Paris-Roubaix – will humble the strongest of men.
I was a neo-pro, had already raced cobbles in Het Volk, and trained on some of the cobbled climbs of the Tour of Flanders. The Murr van Geraardsbergen was less than 10kms from my apartment and I trained on it often, but I had no idea what Paris-Roubaix was all about.
The race starts in Compiegne, France, and ends in the Velodrome of Roubaix, France. This year’s 110th edition is 257 kms, or 160 miles long. There are 27 sections of cobbles that total over 30 miles of bone jarring madness. The first section comes after nearly 60 miles and approximately 2 hours of high speed racing. Each section is rated from 1-5 stars in difficulty.
The 27 cobbled sections of Paris-Roubaix
27. Troisvilles (after 97.5 km – 2,200 m) +++
26. Viesly (after 104 km – 1,800 m) +++
25. Quievy (after 106.5 km – 3,700 m) ++++
24. Saint-Python (after 111.5 km – 1,500 m) ++
23. Vertain (after 119.5 km – 2,300 m) +++
22. Capelle-sur-Ecaillon – Le Buat (after 126 km – 1,700 m) +++
21. Aulnoy-lez-Valenciennes – Famars (after 142 km – 2,600 m) +++++
20. Famars – Quérénaing (after 145.5 km – 1,200 m) ++
19. Quérénaing – Maing (after 149 km – 2,500 m) +++
18. Monchaux-sur-Ecaillon (after 152 km – 1,600 m) +++
17. Haveluy (after 163.5 km – 2,500 m) ++++
16. Trouée d’Arenberg (after 172 km – 2,400 m) +++++
15. Millonfosse – Bousiginies (after 178.5 km – 1,400 m) +++
14. Brillon to Tilloy-lez-Marchiennes (after 183 km – 1,100 m) ++
Tilloy – Sars-et-Rosières (after 185.5 km – 2,400 m) +++
13. Beuvry-la-Forêt – Orchies (after 192 km – 1,400m) +++
12. Orchies (after 197 km – 1,700 m) +++
11. Auchy-lez-Orchies – Bersée (after 203 km – 2,600 m) ++++
10. Mons-en-Pévèle (after 208.5 km – 3,000 m) +++++
9. Mérignies – Avelin (after 215 km – 700 m) ++
8. Pont-Thibaut (after 218 km – 1,400 m) +++
7. Templeuve l’Epinette (after 223.5 km – 200 m) +
Le Moulin de Vertain (after 224 km – 500 m) ++
6. Cysoing – Bourghelles (after 230,5 km – 1,300 m) ++++
Bourghelles – Wannehain (after 233 km – 1,100 m) +++
5. Camphin-en-Pévèle (after 237.5 km – 1,800 m) ++++
4. Le Carrefour de l’Arbre (after 240.5 km – 2,100 m) +++++
3. Gruson (after 242.5 km – 1,100 m) ++
2. Hem (after 249.5 km – 1,400 m) ++
1. Roubaix (after 256.5 km – 300 m) +
I didn’t do the race as a neo-pro, but on the evening of the race that year, our team soigneurs dropped off Leon Van Bon who had just completed his first Paris-Roubaix. That moment, left an impression with me that, I will never forget. Leon had to have help getting up the stairs and into his bed. He did not budge until the following afternoon. Paris-Roubaix can humble the strongest of men.
Fewer riders will finish Paris-Roubaix than any of the other Classics, due to devastation from the cobbles. In 1998, I skidded and hopped, to a track-stand, to avoid falling onto Johan Museeuw who was wailing in pain. He split his knee open in a crash that happened just in front of me. We hit the Arenberg Forest cobbles at an estimated 40 miles per hour that year.
The scenario in Troisvilles is much the same. The peloton will reach up to and over 40 mph when they hit this first set of cobbles. The approach is madness as every rider wants to be in the front, taking risks and timing our efforts to be in the front, but of course this is impossible for 200 riders. This 1.4 mile section of cobbles will claim a fair share of bike equipment and riders, as does each section, but this is the first, and any bike and rider not up to the task gets a serious beating here.
Coming off of Troisvilles, the peloton is strung out with gaps that take an enormous effort to close. Then the peloton comes all back together in a kind of ‘truths’. The pace drops significantly, and the feeling is like being in the eye of the storm or it’s the calm before the storm.
From the second section of cobbles in Viesly, the paved sections are not long enough for the peloton to regroup and the riders at the front are constantly fighting for position and keeping the pace very high.
Our team meeting before the race in 2000, sounded like a rerun of the previous editions I had done. Our director sportif, Johan Bruyneel, pointed to three of us and lifted his voice making sure that we heard, that, “if there was an early break that one of us had to be in it”. From mile one, to mile twenty three, each of us keyed off one another to cover the attacks. We had all taken our turns producing near super human efforts to cover the moves, until I ended up in the break that would succeed that year. 17 of us broke away after 20 miles of racing.
Over the next 10 sections of cobbles, and 85 miles of racing, our group of 17 whittled down to 5 of us leading into the famous Arenberg Forest, that is rated at 5-star difficulty. It had been a drag race between the peloton and the break and the time gap was closing. They were salivating and wanted us badly.
In the middle of the forest, Tom Steels found an extra gear and split the remaining 5 of us up. I felt as if spikes were being driven into various parts of my body and as Phil Ligget might say, “Marty was in a spot of bother”.
I exited the Arenberg Forest alone, and got a call on the radio. Johan told me, “eat and drink because we need you”. This message was clear and I started to eat, drink and prepare. I rode along at a comfortable pace knowing that the head of the strongest group of riders in the world were breathing down my neck. I was so electrically charged when my teammates caught me that, I sat on the front and dug deep for the next 2-3 miles. Frankie Andreu knew every turn and helped gauge my efforts. I knew my race was over, but I still had the reserves to pull the peloton at over 35 miles per hour at this point. Frankie more than once, asked me to slow it down. I was entering and exiting the turns a bit hot, and I think I even heard him chuckle at one point.
Youtube Videos of 2000 Paris-Roubaix
a – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lHbHu8-NeKQ
b – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aYgVewERQcw
c – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rJgcYOsrv5Y
I have taken my cycling tour guests to the ‘Hell of the North’, to ride a few sections of these cobbles. On paper, you might think it’s a sensible plan to ride 3-4 sections before the Arenberg Forest, and that’s what I take people to do. However, I’m seasoned and I know better. I know I’m going to get dirty looks and hear a bit of complaining, but I believe in experiencing life. You’re not going to get the feel of Paris-Roubaix after only 2-3 sections, it’s going to take a bit more to drive stakes into your legs.
Unless I offer free beer, most of the riders I take to the Arenberg Forest, will ride off of the cobbles and onto the dirt paths before even making it to the halfway point. I only buy the beer for my guests who can ride this entire 2.2 kms section of category 5 cobbles without putting a foot down. (put this on your bucket list )
Wet or dry, Paris-Roubaix is the single hardest day of bike racing on the UCI calendar, period. It’s legalized war and a place where the strongest riders in the world will lay everything on the line.