The next Wout van Aert? Visma-Lease a Bike's secret weapon at Paris-Roubaix

Twenty-year-old Per Strand Hagenes has a big opportunity in the Hell of the North on Sunday

No Wout van Aert, no Matteo Jorgensen, and a Christophe Laporte who is returning from sickness. It looks like Visma-Lease a Bike’s Paris-Roubaix hopes rest solely on the shoulders of former winner Dylan van Baarle.

But do they have a surprise package among their seven-man roster in the form of 20-year-old Per Strand Hagenes? A few months ago, the team’s general manager, Richard Plugge, told the RadioCycling podcast: "We have to be aware that Wout is our main man at the moment, but in five years' time the question will be if he will still be there? For that reason we have Per Strand, for example, who is coming up, and hopefully he can show that he is the successor of Wout."

They were big words, a lot of pressure and expectation placed on one young man’s shoulders, but they wouldn’t have been uttered if Visma didn’t believe in the Norwegian - and with two of their talisman sidelined this weekend, and question marks surrounding Laporte’s race fitness, Strand Hagenes has emerged as one of the team’s main options on his Roubaix debut.

“I think they were nice words,” he told Rouleur. “I can understand why he said it because I am one of the younger guys on the team who is heavier and more like a Classics rider, and that’s the way they want to develop me. Wout is a really good bike rider and hopefully I can become a similar rider to him, and in a couple of years I can develop in that direction. If I could manage that it would be nice, but we will see if it works out.”

Image: Zac Williams/SWpix

A first year pro, Strand Hagenes spent the previous two seasons on Visma’s development team, winning the Sparkassen Münsterland Giro race in October ahead of WorldTour opposition that included Mads Pedersen, Kaden Groves and his countryman, Alexander Kristoff. He’s not surprised, therefore, that his boss has likened him to Van Aert, and also isn’t discounting himself at the Queen of the Classics.

“Right now, Wout is out so the team is structured a little differently, and we don’t have one of the top, top favourites to win in Roubaix, and that makes things a little bit different,” he assessed. “Every team will want to be in the breakaway, but it’s not the easiest thing to do. You also need a lot of luck in this race.

“If I am struggling, it will be more useful to help other guys, but we don’t say before the race who the captains and leaders are. Laporte has been sick for a while, but he’s back training. He’ll still probably be good, but we don’t know, so I think we will try to go for opportunities with many guys.”

As an 18-year-old in 2021, Strand Hagenes finished third in the junior Paris-Roubaix, proving his abilities across the cobbles. “I think I have good endurance and a good engine which you need in a long race like Roubaix,” he said. “After hitting the first sector, you need good endurance to be able to stay on a high level until the finish, and I think I’ll be able to keep that level quite high, but we’ll see on Sunday as it’s my first time.”

It was always the plan that Strand Hagenes would ride Roubaix in his debut season, and he’s been on three Roubaix recons since last October. The last one, on Friday, was in “really shit conditions. It was muddy, windy, not very nice, but I’ve ridden the cobbles a lot and there are no surprises when you do a recon. It’s always quite nice in the beginning and then the further you get into the ride the more and more f****d you are! And then you’re happy to be finished!”

His father is in France to watch his son debut in the biggest one day race of them all, driving between sectors before hoping to get to the famous velodrome in time to see his son finish. “My dad was there in 2021 when I was a junior, but I think he may have to lower his expectations this time around.” So no high-placing on his debut? “Ah, well, we’ll see. In the future? Maybe, maybe. I certainly hope so.”

Cover image: Tornanti

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