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by Matt de Neef
April 6, 2017
Photography by Kristof Ramon & Cor Vos
Few bike races capture the imagination quite like Paris-Roubaix. “L’enfer du Nord” (“The Hell of the North”) is played out on the cobblestones of Northern France and is arguably the toughest and most unforgiving one-day race in the world. It takes a special rider to win at Paris-Roubaix — one that excels on the roughest of pavé — and a not-insignificant amount of luck.
With Sunday’s 115th edition of Paris-Roubaix fast approaching, here’s what we think you should know about the course, the cobbles and the riders to watch in what is the third Monument of the season.
Despite the name, Paris-Roubaix doesn’t start in Paris.
It’s been more than 50 years since Paris-Roubaix actually started in the French capital. In every edition since 1977 it’s started in Compiégne, roughly 85km north east of Paris. The same is true of the 2017 edition.
From Compiégne the race winds its way north for 257km, tackling a bevy of cobblestone roads en route to the finish inside the famous Roubaix velodrome. The 2017 route is very similar to the one used in last year’s edition, albeit with a few small changes here and there.
There are 55km of cobbles spread over 29 sectors in this year’s race.
Paris-Roubaix is defined by its cobblestone sectors. Unlike at the Tour of Flanders, where these cobblestones are found on short but steep climbs, nearly all of Paris-Roubaix’s cobblestone sectors are flat. But that doesn’t mean they’re easy – far from it. These normally quiet farm roads in the north of France are punishingly rough, making it extremely challenging for riders to maintain their speed without great effort.
There are no cobblestone sectors in the first 97km of the race, but from then on the cobbles come thick and fast, counting down from 29 to 1. Some sectors are considerably harder than others, and they vary in length from 300 metres to 3.7km long.
The addition of two extra sectors in 2017 sees the total amount of cobblestone riding increase from 52.8km to 55km for this year’s edition.
There are three sectors of cobbles in particular that stand out for their difficulty.
Each of the 29 sections of cobbles is given a ranking by race organisers, with the easiest getting one star and the most difficult getting five stars. (In 2017, there’s a colour grading scale as well, with black sectors being the most challenging.)
There are three, five-star sectors in the 2017 Paris-Roubaix: the infamous Trouée d’Arenberg (96km to go; 2.4km long), Mons-en-Pévèle (50km; 3km) and Carrefour de l’Arbre (17km; 2.1km). While the Trouée d’Arenberg (see video below) is too far from the finish to decide the race, it is often the site of a decisive split in the peloton (and oftentimes crashes). Mons-en-Pévèle and Carrefour de l’Arbre, coming later in the race, provide a more natural springboard for riders looking to get away on tough terrain.
There are three sectors of cobbles after Carrefour de l’Arbre but none are nearly as difficult.
Paris-Roubaix is normally won by a solo rider or from a small group.
You could describe just about any bike race as a race of attrition, but no race embodies this concept more than Paris-Roubaix. Riding the cobbles isn’t just technically challenging, it’s also extremely demanding. You don’t get to the front of a race like Paris-Roubaix without being a phenomenally strong rider.
You also need your fair share of luck — the rough, unforgiving terrain leads to a high volume of crashes and mechanical mishaps.
As with the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix is an extremely selective race that often comes down to a handful of riders or a solo escapee. Indeed, of the last 10 editions six have been won solo and the remaining four have been won from groups of four, six, two and three. A similar result — a small group or solo winner — is more than likely come Sunday.
You can expect a breakaway to get up the road early on and build a sizeable advantage. They’ll likely start dwindling in number as the cobblestone sectors pass by, and their advantage, too, will start to drop. As Mat Hayman showed last year, it’s possible to get in the breakaway at Paris-Roubaix and go on to win the race. The more likely scenario though is that the breakaway riders get swept up in the second half of the race, as the big favourites start attacking on the cobbles to try and thin out the field.
John Degenkolb’s 2015 win came from a group of six, the biggest finishing group of the past decade.
Look to the aforementioned Mons-en-Pévèle and Carrefour de l’Arbre sectors as potential launch pads for the big guns, but really any of the cobblestone sectors in the final 50km could play host to the winning move. So too the tarmac sections between cobblestones, as demonstrated by Niki Terpstra in 2014.
There are perhaps three five-star favourites for this year’s edition: Peter Sagan, Greg Van Avermaet and Tom Boonen.
Given how threatening Peter Sagan (Bora-hansgrohe) has looked right throughout the Spring Classics season it’s something of a surprise he’s only got one victory to show for it: Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. Sure, he’s been close on several occasions — second at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Milan-San Remo, and third at Gent-Wevelgem — but Sagan and his team would likely have been hopeful of another win by this stage.
He comes into Sunday with a bit of a question over his condition — after crashing at the Tour of Flanders — and with the knowledge that he hasn’t been nearly as good at Paris-Roubaix as he has in the other Spring Monuments in the past. All that aside, it would be a surprise not to see Sagan at the front when it matters on Sunday.
The two-time world champion was caught out in a split a long way from the finish of last year’s edition and then got caught up when Fabian Cancellara crashed. Given that, and given his relative lack of success in this year’s Classic, it seems likely that Sagan will be giving everything for the win on Sunday.
The short, steep climbs of Flanders probably suit Sagan more than the flat pavé of Roubaix, but a sixth place in 2014 shows he’s far from a slouch on such terrain. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Sagan attack on one of the late sectors and get away on his own, nor would it be a surprise to see him mark the moves of those more suited to this race and be there for the sprint at the end. Either way he’s a more-than-compelling prospect.
Sagan’s Tour of Flanders didn’t go to plan, but the world champion certainly shouldn’t be overlooked this Sunday.
Historically speaking, Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) has been a more impressive performer at Roubaix than Sagan. He has a third and a fourth to his name, and he had the form to post another strong result last year had it not been for a crash at Flanders a week earlier.
Van Avermaet has been the most dominant rider of the Spring Classics thus far, the Belgian picking up wins where Sagan has picked up near-misses. Victories at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, E3 Harelbeke and Gent–Wevelgem already make it a stellar spring for Van Avermaet, and that’s not to mention a second at Strade Bianche and second in Flanders last week, the latter after being downed in the crash Sagan caused (see image above). The fact Van Avermaet was able to finish second after that crash suggests he wasn’t too badly injured and should be fine for Sunday.
With a little luck on his side, Van Avermaet should finish on the podium on Sunday. It would surprise no one if he was able to win it — a sprint from a small group is his best bet — and take his first victory in a Monument.
Van Avermaet (centre) has been sublime so far in 2017. He’s one of the big favourites this Sunday.
The third and final of the five-star favourites will be the sentimental favourite for many watching the race. In his final race as a professional, Tom Boonen (QuickStep Floors) is gunning for a record-breaking fifth title (he currently shares the record with Roger De Vlaeminck) and if he were to take the win, it would be nothing short of a fairytale ending to an amazing career.
Boonen was second last year — beaten by Mat Hayman in one of the great sporting stories of the year — and earned himself plenty more fans when he was glowing in his praise of the man who beat him. A year on, Boonen isn’t just a favourite because of his past achievements at the race (such as his remarkable long-range solo win in 2012), but because he’s in great form.
Boonen helped split the Tour of Flanders peloton over the Muur van Geraadsbergen last Sunday, paving the way for his teammmate Philippe Gilbert to ride away to victory. Boonen himself looked poised to counterattack had Gilbert been caught, but was ultimately foiled by an ill-timed mechanical.
If last week’s form is anything to go by, Boonen is in terrific shape for his final race as a pro and is a genuine chance of victory. Boonen will be QuickStep Floors’ main man for the race (note: Gilbert isn’t racing) and with the strongest Classics team in the world behind him, Boonen will be well supported. A fifth win for Tommeke — possibly a late solo move? — would be the perfect send-off for one of the strongest and most entertaining riders of his generation.
Beyond the big favourites there are many other would-be contenders.
Rarely in bike racing does it come down to a simple battle of who’s strongest. Crashes, mechanicals, illness, injury, positioning — there are many factors that can influence the outcome of a race. When it comes to Paris-Roubaix, luck is an absolute necessity.
If luck isn’t on the side of the big favourites on Sunday, there’s no shortage of contenders that would gladly step up and take their chance.
While Boonen will be Option A for QuickStep Floors, it’s worth noting the depth of that particular line-up. Niki Terpstra won the race in 2014 (see video below), he’s been third and fifth before, and he’s been in promising form through the Spring Classics thus far. If Boonen stumbles, Terpstra is more than capable of winning for a second time.
Zdenek Stybar’s cyclocross background has put him in good stead at Paris-Roubaix over the years, resulting in a sixth, fifth and a second. If called upon, he’s well and truly capable of another good result. Also in the line-up are powerhouses Matteo Trentin, Iljo Keisse and Yves Lampaert. If QuickStep Floors doesn’t end up on the podium, it will be a major disappointment for the team.
Oliver Naesen (Ag2r-La Mondiale) has had something of a breakout spring, with top-10s in a bunch of big races. Crucially, he was one of just two riders who could follow Sagan when the world champion attacked on the Oude Kwaremont last weekend (the other was Van Avermaet). It doesn’t seem like the 26-year-old was too badly injured in the crash that followed and a podium at Roubaix is a real possibility.
When considering those who might feature come Sunday, it would be unfair not to mention the defending champion, Mat Hayman (Orica-Scott). Hayman’s ride last year was a career-defining one — he got in the break, followed the big favourites, got dropped, caught back on, tried attacking, got caught, then beat Tom Boonen and others in the sprint. And all this just weeks after breaking his elbow. Hayman is unlikely to win on Sunday, but the same was certainly true last year.
It’s worth keeping in mind that Orica-Scott has two other outsiders for Sunday’s race: Jens Keukeleire and Luke Durbridge. The former was second at Gent-Wevelgem, and the latter has had his best spring to date, with several top-fives.
Ian Stannard (Sky) rode his way to third in last year’s edition, behind Hayman and Boonen, and shouldn’t be overlooked on Sunday. The imposing Briton hasn’t quite been at his industrious best in this year’s Spring Classics, but Paris-Roubaix is a race that suits him to a tee and he is more than capable of another podium. Luke Rowe, too, has been a little off his best in recent weeks, but in he and Stannard, Sky have a couple of strong options come Sunday.
John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) won the 2015 edition of Paris-Roubaix (see video below) in a small sprint and could feature again on Sunday, if all goes his way. He’s not in the same form he was two years ago, but in a race like Roubaix, experience goes a very long way.
Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), too, has been a little off his absolute best of late, but he is more than capable of improving on his ninth and 10th in 2013 and 2015 respectively. Katusha also has Tony Martin to consider this time around, and while the German hasn’t had a great Spring, he played a big role for QuickStep at last year’s Paris-Roubaix and might be similarly demonstrative in 2017.
The weather forecast is looking clear for Sunday.
It was 15 years ago that rain last affected Paris-Roubaix — 2002 when Johan Museeuw won his third Paris-Roubaix with a 40km solo move. Every year there are those that hope for wet weather, to make the race even more challenging than it already is, but all indications suggest 2017 will be another dry edition.
In fact, at the time of writing, the forecast is for sunshine and a positively balmy 21ºC. It also seems unlikely that there’ll be winds strong enough to affect the race in any meaningful way.
The race is being broadcast live around the world.
Australian readers will be able to catch Paris-Roubaix live on SBS Viceland (formerly SBS2) and streaming live on the SBS Cycling Central website from 9:30pm AEST. The race will also be broadcast live in Australia on Eurosport, which you can access via Foxtel channel 511.
Readers in the U.S. will be able to catch the race live via the NBC Sports Gold app, from 4:35am ET.
For coverage options in your area, be sure to check your local TV guides or the website of your regular stream provider.
If you’re following the race via Twitter, the hashtag you’ll want is #ParisRoubaix.
Who’s your money on? And how will they win the 2017 Paris-Roubaix? Let us know in the comments below.