Paris-Roubaix preview

Sport Director, Andreas Klier on what it takes to succeed at the “Hell of the North”

Andreas Klier never loved Paris-Roubaix when he was a racer. He lived for the other northern classics. When he was riding the Ronde van Vlaanderen, E3-Prijs, or Gent-Wevelgem, he knew he could go with the best in the finales. After 200 kilometres, he would be matching attacks with the contenders and making bids for victory. He could never do that in the Hell of the North.

 

“There always came that moment where the light switched out inside my body and I couldn’t follow the very best ones,” he says. “I don’t know why, but my body just didn’t want to—my head wanted to—but I never made it to the crucial sections saying today I could compete with the winner. Never.”

 

Then, it just hurt. Every cobblestone would jolt up from the slippery French farm tracks that make the race so hard. Mud and dust would cover his limbs and clog his gears. He would slog to the velodrome in Roubaix in an exhausted group and see the winner raising his cobblestone trophy aloft. The victor was never a surprise.

 

“The people up there on the podium are 100% the strongest ones at Roubaix,” he says.

Nevertheless, Andreas was always proud when he finished a Paris-Roubaix.

 

Since he has retired from racing and become a directeur sportif for EF-Education—NIPPO, he has fallen in love with the event. From the car, he has come to understand it: how each sector of stones leads into the next, the role of the wind, how the weather affects the cobbles, the kind of rider you need to be to win it.

 

“It’s different to all of the classics in Flanders,” he says, “In Flanders, you accelerate towards the climbs and on the climbs, and then you try to save energy on the asphalt. In Roubaix, it’s just constant high power output.”

 

Roubaix’s champions have all of the skills of classics riders. They are fearless. They emerge out of the mad sprints that take place before the race’s early cobbles and ride onto the stones at the front of the peloton every time. While others are bucked left and right, blocked by slower riders, and knocked from their bikes, they ride smoothly over the fastest line, their bodies relaxed, legs turning fluidly, unfazed by the rocks under their wheels, even after six hours of racing. But the relentless nature of Roubaix requires the qualities of a good time trialist too. There is no respite.

“You can’t freewheel, because you would get dropped,” Andreas says. “The race can happen everywhere at any time. That makes it special.”

 

This year, EF Education-NIPPO is bringing a young team to Paris-Roubaix. On paper, Jonas Rutsch and Stefan Bissegger could do very well. They are both strong, powerful riders. Rutsch has won the U23 Gent-Wevelgem and Bissegger has become one of the world’s best time trialists this year. Michael Valgren is also in with a shot after his strong performance at the world championships.

 

“The question will be: how far do they get?” Andreas says.

 

At 257 kilometres, Paris-Roubaix is an immense test of endurance. It is one of the longest races on the professional cycling calendar. As Andreas knows all too well, in the final hour, your lights can just go out. 

“Even if there are only five sections left before the finish, if you have no power left, you can still go from the very first place to place 15 easily,” he says.

 

To make it even harder, this year’s edition is set to take place in the rain. Roubaix hasn’t been held in the wet for a generation. It usually takes place in early April, which has meant dry sunny weather in northern Europe for over a decade. There is not a rider in the peloton who has raced over Paris-Roubaix’s cobbles when they were glistening with water and covered in sludge. That will make the race slower and trickier. There will be crashes.  It will benefit the better bike handlers and might give underdogs, like Stefan Bissegger, Michael Valgren, and Jonas Rutsch, a chance. 

 

So will the fact that this year’s race was postponed till the fall. It’s the end of the year and many riders are getting tired or sick or already have half a mind on their holidays. Riders who peaked for the world championships might struggle to hold their form for one more week.

 

The course recon on Thursday gave the team a better idea of what they are in for. The team’s strategy will depend on how they are handling the wet stones, the wind, and the weather. Andreas will study them all carefully.

 

No matter what, this year’s Paris-Roubaix is going to be a brutal, beautiful race.