Paris-Roubaix is this Sunday and it’s a race like no other. While most of the Flemish classics and semi-classics seem to be merging into one settled format looping around the Flemish Ardennes and VIP tents, Paris-Roubaix’s route barely changes these days.
How many times did they go up the Taaienberg? In recent weeks there have been so many cobbled classics in Belgium. Some have been great to watch but you’d be forgiven if some of the moments meld into one in your mind. Many races seem to be merging into one, as if they must all have a shared course based on the same geography of the Flemish Ardennes. Gent-Wevelgem doesn’t start in Gent any more and Flanders Classics boss Wouter Vandenhaute has mused aloud whether it needs to finish in Wevelgem. Now this is a mark of success, that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But it means geographical homogeneity, as if there’s a new and accepted norm to converge around, a telegenic formula. Yes some races retain their local features, for example the Three Days of De Panne has its moeren or marshes section where the peloton crosses the flat land exposed to the coastal wind but that still makes its way over the Kemmelberg and after all this mini-stage race has become yet another a one day race. Le Samyn features its own roads but also did its best to converge to the new norm with more cobbles than ever before.
Except Paris-Roubaix. There have been no smaller races crossing the Arenberg Forest in recent weeks and the only time the pros have visited the Carrefour de l’Arbre in recent weeks has been on quiet recon rides. The lack of a dress rehearsal matters means we’re not watching a repeat, the Arenberg forest is only once a year and that’s plenty.
The scarcity makes it valuable, you have to race, visit or tune in this Sunday or wait until next year. Roubaix, while synonymous in France with industrial decline and social problems, is a myth and a brand in cycling in a way that, say, Ronde isn’t and only in Japan is Kapelmuur a clothing brand. It all makes for an exceptional race this Sunday.
If you want more reading, have a browse of past pieces:
- Paris-Roubaix as the tech shop window, if it didn’t exist would the bike industry have to invent it?
- The Last Act of Madness, how the cobbles are a modern invention used to save the race
- The Hell of the North, if the race is hard for a day, try living in Roubaix for a year
- Fairy tale ending in Roubaix, how the race sometimes rewards the persistent
- Roads to ride: the Arenberg forest