Cycling Weekly’s Paris-Roubaix reconnaissance mission

Cycling Weekly does its homework ahead of the biggest one-day race of the season to see what obstacles will stand in the way of victory in the velodrome on Sunday afternoon

Paris-Roubaix‘s reputation as the toughest one-day race on the calendar is well-earned. 

Standing in the way of the riders on the 260km journey from Compiegne to Roubaix are some of Europe’s worst roads on which to race a road bike.

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An integral part of performing well in the Queen of the Classics is reconnaissance; riding the cobbles and challenging parcours two or three days in advance of the race to work out how best to ride, what to look out for and where to make sure you’re at the front of the race.

Knowing these challenging rural roads through the quiet agricultural backwater of North-East France can make all the difference come race day.

It would be safe to say a rider would need one very good reason not to recce some of the route ahead of the seven-hour slog on Sunday.

So, alongside the professionals, Cycling Weekly went out to discover just what lies in store for the peloton on their ‘Sunday in Hell.’

The Arenberg Forest

Cobbles in the Arenberg forest, Paris-Roubaix 2014

Cobbles in the Arenberg forest, Paris-Roubaix 2014

This isn’t a road. This is a seething tumult of choppy stones that delve deep into the woods just West of Valenciennes, lasting for an agonising 2.4km before emerging on the other side.

With the downhill run-in, these cobbles are hit at staggering speed before the gradient changes and a strength-sapping drag leads to the light at the end of the forest. There’s no good line to take, and absolutely no respite.

At 96km from the finish, the Arenberg trench is too far out for the race to be won here. But hit one of these stones at the wrong angle, as happened to Tom Boonen in 2011, and that’s your race over.

 Entry onto the cobbles

Wanty Groupe Gobert recce the cobbles, Paris-Roubaix 2014

Wanty Groupe-Gobert recce the cobbles, Paris-Roubaix 2014

Ask anyone who’s raced Paris-Roubaix and they will tell you that the fight to be in the right position leading into a secteur pave can sometimes be worse than the cobbles themselves.

Since many cobbled sectors are now little more than farm tracks, a good number (such as sector 11, Auchy à Bersée, pictured above) are entered and exited via a sharp right-angled bend from a wide tarmac road.

Get it right and you’re at the front of the bunch with a lower risk of getting stuck behind a crash. Get it wrong and you risk being held up, pushed onto the rougher cobbles or crashing yourself.


A French man dressed as a bee, Paris-Roubaix 2014

A French supporter dressed as a bee, Paris-Roubaix 2014

So the route won’t only be lined by spectators dressed as insects. However with warm, dry weather forecast for race day there will be no shortage of fans out cheering their favourite riders on.

Some will get too close, as Omega Pharmaa-Quickstep duo Stijn Vandenbergh and Zdenek Stybar found out to their considerable disadvantage in 2013.

Road furniture

A narrow bridge on the course, Paris-Roubaix 2014

A narrow bridge on the course, Paris-Roubaix 2014

The perils of road furniture are not lost on the peloton, not least Johan Van Summeren who collided with a traffic island and a spectator at last weekend’s Tour of Flanders.

While this isn’t The Netherlands, there are plenty of bollards, speed bumps, traffic islands, roundabouts and kerbs to look out for.  This bridge, where the road narrows to the width of one car,  comes at Warlaing, just before sector 15 and with 76km to go.

 Adverse camber

Adverse camber at the Carrefour de l'Arbre, Paris-Roubaix 2014

A nasty turn towards the Carrefour de l’Arbre, Paris-Roubaix 2014

The race may be considerably flatter than the bergs of the Tour of Flanders, however the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix are certainly no pancakes.

As well as bumps and lumps, many cobbled sectors have a clearly defined crest down the centre of the track, making overtaking to the sides all but impossible for most of the field.

Carrefour de l’Arbre

Cobbles at the Carrefour de l'Arbre, Paris-Roubaix 2014

Cobbles at the Carrefour de l’Arbre, Paris-Roubaix 2014 (with Garmin for scale)

The gruesome road up to the ‘crossroad of the tree’ was the site of the crucial race showdown in 2013, where two Omega Pharma-Quickstep riders crashed from the leading quartet to leave only Fabian Cancellara and Sep Vanmarcke to dual for the win in the velodrome.

One of only three cobbled sectors rated five out of five for difficulty (the others being Arenberg and Mons-en-Pévèle), the 2.1km Carrefour sector is the fourth from the finish and closely sandwiched between two other sectors to give five kilometres of cobbles in almost one go.

On top of that, the stones are some of the most fearsome in the whole race. The Garmin cycle computer shown above for scale measures 51mm in width.

Cobbles at the Carrefour de l'Arbre, Paris-Roubaix 2014

Cobbles at the Carrefour de l’Arbre, Paris-Roubaix 2014


A painting of Jean Francois Pescheux on the Templeuve cobbles

A painting of race director Jean-Francois Pescheux approaching the Templeuve cobbles

The past has shown that race commissaires won’t shy away from disqualifying riders from the race. In 2006 three riders, including former champion Peter Van Petegem, were knocked out of the top five for sneaking through a rapidly closing railway level-crossing behind Fabian Cancellara.

As if to remind riders to be on best behaviour, the curmudgeonly face of former race director Jean-Francois Pescheux has been painted onto the road leading up to the cobbles of Templeuve.

Pescheux, who many credit with having revived the ailing fortunes of Paris-Roubaix during the 1980s and 90s, has been replaced by former racer Thierry Gouvenou. However his legacy won’t be forgotten.

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