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Hell’s Bells! The Paris-Roubaix Preview

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Jeff Pachoud/AFP/Getty Images

The best race day of the season is upon us. I’m of course talking about the Hell on the Schelde [looks at calendar, then looks at assignment.] Oh, never mind, it looks like the best race day of the season is already behind us. So, I guess we’ll talk about Roubaix, instead.

I don’t think I’d be exaggerating in calling Roubaix the most anticipated race day of the season. Sure, it might not have the prestige of the Tour de France or the beer-soaked reverence of Flanders, but what it does have is a penchant for bringing the pain to the peloton like no other race. Its currency is suffering, and we are the sadists that are buying. And the riders are the masochists that enjoy it. I don’t have to remind most of you about the interview that Theo de Rooij gave to John Tesh (who knows a thing or two about dishing out suffering, ever listen to his music? Heyo!) after the 1985 race:

De Rooij: It’s a bollocks, this race! You’re working like an animal, you don’t have time to piss, you wet your pants. You’re riding in mud like this, you’re slipping... it’s a pile of shit.

Tesh: Will you ever ride it again?

De Rooij: Sure, it’s the most beautiful race in the world!

The obsession with the suffering—whether it be us as the viewers or of the riders— is one that strikes close to home for me. I’m an obsessive cycling fan, but the other sport that I’m obsessive about participating in is ultrarunning, i.e. running really fucking far for really fucking long. The two dovetail really nicely as both have their routes in pedestrianism. And let me tell you, in ultrarunning suffering is a badge of honor. Look no further than the Barkley Marathons, which just took place, which is described as the race that eats its young, or the Big Backyard Ultra where runners have to run a 4.1 mile loop every hour on the hour until only one runner is left standing. This year, the winner ran 283.3 miles, outlasting a beast of a female runner named Courtney Dauwalter, who once won a 100 mile race despite going blind about 3/4s of the way into it. And I still brag to my ultra friends about finishing a 100 mile race despite an injury that I described looked like a blind doctor tried to give me a vasectomy with sand paper. So, it goes without saying that as someone that revels in the suffering, Roubaix just can’t be beat.

It also doesn’t hurt that there is so much history and mythology around the race. A tradition for me before The Hell of the North is to fire up the youtubes and watch Jorgen Leth’s A Sunday in Hell. Despite an arsenal of 20 cameras, motorbikes and helicopters that Leth had at his disposal, it’s sub RAI at an Italian SSR in terms of documenting the 1976 Paris-Roubaix. And, as my 4-year-old son tells me, it’s “boring” as he asks to watch yet another youtube video of an excavator working for the 9,000th time instead, but it hits a certain feeling about the race that gets me incredibly psyched for Sunday. If you allow me a moment of pretension, the film hits on a vein of what Werner Herzog would describe as “poetic, ecstatic truth,” where the stylization and mythologicalization of the race in the film, despite the lack of actual veritas, portrays the sense of watching the race much better than any Velon advanced statistics ever could.

Francesco Moser was fighting for his hair before Kittel was born.
AFP/Getty Images

The anticipation-building through a movie works for Roubaix because it is a rarity of a race and an outlier on the calendar. Unlike the Ronde, which has Omloop, E3, and Dwars door Vlaanderen leading up to it, there are no mini-Roubaixs using the same Northern France cobbles in the build up to Roubaix. While many races have now tried to imitate it, by the inclusion of cobbles, dirt, or gravel tracks, there’s still nothing on the calendar like the original.

And Roubaix was not a race that was pre-packaged to be awesome, like your Strade Bianche or Tro Bro Leons. In 1896, two textile manufacturers had built a velodrome in Roubaix and wanted to advertise that velodrome with a race. With Bordeaux-Paris being the great bicycle event of the time, they proposed the race from Paris to Roubaix as a training race for the participants in Bordeaux-Paris. So, they got the editor of Le Velo, the French daily sports paper, on board, but the only problem was that they still had to find a route. As legend would have it, the newspaper sent an editor on bike to map out the route and after a day of riding on the cobbles, he was supposed to have declared that he would send a telegram back to the paper as soon as possible to tell them to forget about the idea of such a dangerous race, but after being plied with drinks at dinner later that night by the textile manufacturers, he had decided to recommend the route.

At the first race, after news of the difficulty of the route spread, only half of the riders that had signed up actually showed up on the start line. Josef Fischer won the first edition, after Maurice Garin, the favorite, was run over by two of his pacers on tandem bicycles. In the second edition, Garin got his revenge as he went mustache-a-mustache with Mathieu Cordang in the velodrome. While what Garin used to fuel his victory in Roubaix remains lost to the annals of time, he may very well have been the first inventor of marginal gains as he had ridden to victory in a 24 hour race in Paris (riding 701 kilometers) by avoiding the gallons of red wine that other riders would use as fuel, and instead imbibing 19 liters of hot chocolate, 7 liters of tea, 8 eggs, coffee mixed with brandy and champagne, 45 chops, 5 liters of tapioca, 2 kilograms of rice pudding, and oysters. These were races designed for hard men with stomachs of steel.

Contrary to popular belief, the race was not nicknamed the Hell of the North due to the noxious emissions emanating from the riders subsisting on oysters and coffee mixed with brandy and champagne but rather because post-WWI the race would go through the ravaged battlefields of the North of France. And so began the race that would launch a thousand quotes. As the newspaper L’Auto would write:

We enter into the centre of the battlefield. There’s not a tree, everything is flattened! Not a square metre that has not been hurled upside down. There’s one shell hole after another. The only things that stand out in this churned earth are the crosses with their ribbons in blue, white and red. It is hell!

Or as race winner in 1919 Henri Pelissier would state after his victory, “This wasn’t a race. It was a pilgrimage.”

However, being described as “hell” didn’t really suit the tourism aspirations of the local mayors of the town along the route, and soon the local authorities started to come down with Giro-start-and-finish-town syndrome, laying new asphalt down over their gnarled, cobbled lanes or flat out refusing to have anything to do with the race. So began the formation of Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix, as the organization would search out the cobbled tracks that we know and love today and work on the conservation of hell for the riders. Thus, today’s race, while preserving the brutality of the original route over the cobbles, and the chaotic and heroic nature of the race, is infused with some artifice. Where Maurice Garin was forced to ride over cobbles to get to Roubaix, today’s race is forced to seek those sectors out, adding a further perverse masochism to the whole affair.

Herzog on Roubaix

I did not bring up Werner Herzog’s name above just out of pretension. With the mad history of this race, perverse suffering, and obsessive nature of the riders and fans alike, a documentary about Roubaix would fit right into the Teutonic director’s wheelhouse. So, I searched out Herzog (found him drinking Jagermeister with Marcel Kittel, actually) and asked him to weigh in with some Herzogian wizdom about the race and the riders.

A Road Map of Hell

Profile of hell:

Cobbled sector chart of hell:

So, Werner, after seeing the bleak environs of Northern France, what do you think of the course?

The only thing that is lacking is the dinosaurs here. It’s like a curse weighing on an entire landscape. And whoever goes too deep into this has his share of this curse.

You’re starting to sound a little like Bernaud Hinault, Werner.

Anyway, not much has changed with the course this year. The first cobbled sector of Troisvilles was shortened to 900 meters from 2.2 kilometers, but this should not have any effect on the race. And even though the Forest of Arenberg was shortened from 2400 meters to 2300 meters, the iconic sector remains the same as the distance change is based upon the organizers actually measuring it accurately for the first time. More importantly, even though the Arenberg got a Brazilian wax and some botox, it’s still reported to be its similar ugly, pock-marked self.

Gerlach Delissen/Corbis via Getty Images

Werner, after standing at the foot of the Forest of Arenberg for the first time, what did you think?

In this setting, left unfinished and abandoned by God in wrath, the birds do not sing; they shriek in pain, and confused trees tangle with one another like battling Titans, from horizon to horizon, in a steaming creation still being formed. Fog-panting and exhausted they stand in this unreal misery-- and I, like a stanza in a poem written in an unknown foreign tongue, am shaken to the core.

I’m wondering if we can get you a job replacing Carlton Kirby, Werner.

As always, while the cobbled sectors are tough, it’s all about the fight for position coming into the sectors that makes the real difference. So while you may be tempted to use the chart above to go grab a beer during the interstitials, the action is going to be non-stop for most of the back half of the race.

Still Dreaming of a Wet Roubaix

The cycling gods have been unkind to us lately, as there has not been a wet Roubaix since 2002— over a decade and a half. If you want to see what we’ve been missing (and some NSFW photos from the Roubaix showers) Rouleur had a great article from last year.

Museeuw says eat your heart out, Benoot
Getty

It feels like we are in the inverse situation of Ray Bradbury’s short story, “All Summer in a Day,” where the sun would only come out on Venus for an hour once every seven years. And, like the little girl protagonist in that story, when we finally do get that brief once-in-a-life time moment of rain at Roubaix, I’ll probably be figuratively locked in a closet by my classmates (aka having family obligations) and won’t get a chance to watch it. (Don’t worry, I don’t have any damage from being shown the film version of this story in 2nd grade. Thanks New Jersey public schools!).

Anyway, I’ve been checking the weather reports like Al Roker on methamphetamine, and losing my shit each time the percent chance of precipitation goes up or down. Currently we are at a 10% chance of precipitation, so it is unlikely we will get the beautiful sight of wet cobbles and mud faces this year, though there will be 10 to 20 mph wind out of the NE, so there’s a chance of crosswinds.

Unfortunately, the spin off of The Walking Dead, called The Riding Dead, starring Wielfried Peeters, didn’t last long.
Getty

What are your thoughts on a wet Roubaix, Werner?

Life during a wet Roubaix must be sheer hell. A vast, merciless hell of permanent and immediate danger. So much of a hell that some riders—including Bernard Hinault—crawled, fled onto some small continents of solid land, where the Lessons of Darkness continue.

That sounds miserable. I can’t wait!

The Denizens of Hell

Forget Hell of the North, let’s call Roubaix Purgatory for the Prognosticators as this race is the hardest to predict because when it comes to Roubaix past performance is no indication of future returns. If I told you a rider had previously finished 38th, 11th, 23rd, 6th, 86th, and DNF at Roubaix, you wouldn’t likely be running out to place a bet on him and you would miss having a bet on last year’s winner Sagan. That’s also why when I tell you that Kristoff’s history at this race suggests he’s not likely to win-- he’s finished 57th, DNF, 48th, 10th, DNF, 9th, 57th, DNF, and DNF-- you can tell me to get Educationed First. Since Cancellara has cooled his motor and since Boonen has traded the the podium tent for the VIP beer tent, there’s not been a single rider that has dominated Roubaix. The closest that we have would probably be Van Avermaet, who won in 2017, but has also had two 4th places and a 3rd place.

That being said, and to deflect from my own responsibility from being unable to pick the winners of the race, I opened up the question to the editors at PdC about who they thought would be on the podium. Here’s what they think (and what they thought in February):

Andrew

February pick: Jasper Stuyven

Current podium picks:

  1. Peter Sagan
  2. Florian Senechal
  3. Luke Rowe

Andrew said: I’ll stick with Peter Sagan to win from a small group. Florian Senechal and Luke Rowe to round out the podium.

Jens

February pick: Jasper Stuyven

Current podium picks:

  1. Greg Van Avermaet
  2. John Degenkolb
  3. Wout van Aert

Jens said: My regret drop from that trio is Rowe. And all rational logic says Kristoff and Naesen should be in there but I just don’t think it’s their race in the end.

Conor

February pick: Greg van Avermaet

Current podium picks:

  1. Alexander Kristoff
  2. Peter Sagan
  3. Zdenek Stybar

Conor said: I’m just hoping someone sticks with their Stuyven pick from way back when. I picked Van Avermaet back then, and I don’t think I can stick with him. Small group with a few sprinters gets away and they sprint it out. A bit like 2015.”

Seemsez

February pick: (Was too busy hanging out under the tracks and calculating the p-value of the positive correlation between the number of Night Trains boofed and Richie Porte vds ownership)

Current podium picks:

  1. Greg Van Avermaet
  2. Oliver Naesen
  3. Wout Van Aert

Seemsez said: GVA and Naesen finally get away and stay away. GVA wins the sprint. Wout Van Aert does the best job at hanging on and finishes 3rd.

Shawn

February pick: Jasper Stuyven

Current podium picks:

  1. Nils Politt
  2. Wout Van Aert
  3. Alexander Kristoff

I, like the majority of the cafe editors, drank the chocolate-flavored kool-aid at the beginning of the year and picked Stuyven to win Roubaix. While I’d like to stick with Jasper, my heart just isn’t in it, and I think I’ve got to take the young pup to a farm upstate. I think we get a winner a la Hayman this year (or a la Bettiol in Flanders). If forced to pick, I’ll go with the toothy terror Nils Politt, who outsprinted Sagan, Van Avermaet, Matthews, and Valverde in Flanders.

This year’s interesting, as it feels like there is no hot rider and consensus favorite coming into Roubaix. DQS peaked too early. Peter looks more like Juraj. Kristoff looks good, but has never done well in Roubaix. Naesen had the bubbly flu. MdvP is riding the wrong French race. So by default, I guess Van Avermaet is the consensus favorite according to the editors, though, like Conor, I feel he’s a hard pick to get too excited about.

If asked to tier the riders, I’d say that there is no five star favorite this year, even if the bookies have Peter Sagan at a very short 3/1 with everyone else in double digits. Here would be my tiers:

5th circle of hell: no riders

4th circle of hell: Peter Sagan, Zdenek Stybar, Greg Van Avermaet, Alexander Kristoff, Wout Van Aert, Oliver Naesen, Sep Vanmarcke

3rd circle of hell: Yves Lampaert, Florian Senechal, Nils Politt, Luke Rowe, John Degenkolb, Jasper Stuyven, Philippe Gilbert

2nd circle of hell: Sebastian Langeveld, Silvan Dillier, Arnaud Demare, Tiesj Benoot, Jens Keukeleire, Matteo Trentin, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Jens Debusschere, Mads Pedersen

1st circle of hell: Adrien Petit, Christophe Laporte, Lars Boom, Ivan Garcia Cortina, Sonny Colbrelli, Matej Mohoric, Magnus Cort, Kasper Asgreen, Jurgen Roelandts, Gianni Moscon, Ian Stannard, Mike Teunissen, Dylan van Baarle, Andre Greipel

Peter Sagan is the defending champion, and the presumptive favorite by default, as he has done nothing this Spring to merit such a position. One has to be wondering if he’s sandbagging for his 2020 vds price (I’ve heard he really wants to join the illustrious 6 pointer tier next year). You can only say that he’s timing his peak for later in the season than usual for so long and that time ends at Roubaix. The only upside for Sagan is that Tinkov is no longer around to kick him around like the last time he had such a poor Spring in 2015.

Speaking of mistiming their peak, Deceuninck Quick Step have looked like a pack of sled dogs the day after the Iditarod rather than a wolf pack. Sure, Kasper Asgreen’s second at Flanders was a great breakout result for the young Dane, but Zdenek Stybar, Bob Jungels, and Yves Lampaert looked like spent forces. You’ve gotta wonder if they didn’t mistime their peaks and also wonder whether the wolf pack approach led to that— with all of the riders fighting to be the alpha wolf and wanting to get results early to prove their worth to the pack, perhaps they’ve used up most of their fight too soon. Zdenek Stybar is their nominal leader and remains their best chance based upon past history at Roubaix— throwing out his 2016 performance, he’s finished no worse than 9th place, including two 2nd places in 2017 and 2015. Stybar will hope to emulate the 2017 version of Van Avermaet, who won both Omloop and Roubaix.

Werner, do you think that DQS can get their groove back and outsmart the rest of the peloton?

There is no harmony in the peloton. We have to get acquainted to this idea that there is no real harmony as we have conceived it. I believe the common denominator of the peloton is not harmony; but chaos, hostility and murder.

Gotcha. So, we’ll see a Gilbert-Stybar murder suicide.

Greg Van Avermaet is one of three prior winners of this race taking the start line. And based upon his past results, he’s also one of the most consistent riders. However, the only year that he won the race, he absolutely dominated the Spring, and it doesn’t look like he’s on the same form this year. And, because it is hell, let’s keep beating this dead horse for an eternity— his support sucks.

One of the only riders on the upswing coming into this race and looking like he’s discovered some of his 2015 form is Alexander Kristoff. And though he’s not had any success at this race to speak of, neither did Sagan before his victory last year. You’d think his estimable girth would be a gift at this race and that the cobbles would fear him rather than vice versa.

Jeff Pachoud/AFP/Getty Images

Let’s ask Werner what he thinks of Kristoff’s chances:

I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the Norwegians. And his blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food.

Harsh, but fair, Werner.

Wout Van Aert blew up his average finishing position in all races started this year after finishing 29th and 14th in Gent-Wevelgem and Flanders respectively. And you’ve got to think that he’s probably pretty tired of Mathieu van der Poel taking the spotlight from him— first on the dirt and then on the road (maybe Van Aert will invent sky cycling to try to get away from the preternatural Dutchman). He finished 13th in Roubaix last year, and this year he has a strong team at his disposal. He’s a great bet to finish in the top 5, but unless he can finish on the velodrome alone, it’s hard to see him winning.

Consistency has also been a theme for Oliver Naesen this Spring, although that big cobbled victory still remains elusive. He showed in Milano-Sanremo and in Gent-Wevelgem that he has a handy sprint at the end of a long slog, so he’ll be a danger if he arrives at the velodrome in the front group. Luckily, he finished off the podium (in 7th) in Flanders, so he won’t be at risk for any further fizzy drink-borne pathogens.

You have to feel for Sep Vanmarcke. He’s been chasing that big victory for years and is the protected rider on Team [not so] EF’d, and then gets upstaged at Flanders by a young Italian that still lives in his parent’s basement. Well, Mamma di Pasta won’t be at Roubaix to spoil Sep’s party and perhaps Sep can get involved in the pink renaissance and avoid some of that bad luck that seems to follow him around.

In the next tier, as stated above, I like the chances of ol’ Teutonic Teeth, even though he’s shouldering the burden of riding for Katusha. I’d also put three of the wolves from the pack in this tier. Philippe Gilbert hasn’t really shown himself this Spring, but this race can reward old and wily riders. Yves Lampaert has looked okay, but hasn’t really taken a big step up that was expected by some. I’ll join Andrew and back the chances of his boy, Florian Senechal. After taking his first professional victory in Le Samyn and likely buoyed by Kasper Asgreen getting his opportunity in Flanders, this is the race that best suits him. Luke Rowe has been looking strong in the cobbled classics that don’t really suit him and has a strongish Sky team around him. Can the puppy pack get it together? We may be on the verge of Degaissance. I mean he did win the Roubaix stage of the Tour last year (but so did Tony Martin in 2015 and Lars Boom in 2014). Jasper Stuyven, the PdC pre-season favorite, has been spending more time on a shrink’s couch this season than in the front of the pack. Even so, he hasn’t been too far off the pace as of late.

If you missed it, Flanders Classics’ head Wouter Vandenhaute pulled a reverse-Jens before Flanders, when he was asked whether a rider like Alberto Bettiol could win the Ronde, and Vandenhaute responded that he is “not going to win.” Paris-Roubaix, which is a little more blue collar, does not occupy the same ivory tower as Flanders, and a victory from a rider out of the supposed top tier of riders is always a possibility. There are lots of options either in the next two tiers or in riders that I have not included, and I’ll let y’all sort that out in the comments below. I will point to Edvald Boasson Hagen, however, who went on a doomed solo attack late in the Scheldeprijs, seemingly breaking Dimension Data’s pact of anonymity.

Enjoy your trip to hell, everyone.

And thanks for your participation, Werner. What did you think of the article?

Look into the eyes of a cycling writer and you will see real stupidity. It is a kind of bottomless stupidity, a fiendish stupidity. They are the most horrifying, cannibalistic, and nightmarish creatures in the world.

Next time, I’ll just invite Cuddles. He’s much more pleasant to work with.