The Queen of the Classics is upon us! I'll offer a few thoughts, and some resources as well on the jump.
Paris-Roubaix is the first pro bike race I ever saw on TV. I can't recall if it was John Tesh & Co., or ABC's Wide World, combing the globe for carnage sports, but in any event, it was on TV in 1985 (and ever since). As a result, I grew up thinking Marc Madiot was a great cyclist because he was the first winner I ever knew. I was naive.
I've gone from being a big fan, to being a little disdainful, to finally appreciating what it is. L'enfer du nord, the race's accidental nickname which stuck after someone confused the name for the WWI fields it passes for the race itself, is a great endurance test, a race with proud history, and a merger of Cycling's two deepest cultures, France and Flanders. It's also a great spectacle, with all the spills, the mud-coated faces, and the grim atmosphere the riders overcome.
But I read a lot of Cycling mags, and the riders' comments made me wonder -- is this really a race, or gratuitous two-wheeled carnage?
In 1977, the race organizers added the now-infamous "Arenberg Trench" in the Wallers-Arenberg Forest, somewhere around KM 160, mostly to make the riders miserable and add some drama. For years, apparently, the route has been tinkered with to catch as many cobbled sections as possible, a fight against the move to pave many of these farm community roads in what non-cyclists would consider progress. The race seems to have won, as Cycling has become a global passion with Paris-Roubaix and the well-funded ASO at the center.
In my self-righteous moments, I often wondered whether the cyclists were being used. The brutality makes for great spectacle -- just like those road twists in the last KM of a flat Tour stage make for great sprints, for the few riders who can avoid the inevitable crashes. Were the organizers serving me broken collarbones for my entertainment?
Not really, is my current conclusion. The pave are the equivalent of de Ronde's bergs, the only way to force selections on a flat course. They reward riders who stay up front, who handle the bike, and who are just plain strong. It's a bit of a specialty race, one of the few events where size and weight are a good thing, and victory here is less indicative of overall greatness than Flanders or Liege. But it has its place in the sport, for sure, as a truly unique event. And, yeah, a good spectacle...
By the way, Boonen is gunning for history here. He's one of nine people who've ever accomplished the Ronde-Roubaix double, and the only one besides De Peet (Van Petegem) still riding. And no, Merckx never did it. Well, if he wins Sunday, Boonen will be the first ever double-double winner. Somewhere in Belgium an artist is carving his likeness in a cobblestone.
As for those resources:
- The Arenberg Trench was out last year, under repairs, but was approved for use by ASO in February. Get the official description here from ASO, as well as the difficulty ratings of each cobble section, on a scale of 1-5 stars. Cycling News has its own take on the parcours as well.
- Generic preview time over at CyclingNews. Although their recap of last year... let's just say that there's nothing generic about describing a rider as in need of a change of shorts.
- Generic history time over at -- where else -- Wikipedia.