Paris-Roubaix is a unique display of power and skill like no other in professional cycling and the 2018 edition takes place on Sunday April 8.
There are plenty of other long Classics that exceed 250km, plenty of other big races held in France, and plenty of other races that feature cobblestones, but none are as difficult nor unique in character as the so-called ‘Queen of the Classics’
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For one thing, the cobblestones here are on another level of difficulty to those found in the Flandrian classics like the Tour of Flanders and Ghent-Wevelgem. The most difficult sectors are very unevenly paved, and take real skill, power and a heavy dose of fortune to negotiate.
There are also an awful lot of them. In total there are 29 sectors of pavé, amounting to 54.5km – roughly a fifth of the entire race. That far exceeds the ratio of any cobbled classic held in Flanders, and makes Paris-Roubaix something of a test of endurance, with riders generally reaching the finish in dribs and drabs.
The race can be even more gruelling if the weather turns foul. Epic editions involving slippery cobbles and mud-caked jerseys have gone down in folklore and helped earn the race its nickname of ‘Hell of the North’.
Each sector of cobblestones is rated between one star (the most straightforward) and five stars (the most difficult), and it’s on the three five star stretches that regularly sees the most spectacular racing.
First is the Arenberg Forest at 94km, a long stretch of road rendered dark by the overstretching trees either side of the road, where the race’s first major sort-out usually takes place.
Then at 47km to go is the Mons-en-Pevele, which, if a rider is on the form of their life, can provide the launchpad for a race-winning attack (as Fabian Cancellara managed in 2010 and 2012 respectively). But more often than not it’s the Carrefour de l’Arbre at 15km to go that has the final say.
Even the finish of the race is unusual and iconic. When finally arriving in Roubaix (these days the race might start in Compiegne rather than Paris, but the finish has always been in Roubaix), the riders head to the town’s velodrome to complete one and a half laps laps of the track, in front of a cheering crowd.
Whether the arena plays host to a sprint between a leading group or a lap of honour for a sole leader, it’s invariably a perfect spectacle to end a perfect race.