Hell may traditionally be associated with fire and brimstone, but for professional cyclists it is the miles of cobblestoned roads between the cities of Paris and Roubaix.
“The Hell of the North” is the nickname given to Paris-Roubaix, the third monument of the year and the final northern classic. Such a devilish pedigree has been established over the 111 editions since the race’s inception in 1896, with the its treacherous cobblestones, excessive length and occasional adverse weather conditions all making this arguably the most difficult race of the year.
Though it may only arguably be the hardest race, it is indisputably the most unique. Unlike the other spring classics, the cobblestoned sections do not feature on short climbs like, for instance, the Paterberg, Koppenberg and the Kemmelberg, but instead on flat sections. As a result, there are lighter riders who flourish in Flanders that struggle in this race, while many diesel engines enjoy a rare parcours that rewards brute power over climbing and sprinting.
But there’s more to winning Paris-Roubaix than simply bludgeoning your opponents into submission; if that was the case Fabian Cancellara would win every year. Luck plays a huge role in determining who wins, with the total of fifty kilometres spent on unpredictable cobblestones ensuring that punctures and crashes are even more frequent than in the other classics. Tactics, positioning and teamwork are also important, and occasionally a less fancied rider – like Stuart O’Grady in 2007 and Johan Vansummeren in 2011 – can surprise the favourites with a well-timed move.
The weather can also give each edition its own distinct character. A rainy day can turn the race into a lethal mud bath with crashes and retirements galore, while on a hot, dry day, the dust flicked up from the riders’ wheels on the pave casts an atmospheric cloudy haze over the peloton.
Another unique factor of Paris-Roubaix is how the difficulty of all 28 of its pavé sections are determined by a star rating out of five. The three sections assigned five stars each mark a vital stage in the race, the first being the mythical Arenberg Forest. Situated roughly 100 kilometres from the finish and containing particularly uneven cobblestones, this is the first major sort of the race that sees all the favourites battle to be at the front, while the overhanging trees create an eerie, ominous atmosphere.
Next is the Mons-en-Pévèle section, around 50kms from the finish and, at 3kms, one of the longest on the route. It was just before here that Fabian Cancellara launched his attack to win in 2010, and it was the first of the ten sections Tom Boonen completed alone in his epic 2012 solo victory.
Finally, the Carrefour de L’Arbre rounds off a series of difficult back-to-back sections towards the end of the race. After this just twenty kilometres and three relatively simple pavé roads are left, meaning any decisive final moves are usually made here. The L’Arbre also often witnesses tired riders making mistakes and dramatically crashing out, as in 2009 when Thor Hushovd fell, and last year when Stijn Vandenbergh and Zdenek Stybar both collided with spectators.
Even the finish of Paris-Roubaix is idiosyncratic, with a lap and a half around the Roubaix velodrome which usually either plays out as a thrilling sprint finish or a procession for the lone escapee. And, for one final quirk, the winner is then given an actual cobblestone for a trophy, which must, after around six hellish hours on the saddle, be very difficult to hold aloft.
There’s nothing quite like the spectacle of Paris-Roubaix, and the 2014 edition will surely provide much of the same.
When: Sunday 13th April
Status: UCI World Tour
Paris-Roubaix 2014: Cobbled sectors
Sector number/name/km from start /length of sector
28 – Troisvilles 97.5km – 2,2km
27. Viesly 104km – 1,8km
26 – Quiévy 106.5km – 3,7km
25 – Saint-Python 111km – 1,5km
24 – Solesmes 119.5km – 800m
23 – Saulzoir 126km – 1,200km
22 – Verchain-Maugré 130.5km – 1,6km
21 – Quérénaing – Famars 135km – 1,2km
20 – Monchaux-sur-Ecaillon 140.5km – 1,6km
19 – Haveluy 153km – 2,5km
18 – Trouée d’Arenberg 161.5km – 2,4km
17 – Wallers – Hélesmes, aka “Pont Gibus” 167.5km – 1,6km
16 – Hornaing 174.5km – 3,7km
15 – Warlaing – Brillon 182km – 2,4km
14 – Tilloy – Sars-et-Rosières 185km – 2,4km
13 – Beuvry-la-Forêt – Orchies 191.5km – 1,4km
12 – Orchies 196.5km – 1,7km
11. Auchy-lez-Orchies – Bersée 202.5km – 2,7km
10 – Mons-en-Pévèle 208km – 3,0km
9 – Mérignies – Avelin 214km – 700m
8 – Pont-Thibaut 217.5km – 1,4km
7 – Templeuve – Moulin de Vertain 223.5km – 500m
6 – Cysoing – Bourghelles 230km – 1,3km
6 – Bourghelles – Wannehain 232.5km – 1,1km
5 – Camphin-en-Pévèle 237km – 1,8km
4 – Le Carrefour de l’Arbre 240km – 2,1km
3 – Gruson 242km – 1,1km
2 – Hem 249km – 1,4km
1 – Roubaix 256km – 300m
Paris-Roubaix 2014: TV Schedule
Digital and satellite channel British Eurosport will be broadcasting live coverage of the 2014 Paris-Roubaix
Sunday April 13, 12.15-15.45, Paris-Roubaix LIVE, British Eurosport & HD
Sunday April 13, 19.00-20.30, Paris-Roubaix Highlights, British Eurosport & HD
Paris-Roubaix 2014: Teams
Ag2r La Mondiale
Trek Factory Racing
Paris-Roubaix 2014: Recent winners
2013: Fabian Cancellara (Swi) RadioShack
2012: Tom Boonen (Bel) Omega Pharma-QuickStep
2011: Johan Vansummeren (Bel) Garmin-Cervelo
2010: Fabian Cancellara (Swi) Saxo Bank
2009: Tom Boonen (Bel) Quickstep
2008: Tom Boonen (Bel) Quickstep
2007: Stuart O’Grady (Aus) Team CSC
2006: Fabian Cancellara (Swi) Team CSC
2005: Tom Boonen (Bel) Quickstep
2004: Magnus Backstedt (Swe) Alessio-Bianchi
Paris Roubaix 2013 top ten
1. Fabian Cancellara (Swi) Radioshack-Leopard in 5:45:33
2. Sep Vanmarcke (Bel) Blanco in same time
3. Niki Terpstra (Ned) Omega Pharma-Quickstep) at 31secs
4. Greg van Avermaet (Bel) BMC
5. Damien Gaudin (Fra) Europcar both same same time
6. Zdenek Stybar (Cze) Omega Pharma-Quickstep at 39sec
7. Sebastian Langeveld (Ned) Orica-Green Edge
8. Juan Antonio Flecha (Spa) Vacansoleil all same time
9. Alexander Kristoff (Nor) Katusha at 50secs
10. Sebastian Turgot (Fra) Europcar at same time