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Paris-Roubaix. The Hell of the North. Arguably the biggest and most exciting one-day race of the year. The cobbles, the dust, the crashes, the legendary Roubaix velodrome — for the invested bike fan, Paris-Roubaix stands apart from all others.
Ahead of Sunday’s 117th edition, we walk you through the Paris-Roubaix course, the cobbles, the contenders and how it all might unfold.
Contrary to what the name would suggest, Paris-Roubaix doesn’t start in Paris. Rather, it kicks off in Compiegne some 80km north-north-east of Paris and has done since 1977. This year the course spans 257km, winding its way north towards the Belgian border.
The difficulty of Paris-Roubaix comes not from its climbs — there aren’t any to speak of — but from its rough, cobblestone farm roads which litter the back end of the course.
This year there are a total of 29 ‘pave’ sectors, the first of which comes after 96.5km of racing. From that point there’s a cobblestone sector every few kilometres — counted down from 29 to 1 — until the final, ceremonial sector in the town of Roubaix. The race then ends on the most famous velodrome in the world.
This year, there’s a total of 54.5km of cobblestones, spread over the race’s 29 sectors. While all of the cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix are rough, some sectors are considerably rougher than others.
Every year the race organisers give each sector a rating from one to five stars, with five stars given to the most horrible, bone-rattling sectors of the lot. As has become traditional, there are just three five-star sectors on course and, given their difficulty, it’s these sectors that are most likely to help shape the race:
#19: Trouee d’Arenberg (2.3km) – The 11th sector of the day, the Trench of Arenberg is arguably the most (in)famous cobblestone road in all of cycling. The pace in the bunch increases to a near-sprint on the lead-in as riders battle for position before this straight but utterly chaotic rattle through the forest. Crashes and mechanicals are common, and the race often splits here, even though it’s some 95km from the finish.
#11: Mons-en-Pevele (3km) – The 19th sector of the day, this brutal sector comes with a touch under 48km to go — just as the action is really heating up.
#4: Carrefour de l’Arbre (2.1km)- The last truly difficult sector before the finish. It’s 16km from the Carrefour to the velodrome making it an ideal launch pad for anyone that’s got the legs to get away late.
How it might unfold
Like so many of the big one-day races, Paris-Roubaix is a race of attrition. This is not a race that ends in a big bunch sprint — it’s a race where only the very strongest have a chance of reaching the velodrome at the front.
Given the lack of hills, and given how hard the cobbles are, Paris-Roubaix is a race that suits bigger, stronger riders. Raw power output is more important here than a good power-to-weight ratio. You need to be able to monster the cobbles, over and over again.
The cobblestones serve to thin out the field dramatically, not just because you need to generate huge amounts of power to stay with the best, but because crashes and mechanicals are commonplace. A mishap at the wrong time can end a rider’s chances on the spot. That’s true in any bike race, but doubly so at Paris-Roubaix where bikes and riders cop such a beating. As a result, you need a bit of luck to win Paris-Roubaix.
There’ll be an early breakaway that gets clear on Sunday, but in all likelihood that break will be caught towards the business end once the favourites start to shake things up. While most in the break are unlikely to finish near the front, Paris-Roubaix is a race where it’s possible to post a good finish from the break. Mat Hayman won in 2016 after being in the early move and then staying with the favourites when they caught up. Likewise Silvan Dillier in last year’s race — the Swiss rider was in the break but was able to stay with a rampaging Peter Sagan when the latter bridged across from the remnants of the peloton.
At the end of the day, it will likely be a solo rider or small group that reaches the Roubaix Velodrome in front. The past 10 editions of the race show this quite clearly. Of those 10:
– Five editions were won solo.
– Two were won from a group of two.
– One was won from a group of four.
– One was won from a group of five.
– One was won from a group of six.
Expect a similar outcome on Sunday.
This year’s Paris-Roubaix feels like a more open race than we’ve seen in recent years. None of the would-be favourites have dominated in the lead-up like we’ve seen in recent years (such as in 2017 when Greg Van Avermaet was winning just about everything).
All that said, there are still a few stand-out contenders for Sunday’s race:
Zdenek Stybar (Deceuninck-QuickStep) – As is the case throughout the Spring Classics, Deceuninck-QuickStep will have the strongest team on the startlist and the most potential winners. Probably their biggest chance is Zdenek Stybar who’s had a career-best start to the year, with victories at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and the E3 BinckBank Classic.
The Czech rider looked a little off his best at the Tour of Flanders, getting dropped at the pointy end, but the parcours of Paris-Roubaix probably suits the three-time former cyclocross world champion better than that of Flanders.
Stybar’s done Paris-Roubaix six times and finished in the top 10 on an impressive five occasions: sixth, fifth, second, second, and ninth. He knows how to race Roubaix and he’s a great shot a victory.
If it’s not Stybar’s day, Yves Lampaert could be a great backup. He was seventh in 2015 and has been strong all spring without taking a win. Philippe Gilbert, meanwhile, is desperate to add Paris-Roubaix to his list of Monument wins and, if things go his way, he could be in with a chance of doing so.
Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) – Sagan comes in as the defending champion having forged the winning move with a long-range attack last year. On the one hand it’s hard to see him winning again this year — he’s been quite a long way off his world-beating best so far this spring and winning at Roubaix would require quite a reversal of form. On the other hand, this is Peter Sagan we’re talking about. If anyone’s capable of pulling a rabbit out of the hat on the big stage, it’s the Slovakian.
On his day he can go it alone, or win the sprint from a small group.
Greg Van Avermaet (CCC) – Van Avermaet won this race in 2017, the cherry on top of a very strong Spring Classics campaign. This year he hasn’t been nearly as dominant – in fact he’s yet to win this spring. That said, he’s been close — second at Het Nieuwsblad, third at E3, sixth at Strade Bianche and 10th at the Tour of Flanders.
The Belgian’s best chance is likely to come from a small group, the same way he won in 2017.
Wout Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) – It seems likely that Van Aert will win Roubaix at some point in his career, and doing so this year isn’t out of the question. The three-time CX world champion has been very strong all spring, with third at Strade Bianche, sixth at Milan-San Remo, and second at E3. He was also 13th here last year on debut.
It wouldn’t be a massive surprise to see the 24-year-old get away alone or into a small lead group late, and given his strong sprint, a win isn’t beyond the realms of possibility. Either way, he’s got time on his side.
Alexander Kristoff (UAE-Team Emirates) – Kristoff has timed his run nicely, winning Gent-Wevelgem and then taking out the bunch sprint for third at Flanders last week. He’s been ninth and 10th at Roubaix in the past, and on current form another strong result is certainly possible.
If the Norwegian wins, he will likely do so from a small group — he’s got a terrific sprint at the end of long, hard races.
Oliver Naesen (Ag2r-La Mondiale) – Like his compatriots Van Avermaet and Van Aert, Naesen has been terrific this spring but is yet to land a win. He was second at Milan-San Remo, third at Gent-Wevelgem, eighth at E3, and seventh at Flanders last week despite being sick in the lead-up.
The former Belgian champion has been 12th and 13th at Roubaix but it’s not hard to see him improving on that considerably if things fall his way on Sunday.
As is often the case in the Spring Classics, Paris-Roubaix is a race that sometimes turns out a victory or strong performance we truly didn’t expect. Few, if any, would have picked Mat Hayman to win the 2016 edition (if you haven’t seen the Backstage Pass video from that day, you absolutely have to) and likewise, who would have picked Silvan Dillier to finish second last year?
With that in mind, here’s a selection of the many riders that we think could influence Sunday’s race. They mightn’t necessarily win it (although one of our Flanders outsiders, Alberto Bettiol, did win last week) but if everything falls their way, they could well be having a say on the outcome.
Arnaud Demare (Groupama-FDJ) – The Frenchman has flown under the radar a little this year, without a win to his name. But Roubaix is a race that suits him well, as seen in his sixth place two years back. Keep an eye on the sprinter.
John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) – The German hasn’t been at his best this spring but he was second at Gent-Wevelgem. He is a former Roubaix winner, having won a reduced sprint in 2015, and he won the Roubaix stage of the Tour last year. Clearly he’s good on the cobbles. He’ll just need to find an extra gear on Sunday if he’s going to win again.
Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) – It’s easy to forget that Stuyven was fourth in 2017 and fifth in 2018 — somehow, despite his considerable talent, he still manages to fly under the radar. OK, he hasn’t had an amazing spring, but we have seen him in the closing kilometres on several occasions and it seems reasonable to expect the same on Sunday. Watch for him to attack late.
Gianni Moscon (Sky) – The Italian bad boy was fifth in 2016 and while he’s been largely invisible this year, he’s clearly got what it takes to be competitive. If he’s on a good day, he’s a threat.
Note that Sky has quite a few options for the day, all of whom are capable of a good result. Dylan Van Baarle was 18th at Flanders last week and has ridden well these past few months, and Luke Rowe was sixth at Dwars door Vlaanderen.
Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First) – Vanmarcke was cast in a supporting role at Flanders last weekend (due to a knee injury) and in doing so helped his teammate Bettiol to victory. If he’s back to full fitness on Sunday, he’ll probably be the American team’s best chance at victory. He’s gone very close in the past — second, fourth, fourth and sixth — and another top finish certainly isn’t beyond him.
Taylor Phinney (EF Education First) – The enigmatic American rode to an impressive eighth last year and has said he wants to go even better this time around. A former winner of the U23 Roubaix, Phinney is no stranger to the stones. Another decent result certainly seems possible.
Guillaume van Keirsbulck (CCC) – Van Avermaet will lead CCC on Sunday but if something befalls the former winner, look to his compatriot as a handy backup. Sure, van Keirsbulck mightn’t have lived up to suggestions he’ll be “the next Tom Boonen” but he’s a more than capable bike racer who won the spectacular Antwerp Port Epic last year on very rough roads. Just keep the rangy Belgian in mind.
For other outsiders, consider Heinrich Haussler (Bahrain-Merida), Andre Greipel (Arkea Samsic), Lars Boom (Roompot-Charles), Jens Keukeleire (Lotto Soudal), Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott), and Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data).
It’s been 17 years now since the last truly wet Paris-Roubaix. There will be many people around the world hoping that streak ends this weekend. The cobbles are tricky and treacherous enough when they’re dry — throw rain in the mix and you’ve got a recipe for carnage … and an even more entertaining race. See the cobbled stage 5 of the 2014 Tour de France by way of example.
At this stage the weather forecast is for temperatures of around 10 degrees C and a 60% chance of rain.
For those of you reading this in Australia, you’ll be able to catch Paris-Roubaix live on TV via SBS Viceland and streaming via the Cycling Central website and the SBS OnDemand apps. Coverage starts at 6:15pm AEST.
In the US, the NBC Sports Gold platform will have you covered. For those in the UK and Europe, you’ll want to tune in to Eurosport.
As ever, be sure to check your local guides for region-specific broadcast and streaming information.
Who’s your pick to win the 2019 Paris-Roubaix? And how will they do it?