Imagine a boxing match that has 29 rounds and lasts for six hours. Each round your body judders uncontrollably, there’s people coming at you from the left, from the right. Clouds of dust billow up, reducing visibility. For six hours the pace of life switches gears; grimaces across mud strewn faces express the effort and focus it takes just to stay upright. The smell of beer, sweat and adrenaline hangs heavy in the air channelled through tunnels of screaming fans.
This is Paris-Roubaix. This the Hell of the North.
One former racer, Theo de Rooij, when asked what it was like to race Paris-Roubaix said: “It’s bollocks, this race! You’re working like an animal … you’re riding in mud, you’re slipping…” We went on to list myriad unsavory things about the race.
But then when asked if he would start again the following year, de Rooij replied: “Sure, it’s the most beautiful race in the world!”
Riders stand on the startline of this race with a dogged determination to finish it. Even if that means arriving at the velodrome hours after the winner has raised his cobblestone trophy above his head in celebration.
“Every rider who starts wants to finish it, even for position 90 they sprint. It’s a very special day. I’ve been fighting for years to win this race,” says Sep Vanmarcke.
Matti Breschel is racing his 15th season as a professional. He says: “Racing Paris-Roubaix is one of the only times of year when I get on a plane and I have butterflies in the stomach. There aren’t many races that do that to me,”
For Paris-Roubaix, we travel to northern France where stones lie across fields, mangled together forming something that is barely passable by car, nevermind bike. Compared to the cobbled roads of Flanders, which are a part their road network, the roads that lead to Roubaix are mainly farm tracks that have fallen out of use, some dating back to the era of Napoleon I. A handful of people, known as Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix, meticulously maintain these craggy roads.
“The Belgian cobblestones are kind ones. Even a kid can ride on them,” Vanmarcke explains. “The Roubaix ones even adults don’t want to ride on them.”
“If you’re at the front, then you’re out of the way of the destruction that follows behind.”
– Andreas Klier
Although the race is known as Paris-Roubaix, the start is actually in Compiègne, France. The peloton heads northwards for 257-kilometers before it swings into the Stab velodrome in Roubaix. For this 117th edition, the race will include 54.5km of pavé over 29 sectors, including the infamous Trouée d’Arenberg and Carrefour de l’Arbre.
Weather is part of the conversation every year. The last truly wet edition of Paris-Roubaix was in 2002. Riders rolled over the finish line caked in mud, the whites of their eyes the only clear feature. The combination of rain and cobbles creates an ice rink that the peloton must skate upon at 60kph.
“If it’s raining you bring that final sprint that’s usually reserved for the finish line forward by 160 kilometers, when the race hits the first sector of cobbles. If you’re at the front then you’re out of the way of the destruction that follows behind,” team DS Andreas Klier says stoney-faced to his riders.
“At that moment it’s a lot of stress, before entering a cobbled section, for example like the Arenberg, it’s dangerous because riders in front of you can crash. It’s a big fight to get in position,” Vanmarcke explains.
At the end of the race, if they’ve made it to the velodrome through the crashes, the mud, the dust, with hands blistered, bodies jangled and you ask them if they’ll come back next year and do it all again, the answer invariably will be yes.
Julius van den Berg Matti Breschel Mitch Docker Sebastian Langeveld Sep Vanmarcke Taylor Phinney Tom Scully
The 29 Sectors:
Sector 29 – Troisvilles to Inchy (km 97.5 – 0.9 km) ** Sector 28 – Briastre to Viesly (km 108.5 – 3 km) **** Sector 27 – Viesly to Quiévy (km 101.5 – 1.8 km) *** Sector 26 – Quiévy to Saint-Python (km 116 – 3.7 km) **** Sector 25 – Saint-Python (km 118.5 – 1.5 km) ** Sector 24 – Vertain to Saint-Martin-sur-Écaillon (km 127.5 – 2.3 km) *** Sector 23 – Verchain-Maugré to Quérénaing (km 136.5 – 1.6 km) *** Sector 22 – Quérénaing to Maing (km 140.5 – 2.5 km) *** Sector 21 – Maing to Monchaux-sur-Ecaillon (km 142.5 – 1.6 km) *** Sector 20 – Haveluy to Wallers (km 156.5 – 2.5 km) **** Sector 19 – Trouée d’Arenberg (km 164.5 – 2.3 km) ***** Sector 18 – Wallers to Hélesmes (km 170 – 1.6 km) *** Sector 17 – Hornaing to Wandignies (km 179 – 3.7 km) **** Sector 16 – Warlaing to Brillon (km 185 – 2.4 km) *** Sector 15 – Tilloy to Sars-et-Rosières (km 188.5 – 2.4 km) **** Sector 14 – Beuvry to Orchies (km 194 – 1.4 km) *** Sector 13 – Orchies (km 199 – 1.7 km) *** Sector 12 – Auchy to Bersée (km 206.5 – 2.7 km) **** Sector 11 – Mons-en-Pévèle (km 212 – 3 km) * Sector 10 – Mérignies to Avelin (km 215.5 – 0.7 km) ** Sector 9 – Pont-Thibault to Ennevelin (km 220 – 1.4 km) *** Sector 8 – Templeuve – L’Épinette (km 224 – 0.2 km) * Sector 8 – Templeuve – Moulin-de-Vertain (km 225 – 0.5 km) ** Sector 7 – Cysoing to Bourghelles (km 232 – 1.3 km) *** Sector 6 – Bourghelles to Wannehain (km 234.5 – 1.1 km) *** Sector 5 – Camphin-en-Pévèle (km 239.5 – 1.8 km) **** Sector 4 – Carrefour de l’Arbre (km 242.5 – 2.1 km) ***** Sector 3 – Gruson (km 244 – 1.1 km) ** Sector 2 – Willems to Hem (km 251 – 1.4 km) *** Sector 1 – Roubaix (km 256 – 0.3 km) *
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