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Preview: Oh, What the Hell

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2016 Paris - Roubaix Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Sometimes I envy the casual cycling fan, and this is one of those times. If you just check in on the most obviously great races — in America I suppose you could call them the Phil and Paul races — then you get lots of breaks from focusing on cycling and it all seems nice and fresh.

For me, Paris-Roubaix is the end of a long haul. It’s the culmination of nine months of winding myself back up for the Cobbled Classics, a process that starts after the Tour when the Worlds appear on the horizon and the one-day riders become relevant again. It’s several months of looking in on results to see if the field of contenders is growing. It’s an excitement that starts building rapidly in February when, as impossible as it seems to my icy winter brain, racing in Flanders is about to actually happen.

2016 Paris - Roubaix Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Then it happens, albeit in the fashion of a winter race. Then it’s off-and-on for three weeks. Then it really happens. And keeps going. Can I maintain an excitement level of 10 for this long? If you’re there, the answer is yes, no problem, if anything it seems like it could keep going. From a long distance, squeezed into the nonexistent spaces in my schedule, it works differently.

I think if I were retired or generally had a lot less to do, I could savor every moment, pair each race with the appropriate beer, and just wallow in Flanders-ness non-stop, long-distance, happy as can be. I’d dream occasionally about being there instead, but not with too many hard feelings about that not being the case. I’d feel mostly sad about Paris-Roubaix and things coming to an end. But then I’d ponder Liege and Amstel and the Giro and agree that it will all be OK.

For now, cycling is something I have to fight for, to watch and write about and try to experience myself (gotta work off those frites), and the process isn’t as euphoric as I’d prefer. That’s temporary, though. And I know the races will be waiting for me when life devolves into a slower pace in the not too distant future. Then, Paris-Roubaix won’t seem like the end of block of excessive busy-ness. It will return to its place as the bittersweet conclusion to my favorite month of the year.

A few random musings...

  • Maybe it’s the change and I need to get used to it, but I am 100% against the Dwars rescheduling. Dwars door Vlaanderen meant that the classics had arrived, full stop, in a way that Three Days of One Day of West Flanders didn’t. Going from “wait, have we started?” to “Holy shit! It’s E3 day!” was jarring, and the change on the other end where Dwars is on the eve of the Big Race was harmless at best. I’m happy for Dwars attaining World Tour status but I still fail to see why it needed to move.
  • I saw some quotes about how “things are different now” in the discussions around riders attempting to win all the monuments. I believe it was a CN piece that spawned some Twitter activity, and it’s fun to think about, even though it’s not much of a discussion anymore (as in, it can’t be done) for the simple reason that there is just so much more interest in the classics now. I don’t know how to gauge that, exactly. TV coverage is certainly improved, and I have something like 11 hours of Flanders video on my FuBo DVR. The WT system which gives out so many points at these races accounts for some of the heightened intensity too. But in the end it comes down to the riders, teams, sponsors and fans all agreeing that the races are wonderful and deserve more attention.

I’ll toss out one more factor: the backlash against the simplistic media coverage in the English-speaking world beginning with the discovery of the Tour de France by CBS Sports in the early 1980s. Here, and I suspect in the UK and Australia too, the Tour was the only race worth caring about. Certainly American teams acted like that a lot. Not because they are stupid — I am pretty sure US Postal didn’t want to lose Tom Boonen — but because their audience simply had no information about any other races, so their sponsors focused on the Tour, so the teams followed suit. The money follows the eyeballs.

Now a lot more fans know. Now I see stuff happening around Seattle celebrating the Tour of Flanders (and of course Paris-Roubaix, which was the only classic people knew about before). Now it’s clear the eyeballs are looking in the direction of these races, so the money is too and the teams can as well. Now you get what the CN article discussed, 22 teams showing up with riders who can actually win. That’s why nobody can dominate the way they used to.

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  • Wait, did I just say that in a season when one team has won every gosh-darn-diddly-arn race except Gent-Wevelgem, where they lost by a bike length? Quick Step’s dominance was fun at first but has reached saturation levels with Fabio Jakobsen’s win in the Scheldeprijs. With so many quality riders around, you’d think they would put at least the occasional wrong foot forward and open the door to the other teams, but no. Paris-Roubaix so often flips the script, so this is a last chance for the peloton to show that no team, however deep, can control the Classics all the way through. Luck (the bad kind) is everywhere in the Départment du Nord on that second April Sunday, and Quick Step are fighting against the odds with the way things have broken for them so far. But if they can do it one last time, well, we’ll write that chapter later.

OK, on to the 2018 Paris-Roubaix. I’ll keep it abbreviated, since I don’t like belaboring the obvious.

Parcours: Same As Ever

Paris-Roubaix is up there when it comes to course stability, more so than any of the other cobbled classics. E3 and Gent-Wevelgem mix things up a bit. Dwars overhauled itself. De Ronde changes up its early kms almost every year, out of obligation (though not this time). Paris-Roubaix? They do what they want, and if the course doesn’t need changing, it doesn’t change.

Corbis via Getty Images

The difference this year from last is that two early secteurs are out and two new ones in. Changes as follows:

  • Last year the second secteur was Viesly to Quiévy, a three-star sector of 1800 meters. That one is out.
  • Last year the third secteur was Quiévy to Saint-Python, a 3700-meter beast; that one is now the fourth one, and I think it’s being run in reverse.
  • Last year’s fifth secteur was Briatre to Solosmes, a one-star affair; that one is gone.
  • In place of the two omitted secteurs are the Saint-Python bit, all of 1500 meters, and a new one with a really long name (Saint-Hilaire-lez-Cambrai> Saint-Vaast-en-Cambrésis) that has no rating.

From there, with 23 secteurs and half the race miles remaining, the course repeats its previous version. That’s why I’m not boring you with more details. It’s Paris-Roubaix, what is there left to be said?

2018 Paris-Roubaix route

The Field

I could go pretty quickly through here and tell you that all the usual suspects will be in attendance, and that’s probably who we will see at the front of the race in its final hour. Plus a rider or three who we never imagined being there, which I don’t have the foresight to pick out of the haystack. But a few notes.

Here’s a list of riders who finished within 36 seconds of victory last year — the blink of an eye, really: Langeveld, Moscon, Demare, Petit, Senechal, Offredo, Allegaert, Maes, De Vreese, Sieberg. Sieberg and Petit were close in 2016. Saramotins and Erviti too. In 2015 the list of guys just off the pace included Saramotins again, and Elmiger, Rowe, De Backer, Bozic, Schillinger, Senechal again, and Rast.

The point is that there are a lot of riders on non-dominating teams who the Quick Steps and BMCs and Skys won’t want to let too far off the leash. I don’t know how many of them can solo away from the peloton in the final 30km, but I am thinking back to 2011 when the breakaway never really came back, and contained riders who were maybe a bit more dangerous than their rivals would admit. If you want to see Quick Step’s stranglehold on the spoils broken, I suspect we will need this sort of group away while the Wolf Pack tend to the bigger names. That and some luck along the way....

AFP/Getty Images

If the theme of the year is the growth of the races, then it wouldn’t be right to take our eyes off some of the younger riders performing at a top level. Obviously Wout Van Aert is the name on everyone’s lips, and What Will Wout Do Sunday is the drama that’s gripping all of Belgium. Mads Pedersen of Trek did Wout one better in de Ronde, actually contesting the win and making it to the podium in the process. As exciting as Wout’s prospects may be, know this: Pedersen is a year younger. He did a lap of the classics last year, just getting his feet wet, and had showed little until Dwars when he got fifth, before exploding on our collective consciousness Sunday. I don’t see any history with, say, Paris-Roubaix Espoirs in his timeline, but he’s on fire right now.

Weather looks pleasant with a light tailwind, so a heavy race isn’t in the cards. That means the young guns are less likely to be ground down by veteran legs — an assumption of the past that no longer seems to hold.

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Other youngsters to watch include:

  • Magnus Cort Nielsen, a sprinter of sorts but 43rd last year.
  • Nils Politt, 27th in his debut last year and strong in Flanders.
  • Stefan Kung, 41st last year and two decent showings to his name.
  • Christophe Laporte, 39th last year and 20th in 2016, after a Ronde spoiled by illness.
  • Petit, who is maybe stretching the definition of youngsters (he’s 28) but who is there at the end every single year.
  • Timo Roosen, 46th in his 2017 P-R debut, and riding like a beast this year.
  • Senechal, the Wolf Pack’s wild card.
  • Oliver Naesen, if we are expanding this list to sorta-young vets; Naesen battled through a lot of adversity just to start in Flanders, and battled some more once it got underway. The kid’s tough, and he’s not gonna crack.

I’m sure I am missing a few more names, which I am happy to hear from you about in comments.

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The Pick

Senechal. I am not currying favor with Andrew, I just think that Quick Step are going to have to get creative here to keep winning. Senechal has been putting in his work for the team so far, and it’s time for him to get his chance. The peloton will act relieved when Gilbert, Stybar and Terpstra are in G2, and they’ll refuse to chase when Senechal is up the road. France will get its first winner in 21 years, and we will all be so happy for them that we’ll put aside our collective exhaustion with his team’s success.