter."

Has Sagan got what it takes to be a pedalling Prokofiev's Peter and lock the wolves up in a zoo? Individually, for sure. But cycling's a team sport – and Bora-Hansgrohe, for all of Daniel Oss's indefatigable brilliance and Sagan's mastery, are no match for the well-oiled Quick-Step machine.

For the 116th edition of Paris-Roubaix on Sunday, it's no exaggeration to say that Quick-Step probably start with the three top favourites in Terpstra, Philippe Gilbert and last year's runner-up, Zdenek Stybar.

To beat them, everyone else is going to have to ride a lot smarter – or bank on the harmony coming unstuck and the wolves turning on themselves.

The race

First run in 1896, Paris-Roubaix is invariably known as the Queen of the Classics or the Hell of the North. The reason for the dual status of regal hellishness comes down to the trademark sections of cobblestone farm tracks which mean that, while the flattest of cycling's Monuments, Paris-Roubaix is arguably the toughest.

With all those leg-sapping, tyre-bursting, wheel-spinning cobbles, positioning and pure power are the order of the day. But riders also need a bit of luck: just ask that man Sagan, who sensationally avoided a crash quite spectacularly in 2016 by bunny-hopping over a prostrate Fabian Cancellara, but saw his chances crushed one year later after two untimely punctures.

Half of the editions of the past decade have been won by riders going solo, with the other five being won from groups of two, three, four, five or six riders. If this tells you anything it's that Paris-Roubaix is a very much a case of the last-man standing taking home the bacon.

And for all those who lament the lack of breakaway winners in major races – just remember Mat Hayman's epic victory in 2016, when the Australian was part of the break and then held on once the big favourites swept past.

The route

The 2018 edition of Paris-Roubaix is 257km and takes the riders from Compegne to Roubaix via 29 sectors of pavé covering 54.5km. Were the race to actually start in Paris, the riders would be required to pedal for another 90-odd kilometres – a big ask given the brutality of those cobbles.

Ranging from just 700 metres long to 3.7km, the first sector of cobbles comes after 93.5km of racing while the past is located just 1km from the finish inside the historic Roubaix velodrome. Like the famous hairpin bends of Alpe d'Huez, the cobbled sectors are numbered and tackled in reverse order.

The three most famous sectors are the five-star rated Trouee d'Arenberg (#19 with 95km remaining), Mons-en-Pevele (#11 with 48.5km remaining) and the Carrefour de l'Arbre (#4 with 17km to go).

Since making its first appearance in the race in 1968, the Arenberg has reached iconic status while becoming the emblem of the Hell of the North. Races have been won and lost, careers ended, and dreams shattered on the tree-lined 2.4km sector, which has become synonymous with suffering.

And it's not just the actual cobbles through the Arenberg Forest which make the difference, with the battle for positioning starting much earlier – leading to chaos, crashes and confusion.

This year there have been a few tweaks to some of the early cobbled sectors, plus there's an entirely new section (#25) between Saint-Hilaire and Saint-Vaast.

The records

Belgians Tom Boonen and Roger De Vlaeminck share the record number of four wins while seven riders – including the recently retired Fabian Cancellara – are tied on three wins.

Another Belgian, the defending champion Greg van Avermaet, won the fastest edition of the race last year with an average speed of 45.2km/h while Eddy Merckx's victorious margin of 5 minutes and 21 seconds over De Vlaeminck in 1970 is the largest winning margin in the post-War era.

VIDEO: Van Avermaet overpowers Stybar in thrilling sprint finish

Should Aussie veteran Mat Hayman win a second Roubaix scalp on Sunday he would overtake Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle (38 years and 8 months in 1993) as the oldest winner.

In fact, merely by taking part Hayman will be entering the record books... the question is, will he return in 2019 to take the outright lead?

On a tangent, should Philippe Gilbert win then the Belgian would be *merely* one Milano-Sanremo triumph shy of a full-set of Monument wins in his ongoing #StriveForFive bid.

The rewards

Win over the cobbles and you take home one of those legendary cobblestones as a trophy (hopefully not the one that gave Johan Museeuw gangrene).

And it doesn't stop there: winning riders also get their name inscribed on one of the showers at the Roubaix velodrome. Quite an accolade.

The riders

It's hard to look beyond Quick-Step extending their run on Sunday, what with the team looking so dominant they could render this edition of the Hell of the North more like a family screening of Dances With Wolves.

Runner-up last year and clearly strong last week in Flanders, Stybar looks like a solid bet alongside Terpstra, while you get the impression that Gilbert has kept something in reserve for this, the principal target of his season.

He may have been off the boil this season but defending champion Van Avermaet (BMC) – as well as Sagan – should not be overlooked, while Belgian tyro Wout van Aert (Verandas Willems-Crelan) makes his long-awaited debut after coming ninth in the Ronde.

Having made his name in cyclocross, 23-year-old Van Aert will be rubbing his hands with glee when he sees just how muddy some of the cobbled sections are…

Although we've since learned that one sector of Haveluy has been cleaned ahead of the race. Spoilsports…

The rain

Sorry, it's not going to happen. Initially, the bad weather that has plagued most of northern Europe so far this spring looked to ensure the first wet Roubaix since 2012. But we all know that a wet Roubaix is as likely as squeezing water from a cobblestone. The current forecast for Sunday is for sunshine and warm temperatures – with the rain only expected to return on Monday.

That doesn't mean it's going to be a dry Roubaix, as such. There's been so much rainfall over the past few weeks that the mud is still going to play a pivotal role in proceedings – as you can see. Unless they tidy it up, that is.

The ratings

*****
Zdenek Stybar, Niki Terpstra

****
Philippe Gilbert, Jasper Stuyven, Wout van Aert, Greg van Avermaet

***
Peter Sagan, Alexander Kristoff, Sep Vanmarcke, Yves Lampaert

**
Arnaud Demare, John Degenkolb, Daniel Oss, Jurgen Roelandts, Tony Martin, Oliver Naesen, Matteo Trentin, Gianni Moscon, Dylan van Baarle, Mads Pedersen

*
Florian Senechal, Magnus Cort, Edward Theuns, Dylen Groenewegen, Marcel Sieberg, Damien Gaudin, Sylvain Chavanel, Mathew Hayman, Geraint Thomas, Luke Rowe, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Sebastian Langeveld, Heinrich Haussler, Stijn Vandenbergh