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by Matt de Neef
April 10, 2016
One-day races don’t get much bigger than Paris-Roubaix. Held on rough, cobbled farm roads in the north of France, the “Hell of the North” is the most challenging and most punishing one-day race in the world. Here’s what you need to know before settling in to watch the 114th edition of Paris-Roubaix.
Paris-Roubaix doesn’t start in Paris and hasn’t done for half a century
Paris-Roubaix was first run in 1896 and for the first 60 years it began in the French capital. But in 1966 the start moved to Chantilly, some 50km north of Paris, and in 1977 it was moved even further away to Compiegne, some 85km north-east of Paris. The race has started there ever since.
From Compiegne, Sunday’s race takes the riders north east towards the Belgian border, covering a total of 257.5km. This year’s edition is 4km longer than last year but the route is practically the same, apart from a small section near the town of Valenciennes.
Paris-Roubaix is all about the cobblestones
While many races depend on climbs or strong winds to create hard, selective racing, Paris-Roubaix relies on its cobblestones. These narrow, roughly paved farm roads in the north of France are punishing for bikes and riders alike and ensure that only the strongest prevail at Paris-Roubaix.
Like last year, the 2016 Paris-Roubaix features 27 cobblestone sectors, for a total of 52.8 cobbled kilometres. These sectors are counted down in reverse order throughout the race, and the first sector, sector 27, comes after roughly 98km of racing. From there it’s an average of 6km between sectors, all the way to sector 1 which comes just before the riders turn into the famous Roubaix velodrome to conclude the race.
All 27 sectors have been given a rating according to their difficulty, with one-star sectors being the easiest and five-star sectors being the most difficult. There are three five-star sectors – the infamous Trouée d’Arenberg (with 95km to go, 2.4km long), Mons-en-Pévele (46km, 3km) and Le Carrefour de l’Arbre (15km, 2.1km). While the Trouée d’Arenberg is the most famous of all Roubaix sectors (see image below), it isn’t the most decisive given it comes with nearly a 100km still to race. As the cliche goes, you can’t win Roubaix here but you can lose it.
As you’d expect, the most decisive sectors come in the last 50km – including Mons-en-Pévele and the Le Carrefour de l’Arbre – when the pace is high and the attacks are coming thick and fast.
Just as the overall race route is almost identical to last year’s edition, so too are the cobblestone sectors in use. There’s only one change this time around – a stretch from Capelle to Ruesnes (1.7km long) will be used for sector 22 this year, rather than Verchain-Maugre a Querenaing (1.6km).
At the time of writing there’s also a chance the first sector of cobblestones might be removed from the race as it is currently covered in mud. An official decision will be made closer to the event.
The race is often won by a solo rider or small group
Much like the Tour of Flanders of a week ago, Paris-Roubaix is a very selective race and one that normally comes down to a small lead group or solo rider. In fact, seven of the last 10 editions have been won solo and the remaining editions were won by groups of two (2013), three (2008) and six (2015). Paris-Roubaix is the ultimate race of attrition.
Last year’s small-group sprint in the Roubaix velodrome was unusual. The race is normally decided by a group of three or less, often just a single rider.
If recent history is anything to go by, a breakaway will get clear in the cobblestone-free opening kilometres of Sunday’s race, building a comfortable lead. But as the kilometres and cobblestone sectors tick by, the break will eventually get reeled in by an ever-thinning main field. Attacks from the favourites should serve to thin the peloton out even further in the closing kilometres, until only the strongest remain.
But as with the Tour of Flanders, being strong is only part of the equation at Paris-Roubaix. A good Roubaix rider needs to be well-positioned on approach to crucial cobblestone sectors, he needs to have a good technique when riding the cobbles, and he needs to have his fair share of luck.
The Tour of Flanders is something of a form guide for Paris-Roubaix
The cobbles of Paris-Roubaix might be rougher and more unforgiving than those of the Ronde van Vlaanderen, but there are certainly lessons we can take from Flanders when considering Roubaix. Both Flanders and Roubaix are long, hard races of attrition and both suit riders that are strong and have the smarts to match.
Peter Sagan’s stylish solo victory at Flanders last Sunday automatically makes him one of the big favourites for Roubaix (if he wasn’t already). While the Tinkoff rider’s record at Roubaix isn’t as impressive as it is at the Tour of Flanders (even when you ignore last weekend’s win), few would dismiss the Slovakian’s chances on Sunday. Not only is he in tremendous form, he’s also been racing smarter of late, rather than simply relying on his (considerable) strength and natural talent.
Sagan grits his teeth while dropping Sep Vanmarcke and riding away to victory at the Tour of Flanders last weekend.
Sagan is the sort of rider that can win in a number of ways – if he gets to the finish in a small group he’ll be hard to beat. But equally, as he showed at Flanders, he’s more than capable of riding away from the field. This memorable quote from the man himself sums it up: “It’s very hard to work with the other guys; no one wants to work with me,” Sagan said after his Flanders win. “It’s always better to drop everybody. But it’s not easy.”
One of the riders Sagan will be keen to drop at Paris-Roubaix is three-time winner Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo). Cancellara missed the decisive move at Flanders last weekend and will be more than keen to make amends at Roubaix. The fact it’s his last time at the Hell of the North will only strengthen his resolve.
Cancellara is more than dangerous when he attacks alone – he won solo in 2006 and 2010 – and he’s also more than capable of a strong sprint, as he’s shown so many times at the end of long, hard races. And Cancellara’s record at Paris-Roubaix speaks for itself: 10 outings, three wins, two seconds, a third, a fourth, and an eighth.
To finish in the top 10 on eight out of 10 occasions at a race as hard and crash-affected as Paris-Roubaix is simply extraordinary. It’s hard to see him not reaching the podium again this Sunday.
Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo) deserves to be listed among the favourites as well, not least because of his third place at Flanders a week ago. The Belgian nearly-man was second to Cancellara in 2013 and fourth the following year and should be around the mark again in 2016.
But as he himself admitted before De Ronde, he’s at a disadvantage compared to the likes of Sagan and Cancellara – he’s likely to face faster opponents in a small bunch sprint, and he probably lacks the punch to solo away from the other favourites.
There are several other riders that have a good chance of victory
Just about the entire Etixx-QuickStep line-up is capable of winning Paris-Roubaix. Indeed, two of them already have: Niki Terpstra (once) and Tom Boonen (four times!). Expect Terpstra, Boonen, Zdenek Stybar (second last year), Tony Martin, and Stijn Vandenbergh to all be there when the action heats up in the final 50km.
While Boonen seems to be a few years past his very best (cue the extraordinary final 55km of the 2012 edition), he certainly shouldn’t be discounted. He said after Flanders that he’s been nervous about the prospect of crashing while descending, ever since his bad fall in Abu Dhabi last year. He struggled at Flanders as a result. But with no descents at the business end of Paris-Roubaix, Tommeke likely won’t be inhibited in the same way.
Should Boonen win the race on Sunday it will be his fifth Paris-Roubaix title, putting him at the top of the all-time leaderboard ahead of Roger De Vlaeminck with whom he currently shares the record. But it isn’t just Boonen’s wins at Roubaix that are impressive (and they were that) – like Cancellara, Boonen’s consistency over the past decade has been remarkable. In 12 participations Boonen has finished inside the top 10 on all but two occasions, one of which was a DNF.
Beyond Etixx-QuickStep, it would be foolish to discount the Sky duo of Ian Stannard and Luke Rowe, the former in particular. And over at Katusha, Alexander Kristoff would certainly like to add a Paris-Roubaix title to his Milan-San Remo and Tour of Flanders victories. If he can get to the Roubaix velodrome with a small lead group he might just be able to.
There are several others you shouldn’t discount
As ever, there’s a long list of riders that, on a good day, could be in with a shot at glory come Sunday. Jens Keukeleire (Orica-GreenEdge) has been around the mark for years and Lars Boom (Astana) won the cobbled stage of the Tour de France back in 2014, was fourth at last year’s Roubaix and has been in good form of late. The Lotto Soudal duo of Jurgen Roeladnts and Tiesj Benoot could be in contention as well, depending on how they’ve recovered from illness and injury respectively.
And don’t write off Dimension Data’s Edvald Boasson Hagen either – he’s showed promising form in recent times and is well suited to the cobbled roads of northern France.
The weather can play a major role at Paris-Roubaix
It’s been some 14 years now since we’ve had a wet Paris-Roubaix and there are plenty of fans hoping this year’s edition will break the drought. The combination of cobblestones and rain will make an already dangerous race even more so. And surprisingly, there are some riders that would actually prefer such conditions.
“If it rains, it’s going to be a mess,” Ian Stannard told Cycling Weekly. “I like those conditions, and the colder the better, as well. A dry Roubaix is probably nicer to race, but a wet one is better for my riding characteristics.”
Johan Museeuw on his way to winning the muddy 2002 Paris-Roubaix; the last rain-affected edition.
At this stage the weather forecast seems to suggest rain on the eve of the race but it’s not clear whether rain will fall during the race itself. Riders and fans alike will keep a close eye on the forecast in the days to come.
The race is being broadcast live in its entirety for the first time ever
Viewers in Australia can catch Paris-Roubaix live from the very start via livestream on the Cycling Central website, starting at 6:30pm AEST. TV coverage will begin on SBS2 from 8:30pm AEST. The race will also be on Eurosport (Foxtel channel 511) from 6:15pm AEST.
Viewers in the U.S. can catch the race live from the start on NBC Sports (a cable subscription is required) or via delayed coverage late in the evening. Fans in the UK and Europe will find coverage on Eurosport from 9:15am CET.
As ever, be sure to double-check your local guides to see when the race will be on in your neck of the woods.
So who do you think will win the 2016 Paris-Roubaix? And how will they do it?