Full stop, period, point. The cobbled classics season lasts for weeks and every time there’s always the consolation of the next race, if the E3 didn’t work out there’s Gent-Wevelgem and then the Ronde and each race can be used for training, a stepping stone to the next. This time there’s nothing more, reach Roubaix and the game of stones is done for 2019.
It doesn’t actually start in Paris but that’s no bad thing as it allows the race to zig and zag across the cobbles closer to the finish. Starting in Compiègne, 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 you might think. Then come the cobble sectors, all 29 of them with varying difficulties.
The four star (26, 20, 17, 15, 12, 5) and five star (19, 11, 4) rated 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 and they’re frequently used by cyclists, they’re boneshaking but rideable. For Paris-Roubaix the tracks are hardly used and when they are it’s often a farmer on a tractors or motocross bikes. All race motos on Sunday have to be the off-road variety and many teams fit protection to their vehicles to help cope with the expected damage. What makes it so bad? The 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 star sections account for 10%. Therefore 90% of the race is conducted on perfectly ridable roads. 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 and risk a fine and up to a month’s suspension.
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.
Suddenly Deceuninck-Quickstep don’t look so strong. Zdeněk Štybar and Philippe Gilbert performed below expectations in last Sunday’s Ronde and they’re without rouleur Bob Jungels. But Yves Lampaert is a strong contender, he doesn’t have the explosive force for the bergs but has power for the long cobbled sections and all the parts in between. Štybar and Gilbert could feature too and Kasper Asgreen is a card to play too but who wins in Roubaix on their debut? Local rider Florian Sénéchal wasn’t picked for the Ronde which suggests he’s not in must-have form right now, but he dreams of this race and won his first classic earlier this spring.
Last year’s winner Peter Sagan hasn’t looked his usual, imposing self but he’s still been kopgroep company from Sanremo to Oudenaarde. We’re much less likely to see him soloing away from afar but even if he comes in with a group for the sprint he’s still not looking sharp so isn’t the reassuring pick of the past. Lieutenant Daniel Oss is an outsider for the race but we’ll see if he can play his own card or whether he’s deployed to help Sagan.
Alexander Kristoff is having his best spring since 2015. On paper he’s a rider with big stamina suited to a flat course and a powerful finish, ideal for Paris-Roubaix but paper crumples quickly on the cobbles and for all his brute force he’s never thrived in Paris-Roubaix, a ninth and a tenth place in the past. He could go better, a top-10 is entirely possible and if he’s in the running for fifth place then he could sprint for first no?
Greg Van Avermaet is looking strong but not outstanding. He’s often a generous rider who works hard and makes obvious attacks and Paris-Roubaix should reward this more than other races because once a rider like him gets a gap in the final 25km it should be possible to keep rivals at a distance. But he’s not in sizzling form and if his CCC team have some useful, experienced hands like Łukasz Wiśniowski, Guillaume Van Keirsbulck and Michael Schär they’ve tended to vanish before the final hour of action in the classics this spring.
Wout van Aert was all set to be the next big thing in the classics until Mathieu van der Poel stole his thunder. Still the Belgian might have a touch less punch than MvdP but he’s got endurance and should be in the mix. Danny van Poppel can feature too, he’s a prototype rider for the course with his heavy build and strong finish and Mike Teunissen too.
Ag2r La Mondiale got second place with Silvan Dillier last year, the Swiss rider went in the early breakaway, got caught by Sagan and was the only rider who could stay with the Slovak. Oliver Naesen is the team’s best bet, he’s strong and has a decent sprint on him too after a hard race. Alexis Gougeard has just won the Circuit de la Sarthe and the breakaway specialist – he goes early because he hates fighting for position late in a race – is a long range contender like Dillier.
EF Education First start with nothing to lose. Sebastian Langeveld and Sep Vanmarcke bring experience but still not peak form. Taylor Phinney told Mitch Docker’s podcast he’d made up his mind to retire on the eve of Paris-Roubaix last year only to crack the top-10 and he’s back again for the one day race that suits his 87kg hulk.
Trek-Segafredo have been promising plenty for the classics for some years now but have had a discreet campaign so far and John Degenkolb looks their best bet and Jasper Stuyven capable of a long range move.
Team Sky’s best bets Gianni Moscon and Dylan van Baarle are still chasing form after early-season injuries but both looked close last Sunday. British pair Luke Rowe and Ian Stannard could contend too but both have gone from team leaders and strong picks to outsiders in the last few of years.
Among the other names Arnaud Démare seems built to win the race but has had a spring to forget, usually capable of making the podium his best result so far has been 28th in last Sunday’s Ronde which suggests things might be turning around while team mate Stefan Küng is an outsider too. Katusha-Alpecin’s giant Nils Politt is looking strong but converting that into a win is a tall ask. Dimension Data’s Edvald Boasson Hagen was fifth in 2016. Mitchelton-Scott have Matteo Trentin but he’s been on the boil for some time, Jack Bauer fits the bill for a strong, experienced outsider too.
Cofidis’s spring has been as chaotic as usual with Nacer Bouhanni vanishing and team manager Cédric Vasseur telling the squad’s coaches to review their work after a lacklustre performance so far. Still Christophe Laporte is built for a race like this and has a good sprint.
Finally never forget the surprise rider. Paris-Roubaix is a lottery, no story of the winner is complete without the reciprocal tale of the losers along the way, the riders in contention who puncture or crash out of the race. Similarly a rider can get the lucky break of a lifetime, a domestique famous for their ability to pull on the front can suddenly find they’re left to themselves and riding to their biggest win, think Mat Hayman or Johan Vansummeren in recent years. Who could do it in 2019? Adrien Petit (Direct Energie) is a local with a dream and without a leader now. André Greipel (Arkea-Samsic) was asking himself whether he should continue as a pro after the Scheldeprijs, this would be a swangsong.
|Greg Van Avermaet, Wout van Aert|
|Alexander Kristoff, Yves Lampaert, Oliver Naesen, Peter Sagan|
|Štybar, Degenkolb, Langeveld, van Baarle|
|Vanmarcke, Keukeleire, Rowe, Moscon, Politt, Démare, Oss, Senéchal|
Weather: dry but cold at the start. A light headwind for much of the race, 20km/h from the NE which means a 3/4 tailwind for the latter seconds of pavé which should help to split things up.
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. The processional start is at 11.00 CEST and KM0 is at 11.15 with the finish expected around 5.30pm.
Roubaix TV Photo credit: Thomas Sweertvaeger from the Belgian book “Supporters Leven Voor de Koers” / Top photo credit: ASO/Pressesports