The world turns and innovation and the lust for progress are what makes us human – but despite the UCI public relations machine trying to tell us otherwise, there’s no such thing as an ‘instant Classic’ bicycle race. Perhaps the Strade Bianche approaches that definition – but that’s in the Tuscan Heartland.
Australia, Canada and China are not Heartland and no matter how much World Tour hype there may be, the ‘Monuments’ remain exactly that. Milan-Sanremo generates huge interest as the first of the five races which form the sport’s very DNA. The Ronde van Vlaanderen captivates a nation; and now it’s the turn of Paris Roubaix to have cycling fans the world over pouring over every column inch they can find about this third Monument.
There are older races – Paris Roubaix was first held in 1896 when Josef Fischer of Germany won – Liege-Bastogne-Liege (La Doyenne and the fourth Monument) predates that by four years. There are longer races; it’s a mere 257 kilometres from the Paris satellite of Compiegne to the Roubaix velodrome but Milan-Sanremo adds 40 kilometres to that. And there are hillier races; the aforementioned Liege-Bastogne-Liege has 10 classified climbs and hardly one hundred metres of flat road – whilst the Tour of Lombardy (the fifth and final Monument) includes bona fide mountain passes in its parcours.
Paris-Roubaix remains steadfastly pan flat.
But there’s no other race like Paris-Roubaix; organisers in Denmark, England, Brittany and even the USA seek to imitate it but that’s not possible. It’s not possible because it’s not Northern France in April and there haven’t been 111 previous editions. This race is unique, and can justly be referred to as legendary in a world where the word is routinely abused.
‘The Hell of the North’ tag comes from the war ravaged countryside which the parcours traversed during the years after The Great War. If you’re in Flanders on the trail of a race take an hour or two to seek out the Ijzertoren in Diksmuide near the North Sea Coast.
This huge structure is an anti war museum built in the shape of a cross – the photographs and panorama give a chilling insight into what Northern France and Flanders looked like during the First World War. Many more died from infection and disease than ever did from their initial wounds in what was a stinking, clinging, deep, rat and mosquito infested sea of mud. The ‘Hell’ description seems all the more appropriate after a visit to Diksmuide.
And the race is, of course, a throwback to those days a century and more ago – horses, carts and boot leather traversed the tracks and cobbles. But no SUV’s, trail bikes or 4 x 4 pick-up trucks.
There are 28 sectors of the famous cobbles (kassein in Flemish, pavé in French); counting down from the 2200 metres at Troisville, 97.8 K in, to the final symbolic 300 metres of neat sets laid outside the Roubaix velodrome, named Espace Crupeland. In total there are around 51 kilometres over the granite blocks rather than on tarmac or concrete.
No matter how much you might read about the ‘secteurs pave’ you’re still unprepared for just how savage they are when you see them for the first time – it says much for the designers of modern tubular tyres and carbon bicycles that there are so few mechanical problems.
The surfaces are appalling, whilst the cobbles of the 300 metres of Espace Crupeland sit flat, square and level, out among the fields and forests the worn and ancient granite blocks jut, dip, collapse, poke, slew and threaten. If you’re contemplating riding them at speed it wouldn’t do to spend overly long inspecting them at close range.
The Formula One divers always used to ‘walk the circuit’ to get a feel for it; but your conclusion here would be that it’s impossible to ride a bicycle at 50 kph over such things. Perhaps the most infamous stretch is the 2400 metres Trouee D’arenberg (Arenberg Trench) said to be a Roman road, it slices arrow straight through the Forest of Arenberg.
Below it are the long abandoned workings of the colliery whose old winding towers mark the entrance to this tangled, ancient wood where finding strange, nameless beasts in the undergrowth would come as no surprise. The moss-covered sets of this secteur have broken many a heart and almost ended Johan Museeuw’s career when he crashed heavily upon them.
Museeuw is one of several in recent history who have won the race three times, along with Rik Van Looy, Eddy Merckx, Francesco Moser and a chap called Fabian Cancellara. But there’s one man who defines the race such that to this day he’s known as ‘Monsieur Paris-Roubaix,’ from 1969 to 1982 his stats read like this: 5, 2, 7, 1, 7, 1, 1, 3, 1, 2, 2, 0, 2, 6 – Flandrian, Roger De Vlaeminck.
The one and only Eddy Merckx followed by Mr Paris-Roubaix
Sharing his lofty position, also on four wins is Tom Boonen – but more of that later.
In the last 20 years only big men like Cancellara, Boonen, Backstedt, Tafi, Ballerini, Van Summeren and Duclos-Lasalle; ‘cobble kings’ like Madiot, Van Petegem and Museeuw or tough, solid, talented opportunists like Knaven, Tchmil and O’Grady have taken the win.
Some might say that big Frenchman Fred Guesdon’s win in 1997 devalued the race – but the fact that he’d previously won the amateur version of the race and had finished 11th at Roubaix in ’96 seems to have slipped everyone’s mind. Statistically it helps if you’re Belgian; the nation just to the north of Roubaix has 55 winners to the home nation’s 28 and Italy’s 13.
A Belgian winner is highly possible, a French one less likely – but more of that shortly – and an Italian one highly unlikely. There are few ‘surprise’ winners at Roubaix and 2014 will probably not be an exception to that rule.
Ed says no Italian winner this year – sorry Pippo, Roubaix could be an unhappy hunting ground again.
As for protagonists there’s but one burning question; ‘who can beat Cancellara?’ Over the last decade the big Swiss from Berne (Trek Factory Racing) and Flanders’ own Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma Quick-Step) have won this race seven times between them. Only Stuart O’Grady in 2007 and Johan Van Summeren in 2011 have interrupted the dominance of these two giants of the pave.
Fabian Cancellara comes in as ‘Super Favourite’ with last Sunday’s dominant performance in de Ronde only serving to double underline his guile, experience, power and exceptional finishing speed if the race has been of the toughest order. And as the ASO press release points out, if he wins then it will be his third Flanders/Roubaix ‘double’ – no one has achieved this triple in the past.
When Tom Boonen won Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne it looked as if all was ‘set fair’ for the spring of 2014 the charismatic big man from Mol. But personal tragedy – we all know the facts now – robbed him of a Primavera ride and meant that the peace of mind which is one of the major pieces of a top athletes form jigsaw puzzle couldn’t slot into place.
He was good in Wevelgem but didn’t have the answer when Cancellara asked the big question on the Oude Kwaremont on Sunday past. But whilst Cancellara is certainly at the peak of his form, Boonen still has a few percentage points to come. If he can do that then it’ll be no shoe-in for Cancellara – a Boonen/Cancellara shoot out on the Roubaix velodrome would perhaps be asking too much.
Third favourite is the big, strong but modest and affable Sep Vanmarcke – another Belgian boy but riding for Netherlands team, Belkin. Vanmarcke first gave us clues about his abilities in the Northern Classics when he was second to Bernhard Eisel in Gent-Wevelgem in 2010.
Sep Vanmarcke shadowing Cancellara on the velodrome before the final sprint in 2013
Since then he’s consistently been, ‘in the mix’ every spring, winning Het Nieuwsblad, finishing third in Flanders last weekend and second in Roubaix last year. His problem, along with that of all of Cancellara’s challengers is that if it comes down to a sprint then the Swiss rider’s bestial power is hard to top – witness Sanremo and Sunday past in Oudenaarde. And giving the former Olympic time trial champion the slip is easy to write but hard to do.
Peter Sagan (Cannondale & Slovakia) is only 24 years-old and despite a season which includes stage wins in Oman, Tirreno and De Panne not to mention victory in the E3 and third spot in Gent-Wevelgem; his performances in the Monuments – 10th at Sanremo and 16th in Oudenaarde – have some pundits describing his season thus far as ‘disappointing.’
It is fair to say that in these two races he’s been a little ways behind his sparkling best – but only a fool would right off this force of nature from Eastern Europe.
Greg Van Avermaet (BMC & Belgium) has second spots in Het Nieuwsblad and Flanders this season to tell us all we need to know about his form and resolve. Couple that with fourth in Roubaix in 2013 and he has to be regarded as a very serious contender indeed. His attacking style is his strength and his weakness; he’s often too willing to do the lion’s share – but this is race which is won from the front, not sitting in the wheels.
A brilliant winner in Sanremo, Alex Kristoff (Katusha & Norway) could be up for a big result. He left the chasers to try to bridge to ‘the Cancellara Quartet’ on Sunday in Flanders and took a solid and bold fifth spot.
John Degenkolb (Giant & Germany) proved he could last the distance in Sanremo but punctured just as the gates of hell opened; he dazzled in Gent-Wevelgem but disappointed in Flanders, he’ll be hoping the lack of hills makes it a Roubaix to remember for him – albeit the stats aren’t with him. The last German winner was Josef Fischer in 1896.
John Degenkolb finished a very impressive 19th in his first Roubaix here in 2011.
Great Britain has never won this race, we don’t see that changing but Geraint Thomas (Sky and Wales) could certainly make the podium – surely he’s had enough crashes for one season?
For the other favourites we should look into the teams already mentioned above. The Swiss ‘super team’ BMC are hungry for a big one day win, GVA is their man for the job but twice winner of the U23 version of this race, Taylor Phinney (USA) will be in the mix and at the least doing a job for his Belgian team leader.
Taylor Phinney led the peloton out of the Arenberg Forest last year.
Trek’s Belgian Elite Road Race Champion, Stijn Devolder was coming nicely to the boil for Flanders but was caught in the crashes – he skips the Scheldeprijs to aid recovery but he has to be 100% on Sunday.
The Quick-Step team is Belgian cycling, head man Patrick Lefevre’s every word is hung upon and Boonen is a Deity. Flanders didn’t go their way but for Sunday they’ll have revenge in mind – former Netherlands Elite Road race Champion and 2014 Dwars Door winner, Niki Terpstra was sixth in Flanders a week ago and third in Roubaix in 2013, he could well repeat that feat.
Giant power house Belgian Stijn Vandenbergh was fourth in Flanders and if he gets daylight on the pave would be very hard to get back. And Czech World Elite Cyclo Crosss Champion Zdenek Stybar was well in the mix in 2013 until felled by an over-enthusiastic roadside fan; but he got up to finish seventh.
And that reference to France?
We think it’s too soon for Démare but let’s not forget the man who was fifth last year, Damien Gaudin (AG2R). He gave us a clue in Paris-Nice last season when he scorched the prologue, no such pointers for us in 2014 and a similar pattern of mid-field finishes in the Northern races thus far – just like last year. He’s big, strong, fast and has a rejuvenated AG2R behind him – and he’ll want that full page colour spread on the cover of Monday’s L’Equipe really badly.
Gaudin on his way to 5th last year with Europcar
You know the drill; print off the start sheet at work, get the French beer in the fridge – PEZ recommends Jenlain Ambree – tune in the TV or laptop and if you have a ‘Boonen walks on water’ T-shirt, get it washed and ironed.
PEZ will be on the spot to bring you the best in race reportage and the real flavour of the L’enfer du Nord.
It was November 2005 when Ed Hood first penned a piece for PEZ, on US legend Mike Neel. Since then he’s covered all of the Grand Tours and Monuments for PEZ and has an article count in excess of 1,100 in the archive. He was a Scottish champion cyclist himself – many years and kilograms ago – and still owns a Klein Attitude, Dura Ace carbon Giant and a Fixie. He and fellow Scot and PEZ contributor Martin Williamson run the Scottish site www.veloveritas.co.uk where more of his musings on our sport can be found.