The Belgians might say the Tour of Flanders is the best race of the year. Italians could say Milan-Sanremo is the most beautiful. But the hardest race of the year? With labels like “hell”, “brutal”, “hardest of the hardest”, “queen of the classics”, Paris-Roubaix must be the toughest race of the year.
There can be moments when Paris-Roubaix crosses from a race to a circus event thanks to the giant cobbles, the mud and more. But there is something beautiful in the contest and the way the race transforms the landscape that makes this a special race. It’s also high entertainment on TV.
Today you can travel from Paris to Roubaix in about an hour with a high speed TGV train but the race deliberately seeks out the smallest and roughest roads possible, picking its way over ancient cobbles where only special vehicles can accompany the riders on the most irregular sections.
It’s called Paris-Roubaix but it doesn’t start in Paris. Instead the start is in Compiègne, a fixture since 1968. The north of France is broadly flat but the first 100km include a few hills. Not that the climbers have a chance, more that if you ride or drive the course then you’ll notice the rollers. The race sticks to main roads until the first cobbles begin after 97.5km. They are graded by difficulty, the more “+” marks, the harder the section is.
|22||126km||Capelle-sur-Ecaillon – Le Buat||1700m||+++|
|21||142km||Aulnoy-lez-Valenciennes – Famars||2600m||+++++|
|20||144.5km||Famars – Quérénaing||1200m||++|
|19||149km||Quérénaing – Maing||2500m||+++|
|15||178.5km||Millonfosse – Bousiginies||1400m||+++|
|14||183km||Brillon à Tilloy-lez-Marchiennes||1100m||++|
|-||185km||Tilloy – Sars-et-Rosières||2400m||+++|
|13||192kmkm||Beuvry-la-Forêt – Orchies||1400m||+++|
|11||203km||Auchy-lez-Orchies – Bersée||2600m||++++|
|9||215km||Mérignies – Avelin||700m||++|
|-||224km||Le Moulin de Vertain||500m||++|
|6||230.5km||Cysoing – Bourghelles||1300m||++++|
|-||233km||Bourghelles – Wannehain||1100m||+++|
|4||240.5km||Le Carrefour de l’Arbre||2100m||+++++|
These sections total 51.5km and as you can see the difficulty varies. There’s no science , the rating comes from notes taken by race director Jean-François Pescheux and can vary from year to year. A farmer could cover the cobbles in mud, treacherous moss could take hold on another section and municipal authorities can repair the cobbles too.
Like the Tour of Flanders, the strategic point is not just the cobbles alone but the approach. You want to go into a key section at the front because if a rider falls in front of you then at best you are delayed, at worst you go down too. Everyone knows this and the fight amongst riders and teams for a place near the front is fierce and tiring.
Random: the cobbles are so unlike anything you get for the rest of the year, in particular the five star sections are brutal and bring a circus element to the race. Bernard Hinault called it a course de connerie, roughly a “bullshit race”. Here’s Dutchman Theo De Rooy interviewed on the finish line in 1985:
“It’s bollocks this race! You’re working like an animal—you don’t have time to piss! You wet your pants. You’re riding in mud like this, you’re slipping—it’s a piece of shit”
Riders can be in peak form but undone after sliding on the cobbles. But as legendary manager Cyrille Guimard puts it, you make your own luck:
“Luck, it doesn’t exist, you make it happen. If you fall, it’s because you made a mistake. If you puncture it’s because you rode where you shouldn’t have. Just look at the best, they hardly ever puncture“.
Indeed when Theo De Rooy was asked if he’d ever return to the race he replied instantly: “Sure! It’s the most beautiful race in the world!“.
The finish: held in the old velodrome, riders enter the concrete track and do half a lap in order to hear the bell ring hallelujah, signalling one final lap of the track. The banking can play a part, riders exploiting the slope to the line to launch their finishing sprint.
Course summary: brutal cobbled sections can determine the race, these sections can be so awkward that small gaps between riders are amplified. The pavé multiply fatigue, cause crashes and provide high drama. But don’t forget the rest of the race, it is easy to think only of the cobbles but 200km are on ordinary roads.
Race tactics and scenarios
This will vary depending on the weather for the day but the cobbles are so extreme that they prise apart the riders. The path is so rough that even at max power you’re not going so fast, every cobble is trying to slow you.
You can’t sit tight on the wheel of rider, partly because the reduced speed means there’s less benefit but also because you need to see where you’re going. The rider in front could switch direction, maybe because they’ve spotted a smoother path or worse, because they’re sliding involuntarily.
There’s a choice. Ride the middle, the peak of the camber and experience the full boneshaking effect of the cobbles. Ride on the side of the road and you might get a smoother path as passing vehicles have smoothed the cobbles and mud and dust lie there. But that is where flint, glass and other puncture prone materials lie.
This means that despite the flat profile of the race, it almost ends up as a collection of solo efforts. Be sure not to forget the 200km of tarmac and racing normality – and note several level crossings mean trains can hold up the race – but the cobbles do define the race. Ideally it means be strong and be at the front but the cobbles are far from ideal.
Typically in the race an early breakaway will go. If there’s a tailwind – the forecast keeps changing – then teams might look to place stronger guys in the break. But with rain forecast and a head/crosswind too we should see a pure battle amongst the favourites. The early move will be contained, team leaders will send lieutenants to work to slim the group down and as if by magic each cobbled section will see the main bunch get thinner and thinner as fatigue and disaster take their toll. By the time we get to Mons-en-Pévèle or Cysoing it’s possible to have a select group of top contenders, usually with a few random names riding their good luck.
The group should get thinner. I can’t recall a bunch sprint but from time to time a large group has arrived. If so, freshness counts more than sprinting ability so don’t be surprised to see the clever fox outpower the strong ox. But if the cobbles are damp then expect a small group or maybe a solo rider to enter the velodrome.
How hard are the cobbles
The sections have ratings and things get evil from three stars upwards. These are not the cobbles of a driveway or urban street, they are rough stones ruined by passing tractors and often not even part of the tertiary road network in France.
Actually you don’t need to ride the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix to experience just how nasty they can be. You can drive over the cobbles of the Tour of Flanders at a reasonable speed, the tyres and suspension in a fast rumble. For Roubaix the cars are banned from some cobbled sections and if you tried, you’d select first gear and try to pick a line across the pavé at 5km/h. In fact much of the race traffic is diverted from the worst of the cobbles. This is the only race of the year where team cars are modified to cope with the pavé… more on this in the tech section below.
As for the riders the basic point is the rough surface. The bike and rider must roll over the cobbles and so you are constantly trying to go over rough obstacles.In the wet these ancient stones have been polished by horseshoes, cartwheels and others for hundreds of years and can be extra slippery. Riders often try to avoid the cobbles, preferring the sides but the mud and dirt here can contain hidden surprises as well as increasing the risk of a puncture.
There are also more sophisticated things involved. The infamous Michele Ferrari offers a good explanation:
A total of 51,000 meters of pavé, with five or six stones every meter, is about 250,000-300,000 hammer blows on the legs of each rider. At 40 km/h, that’s an average of 10-12 blows per second, a constant vibration that leaves its mark on the entire body: neck, hands, arms, back and even the blood circulation get extremely stressed from the outside. Vibrations slow down the venous return from the legs (but also from the arms), hindering the delicate work of the valves that is necessary to defeat gravity’s pull.
Ferrari has a point with the circulation, the veins have small one-way valves to help the blood flow but the shaking on the disrupts this and explains the additional fatigue experienced. If you’ve ever operated a pneumatic hammer you might know the feeling but the roads to Roubaix are relentless and random for a full working day.
Many riders do enjoy the cobbles. FDJ’s Frédéric Guesdon says he dreams of the pavé in the same way a mountain climber longs for mountain passes. The bigger, heavier rides get their chance in a sport that normally values lightweight athletes. Still, often the best thing about the cobbles is leaving them, the moment you return to the tarmac is special feeling. The road feels like it is made from silk and velvet.
Tom Boonen is the top favourite but think twice before you head for the bookmakers. First, there is the random element of the race. He could ride the perfect race only to puncture at the wrong moment and last year he was heading into the Arenberg Forest just right only to unship his chain. Second, he might have won last Sunday in Flanders but he was struggling on the Paterberg to match Filippo Pozzato, really grimacing. Then again, he is more suited to Paris-Roubaix as it is flatter and again he comes with a strong team at his service. Their work done last week helped set up his win, whether Terpstra or Chavanel.
Pozzato is my second pick. The Italian is back in form and his mellifluous pedalling style is suited towards the cobbles. Mirroring last weekend’s race another obvious pick is Alessandro Ballan who again will look to avoid a sprint by forcing the power earlier. He also comes with growing team support with Greg Van Avermaet in better shape.
Last year saw Johan Van Summeren win and who knows, he could go up the road and do it again, although team mate Sep Vanmarcke is a surer bet for Garmin-Barracuda. But this shows the importance of racing from the front, being ahead might mean burning up energy early but it buys certain advantages too. As such there are many riders who could surprise and the list of winners includes many riders who seized their chances on the day. Last week’s Tour of Flanders saw a large group finish behind so it’s hard to tell who was the strongest. Look out for Luca Paolini, Lars Boom, Edvald Boasson Hagen but there are many more.
One in form rider is Sylvain Chavanel. He won the time trial in De Panne and is overdue a big result. He’s a rider who enjoys the rain and the forecast for Sunday says wet weather is due. Whilst expectation falls on Tom Boonen’s shoulders, don’t forget Chavanel is racing in front of a home crowd.
You’ll find websites like cyclingnews.com offer full features and close-up pics but a quick word on the bikes used here. This race is so unlike others that different bikes can be used and there are all sorts of extra tricks and habits.
The obvious one is wider section tyres, with riders swapping the usual 23mm width for 25mm or even 28mm. The larger contact offers increased grip but also rolls better over obstacles. In turn wide tyres mean frames with room and often some use special frames. Several manufacturers realise the publicity value of a bike that is “comfortable for Paris-Roubaix” but surely nothing is comfortable here. Riders add to the comfort by adding a second layer of bartape for more cushioning and some even tape their hands under the gloves. Others say they have to feel the cobbles and reject this. Some teams still use old wheels with heavy spokes proven to survive the course but increasingly composite technology means carbon rims can survive the race. In 2007 Stuart O’Grady punctured in the Arenberg section and tool a spare wheel from the neutral service and rode this to the finish to take the win. The wheel in question was from 1986.
It’s not just the bikes. Commissaires, neutral service, photographers and even the police outriders use off road motorbikes.
Team cars in particular get special attention. The oil sump is usually the lowest part underneath the chassis and it can get a protection plate to prevent damage. Suspension is tweaked. Alloy rims are swapped for plain steel ones, even the tyres might be changed. And don’t forget the roof-racks where sometimes a toestrap or two comes in handy to keep valuable bikes even more secure. Indeed just as some new bikes get showcased, some teams will also use 4×4 or offroad versions from their vehicle sponsors for the day. Even then some of the cobbled sections are closed to team cars, both to protect the cobbles from heavy traffic but also to ensure the road is not blocked by broken vehicles.
This is a race where the weather the day before matters as much on the day. Why? Because of the mud on the route. Rain showers were forecast for Saturday but it’s been quite dry. On the morning of the race this means any dampness won’t make for mud, rather it’ll just bind the dirt together to reduce the dust.
The forecast keeps changing and the latest on Sunday is that there could be rain but late in the day. Whether it arrives on the course remains to be seen. Temperatures will reach no more than 9°C ( 50°F). There will also be a light breeze from the west, 10km/h from the south-west that rises to 20km/h in places towards the end of the race.
In the US it is on NBC Sports startling live at 9.00am Eastern Time.
Other countries with live coverage include: Australia where it’ll be live on SBS, Sky in New Zealand, RDS for Canada, J-Sports in Japan and Supersport in Africa.
25 teams will ride. I’ve now uploaded a copy of the provisional startlist (I didn’t rotate the text 90 degrees). You will see 10 riders per team. The first eight are those who are planning to start, the other two are replacement riders named to cover injury and illness before Sunday.
It’s worth mentioning the trophy as it’s a no-frills version, a simple cobblestone mounted on a stand. But this makes it more exclusive than any golden cup or silver shield and the trophy matches the hardman image of the race and the region.
Cash: the winner collects €30,000 and the total prize fund of €91,000 with €500 for 20th place.
The race was created in 1896 by a textiles industrialist Théodore Vienne to mark the opening of a new velodrome in Roubaix. In the early editions the 280km distance was hard enough, in those days roads were either dust tracks or cobbled and even the journey by steam train was a considerable voyage.
Over the years the cobbles were gradually replaced with smoother asphalt. This presented the organisers with a problem, the race was becoming a long procession with a sprint finish. Come the 1960s and the race started to hunt for cobbles, fining fiendish farmtracks as a means of splitting the bunch. By 1968 the start was moved to Compiègne. Belgian Roger De Vlaeminck (pictured) holds the record with four wins in the race.
Two riders can make history this Sunday. George Hincapie and Frédéric Guesdon have done this race 16 times each, equal to Servais Knaven and Raymond Impanis. If Hincapie and Guesdon finish, they will set a new record of 17 races.