Paris-Roubaix Preview

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Fabian Cancellara podiumThe last act of madness and also the last cobbled classic of the year. Paris-Roubaix is a wild race with a touch of the circus and it’s not just because the riders circle Roubaix’s concrete ring for the finish. It’s the greatest one day spectacle of the year. Fabian Cancellara may seem irresistible but he’s going to meet some immovable objects as well as plenty of tough riders and teams desperate for a last chance win.

The Course

Two myths: it doesn’t start in Paris but and it’s not flat either. After the start in Compiègne a series of roller-coaster hills are taken in the big ring and just enough to help a breakaway get going as other riders feel the need to shut it down in case they tire too soon.

The cobbles start with over 150km to go and hurt from the start. But it’s the Arenberg Forest that marks the big strategic rendez-vous.

The Cobbles

Sector Distance Location Length Difficulty rating
28 98.5km Troisvilles 2200m +++
27 104km Viesly 1800m +++
26 106.5km Quiévy 3700m ++++
25 112.5km Saint-Python 1500m ++
24 119.5km Solesmes 800m ++
23 126km Saulzoir 1200m ++
22 130km Verchain – Maugré 1600m +++
21 135km Quérénaing – Famars 1200m ++
20 140km Monchaux-sur-Ecaillon 1600m +++
19 153km Haveluy 2500m ++++
18 161km Trouée d’Arenberg 2400m +++++
17 167.5km Wallers – Hélesmes, aka “Pont Gibus” 1600m +++
16 174km Hornaing 3700m ++++
15 182km Warlaing – Brillon 2400m +++
14 185km Tilloy – Sars-et-Rosières 2400m ++++
13 191km Beuvry-la-Forêt – Orchies 1400m +++
12 196km Orchies 1700m +++
11 204km Auchy-lez-Orchies – Bersée 2700m ++++
10 208km Mons-en-Pévèle 3000m +++++
9 214km Mérignies – Avelin 700m ++
8 217.5km Pont-Thibaut 1400m +++
7 223.5km Templeuve – Moulin de Vertain 500m ++
6 230km Cysoing – Bourghelles 1300m ++++
6b 232.5km Bourghelles – Wannehain 1100m +++
5 237km Camphin-en-Pévèle 1800m ++++
4 240km Le Carrefour de l’Arbre 2100m +++++
3 242km Gruson 1100m ++
2 249km Hem 1400m ++
1 256km Roubaix 300m +

The four and five star sections really are unlike anything else. The Flemish classics use plenty of cobbled roads and some sections are rough. But these ones are something else. It’s as if a farmer has taken a tractor and plough and set to  work, the tractor leaving deep ruts and the plough turning up the stones as they were tilled soil.

Cobble-mania should not run wild. As much as we focus on the pavé, they account for only 51.1km of the course or 20% and the four and five cross sections account for precisely 10% of the course. It’s why riders use only adapted road bikes, they must still complete a fast course on flat roads where speed matters.

The speed is no higher than in the approach to the key cobbled sectors. Like the Tour of Flanders the strategic point isn’t the cobbles but 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, as hard as the cobbles themselves.

The Finish
Held in the old velodrome, riders enter the concrete track and do one and half laps. The banking can play a part, riders exploiting the slope to the line to launch their finishing sprint.

The Contenders
Fabian Cancellara is the prime pick. The Swiss is in top condition and has the experience and expertise needed to win. His team isn’t the strongest but it’s got enough power to keep him out of trouble for much of the race. But if Cancellara is the obvious pick, this is the most random of races and his triumph is far from predictable. Talking of uncertainty, Stijn Devolder had a terrible time last week if he rides he could take off early and force others to chase. His participation has been a saga this week, the team hint he won’t ride but he was he wants to . Update: Stijn Devolder is not riding. The Trek Factory Racing has an extra man in Dirk Demol, the DS won the race in 1988 after a 222km breakaway and has driven the route more than most.

Sep Vanmarcke is the second pick. Third in Flanders and the only rider capable of following Cancellara on the Oude Kwaremont last Sunday, he was second in this race last year and that on a broken front wheel. He’s got a reliable team in Belkin too. He’s had the ideal approach this week too, while Cancellara has been distracted by media work, Vanmarcke’s been kept hungry and focussed. His weakness could be his aggression, he’s not afraid to attack from afar but this has seen him waste energy early. However in Paris-Roubaix this is often a rewarding move, a chance to take an option on events yet to come during the race.

Peter Sagan is the next choice. Having been the prime pick for Milan-Sanremo and the Tour of Flanders he’s been demoted but it’s all relative, agile and powerful he still has what it takes to win whether going solo or winning in a sprint and there’s no long climb to thwart him. He’s been close in the races so far and if fortune tilts his way he can win.

Tom Boonen’s the leader of the OPQS team and last week this was a problem. The team built its tactics around him but blew up on the Kwaremont. But De Ronde is a more athletic course with its bergs and he’s finally got a six hour race in his legs. Even if he’s not in top form for Sunday he can count on skill to get him through – he’s so at ease he doens’t wear gloves on the pavé – and he packs a powerful sprint. I think OPQS will still back him but as ever this is a squad is full of cold stone killers. Niki Terpstra is the second man, visibly stronger than Boonen last week, he’ll look to breakaway in the final 40 minutes. A year ago I pencilled in Zdeněk Štybar as a prime pick for 2014 but now he’s looking good but not outstanding. It won’t be a surprise if he’s on the podium but he’s far from the first choice. Stijn Vandenbergh was the slowpoke of last Sunday’s quartet but he’s built for this race as is Guillaume Van Keirsbulck.

What of Greg Van Avermaet? He had an outstanding race last Sunday. He’s so consistent but this is probably his worst event, he’s a routier-sprinteur who can sprint but cope with climbs because he’s a touch lighter than others. Only this could be a penalty on the pavé. He’s got a decent team and some are tipping Taylor Phinney. The American can win this race but he has had only one top-10 finish in the classics this year and still needs experience of handling the front group in this race so he’s an outsider tip. In a race where experience counts Thor Hushovd could pop up but he’s been quiet this season and retirement can’t be far off.

Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff was fifth last week and is in fine form. He went solo last week up the Paterberg, proof that he’s not willing to settle for a sprint even if he knows he can probably beat everyone; his double-act with Luca Paolini won’t be so balanced, the Italian rider is less suited to the cobbles. Another sprinter is John Degenkolb and the German’s had a low profile this week but this is the race he really wants to win, he’s shown that he’s far more than a sprinter.

Team Sky bring Bradley Wiggins which is notable because a Tour winner hasn’t started the race since Greg LeMond in 1992. The beared Briton had a solid Ronde and he’s got the sustained power needed for this race. I think he could try “a Terpstra” and pre-empt the major attacks with a longer range move while the big guns are still sitting tight. Edvald Boasson Hagen is their best rider, I’ll still tip him but he’s a constant frustration, you know he has what it takes but he’s yet to strike. Geraint Thomas can be there in the finale too but he’s a lighter rider and therefore discounted.

Next comes a wider cast of pretenders. Ag2r’s Damien Gaudin was strong last year and resurfaced in Flanders last week but his move showed he was able to attack but was not visible in the final showdown, instead team mate Sébastien Minard was the surprise rider in the front group. FDJ’s manager Marc Madiot dreams of this race but it’s been a nightmare in recent years for him, he’s got some strong riders with Arnaud Démare still a contender while Matthieu Ladagnous and Yoann Offredo are outsiders; the latter is suffering from an open wound in a place where the sun does not shine. Not ideal for the pavé.

Tyler Farrar‘s had a good spring campaign, two podiums and Garmin-Sharp team mate Sebastian Langeveld is probably their best bet, tenth in Flanders. Often a factor in this race over the years Filippo Pozzato wasn’t visible last weekend. By contrast Bjorn Leukemans was visible and if he’s more a versatile and lighther build, his new role with the Wanty-Gobert team means he can’t pick and chose his moments. Finally Orica-Greenedge might try to send some men up the road, Jens Keukeleire is probably their best bet, if it was raining and windy then Matt Hayman would be the man.

?
Fabian Cancellara
Sep Vanmarcke
Tom Boonen, Alexander Kristoff, Peter Sagan, John Degenkolb
OPQS, Boasson Hagen

Nobody gets five chainrings for Paris-Roubaix, any predictions get an extra discount because no other race has such an element of luck.

The Scenario
Tradition means a large break goes in the morning and this melts under pressure once the cobbled sectors begin. If early breaks are often futile, it’s often an effective tactic in this race because even if a rider is reeled in, they serve as a relay for team mates and in crueller terms, equate to a spare pair of wheels up the road.

Otherwise it’s a process of elimination from both ends with riders being dropped and suffering crashes and mechanicals while attacks and accelerations help to chisel the front group. Note the default outcome is either a solo win or a group of no more than four riders, the only exception in the past 20 years is 1997 when eight riders contested the finish.

Weather: sunshine and a temperature of 16°C in the afternoon. There will be a northerly breeze at 25km/h meaning a headwind for the day but the course turns left and right as soon as the cobbled sectors start meaning a crosswind for much of the later part of the race too.

The weather on the day matters most but conditions prior too do before. It’s been a wet and damp winter meaning more moss than usual on the stones and this has given way to more vegetation in recent weeks. It’s been dry for most of the week but a few showers are possible today (Friday) to help reduce the dust.

TV: live coverage from around 1.00pm Euro time with the finish expected around 4.50pm. It’s on local TV, Eurosport and other channels, normally the same ones that show the Tour de France in your home country have the rights to this. But if they have decided not to air it, cyclingfans.com and steephill.tv have TV schedules and pirate feeds galore.

History: this is the 111th edition of the race. Two riders have won four times, Roger De Vlaeminck and Tom Boonen. Fabian Cancellara can join them if he wins one more.

DrHeaton April 11, 2014 at 12:17 pm

I’m wondering whether Sebastien Turgot can go any better this year. Now that he has a strong foil in Gaudin perhaps between them they can make some strong moves towards the latter part of the race. I wouldn’t put either as a real favourite but top 10 is by no means out of the question.

The Inner Ring April 11, 2014 at 9:34 pm

He’s one of those specialists in this race, he needs a few stars to align but yes. Although he’s had a quieter build up so far.

Mats April 11, 2014 at 12:46 pm

Accidents in the form of crash or puncture play a vital role in this race. Team cars are too bar back in cobbled sections and puncturing there can cost you the whole race. Cancellara almost never punctures but he seems to ride on seemingly fat tires. Talking about crashes, I wonder if Vansummeren is about to start?

Conrado April 11, 2014 at 2:38 pm

Well it seems that Vansummeren will be there. His wife has tweeted a few days ago but nothing is confirm from the team, from what I’ve read.

delgrio April 11, 2014 at 1:00 pm

In the best of the rest category, I’ll be following Bozic and Barta with an extra keen eye. The latter showed good form at the Ronde, and the former surely would’ve been part of the decimated peleton at worst barring his puncture at the worst possible time.

Ian April 11, 2014 at 1:13 pm

Great preview. Only thing I don’t quite agree with is rating Sagan so highly for this race. I don’t think Roubaix is a race which suits him as well as Milan – San Remo, E3 or Gent – Wevelgem. But who knows, maybe he’ll prove me wrong. He’s free to do so!

Tovarishch April 11, 2014 at 1:36 pm

I don’t know how accurate Wikipedia is but it show him as lighter than Van Avermaet.

Blacky April 11, 2014 at 4:26 pm

According to Wiki he is the same weight not only as GVA but also Teprstra (74kg).

It is not going to weight only, as Devolder is lighter than these guys and Stybar + Paolini are even sub 70kg.

Phiney, Boonen and Cancelara are 8-10 kg heavier – around 82kg

Vanmarcke, Kristoff and Degenkolb are somewhere between at 77kg

kiwisip April 11, 2014 at 1:44 pm

I agree. I remember him saying few years ago that he doesn’t have the right technique for riding so fast on the cobbles. And I don’t think he’s changed anything but we’ll see..

channel_zero April 11, 2014 at 6:17 pm

Not to mention Sagan had no one helping him for most of Flanders 2014. He desperately needs team support in the lead group at these races.

I sure hope OPQS has their strategy sorted out this week. They made a mess of Flanders 2014 despite their depth. I rank Stybar much higher than Inrng, but OPQS doesn’t let him ride as leader? They can put Terpstra and Stybar in the winning group, but it appears the DS doesn’t let the riders race it from there.

Sky’s best hopes are with Thomas, but for reasons I don’t understand Sky has Wiggo as the leader. I’ll be very surprised to see Wiggins in the lead group going into the Arenberg sector. Hopefully they told the press one thing and have different plans.

AK April 12, 2014 at 12:30 am

Fabian didn’t have team support in De Ronde either. Still did pretty well.

Anonymous April 12, 2014 at 10:23 pm

He did, just burnt them up too easy.
He’s fast (not Spartacus fast on De Ronde and Roubaix), but only stands a chance if it comes to a bunch, and he doesn’t have the tactical nuance yet to not burn up his team to early.

Gowlett April 11, 2014 at 1:19 pm

Just can’t see Wiggins doing anything meaningful here. Sure, he has great sustained power ability but I struggle to see him ‘commanding’ the cobbles.

Dave H April 11, 2014 at 1:38 pm

I certainly don’t expect him to get on the podium but I don’t think the cobbles will be the problem for him. He is very well equipped to cope with them in that he is used to 5 minute full power efforts from his track days and has the kind of smooth powerful pedal stroke that is needed. He gets criticised a lot for bike handling but this is based on not descending well in the wet which a totally different skill to riding the Roubaix pave in the dry.

Where he will fall short will be in the fight to get into position before the key stretches of pave. We saw this last weekend in Flanders where he was out of position each time they reached a berg and lost ground due to others slowing rather than his own shortcomings. As mentioned above, this is the critical part of these races rather than the pave itself.

As for Sky’s other riders, it is real shame Stannard is absent as I think Thomas is too light for this race and EBH will flatter to deceive as always in these long classics.

Felipe April 11, 2014 at 2:22 pm

+1

But I have to say. To think of the possibility for the guy to have won all the olympic medals he has ever disputed + Le Tour + Roubaix. That would put him in a whole different league. Either way, the simply fact that there’s a TdF champion contesting Roubaix is awesome in itself.

Anonymous April 12, 2014 at 3:34 am

Agreed. Wiggins creates many different emotions in people but I applaud him for giving this a crack. He’s earned the right to have a go and it should be celebrated. His recent interview about PR seems to indicate that they are all for EBH. Personally, I don’t expect to see him at the front at any point after the lead-in to Arenberg but I’ll be very happy to be proved wrong. If you’re a favourite and you see him ride up the road with lesser favourites with 50kms to go and you have EBH sucking your wheel, it is food for thought, no?

Anonymous April 11, 2014 at 2:15 pm

I really cannot understand him riding this at all, only for the personal tick in the box.

Bundle April 11, 2014 at 2:39 pm

I’ll quote myself from this blog’s entry (August 19th, 2013): “Wiggins should focus on the cobbles now. He could win Roubaix if he trained for it. And I think he’ll do it”. :) I still hope I was right.

Dave H April 11, 2014 at 2:58 pm

I would put it slightly differently; he could have won Roubaix had he focused on it as a goal. The problem is that he is coming at it too late in his career and undersized. If, instead of becoming a GC contender, he had chosen to focus on the cobbles I think it is reasonable to suppose he could have won one of the, say, ten editions he tackled with a fair wind and a bit of luck.

Larry T. April 11, 2014 at 3:44 pm

I agree, ya gotta give some props to Wiggo. Boring as hell in LeTour for sure, but instead of doing the conventional defense the following year, he took a shot at the Giro. Of course that didn’t go very well, but why NOT take a shot at Paris-Roubaix? How boring is it to watch the same guy try to win the same race (LeTour) for years and years? Especially if he does nothing else 100%?

Sam April 11, 2014 at 3:45 pm

Even JV was quoted as saying back in 2012 that Wiggins is well-suited to P-R.

First TdF champ for 22 years to ride it – Chapeau for that.

The Inner Ring April 11, 2014 at 9:36 pm

I believe the Garmin team put him into Paris-Roubaix a few years ago to help make him deal with shorter accelerations, bursts of power and to focus on positioning in the peloton, all as part of his bid for grand tour success before the Giro and Tour.

oober April 13, 2014 at 5:53 pm

Hahahahahahah, aaaaaaand Wiggo beats Boonen!

Shows how much all the Wiggins naysayers know…

crj April 12, 2014 at 8:12 am

will be interesting to see how it goes this time around as compared with his last attempt:
http://www.jamesnord.com/post/96529144/bradley-wiggins-after-paris-roubaix-sometimes

JasperHamer April 11, 2014 at 1:23 pm

“Cobble-mania should not run wild. As much as we focus on the pavé, they account for only 51.1km of the course or 20% and the four and five cross sections account for precisely 10% of the course. It’s why riders use only adapted road bikes, they must still complete a fast course on flat roads where speed matters.”

Reminds me of the ’94 edition with Museeuw riding a “woman’s bike” designed by Bianchi to handle the cobbles better. However, they ignored the fact that this would slow him down on the other 200k of normal road.. On top of that, the bike was hideous!

Bundle April 11, 2014 at 1:25 pm

I really think Sir Brad can enter Arenberg solo, and see where he gets from there. It’s his possible best move, and a moment I’ve been waiting to see for quite some time. I also expect more than a bit from Pozzato. If both make it to the podium, I’d like to be invited to the party that night!

Andy Mac April 11, 2014 at 1:57 pm

That’s a big ask! Nearly 100K from the finish. Sure he gets into the forest early doors and comes out in a select group..perhaps. Still 100 K to go and likely at best a thinning of the peloton as is typical here.

noel April 11, 2014 at 2:05 pm

a solo effort from 100k out… nice idea, but with a headwind/sidewind forecast…

channel_zero April 11, 2014 at 6:22 pm

He couldn’t hold position at Flanders to stay in the lead group. The pave sectors are far worse and the competition for position as Inrng describes is going to be tougher than Flanders.

noel April 11, 2014 at 2:13 pm

it’s just so difficult to see beyond Cancellara, mechanicals aside. Watching him towing Stybar and Vanmarke last time out, he is so much the strongest rider and showed last Sunday he’s in just as good a shape this year. Maybe the only way he gets beat is Devolder going up the road, and Fabian sitting on as a result…
It will be interesting to see OPQS tactics, as Terpstra looks in far better nick than Boonen. They’ll be keen to get the right man in the winning selection this weekend.
and I just can’t see why Phinney keeps getting mentioned… I’d like to see him do ok in for 3 or 4 years before I can see him as a genuine contender…

Dave H April 11, 2014 at 3:01 pm

I think there are parallels between those putting forward Phinney and those doing the same for Wiggins. Both are archetypal rouleurs who look built to ride the cobbles but neither have the experience of racing Roubaix with all the subtleties of positioning before pave sections etc. Phinney looks a good bet for a few years time but is still serving his Roubaix apprenticeship.

channel_zero April 11, 2014 at 6:25 pm

Phinney won the under-23 version of the race and did very well at Flanders. The BMC strategy at Flanders 2014 was great. The team is a strong pick for a podium.

GatorGene April 11, 2014 at 8:46 pm

Didn’t Phinney win at Roubaix once or twice before, as a junior or U23 or whatever? Shouldn’t that count toward his 3 or 4 year apprenticeship?

The Inner Ring April 11, 2014 at 9:38 pm

He won twice. But I think Marc Madiot is the only rider to win both the U23 and the senior race http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paris%E2%80%93Roubaix_Espoirs

Phinney’s a good outsider but hasn’t done anything this season to point to anything more concrete. But he’s got the build, experience, team and more.

Dan April 12, 2014 at 9:57 am

Personally, I thought van Avermaet was the strongest in Flanders. He pretty much soloed with a saddle bag (Vandenbergh) for 30 km.

Kevin Smith April 11, 2014 at 2:38 pm

Great preview.

Love the photo at the end. The cobbles look a right mess.

We’re travelling out to Lille tonight to watch the race. Can’t wait.

Go Spartacus!

Tom Whalley April 11, 2014 at 3:46 pm

That’s totally whet my appetite. Heading out from London to Roubaix on Sunday to watch the finish.
If a British rider makes the finale I’ll be happy. My heart wants Wiggo to try a move from 40km out, perhaps alongside Devolder and whoever OPQS send up the road, but my head says he’ll be in the second or third group on the road by then. Not in a position to make the final selection. Stannard is a big miss for me. Whatever happens I expect it to be a sprint from a small group, not sure anyone is strong enough to go solo like Boonen did a few years back.

Bikelink April 11, 2014 at 4:49 pm

So many punctures. I’m surprised tubeless setups haven’t been tried in this race.

Carl April 11, 2014 at 6:14 pm

I’m gonna go watch it on sunday.
Thought I just go to Compiègne and see the start, as I have before. Would love to share a ride and be able to see more parts of the race.

Anyone have room for a 35 year cycle nerd in their car?
I’ll put in some money for gas etc. Based in Paris, but can take the train and meet up wherever works best.

Much appreciated.

MickR April 12, 2014 at 1:42 am

This is my favorite cycling blog. I want a tee-shirt that says “Not Ideal for the Pave'”.

I’ve seen pictures of brutal looking Arenberg stones and I just can’t believe some of the roads look like that. Instead of bitching about the parcour like motor racing drivers would, the whole point of this race is to introduce some traditional difficulty. I love this sport.

In my old northeast US city I take a turn now and then on the old cobbled roads to get a sense of the difficulty and at slow speed, they are deadly. My friend fell into a little hole while looking at a skirt and knocked his teeth out. I can’t imagine them at 40 km/h.

Anonymous April 12, 2014 at 9:35 am

If you only ever go and see one pro race in your life, then make it this one it will blow your mind. I admire this talk of wanting Wiggins to go on solo attacks etc. but really my feeling is he will do nothing tomorrow. Stannard would have been Sky’s best hope!

Kelly's Bidon April 12, 2014 at 10:48 am

Thank you INRNG for that wonderful b & w of the great man to close your fine preview. I’m a big fan of Wiggo’s sense of humour and his love of the history of our sport – however, whilst a top ten place might be within his grasp, a podium place is a cobbled section too far, even with his great turn of speed. I hope to see Sep Vanmarcke heave the cobble aloft at around 4.00pm (GMT), he appears to me to be a very calm, laid-back, character…his power and skill are beyond reproach, as is the strength in depth of his team. Further, he owes Cancellara a whupping from last year’s exciting edition. In this case a whupping, by the way, would be a tyre’s advantage at the finish line.

John Le G April 12, 2014 at 1:07 pm

“cold stone killers” – excellent!! Either a typo… or an epigram of astounding coolness.

AK April 12, 2014 at 1:33 pm

John le G, pretty sure it’s not a typo. Read a couple of older posts here and you’ll see this level of language sophistication is the norm.
Stoked for the race. I think it will be another Fabian vs Sep, unless Kristoff can hold on to the velodrome cause he will win the sprint.

Dan R. April 13, 2014 at 1:12 am

Inner Ring,why do you think Tony Martin does not focus more on the cobbled classics? I would think that with his big engine, body type, and OPQS teammates, he could be really competitive at Paris-Roubaix.

Bundle April 13, 2014 at 3:21 am

I’m also intrigued. I think it’s a bit of a social thing. He seems to me like a good in-law, that shows up on Saturday afternoon for coffee and cake, with his wife and children. I mean, he looks like an honest civil servant, and he is actually a cop from Thuringia. He seems to take cycling like a job no more no less. Professional to the bone, predictable and smooth, but perhaps lacking that bit of crazyness or passion it takes to go for the cobbles. I wish he, Brad, and Fab became real rivals, for the cobbles, and for the Hour Record. But that’s wishful thinking, I guess. Still, as Tony becomes a veteran, he’ll develop a deeper sense of what he wants to remember having done, and discover he can win far more races than he seems to believe.

The Inner Ring April 13, 2014 at 10:11 am

It’s part cultural. The French talk about “la culture des classiques” and this means all that goes with it, learning to ride over cobbles, to rub shoulders and elbow others at 60km/h etc. Martin seems more at ease in a hilly stage race. Also a long time trial is one thing but it can be a precise effort, today is all about changing pace, sprinting, watching others and more.

bikecellar April 13, 2014 at 10:28 am

I am going to stick with my Flanders pick of Greg Van Avermaet missed out twice now to Op Kop Stannard then Cancellara.

Steve Potts April 13, 2014 at 12:39 pm

A little section from my upcoming memoirs (when I get them finished):

“First run in 1896, the Paris-Roubaix cycle race is a relic of a long-dead time, an age of mustard gas, polio, and dentistry without anaesthetic. It’s a clown whose rictus mask slips to expose a vacant skull. It’s an adults only performance of sadomasochistic acts, a twisted show of freaks. It’s an ill-advised teen camping trip to an out-of-season forest cabin. It’s the pale figure at an unlocked window in the middle of the night. It’s the pubic hair in your soup du jour.

The sky above is azure blue, as it has been for much of the day. Several hours ago 197 men left northern Paris in the hope of reaching this place first, and in so doing securing their name in the history of bicycle racing. That they are mad is not in doubt. How high were their hopes on leaving Compiègne this morning? How many dared to dream of victory and celebration? And now what of them, on the final stretch to Roubaix, there by a mixture of skill, strength and luck. Road-spattered, destitute, pushing themselves and their machines at grim break neck speed through the outskirts of this mean little town. Roubaix. Say it again. Roubaix. Even the name now sounds like a slap.

A cold, lazy wind drifts across the rolling fields of winter wheat, carrying with it the scent of wood smoke. Spring has come to Northern France, crisp and clear in the thin sunlight. The hopeful flowers turn their heads towards the brittle warmth and nod in unison as the riders pass. Lambs are in the fields, flicking their heels and bouncing with joy. Villages sleep in the morning sun, cats on a windowsill. The boulangerie doorbell rings and out steps the scent of flour and yeast and love. Rural France is geese and dogs, barbed wire, clay, cloud and sky.

But terrible things happen in the Northern French countryside on the way from Compiègne.

Compiègne. The jolly little town, which spans the pretty river Oise, raised a glass and hurrahed them on their way this morning, with a friendly pat on the back that was like a push towards the gallows. Since then men have pedalled several hours nearer to death.”

Can’t wait for this year’s race. Hope I can get a decent feed as I’m out here in Asia with no Eurosport as the cable company hasn’t connected us yet!

Steve

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