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The rough roads to Roubaix

For those worried after the discussions about Flanders, there is no new Roubaix course, no laps, no three passages of VIP sections in the Forest of Arenberg, the Carrefour de'l Arbre hasn't been taken out and there's no finish on a freeway outside Roubaix. Just the same(-ish) long meander through the fields of northern France to find the gnarliest possible cobble roads on the way to the velodrome in Roubaix. Just the way we like it.

Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

The basics of Roubaix are pretty straightforward. It's a 253 km trek north from what used to be Paris but is now Compiegne. Organizers have had to move the start north as the route has become more and more winding as it now has to seek out more and more rare cobble stretches to put together the 53 kms of pavé that give the race it's special character. This year the 53 kms are divided into 27 secteurs, the longest being 3700 m. A few of these, three of the early ones to be exact will be included in the Tour de France route this summer as well. There they will likely have more impact than they will here. Earlier means easier by default, because as I discovered when riding them last year it's not so much how difficult any secteur is in itself, it's the accumulation of misery as you work your way through them that kills you.

For example our 140 km sportive adventure saw the dreaded Arenberg trench as the first obstacle. Now there is no denying it, that road is truly dreadful. The stones aren't arranged in any discernible pattern, should you by chance come across a bit where they are laid neatly you can bet they have some jagged edges jutting up rather than the flat sides. The road first dips down sending you flying with fear for your life at a much higher speed than any sane person would ride at, then it turns on you and goes on with an endless uphill drag just as your legs are ready to give in. But for us who were fresh at that point it wasn't that bad of an experience. That came later, 5 secteurs down the road when your legs suddenly have a jellylike feel to them from the pounding they take on the pavé. I told my legs to "Shut up" and they answered by flipping me the bird and going on a 2 secteur strike while I wept silently. For the pros they face this monstrosity after nine secteurs and a wild sprint to reach it first. Good luck with that.

roubaix 2015 map

The ASO have their own difficulty ranking of these things. There are three of the most difficult 5 star secteurs, six 4 stars, thirteen 3 stars, five 2 stars and a single 1 star, the silly final little cobbled city street outside the velodrome. Mainly two factors decide the rating, the length of it and the "quality" of the road surface. Now it has to be said that on the road some of these ratings made no sense, you could come out of a lowly 3-star and  feel like you had been physically violated and betrayed, some with dreadful cobbles and turns and bends that would scare the bejeezus out of you. But most of all it is probably how you happen to be feeling on any given secteur that determine if you cruise through it or if it is a hell that never seems to end as other riders rush past you.

Of the three 5 stars Mons en Pévèle is no doubt not worthy of that status which I think everyone but Hincapie's steerer tube will agree with. It can't be compared with the jumbled messes of rocks that the other two are made out of. Where Arenberg is dreadful, Carrefour is just ridiculous. Some parts literally look like they have been hit by mortar rounds and suddenly as you're bouncing along, a big hole in the road can appear right in front of your wheel at which point all you can do is pray and soil yourself, not necessarily in that order. At first it has a ridable outer edge (if the road is dry) but at some point after that left turn where Thor Hushovd lost his last chances of winning Roubaix that outer edge becomes more and more treacherous. Riding out there becomes a huge gamble and probably not a very smart thing if you are thundering along at 40 km/h, at half the speed you at least have a chance to avoid disasters.

The Secteurs and their Star-rating

27. Troisvilles (km 98,5 - 2200 m) +++
26. Viesly (km 105 - 1800 m) +++
25. Quievy (km 108 - 3700 m) ++++
24. Saint-Python (km 112,5 - 1500 m) ++
23. Vertain (km 120,5 - 2300 m) +++
22. Verchain-Maugré (km 130 - 1600 m) +++
21. Quérénaing - Maing (km 133,5 - 2500 m) +++
20. Monchaux-sur-Ecaillon (km 136,5 - 1600 m) +++
19. Haveluy (km 149,5 - 2500 m) ++++
18. Trouée d'Arenberg (km 158 - 2400 m) +++++
17. Wallers - Hélesmes, dit " Pont Gibus " (km 164 - 1600 m) +++
16. Hornaing (km 170,5 - 3700 m) ++++
15. Warlaing - Brillon (km 178 - 2400 m) +++
14. Tilloy - Sars-et-Rosières (km 181,5 - 2400 m) ++++
13. Beuvry-la-Forêt - Orchies (km 188 - 1400m) +++
12. Orchies (km 193 - 1700 m) +++
11. Auchy-lez-Orchies - Bersée (km 199 - 2700 m) ++++
10. Mons-en-Pévèle (km 204,5 - 3000 m) +++++
9. Mérignies - Avelin (km 210,5 - 700 m) ++
8. Pont-Thibaut (km 214 - 1400 m) +++
7. Templeuve - Moulin de Vertain (km 220 - 500 m) ++
6. Cysoing - Bourghelles (km 226,5 - 1300 m) +++
Bourghelles - Wannehain (km 229 - 1100 m) +++
5. Camphin-en-Pévèle (km 233,5 - 1800 m) ++++
4. Le Carrefour de l'Arbre (km 236,5 - 2100 m) +++++
3. Gruson (km 238,5 - 1100 m) ++
2. Hem (km 245,5 - 1400 m) ++
1. Roubaix (km 252 - 300 m) +

The obvious pattern that we see in the race is how the Arenberg creates the basis for whatever happens in the finale it's here that a big sorting takes place and some unlucky or not good enough riders fall out of contention. After that we don't see the dramatic moves until they hit the Mons-en-Pévèle and that's where it starts to get real. But the devil lies in those tough section that follows Arenberg. The long brutal Hornaing, Tilloy and Auchy ,all of those soften up the field for the attacks to come. Hornaing especially which seems endless and unrelenting, I swear it's some of the longest 3,7 kms I have ever ridden and that includes some pretty tough climbs. You just sit there and think that "it can't possibly go on for much longer now surely", but it does. It's the perfect spot for a strong team to turn up the heat and soften the competition. Tilloy is the twisty and pitted section that has turns that make you want to slow down and crawl through. The race blasts through them with riders hardly touching the brakes which is nothing short of lunacy. If you want to hold your position there is no option though, you either embrace the crazy or you give up your chances.

So much of how you do on the sections is dictated by what kind of line you chose or end up with. Sometimes the easy route is out to the side in a worn down groove and then in some places that can turn into a rutted and pothole-filled nightmare whereas the center is bumpy but at least regularly bumpy in a way that allows you to keep powering on.

jens roubaix

The pic above perfectly illustrates the point, the guys to the right were a lot faster than our chunky Podiumcafe hero and had surged past me not long before on the outside. Sticking to the middle turned out to be a winner though as the edge guys got stuck in a bouncy mess while the middle allowed you to just chug on as fast as your legs would allow you. You can see the Giant guy realizing this and picking a new line as they get passed by someone who they were twice as fast as moments ago.. For schmucks like us this was mostly about luck but we see in the race how the best riders have a sixth sense of where they need to be on the road and when. It can't just be course knowledge, it has to be an ability to see where the ideal line is at an given time. Sitting locked in to your line in a group is the scariest bit and not being able to respond and take action  the way you want to can be the most costly of all too.

Which brings us to Carrefour de'l Arbre
No other secteur in Roubaix has the same ability to produce winners (and losers) as the Carrefour. Not only is it late in the game, long and rough but it also comes right after the Camphin en Pévèle secteur with just a minute or two of respite in between so in reality it's practically a 4 km secteur of misery. Coming onto the Carrefour you are almost immediately greeted by this.....


.....and you immediately realize that the rules have changed. At this point the race won't just be decided by who has the most power left, it comes down to who will look at that mess and see it as an opportunity and not as the lethal threat it really is. Getting stuck in one of the countless craters and lose your momentum happens in an instant which is why you will sometimes see riders who are following with seeming ease suddenly transform into a slowly grinding, broken shell of a man. Because once you lose momentum on a road that looks like this it is practically impossible to recover, What is merely a gap of a few meters will grow exponentially in no time at all. That's the magic of Carrefour I think, the potential to do damage is just so high, get it right while others don't and you have eliminated your opposition in seconds and it's unlikely they recover.

What comes after Carrefour in terms of pavé isn't much. To a fat sportive rider that Willems-Hem secteur is actualy kind of brutal, especially when you thought you were all but done for the day but to the pros that 1,5 km is pretty much nothing and it would take a lot for someone to get dropped there. More likely you are going to lose out in some gameplaying or in a sprint in the velodrome which by the way we are probably due for sometime soon. We've seen a lot of solo wins now and we had a duel in 2012 and a trio in 2008. Maybe this is the year for a big 6-10 rider bunch sprint?

Then at last there is Roubaix's dirty little secret. The one thing we keep ignoring in the midst of all the pavé romanticism. The race is more often than not decided in between the pavésecteurs. In the lulls of the action is when the crafty riders take advantage and get away, just as Terpstra and Kristoff did the other day on a piece of road that no on expected a decisive attack to come. So while getting the iconic pavés right in P-R is crucial, chances are you are going to win or lose the race on some innocuous road in between the big battlegrounds.