The Queen of the Classics. The Hell of the North. It’s the biggest one-day race in the world and we take a look at the 2017 edition.
Today, it’s almost to impossible to imagine the cycling world without it. Paris-Roubaix and its famous secteurs of cobbles stones, the mass of fans crowding along those rough and dusty miles of pave, and the iconic velodrome and its ancient, mythological showers are so much the face of the sport, they can’t really be separated.
It’s still sometimes called, “The Easter Race”. Born of anecdotes and legend, this little nugget of fact always fascinates. The first edition was scheduled for Easter Sunday, and was a big enough deal to dry recriminations from the Pope, who said that the riders would miss Mass, and many spectators may also skip services as well. It’s timing has subsequently fallen on Easter throughout its history, although it has been a long time since the Church has become embroiled with the UCI calendar.
Henri Desgrange won the first edition of Paris-Roubaix, and thoughts of a Tour of his home nation, France, were already in his mind in 1896. It was a very different era of racing, with the practice of ‘pacers’ deeply entrenched from the track environment. Each racer would often have they own tandem to follow, something that took another decade to truly die out.
The pre-war years saw the race grow in importance and reverence. Winner of Desgranges’ first Tour of France, Marice Garin, won the second edition of the race, with riders like German Joseph Fisher also having their day. In 1914, the roads and villages of Northern France exploded, with German armies rolling through Belgium and pivoting south toward Paris. Millions died, and hundreds of thousands of lives were lost on or within arm’s reach of the cobbled roads of Paris-Roubaix. The first year of the war saw battle in the very heart of this region, which was measured as important due to its proximity to the French capital and for its numerous coal mines.
After the war, journalists and the race’s surviving organizers took to car and to bike to inspect the famous course. What they found, removed from the privations but relative comforts of Paris, shocked them:
‘They knew little of the permanent effects of the war. Nine million had died and France lost more than any. But, as elsewhere, news was scant. Who even knew if there was still a road to Roubaix? If Roubaix was still there? The car of organisers and journalists made its way along the route those first riders had gone. And at first all looked well. There was destruction and there was poverty and there was a strange shortage of men. But France had survived. But then, as they neared the north, the air began to reek of broken drains, raw sewage and the stench of rotting cattle. Trees which had begun to look forward to spring became instead blackened, ragged stumps, their twisted branches pushed to the sky like the crippled arms of a dying man. Everywhere was mud. Nobody knows who first described it as ‘hell’, but there was no better word. And that’s how it appeared next day in the papers: that little party had seen ‘the hell of the north.’ 1919
The race went on, with that year’s edition won by Henri Pelissier. The race continued, interrupted again by World War II, but destined to continue every year since 1946. It joined the likes of Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Lombardy (now Il Lombardia) as a Monument, and is widely considered the most coveted race in the world.
It’s known, of course, for its pave sections and its flat terrain. With hardly any elevation gain to speak of, the challenge truly lives in the cobbles. Most pro riders would agree that the stones of Paris-Roubaix are like boulders when compared to the relatively benign cobbles of Belgium, which are featured in races like Flanders, E3, and Gent-Wevelgem. For decades, riders have gone to great lengths to develop ways to cope with the harsh surface, from extra bar tape, taped knuckles, wider tires, box section rims, and even suspension.
This year’s race is even more special for one reason. Tom Boonen, the hero of Belgium and one of the most successful racers of all-time, will retire the moment he finishes his second lap of the famous velodrome in Roubaix. After turning pro in 2002, he stormed the cobbled races, with a third in his first Roubaix, wins at E3 and Gent-Wevelgem, and a World Championship in 2005. He has won Roubaix four times in his career, the last coming in 2012 in an unforgettable, long range attack on a dry and dusty day in France.
Boonen will have the support of many fans, and his performance at Flanders is a strong indicator that he isn’t in France to limp off into the sunset. While teammate Phillipe Gilbert won in impressive style, staying clear solo for 55km, it was Boonen himself who started a move of 14 riders on the Muur, and both Boonen and another teammate, Matteo Trentin, that drove the move clear. Boonen’s mechanical and subsequent three bike changes took him out of contention, but there is no doubt the form is there.
Meanwhile, Peter Sagan and Greg van Avermaet, the big favorites going into Flanders, will have to learn from their Flemish campaign. Teams like Boonen’s QuickStep squad have finally employed a tactic that was used for years against Fabian Cancellara. Attack with strong riders from 100km+ out to force the big favorites, especially Sagan, to rely on his team. His Bora-Hansgrohe team is often called weak, and aside from a strong showing at Milan-San Remo, they’re usually out of the picture in the final two hours of action. Sagan can’t chase 100km and win, and his strategy at Flanders was to attack once the race picture had settled some.
It was Sagan and GvA that were leading a chase group of four, which was ultimately derailed by a crash. A jacket hung from the barriers tugged Sagan off his bike, and with him and GvA on the ground, Gilbert’s win was sealed. There’s speculation that he could have been caught without the incident, but history does apply such asterix.
Sagan will be back, as will van Avermaet, with something to prove. Other riders who suffered bad luck, like Boonen, include Sky’s Luke Rowe and Sep Vanmarcke. The pair crashed hard in the Boonen lead group, with Vanmarcke still not a sure start on Sunday. Oliver Naessen, a resurgent Gilbert, a strong former winner in Niki Terpstra….there are a dozen riders capable of the win, but luck and form will tell over the course.
For purely sentimental reasons, it’s hard not to pick Tom Boonen to win his fifth Paris-Roubaix in his final appearance. But, I’m going to try. I think Sagan may have learned his lesson from Flanders, but BMC has the firepower to do something about it, with Greg van Avermaet winning his first Paris-Roubaix. Watch BMC to be in the early moves to force others to chase, and after Arenberg, GvA himself will go with any promising attack. Because of the trend of early attacks, expect to see the top fifty riders come home in ones and twos, battered and fatigued by such a long, hard day. The side bet? I love picking dark horses, and one solid name for the day is Sylvain Chavanel. Why? Because France, Paris-Roubaix, and if the sun won’t set on Boonen or Gilbert, one of the truly ageless riders of the era deserves one more day in the spotlight.
And don’t forget, you can watch the race LIVE! with us at Breakaway Cafe and Coffee Bar. We’ll have the race on from 9am until the finish around 11am, with a There Will Be Blood gravel ride leaving right after the race’s conclusion.