The Paris-Roubaix Rain Dance

Monday, 7 April 2014

Wet Paris Roubaix rain 2002The Atacama desert. The Sahara. These are some of the driest spots on the planet. How about Roubaix in the north of France? It hasn’t rained there since 2002.

OK, before you leap the comments the average rainfall for the spring in northern France is 144mm and on an annual basis the Roubaix area is roughly 1,000 times wetter than the Atacama, reportedly the world’s driest area.

I’m talking about Paris-Roubaix. It hasn’t rained properly in the race for over a decade, we have to go back to 2002 for the last mud bath. It’s odd as Lille, the city next to the town of Roubaix is equal 13th among 118 places in France for the number of rainy days a year:

The chart’s crowded but hopefully you get the graphic with Lille sitting amongst some of France’s wettest places. It sits right in the place imagined by the French psyche, where Le Nord is a tough place that endures cold winters and is perpetually dark, as if the north of France somehow extends into the Arctic Circle. A caricature? Oui but one used effectively in the big-grossing – but terrible – film “Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis” where a postman is moved from a job in the south to Le Nord.

So far we have data and stories alike pointing to a wet region. So why doesn’t it rain for Paris-Roubaix? It is just a statistical oddity, a rarity for it to be dry year after year on this one day? Is it climate change? No, it’s all perfectly normal. Yes Roubaix is so far north it’s almost Belgian and yes it’s one of the rainiest regions all year round. But it has a surprisingly dry spring…

The chart above is from climatedata.eu and the vertical bars are precipitation. The driest time of the year? March and April. Last year it rained for 10 days in April… with six straight days of rain from 8 April onwards… but Paris-Roubaix was on 7 April. In 2012 it did rain on race day but only a few drops, no more.

It was dry in 2012 but light rain had helped dampen the dust

Rain vs rain
Most languages have many words to describe rainfall, like drizzle and downpour. The quantity and quality of rain matters too. In fact a light sprinkling of rain on the race day will make the race a touch faster and safer, turning dust into a more stable and compact surface. This is what we saw in 2012 when some rain before the race had dampened the soil and helped to reduce dust levels. Great for riders and television producers but it meant neither mud nor dust clouds.

The last time it rained “properly” was 2002 when there was enough rain to make the race into a mud bath although it hadn’t rained for two weeks prior to the race. 2002 is so long ago that Tom Boonen was a neo-pro on the US Postal team and Jennifer Lopez was topping the charts. Boonen made a name for himself on the day of Paris-Roubaix, outclassing team mate George Hincapie to finish third behind Johan Museeuw and Steffen Wesemann.

What’s so good about the rain?
It’s dramatic and makes the race even harder. The cobbles are even more slippery, you can’t see whether a puddle is ridable or will swallow your wheel and it all adds to the fatigue and ups the attrition rate. There’s also a connection to the past with the riders who faces, caked with mud, resemble the miners who worked the coal seams below the route.

But let’s admit some hypocrisy. Most of us don’t like riding in the rain, yet alone doing one of the wildest races in the world. Even in the dry this race is an exceptionally tough event. We might want a wet Paris-Roubaix but as the riders risk their health the only thing cold and wet fans experience is a beer as they recline in comfort to watch the circus show live on TV.

Sadism aside, the rain is normal. Even if it’s rare, it’s part of the race. It’d be mean to do a rain dance every year but a muddy race once in a while is part of the legend. Indeed it’s a must, every generation needs a test and if rain makes the race more epic then everyone from the winner to the last finisher can only gain in pride, it lifts the whole race.

The Big Question
So will it rain on Sunday? Currently Météo France says there’s a 50% chance of rain for the pavé: see for yourself at http://www.meteofrance.com/previsions-meteo-france/cysoing/59830 as the day gets closer.

Summary
Paris-Roubaix takes place in one of France’s wetter regions and a ten year dry streak seems an oddity, a genuine statistical fluke. But digging into the numbers it turns out the race is held during the region’s traditional dry spell which helps to explain it. Dry is normal for this time of year although the decade long dry spell for this race is abnormal.

Maybe it’s time to start doing a rain dance or for ASO and TV broadcasters to try cloud seeding in order to boost ratings? If it doesn’t rain on Sunday remember the Tour de France will return to the cobbles in the summer… and July is a wetter month.

Darren April 7, 2014 at 9:16 pm

We are looking toward a wet and very windy Friday, Saturday and Sunday forecast for Belgium!
Gives me doubts about racing on Saturday. Training in the rain is beautiful, but racing…

Matt April 8, 2014 at 12:47 am

I agree. I quite like training in the rain. Just sit there muttering “htfu htfu htfu” – maybe that’s just me… :)

Racing is another matter though, deepening on the parcours it can be madness. Roubaix would be insanity.

Blacky April 8, 2014 at 3:17 pm

what is not to love about training in the rain :)
personaly I skip for indoor trainer or short 60-90min running.

but i like mountain bike racing in the rain, wider set of skills is needed and it is more everyone for himself. The servicing costs is the obvious donwside :)

cthulhu April 8, 2014 at 3:41 pm

cleaning the bike afterwards ;)

But I personally like racing in the rain, my best results were quite often rain races.

Darren April 9, 2014 at 9:55 pm

Weather forecast has changed!
Dry, little wind, +/- 14 degrees!

bikecellar April 7, 2014 at 9:35 pm

Pure inrng, long may you continue to offer something “different” sir.

Angga April 8, 2014 at 7:17 am

ReTweet man!

BC April 7, 2014 at 9:54 pm

I sometimes wonder how you think up the content. Excellent once again, thank you.

I don’t like riding in the rain either, but hope for a wet and windy Sunday !

AK April 7, 2014 at 10:47 pm

It’s even less surprising than you think. I did a very quick calculation that says there is an 85% chance of having a 10 year dry streak for the race somewhere in its history.
10.1 days of rain/month in Lille says Wikipedia, I round that off to a 2/3 chance of a dry day. That to the power ten gives a 1.7% chance of a 10 year dry streak. The 10 year anniversary was in 1906 so there have been 107 10 year stretches since then that could have been dry. So 98.7% to the power 107 is 15% chance of not having experienced a 10 year drought in P-R.
(ps did this on the fly, please forgive me if I made a mistake)

max April 8, 2014 at 5:21 am

nice work AK.
I think you could be good at dismantling the ” weather news” we all have to put up with these days.
“Amazing news! This day/week/month/year has been the most / least / – wet / warm / windy / sunny/ humid – on record this year/decade/since records began!”

Shawn April 8, 2014 at 12:59 am

Since we haven’t seen rain at Paris-Roubaix in 12 years, I wonder who would benefit from rainy conditions on Sunday. Stybar because of his cyclocross experience or would it just create mayhem that wouldn’t favor anyone but the lucky?

The Inner Ring April 8, 2014 at 8:40 am

Some riders can have an advantage but if they’re that bit sharper for one reason the rain and mud bring along all sorts of random things. Team cars get stuck and can’t bring a spare wheel when it’s needed, riders chance going through a puddle and discover it’s wheel-breakingly deep etc.

Blacky April 8, 2014 at 3:20 pm

I think even pros are riding a bit bigger gaps so slipstream effect is reduced.

Ben April 8, 2014 at 5:03 am

Did anyone see the Paris-Roubaix cloud seeding article on April fools day?

The Inner Ring April 8, 2014 at 8:41 am
DJ April 8, 2014 at 5:24 pm

Thanks for a belated April fools’ laugh. “Jean-François Delugé, the brains behind the idea” is especially class, when you know that deluge is French for downpour ;-)

DJ April 8, 2014 at 10:36 pm

Aw shucks it works in english as well…I got a bit lost in translation.

Qwerty April 8, 2014 at 10:13 am

Great work. Looks like 50% chance of a light shower which means another dry one

Tovarishch April 8, 2014 at 11:52 am

I bet Sir Bradley is hoping it stays dry. As a point of interest, although the odds are long, with him doing Paris-Roubaix and Froome doing Liège–Bastogne–Liège could we see a Tour de France winner also take a monument for the first time in, what, 30 years?

Dave H April 8, 2014 at 12:15 pm

Having checked on Wikipedia, it would appear to be 25 years since Laurent Fignon won the second of back to back Milan San Remo wins. Before that it would have been Hinault in 1984 in Lombardy so you were close.

Of course the most recent Grand Tour winner to take a monument was Damiano Cunego which just seems wrong. That other faded talent, Andy Schleck won LBL before he became a Grand Tour winner so I didn’t count him.

Tovarishch April 8, 2014 at 12:37 pm

Forgot about Schleck junior. He could also be the first to collect the Maillot jaune and Lanterne rouge also!

cd April 8, 2014 at 3:08 pm

Vino’s LBL was more recent.

Dave H April 8, 2014 at 5:41 pm

Yes, I forgot Vino was a GT winner. To be honest, I probably chose to forget

Bundle April 8, 2014 at 12:38 pm

Very good piece.
1) On the muddy faces: I think they doesn’t only resemble miners, they especially look like WWI guys returning from Verdun, the Somme, or Vimy.
2) On “sadism”: it needs to be said that the spectator who wants tough riding conditions, does so in order both to admire more and to sympathize more. It’s not a cruel laughter, it’s not “hahaha, see how that poor bugger is crashing against the mud”.. it’s “omg, this man has the strength and the guts to get back on his bike and chase even harder”.
3) On riding in the rain, I happen to like it a lot, except for the constant puncturing. Is there a tyre that is reasonably rain-proof, and doesn’t weigh a ton?

noel April 8, 2014 at 1:35 pm

number 3 … oh I hate that, cold fingers, muddy cr*p everywhere… please tell me a tyre…
actually that’s one of the few things I envy from the pros… get a puncture, quick new wheel, 45 seconds later off you go, rather than 15 minutes of fumbling around…

The Inner Ring April 8, 2014 at 1:58 pm

Agreee with 2). On 3) it can depend where you live, the geology and what gets washed on to the road. Just check the rubber before and after a ride for any embedded flint and try different pressure, too hard or soft and sharp objects will cut in.

Asda April 8, 2014 at 2:32 pm

Vittoria Rubinos

Bundle April 8, 2014 at 2:52 pm

Thanx. I think I’ll try both. :)

hiddenwheel April 8, 2014 at 6:59 pm

Hutchinson Secteur tubeless. Brilliant tire. And aptly named given the PR post.

cd April 8, 2014 at 7:12 pm

Great tires, but don’t fit on most frames/forks.

Blacky April 8, 2014 at 3:27 pm

my best experience is with Michelin ProRace, better than Ultremo and GP4000s.

All of these are quite a risk for casual rider as you can hit anything under the mud/water and these are very prone to puncture/cut. Without a service car a pain in the ass. I do ride Durano or Durano Plus for winter trainings, but this is just a training tyre, unsure when wet if pushed to the limit and Plus version is twice the weight of top race tyres :)

pwderman April 9, 2014 at 7:51 am

if not racing specialized armadillos are almost bulletproof tires, or tyres, for you continental types.

MT April 9, 2014 at 4:40 pm

That top photo is superb. The rider looks like an animal in a safari park. Cameras pointing at him from every angle.

Jeremy April 9, 2014 at 7:50 pm

I am not really a Trek fan, but I’ve got to admit, they did a great job with their domane advert on this site. Timing could not have been better.

Anonymous April 10, 2014 at 1:10 pm

2001, the Knaven/Museeuw year, was gruesome… It made my love for the game definite.

I wonder who would be able to cope with wet cobbles best. I’m afraid we’ll have to wait for the answer, forecast still predicts dry weather.

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