Rain For Roubaix

Local newspaper La Voix du Nord promises enfer météorologique this weekend. It’s going to be wet for Paris-Roubaix and this is novel, none of the starters have ridden a wet Paris-Roubaix before. A few thoughts on the matter…

This weekend looks wet but predicting the conditions for Saturday and Sunday seems to be as hard as picking who will win the races. The forecast keeps changing. It looks like it’ll be wet but there’s a world of difference between some showers overnight before the race and a downpour during it.

It’s odd that’s been dry for every edition since 2002 (it rained during 2012 but only a few drops, just enough to dampen the dust). Northern France isn’t famous for good weather and spring is wet: the French talk of giboulées de mars, like the April showers in England. Only late March and early April is statistically the driest time of year for France’s north as the data in the chart above shows, the blue bars show rainfall in millimetres. Still this only means it’s less likely to rain and it’s been a statistical curiosity that this one Sunday in spring has been dry every year for so long, like coin toss that kept coming up tails.

Wet or dry is too binary. Skiers know that you don’t just have snow or not, the texture, consistency, temperature and more all makes a big difference for winter sports. The pavé will be the same, not just wet but can be greasy, muddy, gritty, damp, firm, soft and more. There’s no collective memory in the peloton of how to handle this, a slight trip into the unknown even if racing on wet pavé isn’t new given all the other races that use cobbles. But Paris-Roubaix’s pavé is different, it is much rougher and the farm tracks don’t drain well.

Rain does make the race different. Riders can’t tell a small puddle from a pothole when it’s filled with rain so the chance of slamming into something and getting a puncture goes up. When it’s dry riders often try to get off the cobbles and use the verge, when wet the sides of the road risk being soft and sluggish so everyone can’t avoid the pavé, and riding down the middle along the crown or spine of the camber can be the best place is it drains best.

Wet conditions should also reward different riders, often the kind more at ease in bike handling with cornering skills. But also those capable of handling countless accelerations as riders have to brake more for the corners and then accelerate hard, or to cope with someone in front losing traction and slowing everyone else behind.

An October version is different too, one of the local crops is betterave, particularly the white beetroot for the sugar industry and farmers are out and about with large tractors and even bigger harvesting machines that cake the roads in mud. Messier than April? Hard to tell but watch out.

Tech choices are always important. Paris-Roubaix has become a very important race for kit sponsors because if they wares can hold up for the day then they’ll be fine for a weekend warrior. It’s especially a shop window for frame and wheel suppliers and no other race offers this validation. The Tour de France champion’s bike is valuable but it’s not the same. Ineos will race on disc brakes and this makes sense for a flat wet race, it’s just when they go to the mountains that some might prefer calipers and the accompanying weight savings although this means having two fleets of bikes although if any team can afford the logistics here it’ll be Ineos. Will some teams be on the new 12 speed Dura-Ace from Shimano, we’ll see and you wonder about tight clearances here but the road groupset has evolved from XTR, the flagship mountain bike group so presumably it’s fine.

Here there’s no craving for a wet Roubaix. It feels wrong to call for a wet Roubaix just so you can sit back on the sofa somewhere warm and dry. But there is a sense that each generation should get a wet version at least once, if only to see different riders given different chances. Hopefully a wet Roubaix isn’t necessarily more dangerous, the last time the pro peloton hit wet pavé was in the Tour de France back in 2014 and there was only DNF that day in Chris Froome and he’d broken his wrist the previous day. Still it just feels normal for each generation of riders to get a variety of conditions.

Anyway all this was too much to put in the weather section of this weekend’s race preview. Wet or dry, Paris-Roubaix is back after 900 days.

42 thoughts on “Rain For Roubaix”

  1. Vincenzo Nibali and Lars Boom riding to the top on an especially sloppy day come to mind. Not because of the crashes though, It was the great riding, smart tactics and brave attack. That kind of racing is what I hope for on Sunday. My hunch is that VdP and WVA will show, but there’s this nagging sense that we may experience the Hayman or Vansummeren effect – an insider that is outside expectation.

    • I think in the wet it will pay more than normal to get up the road. I’d imagine there’ll be some fight to get in the break. Once up the road there’s a very good chance those chasing you may get a puncture or crash and you end up staying away. The famous photo of Wilfried Peters is of him up the road on a massive solo break that nearly stayed away. And I think Andrei Tchmil won in similar circumstances.

    • It was Boom, Fuglsang and Nibali that day. Fuglsang waited for Nibali when Boom rode away with a 20sec advantage.

      Sagan was best of the rest on that day 1min after Boom and 40sec after Fuglsang & Nibali.

  2. You make me feel a little guilty, but I have wished for a wet Roubaix many times. Of course I wish for no one to be injured. The danger changes in nature imo.

    I was there in 2002. If I recall only 18 riders finished, it makes for a different race.

    We will have to disagree on this on…let it rain!

    • I think I’m in between. I want to see the rain this weekend because we haven’t had it in so long. But I don’t want to see it every year. Inrng’s position that everyone should have race it once in the rain but not wishing for it is a good one. But just for that one I want it now after so many years of dry.

  3. Not sure quite how to say this. I follow a fair amount of sport, cycling, cricket, football. I read a fair amount about it too. I cant think of any other writer who combines so much in depth knowledge of their chosen sport with so much cultural awareness and historical detail as Inrng. In english perhaps William Fotheringham for cycling or Sid Lowe for spanish football or Matthew Engel for cricket. Bike racing just isnt the same without the commentary here.

    • Indeed. It was the white beetroot detail that I particularly loved here! More seriously, also Mr Ring’s clearly heartfelt concern for the safety of the riders, balanced with his desire for the current generation to experience this just once.

      I suspect I speak for many of us in having refreshed this site rather often during the slightly fallow past few weeks. And also feeling a little burst of happiness when he said at the end that he’s going to do a separate preview for the race!

      Keep up the great work Mr Ring….

    • Been following for over 10 years now and there are honestly no words to describe how special and without peer Mr Ring’s work truly is.

      The best free site on the internet.

  4. The wet must make following a wheel more risky and from that must favour stronger riders. IR makes the point well of riding the crown of the road. I rode P-R years ago (as a cyclotourist) in wet conditions and if you ride on the side getting back up the slippy cobbles onto the crown can be a tricky proposition. They can handle a bike better than me, but still…

    According to my current metéo, 26mm of rain are predicted for Roubaix on Sunday, almost all before or during the race. That’s a lot.

    The pavé has at least been cleaned. The local press has pictures of enthusiasts at work.

    •  SAGAN Peter 4
       KEUKELEIRE Jens 6
       KWIATKOWSKI Michał 7
       TRENTIN Matteo 9
       LEMOINE Cyril 10
       VANMARCKE Sep 13
       GRUZDEV Dmitriy 29
       LANGEVELD Sebastian 33
       SCHÄR Michael 38
       TERPSTRA Niki 43
       CLARKE Simon 50
       GOŁAŚ Michał 51
       BODNAR Maciej 72
       SIEBERG Marcel 73
       BAUER Jack 75
       OSS Daniel 87
       VAN AVERMAET Greg 97
       ERVITI Imanol 102
       DURBRIDGE Luke 109
       HAUSSLER Heinrich 116
       KRISTOFF Alexander 139
       DEGENKOLB John 153
       PETIT Adrien 166
       DÉMARE Arnaud 190

      All of the above are currently listed on the start list on PCS. The number after their name are where they came in the stage. This doesn’t tell you much though as they may have been on team duties and they only did 13km of cobbles rather than the >50km worth that Paris-Roubaix normally covers.

  5. Just a further echo to say how much I appreciate your work, insight and obvious love for bike racing, INRG. Thank you.

    I’m excited for both Roubaix races this weekend, I don’t have a clear steer on my favourites for either race, but for the men would agree with mjc above that it could well go to an under-the rader flier – I think it may be a race too far for WVA.

  6. I think wet would be good. Cycling can be a bit one dimensional (endurance) but wet conditions allow other skills to feature. It is impressive when you see a rider hurtling along with obviously more confidence than the rest.
    There is another race in the spring where they zig zag through the vineyards which is much the same.

    • Agree. I know it may be blasphemy on here, but that’s why I like MTB /CX racing; it’s not just about watts/power. You need technical skills, especially in MTB or you’re not going to challenge. A wet, slippery PR may showcase those riders who are adept with the bike moving around under them.

      Saying that, positioning is crucial, as there’s always the chance that those who are less adept, cause problems – and the skilled riders get caught up in the crashes.

  7. Autumn seasonal lag keeps it that much warmer in the wet. Expect some riders who don’t go well in cold conditions to do a bit better than a typical wet Spring classic.
    Long grass in the margins is so much more of a hazard too, but it does make for softer landings. A lot of rear mechs and hangers will fail however.

    Those helpers at the end of each secteur holding up wheels – Will they now get power tool sponsorship for the thru axle driver each must carry?

  8. Right now there’s (maybe) more cycling going on than I can handle? Glad to see INRNG back to share it!
    You had me laughing with: “Paris-Roubaix has become a very important race for kit sponsors because if they wares can hold up for the day then they’ll be fine for a weekend warrior.” as that’s something I’ve ranted-0n about for years. The average punter would be far better off with something optimized for a race like this than what the vast majority of them actually buy and ride (the recent gravel fad notwithstanding) which is a bike optimized to race up Alpe d’Huez, often one lighter than the minimum mandated weight. I doubt most of these folks hop into an F1 car to go for a drive, but they too-often insist on the cycling equivalent!

      • Even though we’d already had lunch I couldn’t help popping the cork on a bottle of spumante to celebrate The Shark’s win. I’d love to be doing the same in Bergamo next week after seeing him zoom past me at the roadside 🙂

  9. Your average punter is probably a bit unlike the average punter I see on the road or in the bike shop. The high income customer who wants the best money can buy and who believes it the same brand and models as the pros who win races ride is very much a distinct animal. Likewise is the stereotypical WeightWeenies forum member who wants first and foremost a bike to impress other WeightWeenies.
    Even before the gravel boom the bikes the average punter bought and rode was an endurance model with a comfort oriented geometry. And it wasn’t just because they were a bit less pricey, they were equipped with electronic gears more often than not.

    That said, watching Giro di Sicilia has made me consider spending a winter month there – the poor reputation of the roads be damned!

    Last but not least, I’m quite willing to shorten my own Sunday ride in order to watch the race in its entirety! (And I’ll watch the Femmes on Saturday, too.)

    • Yep the roads are pretty crappy down here but I don’t see anyone on the roads here with bikes that don’t look optimized for Alpe d’Huez rather than Paris-Roubaix, despite the potholes and cracks.
      If you can ride slow enough, look us up in Siracusa and we’ll go for a ride!

  10. As fans we’ve been salivating at the prospect of a properly wet PR for years. Maybe some riders too – images of mud-caked riders from years past linger in our collective memory and we do love the idea of a truly epic suffer-fest. I wonder though if the recent focus on rider safety might change our perspective if there are multiple crashes, riders hurt etc, especially with no real experience in the peloton of what a wet PR is actually like.

  11. A great picture of Kelly on his way to victory in 1984. Various “repairs” over the last few decades probably mean the few sections as uneven as that shown in the photograph now exist.

  12. The comment about wares holding up for the day reminds me of 1995. At that time, I was considering the purchase of a Colnago C40. I’d had a carbon Trek 5000 (an early model where someone else made the frame for Trek) and a basic Specialized with carbon tubes and metal lugs and hadn’t loved either, even though Trek replaced the 5000 with their new 5500 when it broke. When I walked into the shop (pre-internet days) and saw a pic of Ballerini winning Roubaix on a C40 I figured one would last me at least a season or two. I sold that bike after 11 seasons and the purchaser later rode it up Haleakala. Last I heard it was still running. So, a long history on Colnagos (I still have two C40s and an Extreme Power) and other “plastic” bikes as Larry calls them started with a C40 at Roubaix. No carbon rims for me until the disc era with my Aethos. Sorry Larry but I do like plastic and the Pinarello I crashed 10 years ago at 58 km/hr is still running. I know you love your Mondonicos and they’re great bikes too but there’s room for both of us.

    I’d like to echo the comments on inrng. Great site and definitely some of the most well considered reporting (maybe the most?) I’ve seen on the web.

    • Now claims are going to be made that I wrote Paris-Roubaix should be ridden on STEEL bikes along with “to hell with safety”? No and No.
      OTOH, in a decade of working in high-end retail bike shops (including some that sold Treks) I had the chance to test ride a whole lot of bicycles. When I think back to the worst, the Trek 5000 (did Kestral make that?) Kestrel and late-80’s Cannondale stand out as really awful. But you liked the Trek enough to have bought one and then a (plastic) Colnago based on the marketing image of Ballerini winning a race and now a Big-S “Atheos”. It’s your money – no need to apologize for what you buy and no need to think that for some reason I believe that there is not “room for both of us” 🙂

  13. I would have gone for Tom Pidcock to win a wet P-R (or be in with a shout of victory) but Ineos haven’t picked him! So I’ll go with Stybar as an outsider. He’s looked strong recently and has the bike handling skills.

  14. The honest truth is that I hope for rain every year – it adds to the drama from a sporting and aesthetic sense.
    As mentioned above – the post on this blog are very much appreciated!
    And as the basques thank yous – the only day during the year, where watching other cycle primes cycling myself.
    Come Roubaix weekend.
    I do think it is a shame that Saturdays race eludes Arenberg, but cheapau for ASO for (finally) hosting a womens race!

    • Same, I’ve been crying out for a wet Roubaix for years. For novelty value mainly, though I do think at least one of the spring classics every year should be in horrible weather. It’s part of the image. On the other hand I always hope it’s sunny for Lombardia so you can see the scenery.

  15. I think I wound Larry up a few years ago when he demanded rain and to hell with rider safety.
    I don’t think we should expect riders to risk their health, but I guess ultimately it’s a choice which they have to make and be happy with.
    One of the most admirable aspects of cycling is that it pits the athlete not only against endurance, but also the weather. Suffering is innate to the sport and victors are valiant in moving past it. If it rains, or is wet it will be spectacular and legends will be born.
    I rode the sportive back in 2016. It’s one of the best things I’ve done on a bike. I forgot my gloves and wound up with stigmata. Riding the Arenberg was the cycling equivalent of Saving Private Ryan. Cyclists being thrown off their bikes, ambulances and a Penny Farthing (no, no one was shovelling their guts back in, and the flame throwers were not exploding). The surface was slippery and wet. Whether you ride quick or slow the effect pretty much the same. It takes nerves of steel.

  16. Thanks Inrng, another great slice of insight.

    As to a wet weekend, I heard David Millar explain to Ned Boulting that a lot of riders would prefer wet to dry because it would mean the race was ridden at a slower pace.

    As to the women’s race missing the Arenberg, the view is that as it is a shorter race, the start would mean the first section of Pave is the Arenberg. This would be more dangerous as the whole of the peloton would hit the Arenberg together, whereas in the men’s race the peloton is already broken up and strung out so less dangerous.

    Now to read your race preview.

    • Interesting. If they are looping round from Roubaix to Arenberg that makes sense. Though, it would create a natural splitting point for the race to ignite.

      • Just checked their route – they start in Denain and there doesn’t seem to be any plan for them to do the Arenberg (which the men detour to join) so I’m not sure that is correct. May be that was the thinking in planning the original route.

    • I only caught the briefest of highlights but it was filling me with all my expectations. It looked like a disaster of sorts. But the field in women’s cycling is not deep and the cobbles requires a lot of power which the ladies can’t do. It’s a very different kettle of fish.

  17. The Elle of the North, as some wit had it elsewhere, was fascinating, especially when Vos went for it. I made a cup of Yorkshire tea to celebrate a great tough ride and some serious bike-handling skills shown throughout. (This is not intended to patronise, but to praise the racers who have literally never raced in such conditions, unless there was an early Alfonsina Strada of the north who remains unnoted)

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