Roubaix’18: The PEZ Hell Of The North Preview!
Race Preview: Of all the one-day Classics Paris-Roubaix is unique. Other races have cobbled sections, but nothing as severe as the pavé of the Hell of the North. The race in the north of France is the maker of heroes and legends. This Sunday sees the 116th edition of L’enfer du Nord, Ed Hood gives us the low-down on the course and history and which riders to place your bets on.
Luck plays a big part on the cobbles of Roubaix
There’s no other race like Paris-Roubaix; organizers in Denmark (GP Herning), England (Rutland), Brittany (Tro Bro Leon) and even the USA (Battenkill) seek to imitate it but that’s not possible. It’s not possible because it’s not Northern France in April and there haven’t been 115 previous editions.
And the weather
This race is unique, and can justly be referred to as legendary in a world where the word is routinely abused. There are older races than Paris Roubaix, it was first held in 1896 when Josef Fischer of Germany won, but Liège-Bastogne-Liège (La Doyenne, the fourth Monument) predates that by four years.
Josef Fischer – The first Roubaix winner in 1896
There are longer races; it’s a mere 257 kilometers from the Paris satellite of Compiegne to the Roubaix velodrome; Milan-Sanremo adds 40 kilometers to that.
The road to Roubaix is short on climbs
And there are hillier races; the aforementioned Liège-Bastogne-Liège has 10 classified climbs and hardly one hundred meters of flat road – whilst the Tour of Lombardy (the fifth and final Monument) includes bona fide mountain passes in the percorso. Paris-Roubaix remains steadfastly pan flat; albeit we have secteurs which are described as ‘uphill.’
The war was not kind to the area
‘The Hell of the North’ tag comes from the war ravaged countryside which the parcours traversed during the years after The Great War. And the race is, of course, a throwback to those days a century and more ago when horses, carts and boot leather traversed the tracks and cobbles.
Don’t look too closely
There are now 29 secteurs of the famous cobbles (kasseien in Flemish, pavé in French, kinderkoppen in Dutch slang); counting down from the 2200 meters at Troisville – prior to which there’s a huge positioning battle at warp speed just under 100K in – to the final symbolic 300 meters of neat sets laid outside the Roubaix velodrome, named Espace Crupeland.
Tom Boonen on the Roubaix velodrome in 2002
In total then, there are around 54 kilometers over the granite blocks rather than over tarmac or concrete. No matter how much you might read about the ‘secteurs pave’ you’re still unprepared for just how savage they are when you see them for the first time – it says much for the designers of modern tubular tires and carbon bicycle frames that there are so few mechanical problems.
Torture in the dry – In the wet…
The surfaces are appalling, whilst the cobbles of the final secteur the 300 meters of Espace Crupeland sit flat, square and level, out among the fields and forests the worn and ancient granite blocks jut, dip, collapse, poke, slew and threaten. If you’re contemplating riding them at speed it wouldn’t do to spend overly long inspecting them at close range. The Formula One divers always used to ‘walk the circuit’ to get a feel for it; but your conclusion here would be that it’s impossible to ride a bicycle at 50 kph over such things.
Sector 19 the Trouee d’Arnberg
Perhaps the most infamous stretch is the 2400 meters secteur 19 Trouee D’Arenberg (Arenberg Trench) said to be a Roman road, it slices arrow straight through the Forest of Arenberg. Below it are the long abandoned workings of the colliery whose old winding towers mark the entrance to this tangled, ancient wood where finding strange, Harry Potteresque beasts in the undergrowth would come as no surprise.
The moss-covered sets of this secteur have broken many a heart and almost ended Johan Museeuw’s career when he crashed heavily upon them. Arenberg is the first of three secteurs rated five stars difficulty by the organization.
The second, Mons-en-Pevele, secteur 11 drags in the second part – the end for anyone already ‘on the rivet.’ Then there’s the notorious Carrefour de l’Arbre secteur four (the secteurs count down from 29 to one) described by the organization as ‘the moment of truth.’
The 29 cobbled sectors of Paris–Roubaix :
29: Troisvilles (km 93,5 – 2,2 km) ***
28: Briastre (km 100 – 3 km) ***
27: Saint-Python (km 109 – 1,5 km) ***
26: Quiévy (km 111,5 – 3,7 km) ****
25: Saint-Vaast (km 119 – 1,5 km) ***
24: Verchain-Maugré (km 130 – 1,2 km) **
23: Quérénaing (km 134,5 – 1,6 km) ***
22: Maing (km 137,5 – 2,5 km) ***
21: Monchaux-sur-Ecaillon (km 140,5 – 1,6 km) ***
20: Haveluy (km 153,5 – 2,5 km) ****
19: Trouée d’Arenberg (km 162 – 2,4 km) *****
18: Hélesmes (km 168 – 1,6 km) ***
17: Wandignies (km 174,5 – 3,7 km) ****
16: Brillon (km 182 – 2,4 km) ***
15: Sars-et-Rosières (km 185,5 – 2,4 km) ****
14: Beuvry-la-forêt (km 189 – 1,4 km) ***
13: Orchies (km 197 – 1,7 km) ***
12: Bersée (km 203 – 2,7 km) ****
11: Mons-en-Pévèle (km 208,5 – 3 km) *****
10: Avelin (km 214,5 – 0,7 km) **
9: Ennevelin (km 218 – 1,4 km) ***
8: Templeuve – L’Epinette (km 223,5 – 0,2 km) *
8: Templeuve – Moulin-de-Vertain (km 224 – 0,5 km) **
7: Cysoing (km 230,5 – 1,3 km) ***
6: Bourghelles (km 233 – 1,1 km) ***
5: Camphin-en-Pévèle (km 237,5 – 1,8 km) ****
4: Carrefour de l’Arbre (km 240 – 2,1 km) *****
3: Gruson (km 242,5 – 1,1 km) **
2: Hem (km 249 – 1,4 km) ***
1: Roubaix (km 256 – 0,3 km) *
The Lion of Flanders – Johan Museeuw
Johan Museeuw is one of several in recent history who have won the race three times, along with Rik Van Looy, Eddy Merckx, Francesco Moser and Fabian Cancellara. But there’s one man who defines the race such that to this day he’s known as ‘Monsieur Paris-Roubaix,’ from 1969 to 1982 his stats read like this: 5, 2, 7, 1, 7, 1, 1, 3, 1, 2, 2, 0, 2, 6 – that’s 13 top 10 finishes for ‘The Gypsy’, Roger De Vlaeminck, Flandrian to the core and one of the coolest riders ever.
Monsieur Paris–Roubaix – The Gypsy – The Beast of Eeklo – The King of Paris-Roubaix Roger De Vlaeminck
Sharing this lofty position, also on four wins is Tom Boonen – but with a mere 11 top 10 finishes.
We didn’t think he could make it five before the 2016 race but it took all of Matt Hayman’s experience and power to prove us wrong and ‘The Tornado’ was a close second.
‘Tommeke’ Boonen – Four time winner in Roubaix
In the last 20 years only big men like Cancellara, Boonen, Backstedt, Tafi, Ballerini, Van Summeren and Duclos-Lasalle; ‘cobble kings’ like Madiot, Van Petegem and Museeuw or tough, solid, talented opportunists like Knaven, Tchmil and O’Grady have taken the win. Some might say that big Frenchman Fred Guesdon’s win in 1997 devalued the race – but the fact that he’d previously won the amateur version of the race and had finished 11th at Roubaix in ’96 seems to have slipped everyone’s mind.
Frédéric Guesdon on the wheel of Brian Holm
Statistically it helps if you’re Belgian; the nation just to the north of Roubaix has 56 winners (GVA the last in 2017) to the home nation’s 30 (Guesdon in 1997) and Italy’s 11 (Tafi 1999). Another Belgian winner is very possible, a French one much less likely and an Italian one unlikely despite Colbrelli and Gatto riding well enough in the North, this spring. There are few ‘surprise’ winners at Roubaix and 2018 will not be an exception to that rule.
2018 Paris-Roubaix trailer:
Here’s our ratings for the men who will be in the finale:
Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors and Belgium): Third in the Ronde gives us a big hint about his form – but more so his riding in the finale of Gent-Wevelgem where he set an infernal tempo to keep it together for the sprint for team mate Viviani – but that pesky Sagan spoiled the happy ending. Notwithstanding that he’s in very good shape and his stated aim for this year in the Queen of the Classics. He’s our favorite.
Peter Sagan (Bora-hansgrohe and Slovakia): His win in Gent-Wevelgem makes the spring a success but somehow we’d expected more from the Maestro. His frustration with the other teams failure to cooperate with him, especially Quick-Step, is palpable but what does he expect? With his sprint no one is going to carry him to the finish. But with his talent and ability to ‘bounce back’ it would be foolish to discount him.
Greg Van Avermaet (BMC and Belgium): Last year was remarkable, blessed. This year just isn’t the same but he’s a proud man and continues to battle on despite those legs not having the same magic as last season. He has the experience, knowledge and grinta, as with Sagan it would be unwise to exclude him from the final reckoning.
Sep Vanmarcke (Education First-Drapac and Belgium): Big, strong, committed – he rides hard as others sit in the wheels – he has all the attributes needed. Is it his year? Perhaps not with QuickStep currently as good as unbeatable but he must be worth a podium.
Niki Terpstra (Quick-Step Floors and The Netherlands): Last spring belonged to GVA and Phil Gil; this spring is the property of the baby faced killer from Beverwijk. The 2018 Le Samyn, E3 and Flanders are all on his roll of honor – would you bet against him making it four? Us neither – especially with Phil Gil and Stybie for team mates. . .
Alex Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates and Norway): He suffered in Gent-Wevelgem, then even suffered even more in the Ronde. But there are no hills in the Hell of the North and that big powerful torso of his was made for this race – albeit his best thus far is ninth. He’ll be there in the final mix, we think.
Wout Van Aert (Veranda’s Willems-Crelan and Belgium): We’re the first to say that it’s too soon to heap expectation on this young man but he keeps coming up with the goods and it makes it hard not to include him. He was third in the Strade Bianche, top ten in Gent-Wevelgem and again in the Ronde. On parcours made for his cyclo-cross pedigree his performance is one we keenly anticipate.
Oliver Naesen (AG2R-La Mondiale and Belgium): The Belgian Champion has been good this spring; fourth in the E3, sixth in Gent-Wevelgem and 11th in the Ronde despite a crash which was not of his making and cost him a lot of time. We’d love to see that beautiful jersey on the podium.
Damien Gaudin (Direct Energie and France): A left field entry, this one. The big, powerful Frenchman was fifth here in 2013, with that Tarzan build of his we thought he was a ‘winner in waiting’ but it never happened. AG2R let him go two seasons ago and he spent last year at continental level with the now defunct Armee de Terre squad where he picked up five good wins. Direct Energie signed him for this season; his best this year has been third in Le Samyn but we think his whole season is about Sunday.
Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo and Belgium): It’s two years since that Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne win and whilst he’s been strong this year with top 10’s in the Primavera, E3, Gent-Wevelgem, Dwars Door and the Ronde, sponsors want wins. But he has the build and the power – now he just needs some luck.
Michael Valgren (Astana and Denmark): The smiling Dane shocked us with his Het Nieuwsblad win then backed it up with a strong ride in Gent-Wevelgem and a fine fourth in the Ronde.
Zdenek Stybar (Quick-Step Floors and Czech): One of the Quick-Step ‘wolfpack’ for a former world cyclo-cross champion the hugely technical parcours hold no fears – and remember he’s been second here twice as well as fifth and sixth. Also remember he’s been top 10 in E3, Gent Wevelgem, Dwars Door and the Ronde, this spring. If Phil Gil and Nik falter or the marking is too tight then it could be Stybie’s day?
# PEZ will be right there with the best in race reportage, photography and analysis for the 2018 Paris-Roubaix. It’s a long race so we have to pace ourselves – Jupiler until finale and a Westmalle Tripel for a Quick-Step win. You can watch live action on-line at steephill.tv. #
2017 Paris-Roubaix highlights:
It was November 2005 when Ed Hood first penned a piece for PEZ, on US legend Mike Neel. Since then he’s covered all of the Grand Tours and Monuments for PEZ and has an article count in excess of 1,600 in the archive. He was a Scottish champion cyclist himself – many years and kilograms ago – and still owns a Klein Attitude, Dura Ace carbon Giant and a Fixie. He and fellow Scot and PEZ contributor Martin Williamson run the Scottish site www.veloveritas.co.uk where more of his musings on our sport can be found.