Your dusty troop made it to the Roubaix velodrome today with nary a puncture and a lot of connection to the course for tomorrow’s race. Apologies for not laying out a lot of information for you, but then again, what do you need that you don’t already have?
It is said a lot that the stones of Paris-Roubaix are of a different character than Flanders, and I knew that already, but I know that a little better now. Some places in Flanders get pretty rough, sometimes the cobbles are disorganized, sometimes there’s even a crown. In France, you get all three, a lot. Huge stones spread far apart with a crown that forces you to ride on a tightrope... or go really slow.
I just think Paris-Roubaix is more of a skill set all its own, and just because someone can handle Flanders doesn’t mean they can manage Roubaix. And by manage, I mean manage to win; obviously the professional athletes can all get from point A to point B, even if we’re talking about the Carrefour de l’Arbe. Peter Sagan is the person of greatest interest, and his four finishes of the race add up to one top ten (6th three years ago). Can he do this? Sure, but it’s hardly in his sweet spot.
Tom Boonen has owned this race like nobody else has (recently), even as his Ronde van Vlaanderen credentials have faded. Whatever it is about this course is something he likes and responds to, and given his pretty high fitness right now, the dream finish can’t be ruled out.
The past performances of riders like Matt Hayman, John Degenkolb, and Niki Terpstra obviously suggest strongly that they will be fine. Another group of guys who’ve been at the very pointiest end of one of these races would be Greg Van Avermaet, Zdenek Stybar, Lars Boom, Martin Elmiger, Jens Keukeleire, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Luke Rowe and Yves Lampaert. I don’t know how to describe the special quality it takes to do this race (power? guts? tightrope-walking ability?), but it’s like nothing else in cycling, and the only clue to who has it is in the results.
Put another way, guys who are riding there and are not getting results have to be questioned. There are even riders like Philippe Gilbert who can win the bloody Ronde and not even warrant a start in Roubaix. It’s a thing, and it’s the thing that should decide the race tomorrow.
Of course, nobody is born with palmares, so someone will start building their record. A few guys who have been here before but may move up would be Dylan van Baarle, flying right now, or surprising Sacha Modolo. Oliver Naesen jumped from 50s to 13th in a year, his second start. Arnaud Demare has a top 20, slightly weaker case but still. These are the guys I’m thinking you should be looking to for your winners.
Weather is lovely here, sunburn material, and a tailwind is expected, to the point where they are starting the race later so that the big moments happen in accordance with the schedule. In other words, it will be slightly less drudgery than normal. Ultimately it’s a rather pleasant place to ride a bike when not grinding it out over the stones.
We did the 70km version, except for Will who went twice as long, and for me it was enough. I’d been further up the trail before anyway, and seven straight days of riding is a lot. But I swear, getting on those roads and hammering toward the velodrome was like a dream. I think the spirit of Madiot entered my body at some point, an echo from the first race I ever watched on TV (the 1985 epic edition). Even the truncated ride for old guys failed to dilute the excitement of approaching Roubaix. I (being silly and a bit obsessed) was screaming through the streets when not held up by traffic, and sprinted it out in the Velodrome with two other guys. The actual sprint wasn’t important at all, but the feeling that we are blasting up the Avenue Roger Salengro, then turning left on the road to the track, then the left onto the track and up the embankment... I could be modest and say “sure, we were just messing around” but it was unforgettable.
My pick is Boonen. It’s only 75% sentimental, but his shadow will loom over everything tomorrow (which of course is not favorable circumstances for actually winning) and it’s possible we won’t make it into the Velodrome because half of Flanders is there. The last ride of a great champion is nothing to sneeze at. If he can deliver it’ll be one of the great moments in sports history. I bought some Quick Step socks just in case.
I’ll have some longer reflections on the whole experience over here as I make my way back to America after the race. Hope you guys enjoy it.