The final Grand Tour of the cycling season begins tonight with the 2020 edition of the Vuelta España.
“How can somebody be in love with Hell? It’s a contradiction. Makes no sense. Most would call it madness…”
In a religious context, Hell is a place of punishment in the afterlife, an endless realm of suffering for the transgressors, the evil. But not in cycling. In cycling Hell is a place for the brave and the heroes. Survive a day in the Hell of the North and you are a hero. Win or lose.
For me this is the biggest, most prestigious race on the calendar. It’s made for heroes and only won by heroes. This is the race you have to have a passion for just to be able to finish, and to win it – well, you have to truly love it.
Amidst so much suffering, such beauty. This is Hell. This is Paris – Roubaix. – Leon Van Bon, two-time winner of stages in the Tour de France and two-time fourth place at Paris-Roubaix.
There’s just nothing like Roubaix. Of all the Monuments, none seems to get hardened one-day riders like Leon and fans like me so misty-eyed. The cobbles of Flanders are a world apart from those that define the race that comes a week later in the calendar – smaller, smoother and far easier to navigate.
Paris-Roubaix’s pave sections look like they’ve been dropped from a great height with the intention of bringing pain to anyone mad enough to ride over them.
It’s difficult to explain fully just how jagged and huge these things are to anyone who hasn’t ridden over them. You get up on the crest thinking that is the best place to be but after having your brain just about shaken from your skull, you start looking for alternative routes. Yet once you leave the crown, the cobbles that have been pounded by decades of tractors and trucks rear up like the sharp, jagged teeth of a subterranean monster hell-bent on consuming riders.
Each hundred metres or so brings a fresh burst of lactic acid and, slowly but surely, your speed begins to fall even though it’s completely flat. Once traversed, your respect for the professionals who win or even just ride here goes up tenfold.
The combination of elements that make a winner are complex. They need a bike rider’s DNA, first of all, as well as power in spades, strength, courage, flat-line speed, immense handling skills and, as if all that were not enough, the final and most important factor is they actually have to enjoy riding over the cobbles.
The courage factor should also not be underestimated. These guys don’t just accept they may come clattering down over the stones, they embrace it.
Which brings us to the potential winners of this year’s race. Chatting to three-time winner Johan Museeuw on Wednesday at Scheldeprijs, he said it was hard to choose a winner but that “it will be one of the usual names”, by which he meant, basically, Fabian Cancellara or Tom Boonen.
Can these two win again this year? Of course they can, but can they win in as spectacular a fashion as they have in the past? Probably not.
Tom Boonen was under-form at the Tour of Flanders, though he did a nice chunk of work at Scheldeprijs on Wednesday – good training for Roubaix.
Boonen spoke before the star at Scheldeprijs about his form and he sounded optimistic, saying, “I was very happy [after Flanders]. I have very good sensations until the last 30 or 40 minutes. This week will give me maybe that little bit extra.
“Plus, Roubaix is a different race. Flanders was really hard this year. It’ll be easier to save more energy for the final in Roubaix.”
Can he break Cancellara if the Swiss rider gets away with him? I very much doubt it. Cancellara’s win at Flanders was truly one for the memory banks and he is a notch-and-a-half above the Belgian at the moment.
Of the other contenders, it comes as no surprise to see Peter Sagan’s name up there on most people’s list.
“I don’t know, I’m not thinking about Sunday right now,” Sagan said on Wednesaday. “If I find myself in front it will be the same – everybody will know that I’m there. We’ll see.”
That might just be why Sagan didn’t figure in the finale at Flanders, and why he’s had a string of nearly-theres in the Classics in the past two seasons. He seems to do too much work at crucial points in these races, and while no one would deny the immense talent he has, others will point to the tactical naivety that informs his riding.
He is brilliant though, and he can win in Roubaix one day.
One other rider in great form is Sep Vanmarcke. The Belkin rider was second last season to Cancellara and is a very serious threat to the two big men. He loves the cobbles too, but he’ll have to stop leading stronger men out in the sprints if he wants the win his talent deserves.
Greg Van Avermaet of BMC is another nearly man, as he proved last week at Flanders where he was second. Though also very talented, I cannot see him winning this Sunday. Roubaix is fundamentally different to Flanders and much better suited to the tall, muscular rider than the smaller man. Van Avermaet is 5’11, not exactly tiny, but he has a slightness about him that means hs is not ideally suited to Paris-Roubaix’s much tougher cobbles.
How about Marcel Kittel, the Giant-Shimano rider who won on Wednesday at Scheldeprijs? Some may scoff at the suggestion that he could ever do well here but I believe he can, though admittedly not this year. Like Thor Hushovd was, he’s a big guy with a great sprint but as he loses some of that power in his later 20s he might just become a great cobbles rider.
One other mention before my prediction for the winner: Bradley Wiggins. He says he is ready to take more risks on these roads now he is no longer focused on the Tour de France, but can he actually be there at the end?
I doubt it. Too frail, too flighty, too liable to get irritated by the whole shebang that is Paris-Roubaix.
So, who’s going to win on Sunday? Tough call. I’m going to go for Taylor Phinney of BMC. I can’t quite say why. I just get ‘that feeling’ it’s his time. We shall see.
Leon Van Bon, by the way, is going for Cancellara. Predictable, Leon, predictable!