ROUBAIX, France (VN) — No race in the world is more iconic and iconoclastic as Paris-Roubaix. Known as the the “Hell of the North,” Roubaix is hands down the most brutal single-day race in the world.
Sure, the Tour of Flanders has its muurs and bergs, but the cobbles in Belgium are a comparative carpet ride compared to what the peloton confronts Sunday.
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In this desolate corner of northern France, the cobbled farm roads appear to get worse every year. But that is what makes this race great, and that is why every rider that starts Roubaix tries to finish, little matter how far they are behind the winner.
It’s a race that stands apart on the international calendar. Why is it the favorite race of so many — and hated by more than a few? There’s nothing quite like the hell of the cobblestoned roads of northern France.
What is your favorite cobbled sector in Roubaix?
James Startt: Oh, that is hard to say. I love the opening sector in Troisvilles because there is just so much tension as the riders approach. And then when you see the colors of the first riders and the dust, well, you know the game is on for the rest of the day. And then of course there is that tunnel of trees that is the Arenberg Forest and the utter intensity of the Carrefour de l’Arbre. Two-time winner Marc Madiot once told me that the Carrefour is the last chance anyone has to break away. In recent years, the race is usually decided before the Carrefour, but that section is still so long and brutal, and coming after nearly 250 kilometers of racing, well, everyone is just one the rivet, everyone is riding for their life.
Andrew Hood: That’s a hard choice, but one sector that stands out for me is the Mons-en-Pévèle. It’s one of the three five-star rated sectors, coming after the trench but before Carrefour. It’s often a critical part of the race. The big moves are not necessarily made there, but it’s where an often definitive selection is made. I remember chasing the 2018 edition with James, and we were posted right on the sector when Peter Sagan made his decisive acceleration away from some of the favorites. The crowd was packed right on top of this narrow sector, and the roar was like a train coming through a tunnel.
Is there a section of cobbles that you think gets overlooked?
Hood: Again I look to the cobbles near Mons-en-Pévèle. There is a string of sectors stacked up at a critical part of the race. This is where the fatigue starts to set in, and the crashes start to pile up. This is a decisive part of the day when mechanical issues and punctures start to have their collective impact. It’s here where the best-laid plans are put to the sword, and the strongest and luckiest start to gel at the front of the race.
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Startt: There is this section called Auchy á Bersée. It is the section right after Orchies and it is surprisingly long, nearly three kilometers in all, and often it is quite telling. For years I have gone there, firstly because it was logistically possible. But then as I looked over my images year after year, I realized that the race winners are always at or on the front here. In recent years both Peter Sagan and Philippe Gilbert were either on the attack or on the front as they came by here. It’s a section that nobody talks about but it is always telling.
Do you have a particular memory of the Roubaix cobbles?
Startt: Well, not really because, well, it is always such a blur. Roubaix is probably the most stressful single day of racing of the year. You are constantly trying to make cutoffs, and constantly trying to not get lost on the quagmire of back roads that race through little towns with unpronounceable names.
But there was this one year in the Arenberg I will never forget. I think it was in 2002 when it rained so much. What I remember was that it was actually snowing a bit as the riders approached. I was standing with a bunch of photographers at the end of the Arenberg as we waited for the first riders to come through. There was just a small group of guys and we were all wondering where everyone else was, and suddenly riders just started coming out of the woods from behind the line of spectators. Apparently, there was a crash the race had turned into a free-for-all. It was crazy. But it was Paris-Roubaix.
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Hood: Too often these days the print media is shuttled from start to finish on any bike race, and rarely see the action. The best editions of any race are when we snag the treasured “green sticker” that provides media car access to the race. We’ve sometimes followed entire editions of the Tour de France, driving each day’s route from start to finish, and slotting in behind big breakaways. There’s no better way to get a feel for a race than to be in the action.
My absolute best days in the media horde have come when I’ve followed the action at Paris-Roubaix. I’ve done it three or four times, and each one stands out for the intensity, passion, and rawness of the race. The most recent came in 2018 when I joined James as we followed the race from start to finish. It’s only when you’re right on the side of the cobbles can one truly appreciate the speed and treachery that Paris-Roubaix represents.
We followed Peter Sagan as he worked his way through a series of challenges and hurdles to finally bound clear and win inside the Roubaix velodrome. I documented the adventure in a story on VeloNews, and we barely made it to the finish in time to see Sagan post up for his victory salute in the rainbow jersey.
In my book, Paris-Roubaix is the most spectacular one-day race on the calendar. It’s also a bit of a relic and heirloom from cycling’s past. In today’s modern world of technology, science, and safety, the entirety and absurdity of Paris-Roubaix can sometimes seem oddly out of place. And that’s why it’s so wonderful.