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Your guide to Paris-Roubaix’s cobblestones

Each pavé sector is a chapter in the 115-year tale of Paris-Roubaix. There are no easy cobbles, which exist on a scale from merely difficult to hellish, and on race day there is no escape — barriers and crowds line the route and cut off access to the dirt paths and concrete gutters that one can glide onto any other day of the year.

Each stone tells a story of tires flattened, races ruined; tales of rearing up and, with the slightest touch, ripping a sidewall or sending a wheel skittering sideways like a frightened cat. None should be underestimated. Any sector, any stone, can alter the history of the day.

For 2017, Paris-Roubaix will tackle 29 sectors, totaling 55 kilometers. The entire race is 257km long, and all the pavé comes in its latter two-thirds — the first 97km are smooth, rolling pavement.

Roubaix is unpredictable, but predictably so. The length, roughness, and placement of each sector within the race determine its importance to the race narrative. No pavé sector can be ignored, but some deserve extra attention.

Kilometer 0 to 97: Pre-pave and breakaway formation

Smooth, rolling roads north of Compiègne, France are the backdrop upon which the early breakaway will play. Each team wants to be in the move; the smaller teams because it’s their only shot at a bit of glory, and the larger ones because it’s a way to have a domestique lying in wait when the race gets tough.

Roubaix breakaways can be quite large. But the size is less important than composition — without any pavé to break up the race naturally, the move that sticks is the one with the right riders from the right teams. No big names allowed.

Kilometer 97 to 156, Troisvilles to Haveluy

Here, the race begins to build. Tensions rise, nerves fray, and the battle for position commences in earnest.

The race cannot be won on these early pavé, but it can be lost. A flat or mechanical issue here won’t leave a rider off the back all day, but it will cost precious energy to return to the bunch. Domestiques will push as hard as possible to bring their leaders into each sector near the front of the group, lest an early split does form.

Nonetheless, patience is the key. “There’s cobble sector after cobble sector so you just have to stay calm,” UnitedHealthcare’s Chris Jones said. “There’s gonna be some point during the race where you’re in the wrong spot on the cobbles, and you can’t panic. Because if you panic early, you’re never going to be there in the finish.”

29. Troisvilles (97km – 2,200m) +++
Troisvilles, the first sector tackled, is slightly downhill, so speeds are high and flats are frequent. It is often muddy even when the rest of the race is not.

28. Viesly (103.5km – 1,800m) +++
Descends slightly, pavé is in decent condition.

27. Quievy (106km – 3,700m) ++++
A 90-degree right-hand bend just under halfway through sets off a long, 2km slightly uphill drag that softens legs but has little other impact on the race.

26. Viesly à Briastre (112.5 – 3,000m) +++

A new addition to the route for 2017, this sector is being renovated, but route designer Thierry Gouvenou says it is still quite difficult.

25. Briastre à Solesmes (116km – 800m) ++

Slightly uphill, this sector is short, but it may be a tough one. It is also new for this year’s route.

24. Vertain (124.5km – 2,300m) +++
Mostly flat, largely inconsequential.

23. Verchain-Maugré (134.5km – 1,600m) +++
A couple large holes on the sides will send smart riders onto the crown, or raised middle of the pavé, for this otherwise simple sector.

22. Quérénaing (137.5km – 2,500m) +++
A long sector with pavé in decent condition, mostly flat, another chance to test the legs.

21. Maing (140.5 – 1,600m) +++

20. Haveluy (153.5km – 2,500m) ++++
Nerves. The bunch, since Quérénaing at least, has been ramping up its pace in preparation for what lies ahead: the Arenberg Trench. Haveluy is the last sector before the famous wooded pavé, finishing less than 8km from the Arenberg’s start point, and the battle for position is at its peak. Watch for crashes and crazy moves up the side of the field. Elbows out.

Kilometer 161.5 to 224.5, the Trench to Templeuve

The race is on, but more often than not, these kilometers are home to vicious attrition rather than searing attacks. Favorites will fall off the wheel, one by one, until only the day’s true protagonists remain.

19. Trouée d’Arenberg (161.5km – 2,400m) +++++
The finish line for many domestiques lies at the foot of the Arenberg. Get their leader to the front at the right moment and it’s a job well done — failure to do so could end the race for the team.

The cobbles here are vicious, full of holes and dips. Even the crown, the only place that is consistently rideable at Arenberg, sees its share of half-dislodged stones and deep dips caused by abandoned mines running underneath the road.

The top of each stone is well polished by years of use, though the trench sees no vehicle traffic today. A street sweeper is run over the sector before each race, but even so, the pavé of Arenberg can be dirty, muddy, and are guaranteed to be slick as ice when wet.

The Arenberg does not pick Roubaix’s victor, but it does create a group from which the winner will be selected.

18. Wallers – Hélesmes (a.k.a. Pont Gibus) (168km – 1,600m) +++
A chance to pound home any separation created on the Arenberg, or finish the day of any favorite unlucky enough to have flatted or crashed. The sector is not particularly difficult in itself, but its proximity to the Arenberg — just 3 kilometers of pavement sit between the two — makes it a crucial moment in every edition.

17. Hornaing (174.5km – 3,700m) ++++
The longest sector of the day, L-shaped with cobbles of average brutality and a propensity for flatting tubulars. One or two lead riders, hanging on by a thread through Wallers, will see their time at the front end here.

16. Warlaing – Brillon (182km – 2,400m) +++
This medium-length sector is full of sunken sections down each flank, so riding the crown is vital. The positioning battle between Hornaing and Warlaing will be fierce.

15. Tilloy – Sars-et-Rosières (185.5km – 2,400m) ++++
Frequently used by tractors, and thus occasionally muddy even when the rest of the course is not, Tilloy features three rough, 90-degree bends that have caught out favorites in the past.

The first two sharp turns are to the right, the last is to the left.

14. Beuvry-la-Forêt – Orchies (192km – 1,400m) +++
Half of this sector was laid down specifically for Paris-Roubaix, and incorporated into the race in 2007. The beginning is lumpy; the right side in particular greets riders with a gap-toothed smile, with holes between the stones that are the perfect size for a road tire.

13. Orchies (197km – 1,700m) +++
A short gap between Beuvry-la-Foret and Orchies will keeps legs burning, even though the first 1,100 meters of this sector are relatively tame. The final 600m are not — the road rises slightly, sapping energy, and the pavé breaks up to steal yet more.

12. Auchy-lez-Orchies – Bersée (203km – 2,700m) ++++
Ouchy, indeed. 2,700 meters long, curving slowly throughout, and mostly flat, it was the broken-up stones that led this sector to be removed from the race in 2007 and 2008. A bit of repair work brought it back for 2009, but it’s still in bad shape. Its position within the race, at nearly 200km, as well as its length, means it can often catch a favorite by surprise.

Sometimes, though, they take it a bit easier here, wary of Mons-en-Pévèle, which lies directly ahead.

11. Mons-en-Pévèle (208.5km – 3,000m) +++++
Eleven sectors to go, and this one is where things could start to break up for good. It’s long, with a ragged right-hand turn halfway through that can serve as a launch point for a big effort.

Riders drop into Mons-en-Pévèle with speed, and the first few hundred meters are at a slight downhill, helping them hold onto that velocity. But the sharp right hander and flatter second half sap the legs. This is one of the most difficult sectors on the course.

10. Mérignies – Avelin (214.5km – 700m) ++
A largely inconsequential sector. The stones are in good condition, it’s dead straight, completely flat, and comparatively easy. Of course, after Mons-en-Pévèle, the riders may not agree on the last point.

9. Pont-Thibaut (218km – 1,400m) +++
Used in the 2014 Tour de France by Vincenzo Nibali to distance his opponents, Pont-Thibaut’s two sharp, left-hand corners are often the source of crashes. Riders are tired, the corners themselves are rough, and the fans often cover the good racing line.

8. Templeuve – Moulin de Vertain (224km – 500m) ++
Straight, with its worst cobbles at its entrance, Templeuve is relatively new to Roubaix. It was dug out from under the mud for the 100th edition of Paris-Roubaix in 2002 and has been used ever since.

Kilometer 230.5 to the finish, the beginning of the end

The field has been whittled down to just a handful of strong riders, mostly leaders with one or two teammates, if they’re lucky. Here, the race switches from attrition to attacks. Twenty-six kilometers remain, and every move must be covered; teams with more than one rider will begin to play the tactical game, while solo artists plan their moment.

7. Cysoing – Bourghelles (230.5km – 1,300m) +++

6. Bourghelles – Wannehain (233km – 1,100m) +++
A part of the race that lacks infamy yet can prove decisive. The two sectors combine (with only a few meters of pavement between them) to form the true launch of the finale. The miles weigh heavily at this point, and with less than 30km remaining any and all moves must be covered immediately. The cobbles themselves are rough, worse that most that came before, bouncing wheels and bikes almost uncontrollably. If a big name has the power and control to attack here, it can spell the end for his challengers.

5. Camphin-en-Pévèle (237.5km – 1,800m) ++++
It just gets rougher and rougher, it seems. Or perhaps the legs can’t push over the crown so efficiently anymore. The final 300m of this sector, which comes just over 20km from the finish line, is a real brute. The edges of the pavé are jagged, snagging tires without mercy. A flat in Camphin is game over.

4. Le Carrefour de l’Arbre (240km – 2,100m) +++++
The last chance. If a group remains, the strong men will use Carrefour to attempt to pry free from any fast sprinters still hanging on. If Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) is still present on the front, for example, he won’t have any friends at Carrefour.

3. Gruson (242.5km – 1,100m) ++
Not difficult in itself, but the recovery from the Carrefour is just a few meters of pavement. They might as well be one sector, over 3,200 meters long.

The pavement between the two is important, though, as it’s an opportunity to regain some speed. Those who can stay on the gas as they exit Carrefour will enter Gruson with an advantage. Those already struggling are doomed to lose contact in the acceleration.

2. Hem (249km – 1,400m) ++
A medium-length sector with cobbles in good condition, suitable perhaps for a last-ditch, late move, but unlikely to dislodge any frontrunner who has already made it this far.

1. Roubaix (256km – 300m) +
Mere ceremony here, not rough enough to provide a real launchpad. Any group still together will likely sprint it out in the velodrome. Any solo rider will pray to every God he can think of not to flat on this final sector of pavé.