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PEZ Previews: The Hell Of The North!
‘It’s a pile of shit, this race. It’s a whole pile of shit. You race through mud like this. You haven’t the time to piss. You ride and you piss in your pants. It’s a whole pile of shit.’ ‘Will you race here again?’ ‘Of course; it’s the most beautiful race in the world!’

These were the words of Theo De Rooy (Panasonic & Holland) to CBS television after dropping out of the1985 Paris-Roubaix.

Theo de Rooy ride with two time winner Gilbert Duclos-Lasalle.

There are older races; Paris Roubaix was first held in 1896 when Josef Fischer of Germany won - but Liege-Bastogne-Liege predates that by four years.
There are longer races; it’s a mere 257.5 kilometres from the Paris suburb 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 11 classified climbs and hardly one hundred metres of flat road - whilst the Tour of Lombardy includes bona fide mountain passes in its parcours.

But there’s no other race like this, organisers in Denmark, England, Brittany and even the USA seek to imitate it but that’s not possible.

This race is unique, and can justly be referred to as legendary; ‘The Hell of the North’ tag comes from the war ravaged countryside which it traversed during the years after The Great War – hell on earth, indeed.

There are 27 sectors of cobbles, counting down from the 2200 metres at Troisville 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 – 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 – your conclusion would be that it’s impossible to ride 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 – 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 certain Tom Boonen.

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 – Roger De Vlaeminck.

In the last 20 years only big men like Cancellara, Boonen, Backstedt, Tafi, Ballerini and Duclos-Lasalle; ‘cobble kings’ like Madiot, Van Petegem and Museeuw or tough and talented opportunists like Knaven, Tchmil and O’Grady have taken the win.

Some might say that Guesdon’s win in 1997 devalued the race – but the fact that he’d won the amateur version of the race and had finished 11th at Roubaix in ’96 seems to have slipped everyone’s mind.

There are few ‘surprise’ winners at Roubaix – and 2011 will not be an exception to that rule.

The burning question is the same as last week; ‘who can beat Cancellara?’
In the Ronde, Nick Nuyens (Saxo & Belgium) and Sylvain Chavanel (QuickStep & France) proved that the big Suisse from Luxembourg’s ‘wonder team’ Leopard TREK is human and can be beaten.

But the big man from Berne will be smarting from having his cloak of invulnerability snatched from his shoulders and will want revenge.

In the last hour if he gets the gap then it will be very hard to get him back; there are no bergs where a rampaging lead group can chew time back and organising a chase on the pave is no easy task.

His rivals know this only too well and again it’s likely to be those QuickSteps working their best alchemy to deny Cancellara his hat trick.

Chavanel was brilliant in the Ronde but there’s a feeling that Tomeke didn’t get it quite right when he decided that he should bridge up to Chava; the move actually provided the launch pad for the Swiss rider.

But Lefevre’s tactics nearly won the race and it will be surprising if he doesn’t pull more rabbits out of the hat.

Chava and Boonen will be marked almost as tightly as Cancellara but let’s not forget about very large Belgian rabbit Gert Steegmans – he has the build, power, team and desire to be on the podium.

As with the Ronde, experience is everything; Boonen and Cancellara represent five of the last six winners – only Stuey O’Grady (Leopard & Australia) has interrupted these two big men’s dominance of the race.

Expect O’Grady to be Cancellara’s right hand man until the ‘end game’ on Sunday.

Thor Hushovd won on these cobbles in last year’s Tour, and is about due for a win in April.

And what of last year’s results?

Cancellara topped the podium from Thor Hushovd (Garmin & Norway) – a name that must again be considered; in last year’s Tour de France the Norwegian powerhouse dominated the cobbled stage and must surely dream of hoisting that cobble stone above his head whilst there’s a rainbow jersey on his back.

Despite Garmin’s unspectacular Classics season thus far, he has to be rated as a one of the favourites.

Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky & Spain) narrowly missed repeating his Het Nieuwsblad win this year and was again there at the death, last Sunday.

He’ll be in the mix for sure in the last hour; backed by ever improving young Englishmen Ian Stannard and Geraint Thomas (10th last weekend and 2nd to Hushovd over the cobbles in le Tour last year).

Juan Antonio Flecha is in form and has often been an action man at Roubaix.

Hushovd’s team mate, Englishman Roger Hammond was fourth last year and top ten is feasible for the stocky former world junior cyclo-cross champion.
Boonen was fifth; and in sixth place was the man who was seventh in the Ronde, Bjorn Leukemans (Vacansoleil) – with a year’s more experience and that Ronde result he’ll be there for that brutal last hour.

Pippo Pozzato was seventh last year; he showed at Flanders but ended up nowhere, he still looks amazing on a bicycle but when the class fades, the grinta has to compensate and that just hasn’t happened.

Let’s go back to last weekend’s Ronde for more clues - Rabobank’s Sebastian Langeveld (Holland) was fifth and with compatriot and team mate Lars Boom could lay down some tricky combinations of cards.

With Hincapie (USA) and Ballan (Italy) in sixth and 12th respectively last weekend, BMC were very strong – but for the men in black and red’s excellent team work it’s unlikely that Cancellara and Chavanel would have been caught on the Kappelmuur.

They’ll be in the mix, but no podium.

Philippe Gilbert (Lotto and Belgium) has to get a mention even although his targets are a little later, the Ardennes Classics.

Canada’s Dominique Rollin has been showing regularly at the front and likes hard races – remember his solo win at the 2008 Tour of California in horrific conditions? Thus sunny Sunday may not be hard enough for his talents...

Surprises? - Unlikely but keep an eye out for Canadian FDJ powerhouse, Dominique Rollin.

The podium? – Hushovd, Cancellara, Steegmans.

Gord will be in front of the monitor, doing his eyesight no good; Jered will be roadside, choking on the dust clouds whilst the Boss will be up at some ungodly hour [yeah – 5:30 AM PST just in time for Arenberg! – Pez.] to pull it all together.

To paraphrase the late, great Johnny Cash; ‘I tell you I seen better Paris-Roubaix coverage, but I really can’t remember when!’


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