The toughest cobblestones in cycling
Although often cited as the climax of the springtime cobbled Classics, it doesn’t really ring true to label Paris-Roubaix as the end or beginning of anything, rather, it is a unique spectacle that stands alone on the calendar as something weird and wonderful.
For one thing, it takes place in France (finishing at the Roubaix velodrome and starting, despite its name, some 60km north-east of Paris in Compiegne), unlike all of the other Classics which are for the most part in Belgium.
And the cobblestones themselves are of are of a very different character to those in the Flemish races – they’re tougher, bigger, less evenly paved, and constitute flat roads across the French countryside, as opposed to the uphill bergs found in Flanders.
There are also a lot more of them – 29 sections to be precise, adding up to a total of 55km. More than any other race, the cobblestone define Paris-Roubaix; even the winner is handed one on the podium as a prize.
The Arenberg forest
The first of the race’s three section rated ‘five stars’ for toughness (or ‘black’, on a new colour-coded guideline) is the Arenberg Forest.
One of the most recognisable sights in cycling, tall trees surround the long, straight road cutting through the forest, eerily shadowing it in the kind of ungodly darkness that lives up to the race’s nickname of ‘Hell of the North’.
Coming at just under 100km from the finish, it is also a very important strategic point in the race – there’s a huge upping of the pace heading into it as the favourites attempt to move to the front, and being caught out here, whether through bad positioning or bad luck in the form of a mechanical/crash, can spell the end of a rider’s chances.
Attacking here would leave 47.5km for any chancer to maintain a gap – enough to deter most, but not too much to be totally reckless.
Only the very strongest will be capable of pulling off a move like this, but recent history has proven it possible. It’s about the distance Tom Boonen set off from to win the 2012 edition, while Fabian Cancellara used this very section to launch his successful long-range attack in 2010.
Carrefour de l’Arbre
The third and final of the five star sections, the Carrefour de l’Arbre often functions as the race’s denouement.
With only 16km left to race after the 1.2km section’s completion, there isn’t much time for any gaps and selections formed on it to come back together before the finish line, meaning we have a much better idea of who is going to win the race at the end of the section compared to the beginning.
Consequently, the l’Arbre is always one of the most dramatic in the race, with the already-exhausted favourites summoning the last of their strength to ride flat out over its horribly uneven cobblestones.
The Roubaix velodrome
Arguably the best of the race’s many quirks is the finish in the old outdoor Roubaix velodrome, a tradition that has been upheld since 1943.
One-and-a-half laps around the track might not be the most advisable way to end most races, but is a perfect fit for Paris-Roubaix, where those who do manage to finish do so in small groups spread across the race, each receiving their own round of applause by the appreciative spectators.
For riders with a taste for the archaic and traditional, there’s even still the chance to wash in the venue’s showers, famous for their rustic, open-plan design, and decorated with plaques commemorating previous legendary winners.
Tom Boonen’s farewell
An emotional farewell spring comes to an end for Tom Boonen, for whom Paris-Roubaix will be his last ever race.
This is the race’s where his legacy is most keenly felt, having won a record-equalling four times and finished on the podium on a further three occasions, taking part in some sublime duals with his great rival Fabian Cancellara, and pulling off one of the all-time best win with a solo attack on over 50km in 2012.
The big question is: can he seal the perfect fairytale ending and win? There have been sporadic hints throughout the spring that he has the form, although he hasn’t finished higher than sixth in any of the classics so far.
But that’s partly because he has ridden selflessly as a teammate for much of the campaign, and it’s worth remembering that he had a similarly quiet spring last year before coming to life at Paris-Roubaix to finish second.
This is the one he really wants, and there’s certainly a chance he’ll end his career in style with a record-breaking fifth Paris-Roubaix win.
Riders seeking redemption
The number of crashes and misfortunes that scuppered the favourites’ chances at last weekend’s Tour of Flanders means there are many riders out seeking a shot at redemption.
But, although all three have been prominent all spring, neither will enter Paris-Roubaix as nailed-on favourite.
On top of any lingering pain from that crash, none of them have proven themselves a specialist for the particular demands of Paris-Roubaix.
Van Avermaet may have podiumed a couple of times but excels more on punchy cobbled climbs than the cobblestones of this race; Naesen is still only 26 and lacks experience in a race that tends to favour old-heads; and Sagan’s highest finish is sixth, the only occasion throughout his five attempts that he has made the top ten.
The distinct nature of Paris-Roubaix means there’s usually a core set of riders who, even without having accumulated momentum in other recent Classics, tend to post high results.
They’re usually big, heavy rouleurs, who may not do so well on the climbs of the Flemish Classics, but who come into their own at Paris-Roubaix.
Examples to look out for include John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo), who was second and first in his last two rides here (in 2014 and 2015 respectively); the rider who beat him for victory in 2014, Niki Terpstra (Quick-Step Floors); Sky’s Ian Stannard, who may burst into life after a quiet spring; last year’s winner Mat Hayman (Orica-Scott); and the talented but out-of-form Lars Boom (LottoNL-Jumbo).
There has however been an air of unpredictability in recent years. Not a single rider who made the top ten in 2015 did so again in 2016, and many riders will be buoyed by the fact that outsider Hayman won last year’s race after getting into an early break.
With no outright favourite, even less heralded names like Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo), Luke Durbridge, Jens Keukeleire (both Orica-Scott) and possibly even Tony Martin (Katusha) can’t be written off.