Paris Roubaix is the poster boy of the spring classics season with 260km of hard, fast & attritional racing interspersed with 50km of hellish ‘pave’ (cobbles). The fact that it is largely flat is token conciliation for the sheer brutality these cobbles inflict on your body. In short, GC guys HATE this race. That is why it is one of the rare occasion’s in a year where being a larger set powerhouse (Boonen, Cencellara, Phiney) actually puts you at an advantage. 2014 is set to be a vintage edition with dry + dusty conditions forecast and a multitude of contenders knocking on the proverbial ‘Roubaix velodrome’ door.
In the modern era, two names are as synonymous with this race as the very cobbles them self. Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen have shared a love affair with Roubaix that has spanned 2 decades and with 3 + 4 wins apiece; there dominance is already draped in legendary status. Tom Boonen’s 2012 win where he rode to solo victory from 50km out was one of the most impressive things I have ever seen on a bike and the only man in the world who could match this feat is of course Spartacus himself. 2 of his 3 wins have seen him to arrive in Roubaix blissfully alone and the Belgium die-hard fans often come to the race adorned with messages for him to “PLEASE HAVE MERCY”. Perhaps surprisingly, 2008 has been the only year where both riders were in the wining break. Boonen took the win that year in a sprint finish but to say one is stronger then the other would be a great injustice. These two have, and continue to define the classics season and it has been a privilege to watch history unfold before our eyes these past 10 years.
Smart money inevitably looks no further then here, with Cancellara the slight bookies favorite following last weeks Flanders win. However I feel we could see one of the most open races in recent times with both riders showing signs of fragility. Fabian’s win last week was in many regards one of his finest; relying on finesse and race craft over pure power, he grinded out a win when perhaps he wasn’t at his absolute best (near unthinkable at Flanders). However, the fact he came to the finish with a group of 4 and having to rely on his good but not excellent sprint finish speaks to me that he is not as strong as he once was. With Devolder out following a crash last week, I expect to see multiple teams blocking, targeting and beating Fabian to bits throughout this race and if he is able to secure that illustrious 4th Cobble, it will have to be (another) one of the greatest rides of his career.
So many names come to mind when we look at the depth of this race. Sep Vanmarke is very much the future of Belgium’s classics racing and with an outstanding year already, he will be desperate to make a jump to that so far out of reach top step of the podium. BMC’s Greg Van Amvermart is another rider who is craving a victory that he to be fair probably deserves. A perennial ‘nearly man’, last weeks Flander’s 2nd place was a coming of age and I would love to see him go well tomorrow. Quickstep are of course at the service of their man Tom Boonen but what makes this team so strong, is that they have multiple riders who could lead a team in their own right. Terpstra, Stybar and Vandenburgh have all been in the final group in recent years and if Boonen misfires, one of these men is more then capable of stepping up in his place.
After receiving a message from the 5th Floor’s new favorite rider, Mr. Alexander Kristoff post Milan San Remo, we have to give a shout out to our man from Norway here as well. His form this year has been exemplary and at only 26, he looks set to feature in not just this year’s edition, but many more to come.
Another interesting feature of this year’s race is the ever controversial presence of Sir Bradley Wiggins. As he sets aside his grand tour ambitions he has purposefully gained some weight in order to target this race, the first TDF winner to target Roubaix since Greg LeMond back in 1992. His pursuit background along with his ferocious talent could well see him feature in the finale of this race, however his self confessed inability to position at crucial points could see his chances compromised. The run in into the infamous Arenberg Forest has been compared to a Tour De France sprint and equally dramatically is many riders claim that if you are not in the top 40 at this point your race is over.
Paris Roubaix counts down from 28 to 1 cobbled sections, with the first starting at kilometer 100 and the last within 1000m of the finish. The ‘pave’ is given a rating between 1 & 5 stars and is defined by the length, quality of the cobble and general condition of the road. It has been said by past victors they had ‘flown over the cobbles’ on route to victory but the reality is far from it. Entering each section at close to 50km an hour, the peloton explodes into a fit of dust, dirt and in some cases, limbs and is invariably where the race is won and lost. Bernard Hinault famously described this race as idiotic due to the unique blend of skill and luck required to succeed. This comment may not be wholly inaccurate but the truth is that whilst this race may need luck to win, it cannot be won with luck alone. Since it’s first showing in 1896 only the strongest have conquered and long may this continue as so.
With race Depart less then 24 hours away I implore you take the time to watch this race. Never short of a quote or two for the media, Wiggins just yesterday mentioned this will be the only race he watches when he hangs up his wheels and much like our very own Red Hook Crit, this truly is a gateway view into the sport. So with that, I invite you to sit back and watch in awe for 2014’s one and only ‘Hell of the North’.
Words: James Hyatt
Image: Cycling News