Step back in time with me to the scene in the Roubaix velodrome in April of 2002. Mud-splattered faces. Riders trickled across the finish line, eyes glazed over as if they'd witnessed the same horrors that transpired in these fields in 1918. Except for one man, Johan Museeuw, who crossed the line after 41 kilometers of excruciating solo riding.
The strongest man won that day, but behind him numerous others fell victim to the weather on the day. George Hincapie, chasing Museeuw with his young teammate Tom Boonen, went careening into a ditch after losing traction. Earlier in the race, there had been crashes a-plenty in the various cobbled secteurs. The passage of the Arenberg was unusually slow because of the difficulties generated by the rain.
It is perhaps ironic that Sean Kelly famously said "A Paris-Roubaix without rain is not a true Paris-Roubaix. Throw in a little snow as well, it's not serious." Ironic because only two of the past eleven editions have seen rain. So why do we associate Roubaix with rain?
Cobbles are slippery in the best of conditions. Years, or even centuries, of use have worn their faces down to a sheen. When conditions are dry, they are treacherous - one can slide off the crown of the road, easily wash out in a turn, or worse. When rain arrives... even the most skilled find it hard to cope. For illustration, I suggest you watch what happens when the peleton hits the Arenberg Forest in 2002. Or 90 minutes of coverage of the infamous 1994 edition of Paris Roubaix.
Maybe it's the additional difficulty created by the rain that draws us to it. Or, perhaps, it's something less obvious. The pictures of riders crossing the line after a rainy Roubaix are unlike any images captured in the sport. Even dry editions leave finishers caked in dust and spitting out grit; after a muddy race, finishers look like they have wrestled with the route, rolling around on the ground in an attempt to tame its ferociousness.
It could be as simple as the stark contrast between the whites of a gladiator's eyes and the dark mud and cow shit caked on his face.
Perhaps it is the culmination of all these factors, whose combined effect is to create symbiosis between the experience of the riders and the race's moniker l'Enfer du Norde. This, perchance, is why we remember the few rainy editions of the race more vividly than all the others.
For whatever reason, we watch the forecast for this Sunday in April like hawks for weeks. Even a 10% chance of rain stimulates our imaginations. And even though the odds of rain on Sunday are falling, we can still think about the past and fantasize about what Sunday might be like.
Few of the riders in today's list of favorites have participated in a wet Paris-Roubaix, or at least performed well in one. After all, with the last rainy edition coming ten years ago, few individuals can be expected to be on the top of their game for such a long time. How will this affect the race?
On one hand, riding cobbles is a skill all unto itself - especially when we are talking about the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix, which are unequaled by anything Belgium's multiplicity of spring races include. No surprises will pop up simply because the roads are slick with cow shit and mud. But...
When the cobbles are wet, picking the proper line is even more crucial than normal (if you can possibly imagine that!). Stray off the six inch wide tip of the crown and you're left sliding down towards the sides of the road, where glass, flint, and ditches lurk. And you never want to ride through puddles, where unseen potholes are lurking. Even the best can come a-cropper, making positioning battles even more intense and crucial in the run into the early secteurs.
Who has experience in the rain? Only two riders considered favorites this year have placed in the top 10 of rainy Roubaix editions. Old Man Hincapie is one, though he's a dark horse more than a podium hopeful. The other? A precocious Tom Boonen who placed 3rd in 2002.
Take from this what you will. You might expect a little extra from Tommeke, or you may write 2002 off because he made the early break and avoided the harshest of the battles on treacherous cobbles behind. But either way, I invite you to dream and to speculate below!