The best for last. 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”, the decision to take tiny farm tracks with their rudimentary cobbles and use them in a major race. What will Sunday bring: a double for Sagan, a conclusion for Cancellara, a breakthrough for Vanmarke or another story? You’ll be able to see it all yourself as the race is going to be broadcast live from start to finish, a first.
Starting in Compiègne, not Paris it’s 257.5km across the north of France. There’s almost 100km to cover before the first sector and these roads count, they’re more up and down than the profile suggests.
Then come the cobbled sections, all 27 of them with varying difficulties. There’d been fears about the first sector being skipped because of mud but extra work by farmers and the village mayor has got it race ready. Back for 2015 is the “Buatberg” on the Capelle sector which includes a 7% gradient. It’s a mere detail of the route but will add to the fatigue.
|Quérénaing – Maing
|Wallers – Hélesmes, “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
The four and five star sections really are unlike anything else. The Flemish classics use plenty of cobbled roads often there are houses lining the route with ordinary family cars parked in the driveways. Here only off-road vehicles venture, whether tractors or or motocross bikes and all race motos on Sunday have to be the off-road variety. 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 53km of the course or 20% of the race and the four and five cross sections account for precisely 10% of the course. Therefore 90% of the race is conducted on perfectly ridable terrain. 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 the peloton thunders in like the approach to a bunch sprint or the moment after when riders are surveying the damage.
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.
Fabian Cancellara is the prime pick. He’s been a brooding presence in the big races but has yet to deliver the win that seems to be within reach. Apparently last Sunday he was so confident he even had his victory salute worked out: he’d solo in and lift his bike aloft on the line. Now he’s back to a race he’s made his own with a strong Trek-Segafredo team around him. He can sprint well out of a small group, especially after 250km. A win and he can hang up his racing wheels for good on Sunday afternoon.
Sep Vanmarcke is next. He’s still lacking that big breakthrough win but has come so close here, you might remember him entering the Roubaix velodrome with Cancellara in 2013 only to get beaten by the stronger rider… and a broken wheel. He’s arguably stronger on a flatter course like this than on the hills. Against him is a lack of team mates for the finish and he’s been having a run of mechanicals, going through several bike changes in last Sunday’s Ronde.
Peter Sagan the popular pick and in form and that could be enough for a repeat. Yet he’s got a relatively weak team again and I wonder if he’s made for Roubaix? His upright style gives him the aerodynamics of a builder pushing a wheelbarrow and he could find himself caught out on the long flat roads, this race has never suited him and he’s skipped several editions too, he’s more of a novice in this race for old men. In addition after last week’s race, no team will allow him to get away. Perhaps he accepts this, tracks the leaders and goes for the sprint? That’s not his style.
Lars Boom is one to watch. He seems in top shape and his 11th place in Flanders last Sunday came after a spate of punctures, with some luck he could do better in a race we were promised he’d win back in the day when he switched from cyclo-cross to the road however his chances have been falling this week as the cobbles dry out, still he was fourth amid the dust last year. Dmitriy Gruzdev and Lieuwe Westra prove more options and support for the team.
Etixx-Quickstep are a mess and desperately need that big win. It’s a refrain that’s been heard every spring in recent years. Take 2014 when Niki Terpstra “saved” them with a win in Roubaix and he looks capable of doing this again, a constant presence in the races hard to pull back once he’s away. Tom Boonen has been looking better and better but a win seems too much to ask for. Zdeněk Štybar is the key rider for them, the golden boy of team owner Zdeněk Bakala, the Czech rider has had a quieter classics season than we might have hoped for. Tony Martin won the “Roubaix” stage of the Tour de France last summer but surely he’ll be put to work again here so his chances of winning are tiny while Stijn Vandenbergh isn’t riding, he’s out with a saddle sore and this isn’t the race to ride with one of those. Finally Matteo Trentin has been a surprise for the team and sprints well.
Alexander Kristoff has been talking down his chances but he won the sprint for fourth place last week. There’s always the threat of a bunch sprint in Paris-Roubaix, it’s never happened but it’s been close in recent years with some very large groups coming in close behind the winner. It’s hard to see Kristoff pounding solo across the cobbles to victory but easy to see him poaching the sprint from a group. Katusha bring a strong squad and they’ll weigh on the race tactics like they did last week.
Team Sky’s Luke Rowe was fifth in the Tour of Flanders and has been quietly improving in Paris-Roubaix over the years but as much as he’s been serving an apprenticeship it’s a huge step up. Ian Stannard is the other protected rider who is built for this race and gets his last shot at glory before becoming Chris Froome’s summer bodyguard and a piston in the team trial trial engine room. Oddly that’s about it, the rest of the team has Elia Viviani but you can’t see him winning after 250km while Salvatore Puccio is a valuable helper, for once the team won’t have as many A-list riders.
Tiesj Benoot rides for Lotto-Soudal after crashing out last Sunday but it means he’s going to be sore and lacking condition. Jürgen Roelandts is probably their other top rider and he’ll have to take his chances while the big names mark either other. Marcel Sieberg will be a useful lead out to the cobbled sectors and André Greipel might try stomping around the cobbles too.
What to make of Edvald Boasson Hagen? Perpetually tipped as a contender for the big races he’s yet to deliver. But he gets a mention again because of his innate ability, the raw power and his strong sprint. Dimension Data team mate Mark Cavendish rides, a second appearance in this race after a go in 2011.
A few more names who will have to take risks rather than hope they can enter the velodrome with the Cancellara’s and Sagans. Daniel Oss is probably BMC Racing’s best bet now they’re without Greg Van Avermaet because he’s a strong and experienced rider but before you rush to the bookmakers now that he’s got his chance, remember he’s only had two wins in a long career. Florian Sénéchal of Cofidis is the local and dreams of this race and if you dream too, his chances are better with third place in Le Samyn last month. Ag2r La Mondiale have Sebastien Turgot and Damien Gaudin, Turgot’s been on the podium here and Gaudin’s been fifth and they’re coming into form but sense they’ll going to be known for past performances rather than this Sunday’s exploits. IAM Cycling have several riders to try and place in the mix but notional leader Heinrich Haussler‘s top-10 in Sanremo hasn’t been followed up with DNF in his last two races. Orica-Greenedge’s Jens Keukeleire was sixth last year and in decent form now and his probably the team’s best bet but look to see if Luke Durbridge tries a move.
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 enjoy a streak of luck on the day, a domestique famous for their ability to pull on the front can suddenly find they’re left to themselves and riding to the greatest day of their racing career.
|Sep Vanmarcke, Peter Sagan
|Lars Boom, Niki Terpstra, Luke Rowe, Alexander Kristoff
|Zdeněk Štybar, Jürgen Roelandts, Tom Boonen, Ian Stannard
|Benoot, Boasson Hagen, Vandenbergh, Stuyven, Trentin
Weather: dry. Mild, sunny and 13°C with a light SE breeze of 15km/h that will offer a tailwind for much of the second half of the race but remember the route changes direction so much in the latter stages and if the wind picks up it be exploited by riders.
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. But probably it’ll pay to watch the start, see the attempts for the breakaway to form and once a move has gone clear and the race has settled down then make plans to return for the cobbles later on.
The roll out is at 10.40 CET and then the race begins at 10.50. The first cobbled sector is forecast for 1.10pm, the Arenberg Forest at 2.40pm, the Carrefour de l’Arbre at 4.30pm and the finish for 4.55pm.
Roubaix TV Photo credit: Thomas Sweertvaeger from the Belgian book “Supporters Leven Voor de Koers”