The best for last as the cobbled classics come to an end this Sunday in the Roubaix velodrome. Former race director Jacques Goddet described this race as “the last act of madness” and his decision to use tiny farm tracks with rudimentary cobbles has created a legendary and exceptional event.
Once again it’s everyone against Quick Step with the star riders caught in a collective tactical trap, they must combine against the Belgian team to win but start working and their rivals will sit tight and beat them in the finish. It’s live on TV from start to finish.
After the “Three Days of De Panne”, “Gent”-Wevelgem and the “E3” Harelbeke, another mislabelled race because the start is well outside of Paris. But that’s no bad thing as it allows the race to zig and zag across the cobbles closer to the finish. Starting in Compiègne it’s 257km across the north of France. There’s almost 100km to cover before the first pavé and these roads count, they’re more up and down than you might think. Then come the cobble sectors, all 29 of them with varying difficulties.
The four and five star sections (4* DIY highlighting in yellow above, 5* in gold) really are unlike anything else. The Flemish classics use plenty of cobbled roads, often lined with houses where ordinary family cars are parked in the driveways and they’re frequently used by cyclists. For Paris-Roubaix the tracks are hardly used and when they are it’s often a farmer on a tractors or motocross bikes. All race motos on Sunday have to be the off-road variety and many teams fit protection to their vehicles to help cope with the expected damage. What makes it so bad? The cobble stones are bigger, they’re often set badly and can be spaced far apart with angular edges jutting up towards a wheel which means bicycle wheels have a much harder time. The higher the rating, the more nervous the approach too, the race has a rhythm where the pace accelerates to wild levels before the key sectors and then backs off once the sector is done as riders survey the damage.
As much as we focus on the pavé they account for only 55km of the course, about 20% of the route and the four and five star sections account for 10%. Therefore 90% of the race is conducted on perfectly ridable roads. A move can go any time and it’s accumulated fatigue that makes the cobbles so tiring, whether the high stress approach to the sector where riders fight for position or the moment after when riders are surveying the damage.
- Watch out for the level crossings, the race crosses an industrial region and the crossroads between France and Belgium meaning a lot of rail tracks and 10 level crossings (one tram, one disused) so a reminder of the new rules: if the lights flash or bells ring then the crossing is deemed closed and riders who venture across the tracks are supposed to be disqualified and risk a fine and up to a month’s suspension.
The Finish: Held in the old velodrome, riders enter the 500m concrete track for one and half laps. The banking can be exploited by a rider lucid enough to remember how to sprint on a track.
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Quick Step are dominating the classics but it’s not too boring because there’s variety and in order to win they make the race as hard as possible in order to reduce the front group to as few rivals as possible. Picking a rider for this Sunday is a mix of form and luck, for example Yves Lampaert hasn’t looked as strong as Philippe Gilbert, Niki Terpstra or Zdeněk Štybar this spring but if he moves and there’s hesitation then he could ride away with it. Still the other three names seem more reassuring picks. Gilbert is in great shape and Roubaix’s been his target and readers will be familiar now with the idea that the older he gets the less he can accelerate but he can go on long raids, exemplified by his win in the Ronde last year. Terpstra hardly needs an introduction, the wolfpack’s lone wolf could and probably has to go solo to win and with his low tuck is very hard to bring back once he’s got 20 metres. Maybe it’ll be Štybar’s turn, he’s persistent and shines brigher in this event but hasn’t been the team’s most convincing option this spring.
Peter Sagan been complaining that everyone’s marking him but what else does he expect? Nobody wants to contest a sprint with him and with his bulky build and his rainbow livery he can hardly slip away unnoticed either. Bora-Hansgrohe may need to be more creative tactically to unpick Quick Step but who wants to experiment in the last cobbled classic of the season? Maybe Daniel Oss can be played as a second card rather than a workhorse? Sagan though is still a strong pick given his sprint and current form.
Greg Van Avermaet is more suited to the Ronde than Roubaix and if he hasn’t looked as incisive this spring as he did last year it’s only because he’s being held to high standards he set last year. Third in Harelbeke and fifth last week means he’s only one opportunity away from a win this spring and the warmer weather for Sunday suits him. Jürgen Roelandts could pop up too while Jempy Drucker and Stefan Kung are likely helpers but could be in the mix until late.
Sep Vanmarcke can keep trying but how to win? He’d need to be part of a small group which then turns into a war of attrition so that they all arrive into Roubaix punch-drunk by the distance and the pavé and hope the sprint goes his way. When it comes to the cobbles his seated accelerations are hard to match but they’re often telegraphed. EF Education First-Drapac have wilier options with Matti Breschel and Sebastian Langeveld.
Ag2r La Mondiale also bring a strong team to support Oliver Naesen with Silvan Dillier back after breaking his finger in the Strade Bianche but likely missing some depth because of this. Like Vanmarcke the question is how does Naesen win, he’d need a tough race and for the sprint to become a test of character.
Mads Pedersen was great in the Ronde, a podium finish was a huge result but it was the method that impressed, going up the road for so long and then almost matching Terpstra in the finale while holding off the chase from behind to finish second. Even if the riders behind were bickering at times the young Dane showed huge resistance late into a long race. He won the junior edition of this race which ought to count although so far no junior winner has yet won this version. Jasper Stuyven (pictured) is a contender and his big build and powerful style are perfect for the course. John Degenkolbis still in the game and if some say the German isn’t the same after the terrible accident of 2016 but he had several top-10s in the classics last year to prove the comeback, he just seems off the pace this year.
Team Sky have Gianni Moscon in good form after he made the front group last year and impressed the previous year too. Ian Stannard has been targeting this race but so far his best result is 79th in Dwars Door Vlaanderen so maybe 25 year old Dylan Van Baarle is a protected rider, he’s one of those riders who could win Paris-Roubaix one day. The most interesting rider is Geraint Thomas who has come down off Mount Teide for this and has been quietly aiming for the race.
Is Paris-Roubaix a cyclo-cross event? No and there’s only so much crossover for Wout van Aert (Verandas Willems-Crelan). Yes he will be more at ease when it comes to hopping over particular stones or negotiating off-camber bends and these things help but only get him so far. Fortunately we’ve seen he’s proven adept in races longer than 200km too, we seen a good van Aert but no masterpiece so far. Again how to win, it’s hard to imagine him soloing away? He’s a quick finisher but keeping calm and working out the velodrome tactics means he’s harder to pick than a Sagan or Van Avermaet.
Arnaud Démare has had two podiums so far and finds another race more suited to his bulk. He wins sprints but he’s more than a sprinter, capable of repeated long efforts which is ideal for this course. Who’d want to go to the finish with him? He won the bunch sprint last year for sixth place and you never know, what chance the race ends in a sprint? It sounds unthinkable but it’s been close of late.
Alexander Kristoff is another sprinter who’s more than a sprinter but Paris-Roubaix has never really smiled at him and the Norwegian is having a hard time in the classics this year. Sven Bystrøm is good in support and Filippo Ganna might win this race one day but he’s 21 and still riding the track a lot which explains plenty of his DNF’s this spring.
Some more names starting with the obligatory mention of Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data) who can still pop up and win big. Sunweb’s Mike Teunissen has hit some good form but a win would be a huge upset. The smokey pick is Christophe Laporte of Cofidis, he’s an ex-mountain biker and has got some results in the classics already and packs a potent sprint but a podium would be huge. Tony Martin turns 33 this month and if the results are drying up the experience is accumulating but precisely because of his reputation nobody can let him go.
Finally never forget the surprise rider. Paris-Roubaix is a lottery, no story of the winner is complete without a story of the losers along the way, the riders in contention who puncture or crash out of the race. Similarly a rider can get the lucky break of a lifetime, a domestique famous for their ability to pull on the front can suddenly find they’re left to themselves and riding to their biggest win, think Mat Hayman or Johan Vansummeren in recent years. Who could do it in 2018? Sylvain Chavanel (Direct Energie) has the experience and still the raw power and team mate Adrien Petit is a local with a dream and Damien Gaudin thrives in this race. Gregory Rast (Trek-Segafredo) and Lotto-Soudal pair Lars Bak and Marcel Sieberg come to mind or maybe it’ll be Christmas for Borut Božič (Bahrain-Merida)?
|Philippe Gilbert, Niki Terpstra|
|Zdeněk Štybar, Peter Sagan, GVA|
|Arnaud Démare, Jasper Stuyven, Sep Vanmarcke|
|Oliver Naesen, Geraint Thomas, Gianni Moscon, WVA, Yves Lampaert|
|Boasson Hagen, Van Baarle, Pedersen, Kristoff, Langeveld|
Weather: the forecast keeps changing but the latest says roads it’ll be dry and could reach 20°C, very warm compared to every classic so far.
TV: it’s live from start to finish. Should you watch it all? Why not, it’s the least you can do given the riders are out there racing all the time. The processional start is at 11.00 CEST and KM0 is at 11.20 with the finish expected around 5.30pm.
Roubaix TV Photo credit: Thomas Sweertvaeger from the Belgian book “Supporters Leven Voor de Koers”