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Roubaix’15: The PEZ Preview

The ‘Hell of the North’ hits the cobbles of Northern France on Sunday, our L’enfer du Nord expert, Ed Hood, runs his eye over the uneven surface of Paris-Roubaix. The course and runners for 2015 and the history of the Queen of the Classics. Sunday in Hell – The PEZ Preview.

Sure, there are older races – Paris Roubaix was first held in 1896 when Josef Fischer of Germany won but Liege-Bastogne-Liege (La Doyenne and the fourth Monument) predates that by four years. There are longer races; it’s a mere 257 kilometres from the Paris satellite of Compiegne to the Roubaix velodrome; Milan-Sanremo adds 40 kilometres to that. And there are hillier races; the aforementioned Liege-Bastogne-Liege has 10 classified climbs and hardly one hundred metres of flat road – whilst the Tour of Lombardy (the fifth and final Monument) includes bona fide mountain passes in its parcours. Paris-Roubaix remains steadfastly pan flat.

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But there’s no other race like Paris-Roubaix; organisers 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 112 previous editions. This race is unique, and can justly be referred to as legendary in a world where the word is routinely abused.

ijzertoren-620The Ijzertoren and the men of the ‘Hell of the North’

‘The Hell of the North’ tag comes from the war ravaged countryside which the parcours traversed during the years after The Great War. If you’re in Flanders on the trail of a race take an hour or two to seek out the Ijzertoren in Diksmuide near the North Sea Coast. This huge structure is an anti war museum built in the shape of a cross – the photographs and panorama give a chilling insight into what Northern France and Flanders looked like during the First World War. Many more died from infection and disease than ever did from their initial wounds in what was a stinking, clinging, deep, rat and mosquito infested sea of mud. The ‘Hell’ description seems all the more appropriate after a visit to Diksmuide. 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. But positively no SUV’s, trail bikes or 4 x 4 pick-up trucks.

There are 27 sectors of the famous cobbles (kasseien in Flemish, pave in French); counting down from the 2200 metres at Troisville – 97.8 K in and prior to which there’s a huge positioning battle at warp speed – to the final symbolic 300 metres of neat sets laid outside the Roubaix velodrome, named Espace Crupelandt.

charles-crupelandt-1912-620Charles Crupelandt, winner in Roubaix 1912 & 1914

In total there are around 53 kilometres 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 metres of Espace Crupelandt 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.

paris-roubaix-1927-620Paris-Roubaix 1927, when there was a climb on the course

Perhaps the most infamous stretch is the 2400 metres 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, nameless 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-trench-620Trouee D’Arenberg (Arenberg Trench)

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 a chap called Fabian Cancellara – but who won’t make it four wins this year, like Boonen he’s out due to a crash earlier in the season.

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 – Flandrian, Roger De Vlaeminck. Sharing his lofty position, also on four wins is Tom Boonen – but he won’t add to that this year, not after his low speed but nasty crash in Paris-Nice.

Cor Vos ArchivesRoger De Vlaeminck, the King of Paris-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. Statistically it helps if you’re Belgian; the nation just to the north of Roubaix has 55 winners to the home nation’s 28 and Italy’s 13.

Cor Vos ArchivesGuesdon; a surprise winner in ’97?

A Belgian winner is possible, a French one less likely – but more of that shortly – and an Italian one unlikely. There are few ‘surprise’ winners at Roubaix and 2015 will probably not be an exception to that rule.

We’ve used the ‘star’ system favoured by the continental newspapers to rate our choices for Sunday:

** Two Stars:
Pippo Pozzato (Lampre-Merida & Italy) was there in the finale of the Ronde and took 12th; he looked smooth during the last hour and provided his notoriously fragile moral doesn’t take any knocks we see him being one of the first onto the velodrome in Roubaix – but not to win.

Roubaix-Pozzato

*** Three Stars:
Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing Team & Belgium) was top ten in Het Nieuwsblad, second in the Strade Bianche, a stage winner in Tirreno, prominent in Milan-Sanremo but the victim of a bad crash in the E3 with damage to ribs, hips and back; he wasn’t quite there on the road to Wevelgem but bounced back to take the last spot on the podium in the Ronde. Not that his ride impressed the Belgian Media, naturally. But he’s backed by a strong team and wants so badly to lose his ‘nearly man’ tag.

Paris - Roubaix 2013

Daniel Oss (BMC Racing Team and Italy) perhaps a better bet that team mate Van Avermaet, he was just outside the top ten in the Ronde but the lack of gradients between Compiegne and Roubaix should suit his big frame and power more than the Bergs of the Flemish Ardennes.

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Bradley Wiggins (Sky & GB) is a master of finding form on the big day but he’s also petulant – witness his bike throwing antics – and needs things to go ‘his way,’ not to mention the fact he’ll be very closely marked. His win in the De Panne time trial tells us that the form is there but we don’t know if he wants it bad enough – and his Sky team just haven’t got it right in the last two Monuments. Podium or DNF, let’s toss a coin. . .

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Arnaud Demare (F des J & France) is highly motivated to do a ride here and is one of the fastest around at the death. He was 12th last year and is a year stronger and wiser and it would be so nice to see a Frenchman up there.

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Andre Greipel (Lotto Soudal & Germany) was immensely impressive in the Ronde; brute strength counts for much in these races and ‘le Gorille’ has to be considered given that gravity will play much less of a part than it does in the Ronde.

Ronde van Vlaanderen 2015 men elite worldcup

**** Four Stars:
Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo & Slovakia) missed the podium in the Ronde but can’t be ruled out – the flat parcours is much better suited to his chunky body. But there’s still too much hype around the team following Bjarne Riis’s departure – it can’t be good for morale. . .

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Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo & Belgium) despite the Belgian Media losing faith in the big chap after his poor showing in the Ronde we reckon he’ll be in the mix on the pave. We’ve said it before; big, strong, aggressive and Belgian – the perfect man for the job.

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John Degenkolb (Giant & Germany) won in Sanremo and was second here last year – with his brick built outhouse physique he’s made for the race and his finish is one of the fastest.

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Geraint Thomas (Sky & GB) has been on fire with a win in the E3 and podium in Gent-Wevelgem but he discovered that the E3 isn’t the Ronde as he faded to 14th spot. He was top ten at Roubaix last year and is a big strong, determined boy – we’d love to see it but the trouble is, there are these guys on five stars. . .

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***** Five Stars:
Niki Terpstra (Etixx – Quick-Step & The Netherlands) was second in the Ronde and in Gent-Wevelgem, that would be ‘enough said’ without remembering he won this race last year. One of the classiest riders in the peloton, he has strength, speed, grinta and hates getting beaten. He won’t be far away.

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Zdenek Stybar (Etixx – Quick-Step & Czech Republic) loves this race and would have been right on the money two years ago had an idiot spectator not decked him. Despite dental problems he won the Strade Bianche and was top ten in the Ronde – he’ll be right there in the last hour.

Paris - Roubaix 2014

Alex Kristoff (Katusha & Norway) in the last week he’s won three stages and the GC at De Panne, the Ronde, and today the Scheldeprijs. There’s not much to add, really; except that he honoured his promise of visiting his Belgian Fan Club and having a beer with them after his win – we like that. He has strength, confidence, speed – and Paolini as his mentor, a good combination.

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Lars Boom (Astana & The Netherlands) is the man we say will win – a little bird told us that he’s shed a lot of weight and his power to weight numbers are stellar. He was sixth in the Ronde; and who was it won that brutal cobbled stage in le Tour which did for Chris Froome last year? – yes, said large former cyclo-cross world champion. You read it here first.

Dwars door Vlaanderen 2015

PEZ will be right there with the best in race reportage, photography, road-side action and analysis for the 2015 Paris-Roubaix. Go to Steephill.tv for live coverage.

And our advice on hydration for such a long race? Save the Duvels for the final secteurs!

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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 1,100 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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