Paris-Roubaix Preview

Paris Roubaix 2015

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.

The Contenders

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

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.

Paris Roubaix TV

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.

It should be on the same channel you usually watch the Tour de France, if not cyclingfans, and steephill have the schedules and streaming links.

Roubaix TV Photo credit: Thomas Sweertvaeger from the Belgian book “Supporters Leven Voor de Koers

48 thoughts on “Paris-Roubaix Preview”

  1. Well Flanders has a magic and the crowds but Roubaix, wow. I will force the family to forego the TV for a day. I dream for Tom. But, at the end of the day the beauty of ‘our’ sport is that I can support any one who wins with panache. Roubaix provides panache. So I dream for Tom but will no doubt be pleased just to see the racing whoever wins. 🍺 🚲

  2. I think I’ll go for celebration and the stars to allign for Boonen. His form has been solid and he’s clearly focusing on Roubaix. Of course it’s a long shot, as all shots are for P-R, but the truth is often stranger than fiction and we find a way to fulfill fanciful prophecies.
    Watching the Ronde last week and you couldn’t make up the fact that he had a mechanical and bodged bike change at the bottom of the Boonenburg, of all places. Perhaps the pendulum will swing the other way come Sunday. I’m looking forward to finding out.

  3. I think I’ll go for celebration and the stars to allign for Boonen. His form has been solid and he’s clearly focusing on Roubaix above all else. Of course it’s a long shot, as all shots are for P-R, but the truth is often stranger than fiction and we find a way to fulfill fanciful prophecies.
    Watching the Ronde last week and you couldn’t make up the fact that he had a mechanical and bodged bike change at the bottom of the Boonenburg, of all places. Perhaps the pendulum will swing the other way come Sunday. I’m looking forward to finding out.

  4. I’ll go for a bunch to come in together to the velodrome, with Sagan or Kristoff to emerge victorious.
    Love the builder and wheelbarrow analogy.
    Probably apt for this race too, given the dust and grime that they’ll experience.

  5. “The four and five star sections really are unlike anything else.” Except for when they’re not fenced off allowing the riders a smooth surface on the dirt or grass next to the brutal cobbles.

    I think even given the lottery this race so often is, it’s hard to pick against Greg Van Avermaet. Were it not for being caught up in Sagan’s crash at Flanders I think he probably would have won that, and you can see him winning either solo or from a reduced sprint. Everyone will be supporting Boonen but I personally think it’s appropriate that he and Cancellara end their careers, as the two greatest classics riders of their generation, tied on 7 monuments apiece.

    • Even with the “smooth” track, they matter a lot. From a tactical POV, it’s even better this way, as I argued some days ago.

      I recently read again how it emerged, after Armstrong’s “musette” fall in 2003, that the American used to ride near the crowd or the barriers to make it harder for the rivals to take advantage of his slipstream and raise nervous pressure for those who could hold his wheel and were forced to ride in a dangerous situation with limited visibility. I didn’t remember that, but I already thought something along these lines about Sagan, especially since he could choose the wider grass path on the other side of the road.
      In a sense, it’s more appropriate for such races to keep some of the side paths available (not all of them, for sure) than the other way around: after all, we’re speaking of testing your *survival skills*, not your sheer power.
      That said, rooting for Boonen, it would be hugely better for him if only cobbles were available – probably the best pavé rider in history 😀
      GVA’s options depend on how long will he be able to convince people to work with him because they still hope him to be just a runner-up 😉
      And same goes for last Sunday: his winning chances, taking the crash away, relied essentially, above everything else, on Naesen’s friendship. Maybe that’s going to work on Sunday, too.

      • That’s true about GVA, if he keeps winning he could be the new Sagan in that no one will work with him in a small group. Brilliant ride by Naesen last week although it kind of got lost in the Gilbert celebrations/Sagan drama. Ditto for Dylan van Baarle, perhaps he’ll be the one to break Cannondale’s run of bad luck.

  6. I think you underestimate Tommeke a bit. He looked better than Kristoff in Ronde, a race that suits the Norwegian better, while Roubaix should suit Boonen more. Another one, for whom Roubaix is better suited, is Degenkolb who has looked very strong, and although he hasn’t won this race solo before, I think he’s as strong now as in ’14 and ’15.

  7. How apt this race is the same week as that other lottery, the Grand National, where similarily what happens to others can & usually does effect the overall result more than what you do yourself!
    Anyway, another one here dreaming of the perfect finale for Tommeke!

  8. How is Sagan’s “builder pushing a wheelbarrow” riding position a particular disadvantage in this race? From an aerodynamic point of view? I have read before – probably on this site – that his style is problematic in the Flandrian “hellingen” because his front wheel may lift off on the ascents, which I can sort of find plausible. However, on the flat cobbles, wouldn’t an upright position secure more weight on the rear wheel, thus better grip, thus better propulsion? I believe I once read an explanation from Kristoff on why he’s usually not so good in Roubaix, where he puts some of it down to his very forward leaning riding position…?!?

    • It’s only a theory in the absence of wind tunnel data but his relative upright position and his big legs means if he’s got to work hard when riding in a breakaway and this means he’s tired by the finish.

      • Yeah, I get the aero theory. Still, my two cents is that the aero drawback is outweighed in P-R by better traction on the cobbles. As for working hard in breakaways, that’s as much down to him getting over eager/confident and not conserving energy, perhaps? No way of confirming either theory, the proof will be in the pudding on Sunday!

    • Parallel theories (one example about Boonen in my commentary to the “Fairy Tales” post) argue that it’s better if you’ve got a sitting position on the bergs and a leaning position for Roubaix.

      It’s probably a more complex combination of factors. At the end of the day, without changing much their position on the bike, Boonen and Cancellara switched their relative strengths in the Ronde through the years. Boonen became less explosive and gradually less suited to the Ronde, while Cancellara, who wasn’t a factor at all until 2009 included, became lighter and more explosive, suddenly proving himself a top contender from 2010 on, getting *always* on the podium (and winning more often than not) in the 5 editions he could finish.
      Both champions, with quite different riding positions, appeared to be a force in the Roubaix since their early years, even if Boonen’s leaning (or “bridge-like”) position looks slightly superior (Cancellara = 12 participations, 1 DNF, 3 times out of the top ten, 6 podia //vs.// Boonen = 13 participations, 1 DNF, only *once* out of the top ten, 7 podia).
      Again, it’s quite apparent that Cancellara improved hugely from 2010 on, taking advantage of an improved prowess in under-5-minutes efforts, although, as I said, he more than showed how good he was in this race since his first experiences in it, unlike what happened in the Ronde, supposedly more adequate to his sitting, high RPM, searing accelerations.

      All in all, I think it’s quite hard to focus on one or two factors to understand how and why a riders performs greatly on these surfaces: perhaps each of them is a complex system which might work or not, through different counterbalancing effects, in spite of very diverse general settings of their bike position.

    • Exactly Dr. Manhattan – you hear that Tomeke has a disadvantaged position because he’s too evenly weighted to his weight isn’t firmly on his rear wheel….

      these myths are similar to the rule that states riders shouldn’t shave their legs the night before a big race… really? what difference did shaving make when guys were taking EPO? haha

      So with that being said, the wheelbarrow position should give sagan an advantage on the cobbles…

    • Besides, clearly Sagan’s position can’t be too big of a disadvantage because he won Flanders from a distance.

      Sagan knows how to get an aero position when he needs to

      • Certainly this theory is all relative, my original idea was that it was a way to find a weakness in him because otherwise his sprint, his explosivity, his handling skills and more made him look almost invincible back in March and he was all over the Omloop, K-B-K, Tirreno-Adriatico and Milan-Sanremo.

  9. I’ll go with Mr INRG and hope the Olympic champion wins this one. That said… How cool it would be if Hayman makes it two in a row?

    That… Or Sagan launching a mid range attack out of nowhere, just to blow the race apart.

    • + 1 Sagan still does posses youthful exuberance. He may want to prove something after his self imposed crash.

      Specialized most likely not keen of your description of Segan plowing along with his wheelbarrow!

  10. Alexis Gougeard came 2nd in junior P-R in 2011. I would put money on him getting into the break. Act as a stepping stone for Naesen and then see what happens.

  11. Excellent preview. A quick correction though; Degenkolb did not take a solo win in Roubaix. It was from a 7 man group. My outsider for a podium finish would be Bert de Backer. A Roubaix specialist who has be near the front in the finale of the last 3 editions whilst working for others.

    • But Degenkolb rode away from the bunch this year to bridge to the breakaway. Which he did. And only 4 or 5 chasers caught up to them eventually. Luckily, Kristoff wasn’t among them. Degenkolb rode the perfect race in 2015. What a shame that he and and his teammates had this horrible crash last year.

  12. Having ridden the Sportive way back in 2006, you quickly experience what you already knew – the cobbles are backloaded, so while “only” 52km, they are effectively 1km/3km of tarmac once they start in earnest. My friend and I described the course as “a rolling to flat century and then getting your ass kicked for another 60mi.” The burning sensation in my hands while riding Hornaing, Mons en Pevele and the false flat up to the Carrefour, where many pros throw it into the little ring at that point in the day, are forever etched in my mind.

    Be afraid; be very afraid.

  13. My little prediction is that Sagan, stung by Gilbert taking the attention away from him with his solo raid at De Ronde, will attempt a Cancellara/Boonen job from around Mons-en-Pevele. I don’t think it’ll work though as there is likely to be at least 4 attendant Quick-Steppers around to either join in or chase him down as you’d expect Boonen, Terpstra, Stybar and probably Trentin to still be in the lead group at that stage. The main spanners in that works might be a) he isn’t at his best after his fall last week and b) his weak team seems to mean that he is susceptible to being caught out of position and the wrong side of opportunist moves or crashes – such as last week or Roubaix last year. It’d be great to see Boonen sign off with number 5 but I think there’s a good chance he’ll get watched and Stybar/Terpstra/Trentin could slip off for the win. If nobody manages to get away and a group comes in I think all of van Avarmaet, Degenkolb and Kristoff will be in it and your winner just depends on which of them has the most left. I think Kristoff looks strong at the moment but he’s never gone as well at Roubaix. I think Gougeard getting in the first break and staying at the front all day is a good shout. For a largely unheralded rouluer who spends all season on the front who might have their day of days what about Stijn Vandenbergh?

    • Stijn Vandenbergh, why not too, he fits the prototype rider for this type of rider too. I was wondering whether he’s too important to Naesen to be given free reign for a longer breakaway.

  14. Hayman’s win last year was IMHO not a lucky punch but the result of a well executed strategy. I don’t see why he shouldn’t be in the mix again now that he knows he can do it and why he does not deserve two chainrings. That strategy of going into the escape group which manages to get off the leash will be also hugely popular this time because of the tailwind, favorable weather conditions, and the dust. So we will probably witness a hotly contested first hour of racing which might even stretch out to two hours before everyone is so tired (and needs to pee) that whoever is in the group at that point will be allowed to go.
    Usually Tommeke doesn’t seem to handle stress very well in terms of staying cool as a cucumber. Not only when compared to Sagan who seems to be a master in this discipline. QS’s strategy for the RVV which was rather his “strategy” to attack on the Muur was a mistake despite a very strong but also lucky PhilGil saving the day by winning it big time. I expect another day with an overly eager Tommeke but this time I don’t see him have a machine like Tony Martin who shouldered the lead work for an incredibly long time last year. So Tommeke will likely have spent a considerable amount of energy before the finale. As much as I would like the fairy tale of TB winning it for a fifth time and thus shutting up De Vlaeminck TB needs even more than the usually huge chunk of luck which nearly everybody (except for Gibu) needs to win P-R. And not having PhilGil in the team who could at least act as a very believable foil will certainly not help him either. Him not taking part in P-R when his form is so strong leaves me wondering how strong the DS at QS really are and whether it’s not the mass of individual class which makes team QS so successful rather than the team spirit which seems to be much better at Orica for instance.

        • I hate to ruin a good story, but…
          …Roger de Vlaeminck did participate in the World Championships in Sonkajärvi, Finland, in 2005 – but he was nowhere near winning or even podiuming the event. It was done for an episode of a Belgian TV-show where famous sports stars tried their hand at odd and exotic sports in various parts of the world.
          The resulting show was not entirely unamusing, De Vlaeminck first had to recruit a “wife” for the event in a local supermarket, the one that graciously accepted was by no means fat but she wasn’t among the lightest either, then he had to find out the best hold and the best technique to negotiate the two barriers and the water obstacle in practically no time and of course he hadn’t trained at all to meet the demands of what is a serious sport like any other for those who pursue the championshíp title,
          It’s “only” a 250-meter dash but you’re guaranteed to reach your HRmax and to puke afterwards, if you’re inclined to do so after a hard workout.
          How do I know? I was there. You read right! I have raced against De Vlaeminck! (In a different category, though.)

  15. Not really rooting for anyone in particular for once. Will be on the rollers watching the entire race and no doubt screaming at the tv, can’t wait!

  16. Is there a “pont gibus” this year?

    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.

    Yes. I liken it to doing 20-something intervals.

    And because it is “only” the pave that forces selections, a marked rider like a Boonen has a very hard time shaking whomever is assigned to his wheel.

    My emotional favorites are Van Baarle, Chavanel, and Boom. Stybar will likely ride for Boonen, so his chances are slim.

    Weather looks like it will be mild in every sense. A safe journey to all riders.

    • Pont Gibus is Sector 18 between Wallers and Hélesmes

      (In case others are wondering there is a disused railway bridge on this sector which the riders pass by with graffiti marked “Gibus”, the nickname of 1992 and 1993 winner Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle)

  17. No mention for Griepel, but he was up there in the later stages of de ronde and has made the classics a focus this year, unlike previous years when he normally acts as super domestique to gain favour and support for the tour. Love watching him sacrifice him self part way around to bring back a break or rip the race appart. If its a bunch sprint then its him or Kristoffe. I’ll give him 1 chain ring, he can have boassan hagens.
    Also interesting that Rowe gets a chainring but Stannard doesnt, despite his 3rd place and Rowe no proven track record on this. I dont disagree and, chainrings sre for winning potential after all not podium.

  18. It is interesting to see Sagan as inrng does, as he casts about for some weakness.

    Certainly, Sagan has tremendous rear-end power and serious mountain biking is in his DNA; he likes to lift his front wheel. You could be forgiven to think he could leg press a unicycle to a win in many races. On the other hand, usual mental images are of him hooked down onto the top tube while descending like a banshee; or with his forearms draped over the bars as he churns along at real speed in the big gear whilst looking much too frequently behind, which characteristically is his biggest and most persistent aerodynamic inefficiency. None of these impressions looks to fit him especially well for Paris-Roubaix. (And incidentally if one were looking for the ability to do repetitions, Gaviria would be the man to put in this race.) But Sagan is as good as Cavendish at surfing the peloton. Riding pave needs attack and Sagan has got plenty of that. He also has, as everyone attests, fantastic handling skills. Look at his main rivals and you see predominantly power riders rather than especially adroit, sophisticated stylists. The world champion has the form and the will; he does not ride like a sack of spuds. I reckon he’s as good a punt as any.

    Nice try, inrng.

    • Good point about Sagan’s peloton surfing. I actually thought that he played it very cooly last week, in giving Gilbert plenty of rope. I was convinced that the 3 man group were going to get him, before the crash.
      Sagan often uses a wheel as a point of reference though, last week it was GVA.
      Last year, if I remember, it was Cancellera.
      The temptation tomorrow, in my humble opinion, would be to do this with Boonen.
      QS are going to send someone up the road, that’s certain, and probably Stybar.
      Boonen comes across as such a solid guy that he’d happily sacrifice himself for the team win.
      Boonen could be the red herring tomorrow.

      I’d have Sagan looking out for GVA and Kristoff’s wheels, as they’ll have some support with them, but stay up in the top 10-15 riders throughout to reduce being taken down by the inevitable crashes.
      Beware Tony Martin if he’s present late on, beware jackets on barriers, and leave your sprint as late as possible.
      C’mon the World Champ!

  19. That young woman in the tent in the last photo sure looks a whole lot like Lien Crapoen, my favorite Flanders podium girl and all-round beauty.

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