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CS experts panel: Paris-Roubaix

Paris-Roubaix, the Queen of Classics, takes place on Sunday. Our team of writers explain the beauty of the race and make some predictions for the outcome.


Edward Pickering
Deputy Editor, Cycle Sport

WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE SECTION OF COBBLES?
It can only be the Trouée d’Arenberg. Words can’t describe just how boisterous the stones of Secteur 16 are – I’d describe the feeling of riding a racing bike over them as combining canoeing down an extremely rough and technical set of rapids with being hit on the arms and wrists by a cricket bat. They’re uneven to a degree that no other road in cycling can approach. I’ve heard of riders being rattled so much that their contact lenses pop out.

But Arenberg works on a few more levels. It could have been designed specifically for television coverage – it’s so long and straight that fixed cameras can zoom in and cover almost the entire length, from the mad sprint at the entrance to the desperate, shattered groups who emerge at the other end. I love Arenberg because of the damage it does. Watch the first dozen riders through – your winner is in there.

WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE PARIS-ROUBAIX MEMORY?
The 1990 race will never be equalled. It was a virtual dead heat between two shattered riders – the perfect race. Eddy Planckaert won, just ahead of Steve Bauer, but the lead group was constantly in flux as riders chased and the advantage swung from one team to another.

I also get unreasonably excited about wet years – 1994 was one of the most challenging ever. Plus I only ever read about the 1984 event, but David Walsh’s description of the race in his biography of Kelly, makes me wish I’d discovered the race earlier.

IF YOU COULD WATCH THE RACE FROM JUST ONE VANTAGE POINT, WHERE WOULD YOU GO?
The Carrefour de’ l’Arbre is like a north European cycling fans’ booze convention, although the drunken jaywalking fans of 2009 were neither big nor clever. By this point, the lead group is usually down to the final four or five. For atmosphere plus race action, it’s probably the best place.

WHAT MAKES A GREAT EDITION OF PARIS-ROUBAIX?
Paris-Roubaix is the greatest race of all for purist racing fans. The lead group always consists of the thoroughbreds – tall, elegant riders with incredible strength and smoothness. By the final whittling down, we’re often left with the best half a dozen or 10 riders. Which team has more than one rider? Who’s the best sprinter? Who’s looking strong?

The 2009 version was ultimately decided by crashes, but before that there was a perfect situation – Boonen, Pozzato, Hushovd, Flecha, Hoste and Vansummeren, way clear of the rest. Boonen and Hushovd wanted a sprint, but Hoste and Vansummeren rode for the same team, which gave them attacking opportunities. Wondering how the non-sprinters could resolve the situation made it a fantastic race, until virtually everybody fell off, leaving Boonen alone in front.

Oh, and I’m praying for rain, but unfortunately the forecast is looking ominously good for the weekend.

HAVE YOU EVER RIDDEN ANY OF THE ROUTE?
I’ve covered Arenberg plus the kilometres before and after, but I’ve never strung a series of secteurs together. I’ve chickened out of doing the sportive version of the race ever since I heard that one winner of the race was urinating blood for three days after he won the race. I’ve been told that it’s an urban myth, but you can never be too careful.

HOW CAN CANCELLARA BE BEATEN?
After Flanders, the other riders will be a lot less obsessed with the reigning champion, although he’ll still be watched carefully. Strength in numbers will count again – Garmin-Cervélo, Sky and BMC all have enough riders capable of at least trying to control Cancellara. Boonen’s got Chavanel as a decoy. Then again, Cancellara’s got 2007 winner O’Grady, who is more than capable of handling himself at the front.

At Flanders, Cancellara misjudged his effort and also the motivation of the riders behind, especially BMC, who did the work to catch him. But don’t forget how easily he initially went away. I expect a later attack on Sunday, and the immediate reaction from the others will dictate the result.

IF NOT CANCELLARA, THEN WHO?
Boonen remains the number one favourite, for being the best sprinter among the favourites. Hushovd will be confident for the same reasons. Flecha looked perky in Flanders, but his lack of sprint will still count against him, and Sky suddenly have the problem of how many resources to commit to Geraint Thomas.

TOP THREE FOR SUNDAY’S RACE
1 Cancellara
2 Boonen
3 Flecha

Ellis Bacon
Writer, Cycle Sport

WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE SECTION OF COBBLES?
It has to be the Arenberg: one long straight road of the most brutal pavé you’re going to find. I rode that section once, and remember stopping halfway to give my knuckles a shake, as I thought my fingers were going to rattle clean off.

WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE PARIS-ROUBAIX MEMORY?
It’s the best one-day race of the year, and never fails to live up to expectation, so it’s hard to pick one. Steve Bauer’s ‘Stealth’ bike, which he used in the 1993 edition, was good fun, with its hyper-relaxed seat–tube and enormous wheelbase. The fact that he was trying to get one over on the cobbles – trying to tame them – but failed (he finished 21st), proved that there’s not really anything you can do, and that the toughness of the race is bigger than any rider or special bike.

IF YOU COULD WATCH THE RACE FROM JUST ONE VANTAGE POINT, WHERE WOULD YOU GO?
Definitely the centre of the Roubaix velodrome. I’ve been lucky enough to be there for my job a few times now. Even though it’s probably not, the whole place at least seems silent while everyone watches the race approach on the big screen. Then the drone of the approaching TV helicopter starts to creep in, and then, suddenly, the leaders burst onto the track and the place absolutely erupts. It’s spine-tingling stuff.

WHAT MAKES A GREAT EDITION OF PARIS-ROUBAIX?
A wet edition when it was ‘supposed to be’ dry, and vice versa; it appears to throw the riders completely. Or a day when someone’s race appears to be over, only for them to get back into the thick of things by the end. The sheer chaos of it all is what’s so appealing, and an edition when it’s hard to keep up with who’s where and who’s in whose group makes it all-the-more exciting.

HAVE YOU EVER RIDDEN ANY OF THE ROUTE?
Yes – a few times. Most memorably was with David Clinger – he of the Maori face tattoo – and his Domina Vacanze squad to test Specialized’s then-new Roubaix bikes in 2004. It was depressing, but impressive, to see up-close how much easier the pros make riding on cobbles look, even if they claim that it hurts them as much as it hurts us!

HOW CAN CANCELLARA BE BEATEN?
Easy: just by the other riders trying to collectively repeat what happened at Flanders last Sunday – i.e. let Cancellara do all the work in a break and hope he tires, even though it’s hard to simply follow wheels at a race like Roubaix, where the strongest rider who suffers the least amount of bad luck wins.

IF NOT CANCELLARA, THEN WHO?
In terms of who does and doesn’t crash or puncture, this race is a total lottery. Any number of names spring to mind. Garmin-Cervelo, for example, are due a renaissance this season, and have such strength in depth. A winner could come from any one of Haussler, Hushovd or Hammond. And if Cancellara is neutralised and not able to go for the win, then perhaps his loyal lieutenant, Stuart O’Grady, will get his chance, just like he did in 2007.

TOP THREE FOR SUNDAY’S RACE
The old fellas:
1 O’Grady
2 Hincapie
3 Hammond

Lionel Birnie
Writer, Cycle Sport

WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE SECTION OF COBBLES?
Everyone else has said Arenberg – and I am nothing but contrary so I’ll pick something different. Actually, I think Arenberg is magical for all the reasons the others have described. I used to love the section at Hornaing, the one with the Z-bend and the water towers on the horizon. Riding it, they never seemed to get any nearer, because of the bend in the road. It’s so bleak and exposed there, it feels like you’re been transported back in time. It’s not on the menu this year, so I’ll go for the Carrefour de l’Arbre, even though the fans have got a bit out of hand in recent years. It’s late in the race and it’s a horrible stretch of road.

WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE PARIS-ROUBAIX MEMORY?
There was a lad at school who had satellite television and access to foreign channels. Many of the boys at school used to lend him video tapes to record, ahem, all sorts of things. I think I was the only one who asked him to tape the cycling. Probably says a lot.

Anyway, the year was 1990 and I handed over a four hour tape and asked him to record Paris [pronouncing the S hard] Roobay for me. I crossed my fingers and on Monday morning he came up with the goods. It was fantastic. I didn’t understand the Flemish commentary but I suddenly saw for the first time what all the fuss was about. And what a race it was – Eddy Planckaert pipping Steve Bauer by less than a centimetre in the velodrome.

The muddy editions leave the indelible marks, though – Andrei Tchmil’s win in 1994, with Sean Yates fifth, or Servais Knaven’s victory in 2001. But if there’s a moment to sum up the race in an instant, it has to be the time George Hincapie and Tom Boonen (then US Postal team-mates) were trying to get on terms with Johan Museeuw. Hincapie just rode into the gulley and toppled into the ditch through sheer exhaustion.

IF YOU COULD WATCH THE RACE FROM ONE VANTAGE POINT, WHERE WOULD YOU GO?
I’d stand around 100 metres from the end of the Arenberg section and lean as far over the barriers as I could to see the riders thundering towards me. The noise is what strikes you most. The firm tyres bounce, bang and jar against the stones. The motorbikes rev their engines, the riders coming close to calamity shout out in vain. I’ve always said, if they tried to invent Paris-Roubaix today, the riders would go on strike.

WHAT MAKES A GREAT EDITION OF PARIS-ROUBAIX?
Rain, though not necessarily on the day. If it rains overnight and the cobbles are wet, you can rule out 80 per cent of the riders in one stroke. It becomes a battle to survive, pure and simple.

HAVE YOU EVER RIDDEN ANY OF THE ROUTE?
In 2008, I rode the cyclo-sportive organised by the Velo Club Roubaix – all 260 kilometres of it. When I arrived in the velodrome and slumped on the grass I swore I’d never do it again. I’d like to… Maybe in 2012. It gave me a true understanding of the route and the difficulty of the stones. One minute I was cruising along feeling really strong, the very next moment I felt empty, completely spent. The fatigue doesn’t creep up on you as it does with hillier courses, it smacks you between the eyes. From good to bad in the blink of an eye. It made me realise why riders suddenly appear to go backwards in the race. Holding a wheel can be impossible.

HOW CAN CANCELLARA BE BEATEN?
After Flanders, I actually think he’s an even bigger favourite for Roubaix. He may not attack from as far out as last year but I think he’ll choose his moment and commit to it. To beat him, the others have to either hit him first, go with him and then out-fox him or hope he has some bad luck.

IF NOT CANCELLARA, THEN WHO?
Tom Boonen is looking strong. Thor Hushovd suddenly fell away on Sunday but he’ll be up there. Everyone is tipping him now, but Geraint Thomas should genuinely believe he can get on the podium this year.

TOP THREE FOR SUNDAY’S RACE
1 Boonen
2 Cancellara
3 Thomas

Andy McGrath
Writer, Cycle Sport

WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE SECTION OF COBBLES?
The Arenberg Forest. It’s the true embodiment of Hell, as well as being the race’s most evocative and important section. First, there’s a 60km/h pell-mell jostle for position beforehand, piquing the anticipation further. This is where Paris-Roubaix proper begins: just thinking about the riders shooting onto the first jagged sections at warp speed gives me goosebumps. It’s a ridiculous road over brutal Northern cobbles, arrow-straight and sinisterly shrouded with bare trees. The riders fan out in one long line and gaps open up naturally. I love the damage this section does. The finish may be 85 kilometres away, but the race can be over in a flash. Lose a wheel here, and a favourite loses his chance for another year.

WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE PARIS-ROUBAIX MEMORY?
The 2006 race, for more than Fabian Cancellara’s fine solo win too. Most profoundly, I remember George Hincapie’s steerer tube snapping, sending him up like a jack-in-the-box and down into the ditch, along with his dreams of winning. It’s nothing against Hincapie, but that incident neatly sums up the arbitrary and brutal nature of the race for me.
 


WHAT MAKES A GREAT EDITION OF PARIS-ROUBAIX?
Mud and rain: not solely for the gripping spectacle, but the desperate racing it produces. It’s been nine years and counting since the last wet Roubaix.

HAVE YOU EVER RIDDEN ANY OF THE ROUTE?
No, and I’ll wait till I’ve got the beer-gut ballast to power over the cobbles. [should be another year, tops - Ed]



HOW CAN CANCELLARA BE BEATEN?
Follow him all day, isolate him, attack repeatedly and be in the form of a lifetime. Fabian Cancellara’s tactics last weekend underlined both his current strength, his fallibility – newsflash, Cancellara is human after all! – and a slight tactical arrogance: he is not so above the other contenders that he can write his own legend single-handedly.

However, the other side of the coin is that Cancellara ought to be particularly motivated and tactically savvy after last week’s disappointment. The other contenders simply cannot let him get a metre, because he’ll turn it into a mile, just like in 2006 and last year. Easier said than done: that is the hardest thing to control in Roubaix, more selective and random than any other race. So, the other contenders need to attack Cancellara, because defensive riding simply will not work.

IF NOT CANCELLARA, THEN WHO?
Tom Boonen. This is a race which rewards experience, timing, form and luck, and the Quick Step man can already rely on the first three things. He looked lively on Sunday in Flanders, but I reckon the three-time winner will be even better at Roubaix.



TOP THREE FOR SUNDAY’S RACE
1 Cancellara
2 Boonen
3 Flecha

One Comment

  • Kieran says:

    Dont think Cancellara will be that strong in Roubaix. He was super strong last week but cramped v.bad! He took 5 bottle in last 40km n lost all lead on muur with cramps n also in sprint. Going into the red so much at end of 260km race he cannot be 100% nxt week. But think Thomas is dark horse for Sun. Super in flanders n rode super in dry cobbles in tour!

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