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The Long, Bumpy Wait Is Over

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117th Paris-Roubaix 2019 Photo by Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Want to know how long it has been since Paris-Roubaix was last contested? The defending winner is Philippe Gilbert. Of Deceuninck-Quick Step. No disrespect to Gilbert, who is a wonderfully accomplished rider and whose crowning achievement, his Ronde van Vlaanderen win, I was able to see in person. [Note: that was probably not his crowning achievement.] But when is the last time you woke up and thought “I bet Gilbert could do something big today”? Possibly 2019, which of course seems like forever ago.

Good things come to those who wait, I guess, and we have had to wait extra long for our (formerly) annual Journey to Hell. Riders and fans alike have suffered the anguish of seeing the 2020 race canceled outright and not rescheduled (even when Flanders was), and then postponed in 2021 (even when Flanders ran on time). We have dreamt of watching the next wave of powerful young riders try their luck on this truly unique course. Writers and pundits alike have waited anxiously to throw the word “Hell” around in just about every cheap cliche you can think of. It has been far too long. But no longer.

Paris-Roubaix will be run on Sunday, October 3, the first time it has ever been run outside of spring, and only rarely outside of April, having traditionally been the Easter race which occasionally pushed it into late March. The latest day the race had ever been run was April 25.

Right now I just want to get a quick post up about the race course. The riders themselves, we will get to in another post. Probably the most important development of all will be the running of the inaugural Women’s Paris-Roubaix on Saturday, and we will talk about the riders for that too. This is a truly historic event in the sport of women’s cycling, a signal that ASO has finally been shamed into letting women try the hardest events on the calendar, at least the low-altitude ones. Probably no woman athlete or fan alive is even remotely surprised at how long it took and how small the steps were along the way, but it still seems like a time to rejoice, given how iconic an event Paris-Roubaix is considered to be, all around the world.

Let’s start with the men’ course, since the women’s course is carved from it, like one of its ribs.

CYCLISME-PARIS-ROUBAIX Photo credit should read PATRICK KOVARIK/AFP via Getty Images

Men’s Parcours

I have only a few rather minimal notes to add about this year’s course. It contains one more secteur of cobblestones than the 2019 edition, but appears to nonetheless be about 800 meters shorter in cumulative cobbles length. All of the changes happen in the first half of the race, and among the first eight cobbles secteurs. From secteur #22 in Quérénaing to the final few bumps along Espace Charles Crupelandt, the race is identical to 2019 and substantially the same as it’s been for the last several years. You won’t notice the difference unless you are really into geeking out on obscure cobbled secteurs, in which case hello! Let’s be friends!

The biggest news is the subtraction of the 3km secteur of not inconsequential stones from Briastre to Viesly, named the Secteur Michael Goolaerts after the former Verandas Willems rider who suffered a fatal cardiac arrest while contesting the secteur in the 2018 race. The 2019 event saw the secteur named for him, but now it’s out of this year’s race. I haven’t seen any explanation for this, but it is not uncommon for ASO to reshuffle the deck a bit in the middle portion of the race, where the first cobbles happen, presumably out of some combination of necessity/availability/road condition and just wanting to let some other villages experience the race for a few moments. In this case, the race was rerouted to Haussy, the next village over from Briastre, to head to Saint-Martin, over a mere 800m of two-star cobbles.

The other subtraction is the Verchain-Malgré secteur, which had served as the meat in a cobbles sandwich of 6km worth of madness over a total distance of under 10k, approaching and passing Quérénaing. Instead, the race goes to Capelle, over the stones to Ruesnes, then from there to Artres where it resumes the cobbles en route to Quérénaing. Instead of three cobbled secteurs in 10km, you get four of roughly equivalent distance over a not much longer but slightly later (5km) bit of racing. And they are serious cobbles, whatever the numbers say. Here’s Capelle to Ruesnes:

Capelle to Ruesnes Cobbles Secteur

And Artres to Quérénaing:

Secteur Artres a Quérénaing

OK, that is a lot of writing about a portion of the course that will do little to determine the outcome (although the Capelle-Rusnes one is tight enough to cause some mayhem if people aren’t careful). The main events will be:

  • Haveluy-Wallers/Arenberg Trench 5km duo, and the lack of much rest time in the subsequent 25km (95-65km to go);
  • The brutal combination of Auchy-lez-Orchies à Bersée/Mons-en-Pévèle brutes, four- and five-star secteurs totaling 5.7km with less than 2k of smooth tarmac separating them (42km to go); and
  • The quartet of Cysoin-Burghelles/Burghelles-Wannehain/Camphin-en-Pévèle/Carrefour-de-l’Arbe, 6.3km of hard, hard cobbles over 11km of road, which would reduce any normal human to tears.
carrefour de l’arbe
Carrefour de l’Arbe cobbles

Women’s Course

The women’s event will hop in behind the men’s race, with about a 45 minute gap occur the day before the men’s race, in the shadow of the Arenberg mining equipment — or metaphorically anyway. It would be more precise to say that the race starts in Denain, 10km south of the entrance to the Trench, goes around in circles for a moment, to say hi to the fans, and then joins the men’s course on the smooth road known as the D440 as it begins meandering north towards pretty much all of the great pavé secteurs except for Arenberg.

Inaugural Paris-Roubaix Feminin Map

As far as I can tell, the route is exactly the same as the men’s course from secteur 17 to the velodrome. The total distance raced is 117km, a far cry from the 268km course the men run, and even a dropoff from the women’s Ronde van Vlaanderen which was just under 160k. But numbers aren’t everything; the 17 cobbles secteurs total 29km worth of racing across the pavé; they include three five-star misery-fests, missing only Arenberg from the men’s slate; and they catch three of the four-star ones as well, missing only two early ones from the full course. This is the business end of things. It should be a phenomenal race.

Cycling: 115th Paris - Roubaix 2017 Photo by LC/Tim De Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

Cobbles In Focus: Hornaing to Wandignies

Many of the secteurs of Paris-Roubaix are international media superstars, full of colorful stories of future racers mining underneath them and what have you. But for our focus on a secteur we turn to clearly the star of the show... the Hornaing à Wandignies stretch that will make history as the first secteur of P-R pavé in women’s cycling history.

This is no patronizing set of stones being placed in front of the women’s peloton as a soft warm-up event. No, this is in fact the longest secteur of cobbles in either the men’s or women’s race, at 3.7km. It carries a four-star rating, largely for the distance but the other characteristics of the course contribute as well. It is narrow, has some crowning in places (which, if you hadn’t heard, makes it difficult to hold your line, on top of the fact that you were already having trouble bouncing all over the place), and the stones are moderately rough and unfriendly. Google Images don’t quite do it justice, but they will do for now:

Hornaing-Wandignies Secteur

The road is also pretty narrow, so if you can’t hold your line, you could be in for some unwanted adventure along the grass. Presumably, even this early in the race, the peloton will stretch out to allow people some space and/or sanity as they traverse this. Obviously the teams will have practiced it several times, so it won’t be a shock. But if your team is smaller or you aren’t feeling super aggressive, you’ll make it just fine across the stones racing from the back. But when the front of the race hits the tarmac and accelerates, the rubber band will start stretching pretty thin at the back, right off the bat. Not a comfortable way to start your first trip through Hell.

You can pick out this secteur from the stark, oversized concrete water tower that looms over the road, shown above. The only colorful story associated with the secteur of which I am aware is the fact that it has been dubbed the Secteur Pavé John Degenkolb, in honor of the fact that Degenkolb, the winner of the 2015 race, donated money to save the Juniors Paris-Roubaix event from cancellation in 2019. Chapeau Degs!

Cycling: 116th Paris - Roubaix 2018 Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Conditions

My final thoughts on the route are whether we will notice any change in conditions from some recent races. I can’t really detect any meaningful difference in conditions generally from the fact that this is October instead of April. In my neck of the woods, stuff like moss and grass tucked into stones like these get dried out in summer and disappear until spring, but France isn’t Seattle. The few pictures I’ve seen show some bits of grass in the cobbles, as ever. So I guess it really comes down to the weather on race day.

Oh. Oh my. In the moisture graph, the one with the grey and blue shading, the blue field is chance of rain, and it hits a high of 81% during the race. More importantly, though, that’s day 3 of a constant high threat of rain, which means some accumulation is virtually certain. The bottom graph is wind speed, and on race day it will be 16-18kph pretty much all day. I’m not sure it’ll be completely wet and wild, but it could be, and some wetness and wind are a sure thing. That could also mean wet leaves in the few secteurs that traverse forested areas. One in particular comes to mind. It’ll be interesting to see if the race marshals can get out and clean off the stones beforehand, but if the wind keeps blowing, there won’t be too much anyone can do about it. Stay upright, everyone!