Well here we go with previewing the outcome of Paris-Roubaix. If you look around you will see...
Oh. My. God.
The Mondrian colors are back in the peloton— LOOK Cycle (@lookcycle) October 1, 2021
The legendary "LOOK 1985" kit will be worn by @TeamDelko on the cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix. The iconic design is inspired by the LOOK logo ⚪️
Only 50 “LOOK 1985” limited edition kit are available https://t.co/6dBEIVwvBp pic.twitter.com/7mxsd4crtC
I honestly don’t know how to feel here. At first I was awed by the majesty of it all — not a sentence I expected to use for Team Delko, I should say. Then I started to get angry at the fact that they seem to be trying so hard to reach guys in their 50s or older. Is this a marketing department idea? Do the riders wearing them even know that La Vie Claire existed once? Did Pierre Barbier shout “OMG Mondrian!” thanks to his study of modern art? Unknowable. All I do know is that the idea of resurrecting the old LVC look of LeMond and Hinault and Hampsten and so many others is... not new. But it is generally awesome.
Speaking of LeMond, the discussion around this weekend’s editions — PLURAL!! — of Paris-Roubaix have centered around the weather. When is the last time we had a monsoon-like edition of the Queen of the Classics? That would be 2002, and before that, 1985 comes to mind, with maybe another one in between that I would not remember. It doesn’t really matter how many of them have happened, since they are infrequent generally but just frequent enough to glean some useful information from them.
2002: Museeuw Rises, As Does His Successor
This one didn’t start off terribly wet, but it sure did finish that way. Johan Museeuw won the Hell of the North for the third and final time, beating out Steffen Wesemann and George Hincapie, among the favorites, with one of Hincapie’s lieutenants, a kid named Tom Boonen, taking third. I honestly don’t remember a ton besides the field slowly reducing itself in painful ways. But the recaps all tell me that the wind is what really blew the race apart. Take note of that, as if you weren’t already.
1985: Star-Studded Slopfest
This is one of the most colorful editions on record, particularly to American audiences who were seeing it and one of our guys for the first time. Marc Madiot emerged from the mire a newly-minted star of the cobbles, France’s last great such person, along with his contemporary and fellow double-winner Gilbert Duclos-LaSalle. Madiot won alone, ahead of his teammate Bruno Wojtinek, who in three tries never finished worse than 11th. Then came the super-duperstars, who hit the velodrome in a small pack that commenced its ceremonial lap-and-a-half by sliding off the track into the infield. Sean Kelly outkicked Greg LeMond for the final podium place. The defining moment of this race is a tossup between three-time defending winner Francesco Moser losing the crown on the Carrefour de l’Arbe, sliding sideways, coming to a stop and keeling over... and the post-race interviews where everyone looked like players in a minstrel show and Theo de Rooij declared the race, simultaneously, “a pile of shit” and “the most beautiful race in the world.” Commence maniacal laughter.
So what do these races mean? I think 2002 is spot on for Sunday — the wind is probably the bigger factor than the wetness, and as a result, you can expect only the strongest and smartest and best protected riders to make the finale. I think you can say the same for Saturday, when the women will have a bit less wind and rain, but not none, and when you add in the novelty it will be those best prepared for, well, anything who have the upper hand.
That is not to say that all of the riders who fit that description will still be hanging around in the last hour. Cycling rarely works that way, and especially does not in a race like Paris-Roubaix where the first rule is to have no bad luck. Someone will have bad luck. Some others will have bad moments — one thing you can say about the rain is that it will punish even the briefest moment of inattention. When Moser, then chasing down escapee Eric Vanderaerden on a quest to match “Mr. Paris-Roubaix” Roger De Vlaeminck and his record four wins, lost the crown of the nasty stretch of slippery stones, he experienced what even the best riders will recognize as a hopeless situation. I can’t say from grainy video exactly what happened there, but the crown is sometimes surrounded by steep slopes, which means that you hold that line or you move left or right into a wet off-camber nightmare, which I think is what happened. To make matters worse, the crown is established by tractor tires pushing the stones down in their tracks, over time, but sometimes the pattern stops or disintegrates and a rider has to change his/her line or deal with whatever lies ahead. Of course, they practice these things and probably know where crowns start and end. But you still have to stay on it, in the heat of the race and in the face of a creeping exhaustion. These guys aren’t machines. Not even the Dutch women.
Finally, every Paris-Roubaix features a rider who we didn’t expect to see up there, never really knowing in advance who will show up with good legs and better ambitions. Lack of bad luck means some guys find space vacated by the riders who didn’t lack bad luck. Paris-Roubaix shuffles the deck a bit more than the Ronde van Vlaanderen, where sometimes all the favorites are still hanging around in the last 25km. This means the winner will be a worthy one, if not necessarily someone you thought of beforehand. Matthew Hayman was an okay-ish P-R rider before his win in 2016. Johan Vansummeren was a classic cobbles Clydesdale type who generally didn’t make it to the finale, particularly in his support rider’s role, until one day he did. Statistically speaking, the most recent winner, Philippe Gilbert, might be the unlikeliest, with two previous tries and only a 15th place to his name, except that Gilbert’s win gained him four of the five Monuments, where he has a total of five victories, along with a world title and assorted other indices of awesomeness.
So... who will be up there?
Here are the contenders and my (admittedly superficial) case for their candidacy.
Marianne Vos: Road and Cross world champion, won some time trial worlds, and has won on the cobbles. Vos, as you bloody well know, is the greatest rider of her generation and maybe all time, across virtually all disciplines. She’s bound to win the Artistic Cycling title before long, I’d bet. Anyway, while it would be brilliant for her, of all people, to lead the women’s peloton across the finish line at the Roubaix Velodrome in this historic race, it’s not as sure as it would have been ten years ago. Vos isn’t as consistent, and the competition is much better these days. Still, although she hasn’t won Flanders in eight years, she did win Gent-Wevelgem just this past spring. She was second at the Worlds road race and won three stages at the Simac Tour just beforehand.
Amy Pieters: Second in Flanders last year and generally strong in the Classics.
Chantal van den Broek-Blaak: A strong favorite. CvdBB won Flanders in 2020 and has bagged most of the big classics at some point in her illustrious, world champion’s career. Not entirely sure she’s on winning form but she did take the GC at the Simac Tour (with no stage wins), so she’s not not on form.
Lizzie Deignan: Nobody questions the pure power of the track and road star, who has plenty of cobbled classics, including 2016 Flanders, on her resume. She’s getting older though, and not on any sort of scintillating form.
Elisa Longo Borghini: Another veteran rider who has won across several disciplines. She’s won many of the major classics, including Flanders, over her career, but more importantly she’s had an excellent year, including a win at the GP Plouay in August.
Ellen van Dijk: Your new world time trial champion, which is a good sign that she is ready to crank out the wattage. She’s consistently in the mix but doesn’t take as many classic wins as some of the other names here.
Lotte Kopecky: The double-Belgian champ (RR and TT) has been very good on the cobbles this year, winning Le Samyn, second at Gent-Wevelgem etc. She’s a bigger, powerful rider.
Emma Norsgaard: I’ve seen her mentioned a couple times, and she can definitely ride the cobbles — second at Le Samyn, the Omloop and Scheldeprijs this year. The question is whether the 22 year old is ready for the next step, which ... maybe?
Lorena Wiebes: Like what I said about her fellow 22-year-old Norsgaard, except she won the Scheldeprijs. So she sprints better?
Elisa Balsamo: Your new World Champion...and another youngster with some good results in Belgium. There’s a case for her as a trackie who could hold a strong pace for a while.
Marlen Reusser: One of the biggest riders and coming off second in the worlds ITT. She has some experience in Belgium too. She’s definitely a dark horse for the win, and a favorite to bag a cobble eventually, if not right off the bat.
Annemiek van Vleuten: Are you betting against her? Be my guest.
I have some odds shown just so you can see how the sharps are weighting their status.
Wout Van Aert (+350): If we make him the favorite to win every race, eventually we will be right, no? In the Forever War with van der Poel, Wout owns the lead in experience, two starts to zero.
Mathieu van der Poel (+550): Has anyone ever won this race on his first attempt? Yes, I think... so far I have Serse Coppi and Rik Van Steenbergen as the only two in the “post war era,” whatever that means. Did you know?! That Madiot is the only rider to ever win the Paris-Roubaix Espoirs (U23) and the senior edition? But van der Poel didn’t even ride that event.
Kasper Asgreen (+1200): Flanders winner automatically gets considered here. He was pretty strong in the Worlds ITT of late too. Just ridden once on these roads.
Florian Sénéchal (+1200): Very much a favorite, and it makes sense to have him at the same odds as Asgreen, his teammate. Because one of them is going to fuck somebody’s shit up on Sunday, and I have no idea which one of them it’ll be. Sénéchal has been knocking on the door here in past years and is also on good form, so I’d probably pick him over Asgreen. Although when the Dane gets hot, there is no stopping him.
Mads Pedersen (+1400): Speaking of Danes, the still-young Flanders almost-winner should probably be lower in the odds, except we can never quit him for long. He has a Gent-Wevelgem and KBK title to his name, as well as a very strong teammate in...
Jasper Stuyven (+1400): ... who is my pick of the Trekkers to have a real shot here. Run of form favors Stuyven, who was very frisky in the worlds RR last weekend, and has six finishes, with two top-fives, in this event. Am I wrong in thinking he’s especially good in the slop? Or am I just making unacceptable generalizations about Belgians?
Peter Sagan (+1400): Former winner. He’s the former-___ [fill in lots of things] these days.
Zdenek Stybar (+1800): Sigh, I thought I covered Quick Step already. He’s probably their very best bet to win, with two second places, a very good run of form, and the all-world handling skills that got him a few rainbows on the cross circuit.
Yves Lampaert (+2000): Fucking hell. I give up. Someone from Quick Step is going to win.
Nils Politt (+2000): Out to defend his second place from 2019, finally, and seemingly ramping up for this too.
Dylan van Baarle (+2500): Won Dwars. Is good at this stuff. No great history at this distance though, unless you count worlds. Last weekend. With Moscon, Kwiato and Rowe, this is a team you don’t want to underestimate. Count on them to have van Baarle in position and with some help when the race thins out.
John Degenkolb (+3300): Former winner with his own secteur now, albeit early on. Pretty cool though.
Michael Valgren (+3300): Hot form, but no history with the event.
Alexander Kristoff (+3300): He’s going OK, but it’s been a while since he was threatening to win here.
Sonny Colbrelli (+3300): Like Valgren, no evidence he’s well suited to this race, even though he’s well suited to a lot of races right now.
And so much for all of that. We do know that the race will get white hot right before it enters the Arenberg Trench, and possibly a bit before if someone gets cheeky and tries to take the initiative away from the Quick Steppers. We also know that the weather report is still calling for rain and wind gusts up to 20mph, so the wet and wild edition seems on the horizon now. Both will play a role as the teams fight to stay upright and to close gaps, which is hard enough under normal conditions and terrifying when you’re in muddy echelons. I’ve spoken already about wanting to be on the crown on some of these cobbles, but if the wind is hitting at an oblique angle, that means you are in it, or you have to fan out to the side, where the stones might cause more problems than your wind break can solve. It should be a fascinating chess match. Hopefully the inevitable crashes are not too harmful to anyone. We like a good slop-fest as long as nobody gets seriously hurt.