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. What will Sunday bring: redemption for Peter Sagan, confirmation for Greg Van Avermaet, celebration for Tom Boonen or perhaps the story of a worker getting their day of glory?
You can see it all because the whole race will be live on TV from start to finish.
Starting in Compiègne not Paris 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 the profile suggests. Then come the cobble sectors, all 29 of them with varying difficulties.
The four and five star sections 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. For Paris-Roubaix only off-road vehicles venture, whether tractors or motocross bikes. All race motos on Sunday have to be the off-road variety and many teams fit protection to the team cars 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 cross sections account for 10%. 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 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.
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.
Greg Van Avermaet has enjoyed a strong classics season but missed out last Sunday thanks to that Kwaremont crash. Third in Roubaix 2015 and fourth in 2013, his improvement in the last two years makes him the prime pick, especially since he’s often sharp in the sprint after 250km. He’s got a BMC team keen to grab hold of the race after dropping the ball after the Muur van Geraardsbergen last Sunday.
Paris-Roubaix has always been Peter Sagan‘s goal for 2017 so a win can transform the story of his near misses – plus a win in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne – into a satisfying ending. Easier said than done, Sagan has the acrobatic skills for the cobbles but would arguably get a greater advantage over his rivals in the wet. Indeed on this flat course his upright riding style, like a builder pushing a wheelbarrow, doesn’t help especially if he has to get involved in the thick of the action far from the finish. His best place is sixth but he only need arrive in the velodrome with a small group and he’s a danger. His team have looked weak on the road but the likes of Bodnar, Burghardt, Saramotins should be solid backing.
Tom Boonen as the sentimental pick? Not at all, it’s rational given his form, his team and his experience whether career or just the proof of his second place last year. Only the best of plans can be pilloried by the pavé so if Boonen has picked the date and the location for his retirement the rest is uncertain. One nagging concern about his chances has been his own team but Quick Step forgo the usual strategy of throwing riders forward to see what happens and bring a team in support of Boonen with Lampaert, Keisse, Vermote and Declercq as Boonen’s Belgian guard. Niki Terpstra and Zdeněk Štybar are potential contenders too, especially Terpstra who is in good form and has often profited from everyone watching Boonen to solo away, it was part of the scenario that saw him win in 2014.
Alexander Kristoff has been lurking for some time with only one stage of the Three Days of De Panne to show this spring but he’s won the “bunch” sprint in Milan-Sanremo and the Tour of Flanders. Will Paris-Roubaix end in a bunch sprint? History says no but gentle conditions could see a group of ten or so riders arrive and he’ll hope to be there, he’s he the insurance pick so safe for a high place. On paper Katusha team mate Tony Martin seems to have what it takes to win this race but his struggle is getting into a position where he can surge clear, he’s lost out in fights for position and other technical moments.
Ag2r La Mondiale have very solid team to support Oliver Naesen who has confirmed all the Flemish hopes put in him after a promising season last year. He’s shown the strength to follow the best in the final phase of a race but winning would be something else. Watch Alexis Gougeard as a breakaway contender too.
Team Sky’s duo of Ian Stannard and Luke Rowe haven’t looked as dynamic this year as before with last year’s podium finisher Stannard discreet until now. Rowe crashed in the Ronde but rode on for a lowly finish and completed the Scheldeprijs, proof that he’s uninjured and keen to work on his condition ahead of Roubaix. Gianni Moscon continues to impress but surely he’s banking experience rather aiming for glory?
John Degenkolb and Jasper Stuyven make a good pairing. Degenkolb’s ridden away to win this race solo before but can feel confident in his sprint while Stuyven’s big build seems made for this flat race. But we’ve been saying this for some time now and Trek-Segafredo seem to melt away in the heat of battle.
Orica-Scott return with Mathew Hayman wearing the number 1 dossard. He had his moment last year so Luke Durbridge looks the better pick although as ever a win seems hard, he’d have to go solo because in a sprint you’d back many of the names cited above over “Durbo”. Jens Keukeleire will be a protected rider and has finished sixth here before.
Arnaud Démare has had a torrid time on the cobbles this spring with punctures which makes you think of Napleon’s quip: “I know he’s a good general but is he lucky?” This matters because luck plays such a part here. But FDJ’s leader is much more than a sprinter, he’s physiologically ideal for repeated one to two minute efforts which means he could still be a threat and if he doesn’t make the podium this year then surely he will one year?
Let’s spin through some more names. Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data) was front group material last year after a quiet classics campaign so could feature again. Dylan van Baarle (Cannondale-Drapac) is still 24 years old but has ridden the last three editions of the race and this matters because Paris-Roubaix rewards experience and the tall Dutchman is his team’s hope after Sep Vanmarcke’s injury withdrawal. Direct Energie have two outsiders with Sylvain Chavanel is heading towards retirement but has still got what it takes while Adrien “The Bison” Petit is an outsider who loves this race and has a good sprint. Wanty-Groupe Gobert’s Yoann Offredo was a surprise in the final of Flanders last week but that kind of riding can’t be fluked and he’s better suited to Roubaix while Guillaume Van Keirsbulck could feature too. Lotto-Soudal have been almost invisible so far but Jürgen Roelandts popped up for fourth place in this week’s Scheldeprijs and Jens Debusschere is an outsider to profit from a long range move. Cofidis’s Florian Sénéchal is the local rider and aged 23 he already has two top-20 finishes.
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, think Mat Hayman or Johan Vansummeren in recent years. Who could do it in 2017? Well Bernard Eisel, Martin Elmiger, Matthieu Ladagnous and Gregory Rast come to mind as wise heads but these types of win only happen occasionally and 2017 looks more likely to belong to the big names.
|Greg Van Avermaet|
|Alexander Kristoff, Peter Sagan, Tom Boonen|
|John Degenkolb, Oliver Naesen, Niki Terpstra|
|Durbridge, Boasson Hagen, van Baarle, Rowe, Stuyven, Trentin|
Weather: clear skies overnight mean a cool start before the temperature warms up to a pleasant 22°C. There’s a light tailwind of 5-10km/h. It will be dusty as it has been dry all week.
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. Last year’s start was compelling as the break took a long time to form, this year’s calmer weather might make things more straightforward but as ever it’s up to the bunch.
Updated Saturday: because of the forecast tailwind the start has been delayed by 15 minutes. The roll out is at
10.55am 11.10am CET and then the race begins at 11.05am 11.20am. The first cobbled sector is forecast for 1.30pm, the Arenberg Forest at 2.55pm, the Carrefour de l’Arbre at 4.50pm and the finish for 5.15pm.
Roubaix TV Photo credit: Thomas Sweertvaeger from the Belgian book “Supporters Leven Voor de Koers”