On Sunday the 14th of April 2019, the gladiators will set off for the 117th edition of Paris-Roubaix. Also known as the ‘Hell of the North’, it is one of the oldest and one of the most difficult one-day races with riders having to endure a daunting gauntlet of cobbled sectors before the finish in the Roubaix Velodrome. The upcoming edition amounts to 257 kilometres with 54.5 kilometres on pavé, - roughly a fifth of the entire race. That far exceeds the ratio of any cobbled classic held in Flanders, and makes Paris-Roubaix something of a test of endurance, with riders generally reaching the finish in dribs and drabs.Paris-Roubaix is a unique display of power and skill like no other in professional cycling. The race becomes even more grueling if the weather turns foul. Epic editions involving rain, ice, slippery cobbles and mud-caked jerseys have gone down in history and helped earn the race its nickname of ‘Hell of the North’.
Image by AFP
“Paris-Roubaix is a horrible race to ride but the most beautiful one to win,” cycling great Sean Kelly once said of the infamous “Hell of the North” Spring Classic.
Few races have such a unique mix of breath-taking action and unpredictability. Many would argue that Paris Roubaix belongs to an entirely different category of racing. And with its long heritage going as far back as 1896, this may very well be true.
A PARIS-ROUBAIX TEASER
“It’s a bollocks, this race! You’re working like an animal, you don’t have time to piss, you wet your pants. You’re riding in mud like this, you’re slipping … it’s a pile of shit.” -Theo de Rooij, a Dutchman who had been in a promising position to win the 1985 race but had then crashed, losing his chance of winning.
When then asked if he would start the race again, de Rooij replied: “Sure, it’s the most beautiful race in the world!”
THE FOREST OF ARENBERG- THE AMPHITHEATRE OF ROUBAIX
The Forest of Arenberg has become the true emblem of this iconic race, and is to Paris-Roubaix ,what Alpe d’Huez is to the Tour de France. It’s in this long stretch of cobbles rendered by over-hanging trees, where the gloves come off and the battles begin. It is feared by the peloton due to the irregular, ungraded nature of the cobblestones, making it arguably the hardest sector of the race. The peloton will hit Arenberg Forest at 94km into the race.
But as gladiatorial as it is, the Arenberg is not simply a visual spectacle for fans.
In the words of Thierry Gouvenou, ASO’s chief route-planner who, as a rider, won the amateur Paris-Roubaix before finishing seventh with the professionals in 2002: “Arenberg is unlike anything else.”“It’s the hors-catégorie of the pavé,“ says Gouvenou.
Image by Eurosport
Arenberg is considered to have the worst-maintained sector of cobbles in the whole race. The reasons for this are threefold
- Size of stones: The surface of the stones are rough, grooved. and badly cut.
- Gap between the stones: The thickness of the joints between the cobblestones are extremely wide and deep.The wider the gap, the bumpier it is to ride over.
- Positioning of the stones: Over and above being degraded, the stones are badly laid.
In the 2016 edition of Paris Roubaix, a huge crash in Arenberg inflicted widespread damage – particularly to Elia Viviani. After a number of bodies hit the deck, the Italian, who had stopped to avoid the carnage, was hit by a motorcycle which had failed to brake in time. Luckily, neither Viviani nor the motorcyclists were seriously hurt. But the whole episode was caught on camera by a British spectator and it quickly went viral.
With 47km to go, the riders hit the Mons-en-Pevele, which can provide the launchpad for a race-winning attack (as Fabian Cancellara managed in 2010 and 2012 respectively). But more often than not it’s the Carrefour de l’Arbre at 15km to go that has the final say.
Even the finish of the race is unusual and iconic. When finally arriving in Roubaix the cyclists ride into Roubaix’s velodrome to complete one and a half laps laps of the track, in front of a passionate and blood thirsty crowd.
Whether the arena plays host to a sprint between a leading group or a lap of honour for a sole leader, it’s invariably a perfect spectacle to end a perfect race.
PARIS-ROUBAIX: RECENT WINNERS
Peter Sagan after winning 2018 Paris-Roubaix. Image: Sunada
2018: Peter Sagan (Svk) Bora-Hansgrohe
2017: Greg Van Avermaet (Bel) BMC Racing
2016: Mathew Hayman (Aus) Orica-GreenEdge
2015: John Degenkolb (Ger) Giant-Alpecin
2014: Niki Terpstra (Ned) Etixx-QuickStep
2013: Fabian Cancellara (Swi) RadioShack
2012: Tom Boonen (Bel) Omega Pharma-QuickStep
2011: Johan Vansummeren (Bel) Garmin-Cervelo
2010: Fabian Cancellara (Swi) Saxo Bank
2009: Tom Boonen (Bel) QuickStep
2008: Tom Boonen (Bel) QuickStep
2007: Stuart O’Grady (Aus) Team CSC
Peter Sagan; Alexander Kristoff; Ian Stannard; Greg Van Averrmaet