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13-4-2003, Parijs-Roubaix, Sfeer , foto Cor Vos ©2003

PEZ Preview: Paris-Roubaix ’17

Paris-Roubaix Race Preview: The Queen of Classics, Paris-Roubaix, the Hell of the North will hit the cobbles this Sunday, the one-day race every rider would love to win. Yes, It’s a lottery, but a ‘nobody’ never wins L’enfer du Nord. In the PEZ Roubaix Preview, Ed Hood has everything you need to know ahead of the cobbles.

Just a few more cobbles in 2017

To quote, the late, great Barry White; ‘it’s just not enough!’ The Big Man was of course referring to making lurv with his woman – but the organizers of the season’s third Monument, Paris-Roubaix have been thinking along similar lines; ’53 kilometers of cobbles? – just not enough!’ Therefore the 2017 ‘Hell of the North’ features 55 kilometers of cobbles.

There are older races than Paris Roubaix, it was first held in 1896 when Josef Fischer of Germany won but Liege-Bastogne-Liege (La Doyenne, the fourth Monument) predates that by four years. 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. And there are hillier races; the aforementioned Liege-Bastogne-Liege 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.

Josef Fischer – The first Roubaix winner

Paris-Roubaix remains steadfastly pan flat; albeit we have the Bourghelles à Wannehain secteur six which is ‘uphill.’ There’s no other race like Paris-Roubaix; organizers in Denmark, England, Brittany and even the USA 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 114 previous editions.

This race is unique, and can justly be referred to as legendary in a world where the word is routinely abused. ‘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 – horses, carts and boot leather traversed the tracks and cobbles.

Alain Bondue leads Gregor Braun in 1984 Paris-Roubaix

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. In total then, there are around 55 kilometers over the granite blocks rather than on 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 tyres and carbon bicycle frames that there are so few mechanical problems. The surfaces are appalling, whilst the cobbles of 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.

Anything can happen!

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. 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 Trouee D’Arenberg

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 Riders of the Past
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.

Roger De Vlaeminck – The Beast from Eeklo

Sharing this lofty position, also on four wins is Tom Boonen – but with a mere 10 top 10 finishes. We’ll talk about Tom more in a moment; we didn’t think he could make it five before last year’s race but it took all of Matt Hayman’s experience and power to prove us wrong and ‘The Tornado’ was a close second.

Matt Hayman in 2016 just got the better of Tommeke

In the last 20 years only big men like Cancellara, Boonen, Backstedt, Tafi, Ballerini, Vansummeren 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.

Roubaix - France - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - Johan Vansummeren (Garmin - Sharp) pictured during Paris - Roubaix 2014 - photo IB/RB/Cor Vos © 2014
Johan Vansummeren suffered for his 2014 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.

Fred 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 (Boonen the last in 2012) to the home nation’s 30 (Guesdon in 1997) and Italy’s 11 (Tafi 1999). A Belgian winner is a distinct possibility, a French one much less likely and an Italian one unlikely despite Colbrelli, Modolo and Pippo all riding well in the North, this spring. There are few ‘surprise’ winners at Roubaix and 2017 will not be an exception to that rule.

A dry Roubaix = Dust

The first thing to state is that stellar Dwars door and E3 runner-up – and De Panne and Flanders winner, Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step & Belgium) DOES NOT ride; ‘resting before his Ardennes Campaign.’

Here’s our rating system for the men who will be present:
Super Favorites:
Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe & Slovakia):
Omnipresent at the head of race results this season thus far but denied in Flanders by cruel luck – it’s not like this man who can do things which make us gasp with a bicycle to fall off. He’s strong, fast, agile but has a best of ‘just’ sixth here in 2014 – he’ll want to better that.

Wevelgem - Belgium - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - VAN AVERMAET Greg (BEL) Rider of BMC Racing Team, KEUKELEIRE Jens (BEL) Rider of Orica - Scott Team, ANDERSEN Soren Kragh (DEN) Rider of Team Sunweb, TERPSTRA Niki (NED) Rider of Quick-Step Floors Cycling team, SAGAN Peter (SVK) Rider of Team Bora - Hansgrohe pictured during Gent - Wevelgem World Tour UCI - photo PdV/PN/Cor Vos © 2017
The Van Avermaet/Sagan battle continues

Greg Van Avermaet (BMC & Belgium): Viktor, PEZ’s resident soothsayer and expert on all races in Northern Europe, reckons GVA’s run of form can’t last much longer – but he said that before Flanders and the Olympic Champion was on the podium, again despite crashing. For all his success, GVA has not won a Monument – and he wants one. . .

The Olympic champion is having his best season

Second Faves:
Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNl-Jumbo & Belgium):
He was there with the ‘gifted few’ coming in to the end game of de Ronde – until his front tyre caught an expansion joint in the concrete section and down he went. Like Sagan he’s not a man for falling off and knows that Sunday is his last chance of a big result before what is effectively the end of his season.

***News just in: Vanmarcke will not start Paris-Roubaix***

Oudenaarde - Belgium - wielrennen - cycling - cyclisme - radsport - Sep VANMARCKE (Belgium / Cannondale Drapac Professsional Cycling Team) involved in the crash pictured during the of Flanders Classics UCI WorldTour 101st Ronde van Vlaanderen cycling race women with start in Antwerpen and finish in Oudenaarde on April 02, 2017 - foto Dion Kerckhoffs/Cor Vos © 2017
Flanders was not so good for Sep

Niki Terpstra (Quick-Step & The Netherlands): On the podium in Flanders, a previous winner over the pave and part of the strongest Classic team on the planet, Terpstra is strong, fast and smart – the podium is well possible.

Niki Terpstra – Quick-Step’s No. 2?

Zdenek Stybar (Quick-Step & Czech): ‘Stybie’ hasn’t dazzled as yet this season, but these are his parcours – his world champion cyclo-cross man skill set is perfectly suited to the dirt and cobbles. Another string to the already powerful Quick-Step bow.

Kuurne - Belgium - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - STYBAR Zdenek (CZE) Rider of Quick-Step Floors Cycling team and BENOOT Tiesj (BEL) Rider of LOTTO SOUDAL attacking on the Kwaremont climb pictured during Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne 2017 - photo PN/Cor Vos © 2017
Stybie – Quick-Step’s reserve No. 2?

Alex Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin & Norway): Strong and fast in De Panne – and not so far away in Oudenaarde on Sunday, he’s coming back from a slight lull after his winning start to the year.

Oudenaarde - Belgium - wielrennen - cycling - cyclisme - radsport -  Alexander KRISTOFF (Norway / Team Katusha - Alpecin)  pictured during the of Flanders Classics UCI WorldTour 101st Ronde van Vlaanderen cycling race with start in Antwerpen and finish in Oudenaarde on April 02, 2017 - foto PdV/PN/Cor Vos © 2017
Alexander Kristoff is coming into form

Strong men who just might:
Stijn Vandenbergh (AG2R-La Mondiale & Belgium):
Big, strong, tough, a man who has ridden more ‘tempo’ kilometers on the front of cobble classic pelotons than I’ve had hot dinners. Remember that he was in a winning position in this race a year or two ago until brought down by a fan. Naesen has been going well for the French Insurance company but ‘Big Stijn’ will surely be given his head in this one?

Harelbeke - Belgium - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme -  NAESEN Oliver (BEL) Rider of Team AG2R La Mondiale and VANDENBERGH Stijn (BEL) Rider of Team AG2R La Mondiale pictured during  60e Record Bank E3 Harelbeke - NV/PN/Cor Vos © 2017
AG2R-La Mondiale pair of Naesen and Vandenbergh

Jens Keukeleire (Orica-Scott & Belgium): Impressive in Gent-Wevelgem but fickle, he sat out Flanders – expect fireworks or a damp squib, there will be nothing in between.

Wevelgem - Belgium - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - VAN AVERMAET Greg (BEL) Rider of BMC Racing Team, KEUKELEIRE Jens (BEL) Rider of Orica - Scott Team pictured during Gent - Wevelgem World Tour UCI - photo PdV/PN/Cor Vos © 2017
Keukeleire was strong in Wevelgem

Roubaix - France - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme -  Tom Boonen of Team Omega Pharma - Quickstep pictured during the UCI WorldTour 110th Paris Roubaix cycling race with start in Compiegne and finish in Roubaix on April 8, 2012 in Roubaix, France  - foto Wessel van Keuk/Cor Vos ©2012
Tommeke in flight

And our hearts say:
Tom Boonen (Quick-Step & Belgium):
Remember when he bolted solo with 50K to go? Magnificent. He’s been getting just a little better each week; we didn’t see the best of him De Ronde due to gear problems [his chain stuck between the 42 and 53 rings] – Cancellara never rode those electronic gizmos over the cobbles – Tom will want to go out at the very top after last year’s second step on the podium. Expect record pils sales – and levels of absenteeism in Flanders on Monday if Tommeke can pull it off. We can dream. . .

Roubaix - France - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - Tom Boonen of Team Omega Pharma Quick Step during the UCI WorldTour 110th Paris Roubaix cycling race with start in Compiegne and finish in Roubaix on April 8, 2012 in Roubaix, France  - foto Cor Vos ©2012
The big dream

# PEZ will be right there with the best in race reportage, photography and analysis for the 2016 Paris-Roubaix. It’s Tom’s last race, our nerves will be frazzled, no messing, we’ll need the Duvels, and plenty of them! Find the live action from Paris-Roubaix at steephill.tv. #

Those famous showers

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 1,400 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.

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