Paris-Roubaix preview

The dramatic landscape of Paris-Roubaix doesn’t share the beauty of the setting of a race like the Strade Bianche, but it’s certainly no less poetic. The dark clouds and the equally grey scenes of industrial northern France complement the endless stretches of cobbles through past battlefields, making it one miserable affair for the riders.

George Hincapie has spoken about how he feels the same after riding Roubaix as he does following a whole three weeks of the Tour de France. It’s a tortuous course, in which the strongest does truly emerge the winner. After all, it didn’t earn its nickname of the ‘Hell of the North’ for nothing.

Sky’s Juan Antonio Flecha, who has finished on the podium three times (and has had six top ten finishes in the past seven years), says:

They say it’s the queen of the Classics, and I agree.

While Gert Steegmans, one of Tom Boonen‘s trusted lieutenants in Omega Pharma-Quick Step, adds:

There’s no other race in the world that is so hard for the bikes and riders.

It is a war of attrition, with riders often trickling in on their own, or in very small groups. It’s brutal, barbaric and a million miles away from the glitz and glamour of the Tour de France.

What kind of race is it?

Dutchman Theo de Rooij summed it up when leading the 1985 edition, only to crash out:

It’s a bollocks this race! You’re working like an animal, you don’t have time to piss, you wet your pants. You’re riding in mud like this, you’re slipping, it’s a piece of shit!

When questioned if he’d ever ride it again, he replied:

Sure, it’s the most beautiful race in the world!

It’s 257.5km from Compiègne to Roubaix, with over 50 of those kilometres ridden over vicious pavé. The scariest sector is the Trouée d’Arenberg – the 12th of the 27 cobbled sections around 85km from the finish – which slices right through the Arenberg forest. 

RadioShack-Nissan’s Hayden Roulston says:

It is the roughest road you could ever imagine riding a bike over.

The race famously finishes in the Roubaix velodrome, with all riders who make it there true heroes. The conditions can vary from sun to snow, with Tom Boonen saying it’s actually most dangerous when dry, due to the higher speeds of the riders. Two-time winner Sean Kelly says:

A Paris-Roubaix without rain is not a true Paris-Roubaix. Throw in a little snow as well, it’s not serious.

Winners in the last five years:

2007: Stuart O’Grady (CSC)

2008: Tom Boonen (Quick Step)

2009: Tom Boonen (Quick Step)

2010: Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank)

2011: Johan Vansummeren (Garmin-Cervelo)

What happened last year?

Johan Vansummeren (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

All talk was focused on a winner coming from the Garmin-Cervelo team, most likely world champion Thor Hushovd repeating the feats of Bernard Hinault by winning in the rainbow jersey. As it turned out, a rider from the Garmin-Cervélo team did get to take home a chunk of the prized pavé, although it was a rather unexpected winner.

Johan Vansummeren took the victory and the biggest win of his career. Fabian Cancellara was second, with Rabobank’s Maarten Tjallingii third. Vansummeren was riding in the breakaway group before attacking on the Carrefour de l’Arbre sector inside the last 20km with a 45-second lead.

He soloed his way into the velodrome to take the victory, despite having a slowly leaking rear tyre and a rapid Cancellara on his tail.

1. Johan Vansummeren (Garmin-Cervelo) 6:07:28

2. Fabian Cancellara (Leopard Trek) +0:19

3. Maarten Tjallingii (Rabobank) same time

4. Gregory Rast (RadioShack) s/t

5. Lars Bak (HTC-Highroad) +0:21

6. Alessandro Ballan (BMC) +0:36

7. Bernhard Eisel (HTC-Highroad) +0:47

8. Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervelo) s/t

9. Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky) s/t

10. Mathew Hayman (Sky) s/t

Who to watch

With no Fabian Cancellara, the obvious favourite is Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s Tom Boonen. Fresh from winning the Ronde Van Vlaanderen last weekend, he looks in perfect form to take back-to-back victories.

Sep Vanmarcke: an outside bet (image courtesy of Garmin-Barracuda)

The Ronde tells us a lot about who to look out for and who to ignore for Roubaix. Alessandro Ballan looks in excellent shape for BMC, finishing on the podium last weekend along with compatriot Pippo Pozzato. Both of these riders have impressed in Paris-Roubaix before, and will hopefully show that again this weekend.

However, Ballan will face stiff competition from teammate Thor Hushovd, who has spoken many times about how much this race means to him. At 34 he’s running out of time to fulfil his dream. There’s plenty of people who’ll be cheering on the God of Thunder this weekend. With George Hincapie also on BMC’s start-list, they’re the strongest team for this type of race.

Johan Vansummeren will be back to try to win another cobble for his mantelpiece, but it’s his teammate Sep Vanmarcke who looks more likely to win. He’s been in excellent form so far this season winning Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, although may not have the strength to win Roubaix. Sky’s Juan Antonio Flecha can never be counted out on this terrain.

For an outside bet, Rabobank’s Lars Boom and Liquigas’ Daniel Oss are strong riders in the Classics, with FDJ’s Canadian Dominique Rollin also good over cobbles.

Paris-Roubaix takes place on Sunday 8th April. Live coverage and highlights will be shown in the UK by Eurosport. For other channels check cyclingfans.comVeloVoices will also be live-tweeting the race.

Link: Official website

5 thoughts on “Paris-Roubaix preview

  1. Sheree says:

    I would echo that. Loved the quotes. I quite fancied doing the Hell of the North sportif until one of the pros explained to me what riding over cobbles was like – cured my ambitions pronto.

  2. Some great quotes, Jack. Surely no other race provokes such evocative words as Paris-Roubaix does, not even the Tour itself?

  3. Pingback: Paris-Roubaix review « VeloVoices

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