Race preview: Paris-Roubaix 2013

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After Fabian Cancellara’s momentous ride at Tour of Flanders last weekend, he appears to be the biggest favourite to win the 2013 Paris-Roubaix this Sunday. But the beauty of this epic race is it’s unpredictability and, realistically, the winner could come from almost anywhere within the peloton.

This race holds a special place in my heart as it was the first time I saw a domestique win one of cycling’s Monuments. In 2011, Johan Van Summeren slipped out of a breakaway to take the biggest win of his career. Before the race, nobody would have tipped him to win Hell of the North and it was the perfect case of an underdog claiming glory.

If there’s one thing that everyone agrees on about Paris-Roubaix is that it’s an extremely hard race — one of the reasons to love it. Another reason I love this race is because it’s different from any other race on the pro-racing calendar. The rough cobbles, the muddy terrain, the uncertainty of the weather and the nervousness of peloton all make it a very open race which can only be won by a mentally and physically hard rider.

Not many movies have been made about the Classics but this race is the subject of two great cycling movies — A Sunday in Hell and Road to Roubaix. The immensity of this race is also underlined by the fact bicycle companies have chosen to create dedicated frames like the S-Works Roubaix SL4 to tame the cobblestones of Northern France.

History of the race

The race was created in 1896 by two Roubaix textiles manufacturers, Théodore Vienne and Maurice Perez to mark the opening of a new velodrome they’d just built. Initially, the 280km-long race was proposed by the organisers as a preparation event for the much longer (560km) Bordeaux-Paris.

Vienne and Perez contacted the editor of French sports newspaper, Le Vélo to help them organise the race. The editor was positive about the prospects and sent his cycling editor, Victor Breyer, to find a route starting from Paris. Breyer braved the harsh cobbled roads and reached Roubaix completely devastated. But his negative thoughts were dispelled after a few rounds of drinks and the race was born. The race proved to be a great success until 1914 when it had to be stopped due to the First World War.

After the War, the region around Roubaix was covered in black soot from four years of continuous shelling and trench warfare. The scarce vegetation in the coal-mining region was reduced to ashes and trees took the form of ragged stumps. With no plants to hold the soil, there was mud everywhere and the area was said to symbolise hell, giving the race the nickname “l’Enfer du Nord”, the Hell of the North.

Until the Second World War, Paris-Roubaix was run all on the cobbled roads of France. But with the advent of live television, local authorities started to surface the roads in order to make the region look good. As a result, there was less and less pavé which started to diminish the original spirit.

The race gradually turned into a long procession for sprinters which alarmed the organisers. In 1967, the course was moved to the east to use the cobbles that remained there. These days Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix, a enthusiasts group, spend €10-15,000 a year on restoring and rebuilding cobbles. The group members and local community supply the sand and other material and the repairs are done as training by students from horticulture schools.

The course

The race originally started near Paris but in 1966 the start was moved to Chantilly and then in 1977 to Compiègne, which will be the starting point this Sunday. The riders will hit the first cobbles after 100km and over the remaining 150km, they will cover a total of 52.6km worth of cobbles over 27 sectors.

The longest cobbled sector of the 2013 parcours is at Quiévy and at Hornaing — 3.7km long. The shortest sector of 300 metres is in Roubaix, shortly before the entrance to the velodrome where the race finishes.

Three of the cobbled sectors have been designated the maximum of five stars, starting with the mythical 2.4km-long Trouée d’Arenberg, which comes after 158km. The other five-star sectors are the Mons-en-Pévèle after 205km, and Le Carrefour de l’Arbre after 236.5km.

The race

The weather forecast suggests Sunday will be cold, between 5-8 degrees, but with no rain. The small amount of rain forecast for Friday and Saturday should settle the mud and we could be in for a clean Paris-Roubaix!
Although he suffered a crash on Wednesday at Scheldeprijs (and on a reconnaissance ride yesterday), Cancellara claims he will be in top shape come Sunday. But it could be that we see a repeat of the 2011 Paris-Roubaix in which Cancellara was heavily marked and later isolated by Team Garmin. That said, he still managed to finish second.

With no Tom Boonen or Peter Sagan to challenge, there’s a host of contenders who will be hoping for a great result. Olympic bronze medalist, Alexander Kristoff of Katusha has been going great guns in the early Spring Classics and should be a contender for the podium along with Team Sky’s powerhouse Ian Stannard.

Someone who has been quietly flying under the radar is last year’s runner-up Sébastien Turgot of Team Europcar. His team had a decent showing at last Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen and they should feel more confident on the cobbles of their home country. It’s difficult to look beyond these names for the winner but then this is Paris-Roubaix — anything could happen.

Click here to see the provisional startlist for the 2013 Paris-Roubaix/

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