The 113th edition of Paris-Roubaix promises to be as gripping a race as ever. Just as in last week’s Ronde van Vlaanderen, the absence of Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen means it’s completely wide open. The only thing we can be sure of is that the eventual victor will be a man of superhuman strength, deserving of a place alongside the likes of Coppi, Merckx and De Vlaeminck in the showers of the Roubaix velodrome. It’s cycling’s toughest one-day classic. It’s the Hell of the North. It’s Paris-Roubaix.
- After starting in the commune of Compiègne, the first 98.5km are unremarkable, save for the invariably ominous grey of northern France. After that, things start getting serious. That’s when the pavé starts. 27 punishing sectors of cobbled roads together comprising a total of 57.5km.
- The pavé sectors are graded by difficulty, the easiest being given one-star ratings and the hardest five-star. Much of the route is run not on public roads but over ancient paths used only by farmers to access the surrounding farmland. It’s a brutal, brutal event.
- The most notorious sector comes after 158km: the Trouée d’Arenberg (Arenberg Trench). Calling it ‘cobbled’ is kind: it’s really a series of jagged rocks jammed unevenly into the ground, slicing a narrow line through the middle of the Arenberg forest. Crashes and punctures are commonplace, and while the race probably won’t be won here it could well be lost.
- If you want a prediction for where the race will be won, look to the five-star Carrefour de l’Arbre section with 17km to go. Over 2km of uneven stones, it will apparently be even more punishing than last year.
- As if the leaden skies and the dusty cobbles themselves didn’t provide a sufficiently atmospheric setting, it’s a race that takes in many famous battlesites. from the medieval conflicts of the Anglo-French and the Hundred Years’ Wars, through to the trench battles of World War I. It’s a region steeped in history – much of it atrociously bloody.
Riders to watch
Last year’s winner Niki Terpstra (Etixx-Quick Step) is a man with a mean punch and an eye for the audacious. Such a combination of strength and daring is exactly what is required in a race in which bravery is often rewarded. After his second place at Flanders last weekend, it’s clear he’s in fine form and he’ll be out to defend his title. Etixx also have a brilliant backup option in Zdenek Stybar, who has finished sixth and fifth in the last two years.
However, just as he did in a two-man sprint in Flanders last week, Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) will be looking to ruin Etixx’s day and pip their riders to the post. He’s the best sprinter of all the favourites, but is a pretty punchy attacker too. Unlike Terpstra, however, he’s unlikely to try and solo it to the line. A small group finishing together at the finish will be exactly what he’ll be hoping for. Like a fine Italian wine, his teammate Luca Paolini seems to be getting better with age, and will be an invaluable road captain for his Norwegian teammate.
Despite Geraint Thomas having been Sky’s strongest rider on the cobbles so far, it’s looking like they’re going to be putting their eggs in the Bradley Wiggins basket. The former Tour de France winner claimed he was attempting to end his career with a win at this race, though it’s difficult to see him pulling off such a feat. Then again, we probably never expected him to be a serious grand tour challenger, either.
Other riders to keep an eye on include Greg van Avermaet (BMC), John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin), Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Peter Sagan, who has struggled to find his feet since moving to Tinkoff-Saxo in the off-season.
Link: Official race website