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.