The European Spring classics season of cycling is in full swing and it’s time for the last of the ‘cobble classics’ – the 113th edition of the race known as L’Enfer du Nord (The Hell of the North), Paris-Roubaix.
At 253 kilometres, including 27 sections of bone-jarring ‘pavé’ totalling 53 kilometres, the race makes its way across the north of France from Compiègne to Roubaix near the Belgium border.
Depending on the weather, the pavé can either throw up choking dust or caking mud as riders take on very rough cobblestone roads Napoleon’s armies once marched on. I use the word ‘road’ rather generously, since some sections resemble little more than rocks hammered into the dirt.
After all the thrills and spills of the great race the victor gets to hold aloft one of the more unusual trophies in sport – a cobble mounted on a plinth.
In the absence of classics specialists Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) and Tom Boonen (Etixx-Quick Step), the field is wide open. Here are my top five favourites.
Lars Boom – Astana Pro Team
The Dutchman won the fifth stage of last year’s Tour de France which borrowed nine Paris-Roubaix cobble sectors. Boom is a former world and Dutch national cyclo-cross champion, equipped with the sorts of skills handy for the pavé. Could this be the year Lars goes boom on the cobbles again and adds a monument to his impressive palmarès?
Greg Van Avermaet – BMC Racing Team
Finished in strong form, taking third place at the Tour of Flanders. He won the third stage of Tirreno-Adriatico and came second in the one day Strade Bianche in March. If he plays his cards right he’s in with a very good chance of a victory in Roubaix.
John Degenkolb – Team Giant-Alpecin
Last year’s Paris-Roubaix runner up and winner of the first monument of the Spring classics season, Milan-San Remo. The German sprinter goes into the race in great form with a top ten finish at the Tour of Flanders. In addition, the prestige of winning two monuments in one season should be a big enough carrot to go for the win.
Niki Terpstra – Etixx-Quick Step
Winner of last year’s Paris-Roubaix, he’ll be keen to make it back to back victories. He put in a great ride to finish second in the Tour of Flanders and stands a real chance of adding another cobble trophy to the collection. Heck, if he wins anymore more of these he could just break off the mounting plinth and lay a new cobblestone driveway at home.
Alexander Kristoff – Team Katusha
The Norwegian has been having a stellar season. In just one week he won the Three Days of De Panne and last Sunday’s Tour of Flanders. Three days later Kristoff avoided a massive pile up to win the Scheldeprijs. You could say Kristoff goes into Paris-Roubaix as ‘L’Enfer du Norse’ – his form is on fire and if he can stay out of trouble he’ll be giving all the riders hell on Sunday.
Can he take the Tour of Flanders/Paris-Roubaix double? Look at this way, if Kristoff keeps on winning we may as well hand him Spring on a plate. And he just might need to think about adding another shelf or two in the trophy room – a lump of rock would look mighty good on one.
This is the sort of race where anything can happen and if it all comes to nought for the favourites there’s always a chance for the likes of Sep Vanmarcke (Team Lotto NL – Jumbo) or Zdenek Stybar (Etixx-Quick Step) who have come close to a podium placing in recent editions of the race.
Of course a vital ingredient to winning is staying away from the frequent crashes. Let’s hope there isn’t a repeat of the collisions of the kind involving Shimano neutral service vehicles at last weekend’s Tour of Flanders that put Kiwi Jesse Sergent (Trek Factory Racing) in hospital with a broken collarbone. Imagine the post race debrief in the Shimano rooms – “Now, when we mean ‘neutral service’ we don’t mean neutralising the riders”.
So, neutral service vehicles aside, who do you think will win?