The Family Baroudeur at Roubaix – images by Rob ‘Crazy Legs’ and Denis ‘The Gunner’
It’s that time of year again!
The Monuments are rolling by this spring. E3, done, Gent-Wevelgem, completed, Sanremo, sorted. Flanders, fulfilled. What could possibly wrap up the Classics Season in style? Pars-Roubaix, naturally.
Last week I was asked why did I ride the People’s Roubaix Sportiv? At first, I was taken aback; as if I had done something wrong. The look that accompanied his question, was one of disproval. It was like he was pitting the elegance of the Grand Tours against the daring of the Classics. As seasoned as this man is, he clearly had no appreciation of the cobbles. What a shame, because the Classics is a equally a true race.
What makes a Classic, Classic?
With kind permission from one of the most celebrated authorities on the Classics, Cosmo Catalano, the following is a description of what makes a true Classic:
“One of the most frequent complaints about bike racing is that it’s too choreographed. Everyone from Mike Creed to Oleg Tinkov has made the complaint that vast sections of every race are really, really dull.
This observation, like everything else in cycling is massively and detrimentally Tour de France-specific. Even with the ludicrous distances they broadcast (180km!), the classics seldom have a wasted moment.
There’s a lot behind this—one-day events eliminate the need to hedge against GC losses, there’s no accumulated fatigue from successive days of racing, there are constant pinch points, corners, steep hills, narrow, cobblestoned roads, etc.
“Le Carrefour de l’Arbre has become a more and more delicate sector to ride over time. In terms of difficulty, it is practically the same as the Trouée d’Arenberg this year. I think that through the entire length of the sector there’s not a single flat cobblestone!” – course director Thierry Gouvenou of ASO (organisers of Paris-Roubaix) – Image by Rob ‘Crazy Legs’
Hey, do you know?
But for me, the most important aspect of the classics is that when the race is really shaking out, there are moments when absolutely no one knows what’s going on. Not the commentators, not the racers, not the directors—no one. You could have four choppers and a dozen motos and still not get enough viewpoints to assemble a coherent race situation in the moment.
It’s like the thrill of a broken play in football, except that it resolves in minutes, not seconds, forcing dozens of individual actors to make high-value decisions based on utterly incomplete information. Needing a wheel change at the Tour is perfunctory; getting one at Roubaix is a crisis of gut-turning frenzy.
For me the question isn’t whether the Tour de France should integrate aspects of the classics, but why it doesn’t have more of them, and why they are consistently relegated to the first week.
The sense that 30 minutes on Alpe d’Huez is somehow more significant than 30 seconds on Carrefour de l’Arbre is both wrong, and a surefire recipe for ensuring the only three weeks of cycling anyone outside of Belgium cares about are dull as shit.” – Cosmo Catalano
Team Sky-High – Image by Rob ‘Crazy Legs’
The Marked Man
On a muggy afternoon, much like today, on Sunday April 1960; an arresting figure of a slender Englishman with a unmistakable nose, who won an Olympic team pursuit medal in his amateur years, steals the headlines at Paris-Roubaix. His name is Tom Simpson. This coming Sunday afternoon, 55 years on from that day, yet another tall, slender Englishman with an unmistakable nose, who won an Olympic team pursuit medal in his amateur years, now has the potential to win the headlines at Paris-Roubaix. His name is Sir Bradley Wiggins.
Will a solo breakaway win it again as it did for Simposon, Cancellara, or Terpstra, this year?
First year in France and only 22
In 1960, at the enterprising age of 22, Simpson breaks clear of his rivals on a sharp cobbled climb, 45 kilometres from the finish. At this point he is half a minute clear from his chasers, when he races through the village of Mons-en-Pévèle, reducing the race to 18 kilometers to go; he gains a further 1:25mins ahead of the peloton. Hovering overhead are some of the very first sporting TV cameras, as illustrated above, transmitting dim, black-and-white images of Simpson as he successfully negotiates the cobbled roads, but the fairytale is about to end. At the village of Hem, with only 5 kilometres to go, Simpson is reeled in by two rivals: Belgian, Pino Cerami and Frenchman, Tino Sabbadini. Cerami goes on to win the 1960 Paris-Roubaix, whilst a spent Simpson rolls in, a full minute later with the chase group, earning him ninth place.
Tom Simpson was later to reveal, in very acceptable French to the press, that he thought he only had 40 kilometres to go, and not the 45 kilometres. The unexpected 5 cooked him. Simpson was only 22, and living in France for but a single year. Yet, arguably he stole the hearts and minds of the French cycling public.
The Roubaix of Today
The Paris-Roubaix course is not altogether different from that rode by Simpson in 1960. The race still features many of the cobblestone sectors, and the finish, which completes the race, on an ironically, super smooth Victorian-era velodrome continues to play its role. Even the villages that break up the race, like Mons-en-Pévèle (47.5 kilometres from the finish), Cysoing (28.5 kilometres) and Hem (6 kilometres) would still look familiar to Simpson.
This is the 113th edition of the Hell of the North. It is a staggering 253.5 kilometres of mixed, brutal terrain. This includes 27 sectors of cobblestones, numbered from No. 27 to No. 1, and totaling 52.7 kilometres. Riders will have to muster all their skill, courage and wits in order to successfully navigate through the final 155 kilometres of racing. That’s 33 percent on cobblestones, with the peloton steaming through, at times averaging 45 kph. No wonder so many riders abandon through mechanicals, injury, or simply becoming separated – with no support car or team mate in sight amongst the dust and the carnage, it’s easy to end up lost.
Race organiser, ASO, regularly inspects each sector and are known for seeking new cobbles to race on. At times the combination of soft soil under heavy cobbles being shifted over the years makes them too dangerous to race on. They then grade them from one star, ‘painful’, to five stars, ‘cruelest’. Three sectors are given five stars, and six have four stars. The oldest five-star stretch is the Trouée d’Arenberg. First included in the race in 1968. It’s a brutal, false flat, dead-straight, 2.4 kilometre long sector of large granite cobblestones, through a forest, and under a bridge, that is closed to traffic the rest of the year.
The French noun ‘Trouée’ is often translated as “trench”. Although this isn’t entirely accurate, it gives a fair description that throws up insane images of pave sandwiching the peloton in. It is used further to describe the recent fencing of Arenberg before the race starts, not only to protect both rider and fans alike, but also to ensure that the riders endure the cobbles to the fullest; rather than do what any ‘sane’ rider would opt for, and that is, to ride the smooth pavement on either side. However, a more accurate translation of the French word “tranchée”, seems to be ‘breach’, or ‘gap’ , because trouée is an ‘opening’ through the trees of the Arenberg forest. This too is a significant portrayal of what this sector offers to the skilful rider, as it is often described as the place where the race isn’t necessarily won, but certainly where it could be lost. Look out for Arenberg.
Wearing the flag – Image by Rob ‘Crazy Legs’
Last year, when Wiggins rode the Roubaix, many described him as a ‘tourist’, having not prepared ‘seriously for this race. He still came in ninth place. This year, he is no longer a tourist. He has made a crystal-clear statement of intent, by winning the World Time Trial Championships, and who can forget his palmares to date – 93 podium finishes, including the Tour de France. Wiggins is currently on, what is arguably, one of the strongest, accomplished and experienced race teams present. As well as being his final race for the team, he is in preparations for his world hour record attempt in June. With his commanding past, an enviable presence, and a glorious future awaiting him, Wiggins might well be motivated and assured enough to usurp Simpson and become the first British rider to win Paris-Roubaix. Only two Brits have ever stood upon the Roubaix podium, both on the third step, Barry Hoban in 1972 and more recently, Roger Hammond in 2004.
Players of Attrition
At the press conference this week, Geraint ‘G’ Thomas, winner of E3, responded to a question posed to him, about Team-Sky’s plan. A strategy, or a war of attrition? “A mix of throwing riders up the road,” says G, “and attrition, and to follow all the right moves.”
One such strategic sector would be the 3-kilometre-long stretch at Mons-en-Pévèle, still with 50 kilometres to go, but as riders who manage to come out in front, can enjoy tailwinds for most of the following 25 kilometres, that include 4 “less cruel” cobbled sectors. Eventually, it comes to the final battlefield, one that throws everything at you: a mix of cross- and headwinds on the 4-star and 5-star sectors between Camphin-en-Pévèle and Le Carrefour de l’Arbre, but this sector awards you with a tantalising 15 kilometers from Roubaix. The Carrefour isn’t just cruel in respects to its location on the race, nor the winds, nor it’s hammering of cat 5-star cruelty; no to top it all, are the zig-zags turns that surprise the swirling peloton, claiming the wheels of many a rider.
Can EQS make it a double? – Image by Rob ‘Crazy Legs’
The Dark Side
Thankfully, rain isn’t forecast for Sunday. Unlike during the TdF of last year that included these same cobbled roads. However, what may seem ideal brings its own host of challenges. The dried-up mud from surrounding farm fields rises everywhere from the rambling official cars. It’s how you know the race is coming to you.
Additionally, the farm roads that feature the worst pavé were originally made for limited local traffic, and are naturally narrow; this forces contenders to race at the front to avoid the bottleneck that at the other end pours out crashes and an array of mechanical mishaps. These problems were highlighted recently by Swiss national champion and IAM team member, Martin Elmiger, who finished a convincing 10th at last weekend’s Tour of Flanders and will be racing at Roubaix, “In this race, you really have to be permanently well placed, and have a little boost of good luck, too. Just a simple puncture or a crash is enough to lose all hope of doing well… and Sunday, which looks to be sunny, dry and dusty, the cobbles will be very dangerous.”
The Beauty of Roubaix
Paris-Roubaix is steeped in history, the centre of ancient wars to modern World Wars; from compelling cycling legends to modern day heroes. The true beauty of the Roubaix, is that even with both Tom Boonen, and Fabian Cancellara, arguably the most successful Monument winners of all time out, this still has become more of an open race – for the unsung antiheroes, and underdogs amongst the peloton.
Nevertheless, there is still a plethora of top contenders to the Classics Crown. Top of this elite list is Alexander Kristoff, who won this year’s Flanders just a week ago, and reign supreme at only a couple days ago at the Sheldeprijs. He is terrific form and with his partner in lead-out-crime, Luca Paolini; they may not have the strength in numbers as others do, but equally use this stealth presence to steal it at the line.
All the same, you can’t get away from two startling differences at Paris-Roubaix. Firstly the race is much flatter, and secondly this makes it more possible for strong teams to dominate. We saw Team Sky attempt to do this at Flanders, with not much success, but on flatter roads, this method can work, when applied at the right moment.
Last year’s winning team demonstrated this like no other, when the local favourite, Etixx-Quick Step (EQS), outnumbered their rivals in the final breakaway group and Niki Terpstra rode away to his solo win. The EQS squad could repeat this tactic again on Sunday. They have excellent cards to play with, in the form of Terpstra, despite being a marked man, he will undoubtedly play dual leader and supporter for team mate, Zdenek Stybar for the win. Further examples of former winners and favourites riding shot-gun for another team mate come to mind in the form of, Johan Van Summeren in his 2011 breakaway, after his Garmin team leader, Thor Hushovd, was boxed in at every turn; Stuart O’Grady won solo in 2007 when CSC team leader, Fabian Cancellara ran out of gas in the overwhelming heat; and, in 2001, when the Domo-Farm Frites team, yes they really existed, Johan Museeuw’s, riding-lieutenant, Servais Knaven who escaped to take the win.
This winning combination comes full circle at this time, as Knaven is now the current lead sports director for Team Sky—whose top classics riders, all incidently British: Geraint Thomas, Ian Stannard and Luke Rowe, will likely protect Wiggins this Sunday. In an interview with Cycling Weekly magazine, Knaven was quoted as saying, “Bradley’s in a good place. He’s one of our best riders for Sunday. Do you call him a leader? Paris-Roubaix is a different race with different tactics. If one of our protected riders attacks, then he will have his freedom.”
Should Wiggins find the break at any number of the critical moments at Paris-Roubaix, the tall, slender Brit with the unmistakable nose could very well finish off where Simpson began over half a century ago. It’s about time, wouldn’t you say?
I Love RBX – Image by Denis ‘The Gunner’
The Likely Lads
Who else is in the mix? We’ve talked of Kristoff, but can he continue. It would be foolish to count him out, but he’s not everyone’s favourite rider. He’s earning it every day, and this could be the weekend that sees him gain favour with critics. He’s strong, and the course is without the climbs he endured at Flanders, but will he have better luck than before?
EQS – Despite the local experience, strength and popularity, they still lack a Classics win this season. Add to this the pressure of defending last year’s champion, Terpstra, they also have to recover from the nightmare scenario experienced at Omloop, where a lone Ian Stannard wiped out 3 of EQS’ very best. Still, they hold an amazing arsenal of riders. Most notably Terpstra, and Stybar, who can equally lead their team to that long awaited victory. EQS had a drought right up till Terpstra’s win last year, could it be they will do it again on Sunday?
Team Sky – When Wiggins decides to do something, he does it. And oh my, does he do it, and each time we are blown away. His GC contention with Garmin when he just left the track; his TdF win followed by Olympic gold. This year at Roubaix, there is no doubt that Wiggins has made a decision to win. Flanders may have looked erratic, and unorganised, but really, it is all but a dress rehearsal for this Sunday. Away from the man the team have the talent, the legs and the smarts to fly a British flag upon French cobbles.
This year on the Cyclocosm Recon Ride, Wiggins reveals his key to victory: “Staying coordinated. I realise now. I didn’t communicate enough. This time we’ll be talking to each other.”
He’s coming – Image by Rob ‘Crazy Legs’
The man who just couldn’t be dropped in 2011 was big man not many had heard of before. Since then, Lotto NL Jumbo’s, Sep Vanmarcke is man who has come with great expectations. However, his Strade Bianche campaign was fraught with ‘almosts’. Whilst in Flanders, he was unable to shine. He continues to be an incredible talent, who comes across determined, but has he worked too hard on his sprints, to outdo the likes of Cancellara, and failed to build on his natural strengths as a Classics rider.
Greg Van Avermaet is the designated Classics leader at Team BMC. At every turn he can lay in the ‘hurt’, but continues to run out of gas to the likes of Stybar, despite his speed. However, with teammates, notably Daniel Oss, Van Avermaet has the opportunity throw up options, or have a potential alternative candidate for the overall win.
Often judged for his age, rather than his accomplishments and a skill set beyond his years, Peter Sagan enters Sunday, winning almost everything else, but the Paris-Roubaix. The teething problems at Team Tinkoff-Saxo are hopefully disappearing behind the excellent Slovak rider. He has an excellent chance on Sunday, coupled with formidable bike handling skills and undeniable grit. The question is does he have the required stamina? What is certain, is that he won’t have the burden of a heavy spotlight like Kristoff, or Terpstra will carry, and could sneak in under the radar.
Another stealth rider for Sunday is John Degenkolb. He comes into the race as winner of Sanremo and last year’s No.2 of Paris Roubaix. His super sprint wattage could prove too much for the likes of Kristoff, but he’s got to get himself there first, and he’s more than capable of this. As demonstrated at Sanremo, he followed all the right moves, before making his own.
Lotto Soudal don’t just have a daring red kit to admire. Their line up for Paris-Roubaix is even more impressive , and could be party spoilers for the favourites. With experience of Jürgen Roelandts and Lars Bak, comes with the youth of impressive riders like Tiesj Benoot, as well as the powerhouse that comes with André Grapple in the mix. We should see some good moves from the Belgian team. Let’s hope they’re the right moves.
Two teams that will need to make the right moves are Trek Factory Racing. With team and Classics favourite, Fabian Cancellara out, the likes of Devolder will be let loose upon the field. His experience and his stealth like ‘Sagan-affect’ can prove a winning combination this weekend.
The variety of challenge, mixed with elements of unpredictability give people as well as teams a chance worth taking. This comes to one team like no other, the wildcard entry to Paris-Roubaix, Team MTN Qhubeka. With designated Classics rider, Edvald Boasson Hagen unfortunately out, it falls to the shoulders of seasoned rider, Tyler Farrar to lead the South African team. Add to this, a solid arsenal in the form of: Gerald Ciolek, Matt Goss and Theo Bos. Tyler’s experience and ‘wildcard’ entry for the team, can help him and MTN, a further ‘stealth’ contender worthy of the cobbled trophy.
Each Classics race before this one has literally carved up the anticipation, the atmosphere and the hopes for this Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix. With so many teams riding without their Classics Captain, the amount of freedom available could determine how the story unfolds on Sunday.
At the same time, solid teams with experienced individuals can equally prove their right to the top of the podium. The Paris-Roubaix is such a ‘team orientated’ race, that the likes of Team IAM: Heinrich Haussler, Sylvain Chavenal, and Martin Elmiger can dominate throughout the entire race.
Team tactic leverage isn’t the reserve for one overall team. Team Sky, EQS and Lotto Soudal can all challenge Team IAM. In fact, any team that is willing to place anybody up the road becomes a valuable card. With the unpredictability, you can become very alone without your team.
Besides Arenberg, a key spot to look for the right moves will be in the Carre Foure. From here, expect to see the winning bunch, if not the solo breakaway winner, baroudeuring himself to Roubaix’s Velodrome. Wiggins is a the TT Champ of the world for a reason. Besides the bumps in the roads, like Fabian Cancellara, you can conceivably tear aways and time trial all the way to the finish line.
The ideal of a British 1-2-3 result, in the form of Wiggins, Thomas and Stannard/Rowe is only hours away, but this is a highly experienced field with hungry teams ready to eat up the cobbles. Only those who can look deeper, ride up front and make, not just follow the right moves will hold aloft the mighty cobble.
Tomorrow, is truly an open race, so limiting it to 3 names isn’t in the spirit of the Roubaix, but if someone were to ask me who I’d like to win, I’d say this: Bradley Wiggins soloing away, followed confidently by Zdeněk Stybar, and hotly pursued by Sep Vanmarcke.
Paris Roubaix will be on British Eurosport from 11.45 till around 14.3oish. If you’e going to watch just one race this year, watch this one.
Image from OnTheBackFoot