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 is the toughest race of the year.
There can be moments when it crosses from a race to a circus event thanks to the giant cobbles, the mud and repeated mechanic failures. But there is something beautiful in the contest and watching riders ride their luck. It’s also high entertainment on TV.
After exploring the tech, the geography and other features of the race and the region, finally it’s time for the race.
It’s called Paris-Roubaix but the start is in Compiègne, a fixture since 1968. The north of France is flat but the first 100km include a few hills. Not that the climbers have a chance, just that there are some 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.
|Verchain – Maugré
|Quérénaing – Maing
|Wallers – Hélesmes, aka “Pont Gibus”
|Warlaing – Brillon
|Tilloy – Sars-et-Rosières
|Beuvry-la-Forêt – Orchies
|Auchy-lez-Orchies – Bersée
|Mérignies – Avelin
|Templeuve – Moulin de Vertain
|Cysoing – Bourghelles
|Bourghelles – Wannehain
|Le Carrefour de l’Arbre
Note there’s a new section “Pont Gibus” but the Aulnoy-Famars section, a five star fixture, is out. These sections total 52.5km and as you can see the difficulty varies. There’s no science , the rating comes from notes taken by race director Jean-François Pescheux each year to reflect the state of the cobbles. Winter or agricultural machines can do their damage whilst the Sisyphean Les Amis du Paris-Roubaix can make some sections easier.
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, as hard as the cobbles themselves.
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“.
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.
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. Whilst many races have cobbles, Paris-Roubaix is just that much harder.
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 shaking disrupts this and helps explain the fatigue experienced. It’s like operating a jackhammer for hours.
Many riders do enjoy the cobbles. 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.
Last week it was Fabian Cancellara vs Peter Sagan but with the Slovak resting, it’s Cancellara vs everyone else. The cobbles will work to his advantage because whilst many will hope to sit on his wheel this is much harder on the pavé, first because riders need to see where they’re going and second because the speed is lower, a lot of effort goes into getting the bike over the cobble rather than air resistance. Everyone is doing their own thing which means a gap naturally opens up. Give Cancellara a metre and you might not get it back.
Now it’s a question of picking others but there are few who have won big races. Sylvain Chavanel is in form but was off the pace in the Tour of Flanders, marked out of contention in a race where few wanted to risk an attack. Here again the cobbles could suit his raw power. His OPQS team is strong and running out of time, Stijn Vanderberg is a revelation this year although a bit of a diesel. Nicki Terpstra is probably back-up whilst the impressive Kwiatkowski is not riding.
Last year Dave Brailsford described Team Sky’s classics performances as “shit” which suggests mediocre would be an improvement but the team set higher goals. The problem is like OPQS, lots of strong riders but few have won a classic. Geraint Thomas is a versatile talent and Ian Stannard, once described by Belgian TV as having the physique of a docker, seems suited to this race but both have yet to win a big race. Edvald Boasson Hagen has won big races and was close in Flanders. The team is racing by numbers, namely to get as many into the main group for the final hour and play by numerical superiority.
A similar story with BMC Racing who are visible but not getting results to match the budget. The bookmakers put BMC Racing’s Taylor Phinney as one of the prime candidates. He’s a popular rider but has yet to win a semi-classic so it’s a leap to seem him winning for if he was strong in Milan-Sanremo’s finish, he’s was outside the top-40 in the GP E3 and Gent-Wevelgem. But he could be what BMC need with Thor Hushovd and Greg Van Avermaet outsiders.
Jugen Roelandts was tipped last weekend and did well. But will he get the same space this Sunday? I think not but he’s in form and finishes fast. John Degenkolb is a good outside pick, a strong sprint but also effective on the cobbles. Lars Boom, the Dutchman’s been touted for years as a classics contender. Sixth last year, he’s 27 and has few wins on the road to his name, he needs a win to confirm his status soon. Another fast finisher is Heinrich Haussler and Alexander Kristoff is the best Norwegian of the classics, trouncing Hushovd and Boasson Hagen.
Now for some diesels. Garmin-Sharp have Johan van Summeren who is being tipped by many many. He’s a past winner and was visible in the Tour of Flanders but he’ll need the race to become a war of attrition as he’s not got much of an acceleration. The same for Juan Antonio Flecha of Vacansoleil-DCM.
The French have some real contenders. FDJ come with Yoann Offredo who can afford to waste energy because going up the road often pays and Matthieu Ladagnous is in great shape and has a fast sprint and it’s worth noting the race means everything to team manager Marc Madiot, to use a French expression this race is his fetish. Whilst Europcar have last year’s surprise Sébastien Turgot and big Damien Gaudin. The hard thing with all of these four riders is that neither has won big in their career. But keep an eye on them.
How to Beat Cancellara?
It’s simple, just stay in front of him! If Cancellara gets away solo in the last 50km it’s probably game over. So the idea should be to preempt him, to get up the road and try to stay ahead for as long as possible. Of course in reality it’s not easy at all. But we saw Lotto-Belisol last week sending riders up the road early and we can expect others to do the same whilst the peloton will look to Radioshack-Leopard to set the tempo.
If you can’t get ahead of him, stay behind him but as close as you can get. It’ll be hard to hold his wheel but he’s lost races that come down to a sprint so if his attacks are cancelled by others, he can often be outsprinted.
Roubaix often rewards the early attackers. Many races can see the winning move in the final 20 minutes but this one is different. Often the riders who go up the road early find they reserve a place for the action later, hitching a ride on the moves launched by others behind them or simply staying ahead all day. We saw this with Stuart O’Grady and Johan Van Summeren.
25 teams will ride. I’ve now uploaded a copy of the startlist (Thanks to a reader for a fix with the PDF).
The Trophy and Prizes
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. Belgians Roger De Vlaeminck (pictured) and Tom Boonen hold the record with four wins in the race.