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.
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.
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.