The dust is ready to settle on the 2015 cobbled Classics, but not before the Queen takes part in the last ball, the most awaited one. Who’s this Queen? Easy answer, one that everyone knows, thanks to the many attributes itpossesses: the Queen of the Classics is the famous and infamous Paris-Roubaix, a race with a unique identity, that was born to become a legend more than one century ago. In its first years, the cobbles were everywhere and in a perfect condition, so Paris-Roubaix wasn’t known as the most toughest Classics of them all, although the cyclists still had a hard life while riding a race for which they needed more than nine hours to complete.
After World War l, when the North of France was living a nightmare after being left in ruins, Paris-Roubaix got its nickname of “L’Enfer du Nord” after the journalists of L’Auto, accompanied by Eugène Christophe came from Paris to see if the course can host the Classic in 1919, thus wanting to put an end to a four-year hiatus. This nickname sticked over the decades, because it sums up the race perfectly: Paris-Roubaix really turned into hell for the ones that came at the start, without making any distinction between the contenders who wanted to tame the cobbles and win, and the faithful “lieutenants”, whose only desire was to get over this ordeal and finish safe.
Many are saying that Paris-Roubaix is a lottery, but it isn’t quite like that. It’s more a thing of precision and attention: to know how to prepare the bike, where the tricky stones are, how to take the corners and get out of them, and how to make sure you always choose to ride over the smoothest roads so that you don’t puncture. During the 253 kilometer-long race in Northern France, if you are gunning for the win, you need to forget about the stress and the tension, have a strong psyhique, stay out of trouble, find that perfect chemistry with the bike and the cobbles, get over the patches of slippy, sandy mud, and just have that perfect day you dream of, without one single error.
This is how Octave Lapize, Henri Pélissier, Rik Van Looy, Roger De Vlaeminck, Eddy Merckx, Francesco Moser, Bernard Hinault, Sean Kelly, Marc Madiot, Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle, Franco Ballerini, Johan Museeuw, Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara did it, entering the hall of fame thanks to their wins, but also to the memorable moments that built those victories in a race that creates mix emotions, a race for hard men and heroes.
There’s a dry and warm forecast for this week-end in Northern France, which means we will see a dusty and fast Paris-Roubaix (253 kilometers, 52,7 kilometers of cobbles). On Sunday, 200 riders will line-up in Compiègne and they’ll have a quiet time for the first 100 kilometers, until they hit the first of the 27 cobbled sectors, Troisvilles. There, not far of Cambrai – a town which hosted two stage finishes in the Tour de France – the peloton will clatter over the first pavés of the day, and knots will start to form in stomachs and muscles.
The Quiévy (longest one in the race, alongside Hornaing – 3700 meters), Saint-Python and Verchain-Maugré sectors follow shortly afterwards, and will also feature on stage four of this year’s Tour de France, on July 7th, when they are expected to create some significant gaps between the yellow jersey contenders. Then, the pack will pass over the four-star Haveluy cobbled road, or the “Bernard Hinault sector”, which is sometimes used in the Quatre Jours de Dunkerque, at the beginning of May.
The first true picture emerges at kilometer 158, as the cyclists will tackle the first five-star sector: the Trouée d’Arenberg, a brutal place were dreams are broken to pieces. It was first used in 1968, after a tip that Albert Bouvet got from former world champion Jean Stablinski, who worked in the coal mines below Arenberg as a teenager. The road is 2400 meters long and is one of the most difficult on the course, dropping slightly at first, then rising. The cobbles are extremely difficult to ride because of their irregularity and pose a real threat to riders, who can crash at any moment, giving that there will be a huge fight for the best positions at around 60 km/h. Johan Museeuw and Philippe Gaumont are just some of the big riders that fell heavily here in the past and had to abandon.
Another thing worth mentioning is that Arenberg isn’t a wide road, so if a cyclist punctures, he has to hope there will be a teammate or a soigneur around, because the cars are way behind in the long caravan, and until his sports director helps him with that much needed change, the race can be lost. And as if this wasn’t enough, when the riders exit the forest there’s a strong crosswind coming from the left, which can create some big gaps between the first group and the chasers. These are the reasons for which everyone knows – from riders to fans and journalists – that you can’t win the race in the infamous Arenberg, but you can surely lose it there.
There won’t be time for respite after Arenberg, because the cyclists will soon hit the three-star Wallers-Hélesmes “Pont Gibus” sector (1600 meters), named after double winner Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle, followed soon afterwards by another important obstacle, Hornaing (3700 meters), first used in 1983, when Hennie Huiper won, after one of the most thrilling editions ever. The “fun” will continue with Warlaing-Brillon (2400 meters), Tilloy-Sars-et-Rosières (2400 meters), Beuvry-la-Forêt-Orchies (1400 meters), Orchies (1700 m) and Auchy-lez-Orchies-Bersée (2700 meters), all these coming in the space of just 23 kilometers.
Next key point is Mons-en-Pévèle (3000 meters), a five-star sector where the riders are expected to come in full throttle and force a big selection, especially as the last 2000 meters aren’t in the best condition. If things go according to plan, then the winner will come from the first group that emerges after Mons-en-Pévèle. The next cobbled roads shouldn’t be so difficult, that is until the riders hit Camphin-en-Pévèle (1800 meters), which will provide the warm-up for Carrefour de l’Arbre. After making the recon of the parcours, Thierry Gouvenou said that this last five-star sector is much harder then in the past and that in terms of difficulty, it’ll be right up there with the Arenberg Forest.
Carrefour de l’Arbre (2100 meters) – the site of the Battle of Bouvines eight centuries ago – was first used in 1958 and is the last chance of a big attack. Marc Madiot, Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara are just three of the cyclists who powered away there in the past and got a gap that was enough for them to land the win. On the other hand, Carrefour de l’Arbre is also one of the most dangerous sectors of the race, with some important riders – Thor Hushovd, Leif Hoste, Stijn Vandenbergh – crashing here in the previous editions, because of the sharp cobbles or the fans that put up for an insane atmosphere.
Three more sectors remain from that point on, with the last being the one in Roubaix, which has two names: “Road of the Giants”, because it leads the way to the velodrome, and “Charles Crupelandt”, after the two-time winner of the race. If more riders are together at the front once the André-Pétrieux velodrome – a place of cheers and teers – looms at the horizon, than the finale will be very thrilling and a surprise can occur, as it often happened when the victory was decided in a sprint after one and a half laps.
Alexander Kristoff has a record of five starts and just two finishes in Paris-Roubaix, a 9th place in 2013 being his best result. In addition to that, he said after his Flanders win that the cobbled climbs suit him much better than the cobbled stretches of the North. Inspite of these facts, who is ready to bet against him on Sunday, especially after winning also Scheldeprijs a couple of days ago? Is not that the Norwegian has a great form, but he looks so strong that it give the shivers to his rivals, who don’t seem to have any real chance of leaving him behind. Precisely for this reason, it will be important for Kristoff to have a teammate alongside in the closing moments of the race, so that he won’t get outsmarted in a tactical move. A victory will help him achieve legendary status, as he will become the 11th cyclist to take both Flanders and Roubaix in the same year.
John Degenkolb had some problems in De Ronde, but things should change in his favor in the last cobbled Monument, where he comes well-rested, after deciding to skip Scheldeprijs on Wednesday. As he proved in Milan-Sanremo, Degenkolb excels over long distances and he shouldn’t have any problem in making the selection in the key moments of the course, even more now that Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen, two riders capable of a decisive attack, are missing the race. Besides that, he also has a big and impressive engine, which can allow him, at some point, to launch a counter attack, if he needs to cover a move made by one or more of his opponents. Germany awaits a Paris-Roubaix win for 119 years, and Giant-Alpecin’s cyclist – who was second one year ago – has a big chance of putting an end to this dry streak.
Sky made a big mistake in the Tour of Flanders, coming at the forefront too early and trying to control the race as it usually does in the Grand Tours, but the result was different and Geraint Thomas was left all by himself on the final hills. Another problem was that the Welsh rider missed some extra watts and didn’t have the legs to follow the attacks, which showed another minus of Sky: the lack of a Plan B. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if Sky will play more cards now, with Bradley Wiggins being an important one, as he can go to the attack with 30-40 kilometers to go and use his time trial skills to get clear. In the past weeks, the 34-year-old Brit has said in more than one occasion that a victory in Paris Roubaix – one if his childhood’s dreams – would mean more for him at this point than the yellow jersey he has won three years ago in the Tour de France, so the motivation is there for his last race with Sky. If the race doesn’t pans out in his favor and the world time trial champion will be reeled in, then Geraint Thomas or Ian Stannard (if he is fully recovered) will have their chance.
Paris-Roubaix is Etixx-Quick Step’s last chance of saving a disappointing Spring campaign that left the team with a bitter taste and with just a win, in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. Niki Terpstra, Zdenek Stybar and Stijn Vandenbergh all have a strong shot at winning the “Hell of the North”, with the defending champion coming here in a great shape and with a huge hunger, after he was beaten by Alexander Kristoff in the Tour of Flanders. Once again, Terpstra can put in a crafty attack earlier than expected and solo to the win, but for this to happen, he needs to have a teammate in the main group. On the other hand, Zdenek Stybar also wants to try his luck after he had to stay in the pack last week-end and get his first career win in a Monument. The Czech champion is better than Terpstra in a sprint, but after Flanders there isn’t any clear indication that he’s just as strong as his Dutch teammate. Summing it up, it remains to be seen what will be the consensus in the Etixx-Quick Step squad and if the sports director will manage the ego of his riders and lead them to a much-desired victory.
Greg Van Avermaet was one of the strongest cyclists in the Tour of Flanders, but he was left to rue the missed opportunity, after BMC made a tactical mistake when Terpstra and Kristoff got clear immediately after the Kruisberg. With every chance that slips from his hands, Van Avermaet loses some of his confidence, so he needs to act fast and get the most out of the next Monuments. It’s very likely to see the Belgian going on to the attack again and hoping to break clear of the other favorites or at least force a serious selection, that will not include the sprinters. Although Roubaix suits him less than Flanders, Greg Van Avermaet is still one of the most consistent men on the cobbles in recent years and will go all in on Sunday, hoping to finally convert an opportunity into a win.
Sep Vanmarcke came just 5th in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, but everyone was very impressed with his display and how strong he looked, so the general consensus among the pundits was that he will be the man to beat in both Flanders and Roubaix. But soon afterwards, something changed and the Belgian cyclist failed to win a one-day race from the three he rode (E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem, Tour of Flanders) in the previous weeks. The most worrisome part for Vanmarcke was what happened in De Ronde, where he was left behind before the crucial hills of the race, because he had an empty tank and couldn’t follow, despite the fact that he desperately tried to close the gap on the main group. Although he got a lot of criticism from the Belgian media, the LottoNL-Jumbo rider left behind the 53rd place in the Tour of Flanders and now looks forward with optimism and confidence to Paris-Roubaix, where he’ll have a point to prove. The team that will support him isn’t as strong as Sep Vanmarcke would have liked to, but if he regains his early March form, then anything is possible for the rider who came second in the 2013 edition.
Peter Sagan’s form has been a mystery so far this season – although Stuart O’Grady had some interesting things to say when questioned about the Slovak’s lack of results – so a win here would be a much needed lift for Tinkoff-Saxo’s rider. The 25-year-old is finding for the first time in his career what winning is hard to do, but yet he remains one of the favorites. Endurance seems to be one of Sagan’s big problems at the moment, with the three-time winner of the Tour de France green jersey coming up empty in the final kilometers of the Monuments, as well as not being able to take the best decisions in the flashiest of seconds. Another issue for him is that he struggles a bit more on the cobbled stretches, feeling insecure about his positioning and amount of power he has to use. On the other hand, not being one of the top contenders will allow him to play the race more defensively, which can help him, with a little bit of luck, save his first half of the season.
Who are the outsiders for this race? One name that quickly comes to mind is that of André Greipel, who was outstanding in the Tour of Flanders, where he put the hammer down on the hills in more than one occasion. Greipel really wants a good result in Paris-Roubaix and has a strong chance of getting it, considering his excellent form. More than that, his team is prepared to put on an aggressive display once again, which means Jurgen Roelandts and Tiesj Benoot will try to be among the proeminent figures in the “Hell of the North”. Another good bet is Astana’s Lars Boom, 6th in the Tour of Flanders. The Dutchman wasn’t very visible at the front last Sunday, but still got a top 10 finish and now has the confidence he needs that he can do a great race on Sunday.
Beside the riders mentioned above, Filippo Pozzato and Sylvain Chavanel are two other men with a good shot in Paris-Roubaix, although both seemed to lack some power in the closing kilometers of Flanders. There’s also the possibility that some of the teams without a top contender, but also the ones who will want to enjoy a free ride, will send their riders at the front, most likely in the second half of the race, somewhere after Arenberg and before Mons-en-Pévèle. If this will be the scenario, look to cyclists like Bjorn Leukemans, Dylan van Baarle, Daniel Oss, Jasper Stuyven, Mathieu Ladagnous, Luca Paolini, Florian Senechal (who knows the cobbles like the back of his hand, as he comes from a small village to the east of Cambrai), Yoann Offredo, Damien Gaudin, Jelle Wallays and Jens Keukeleire.
– The first edition took place in 1896 and was won by Germany’s Josef Fischer
– Paris-Roubaix was the first Classic to be shown live on TV, in 1960
– Two Belgians – Tom Boonen and Roger De Vlaeminck – share the record for the most wins, 4
– Roger De Vlaeminck is also the rider with the most podium finishes, 9
– Belgium leads the nation standings, with 55 triumphs in 112 editions
– Frédéric Guesdon holds the record for the most starts, 17
– Raymond Impanis and Servais Knaven have the most races completed, 16 each
– Ten riders have won the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix in the same year: Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara, Fred De Bruyne, Roger De Vlaeminck, Romain Gijssels, Raymond Impanis, Gaston Rebry, Heiri Suter, Rik Van Looy and Peter Van Petegem
– The longest edition never exceeded 280 kilometers, while the shortest one had 244 kilometers
– Marc Madiot is the only cyclist who has won Paris-Roubaix in the U23 ranks and subsequently as a pro
– In 1949, the victory was awarded to two riders: Serse Coppi and André Mahé
– Australia’s Stuart O’Grady is the only cyclist from outside of Europe who nabbed the win in Paris-Roubaix (2007)
– The longest successful breakaway was recorded in 1988, when Dirk Demol won after being for 222 kilometers at the front
– Last rainbow jersey wearer to emerge victorious is Bernard Hinault (1981)
– Five riders have won Paris-Roubaix after taking the victory in the Tour de France: Louison Bobet, Fausto Coppi, Felice Gimondi, Bernard Hinault and Eddy Merckx
– In 1936 – when Georges Speicher was victorious – the race ended on a hippodrome
– Between 1986 and 1988, Paris-Roubaix finished in the town, because the velodrome was undergoing some repairs
– First year in which riders were allowed to get a spare wheel from their teammates was 1965
– Youngest ever winner is Albert Champion (20 years and 362 days in 1899); oldest one is Gilbert Duclos-Lasalle (38 years and 229 days in 1993)
– Last French success was brought by Frédéric Guesdon, in 1997
– In 1990, Eddy Planckaert and Steve Bauer sprinted for the victory and the Belgian won for just 1 cm
– Biggest winning margin dates from 1898, when Maurice Garin finished 28 minutes ahead of Auguste Stephan
– 1968 was the first year in which the start was given from Compiègne
– First time when the champion received a cobblestone trophy was in 1977
– Highest average speed – 45,130 km/h – was recorded in 1964, while the lowest one was in 1922 – 22,857 km/h
– 25 teams (17 World Tour and 8 Pro Continental) will line-up in Compiègne for the 2015 edition
– Two of these teams are winless this season: LottoNL-Jumbo and UnitedHealthcare
– Belgium has the most cyclists (39), followed by France (31) and Germany (20)
– Two former champions are at the start of this year’s race: Niki Terpstra and Johan Vansummeren
– Three U23 winners (Koen De Kort, Damien Gaudin, Ramon Sinkeldam) and five Junior winners (Andrew Fenn, Florian Senechal, Jasper Stuyven, Geraint Thomas, Guillaume Van Keirsbulck) will be in the race
– Three sectors will feature in stage four of the 102nd Tour de France: Quiévy, Saint-Python, and Verchain-Maugré
– Alexander Kristoff can become the first ever rider to win the Three Days of De Panne, the Tour of Flanders, Scheldeprijs and Paris-Roubaix in the same season
– Quentin Jauregui (20 years) is the youngest rider at the startline, while Matteo Tosatto (40 years) is the oldest one
– Paris-Roubaix 2015 marks 2367 days since the last Italian win in a Monument
– 18 neo-pros will make their debut in Paris-Roubaix: Shane Archbold, Simone Antonini, Maxat Ayazbayev, Tiesj Benoot, Magnus Cort, Tom Devriendt, Quentin Jauregui, Stefan Küng, Kevin Ledanois, Daniel McLay, Julien Morice, Oliver Naesen, Luka Pibernik, Tanner Putt, Marc Sarreau, Kristoffer Skjerping, Ruben Zepuntke and Federico Zurlo
– There are 6 071 040 cobblestones on this year’s parcours