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Keeping Paris-Roubaix on the move: How teams plan for the hardest one-day race of the year

A lot goes into making sure the riders get through Paris-Roubaix, even more so now with two races this weekend.

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LILLE, France (VN) — Everything is difficult at the “Hell of the North.”

From the racing itself to the logistical planning that goes around it, challenges lie around every corner at Paris-Roubaix and it’s all hands on deck to get through one of the most stressful racing weekends of the year.

Those difficulties have been amped up in recent seasons with the inclusion of the Paris-Roubaix Femmes in 2021. With many squads now fielding men’s and women’s teams, it has meant double the fun for most teams as they try to map out the logistics for two races.

“I won’t say double work, but let’s say it’s a lot of more work, especially as Trek wants to handle the team of the women the same as the team of the man,” Trek-Segafredo sport director Luc Meersman told VeloNews.

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While the men’s and women’s Paris-Roubaix take part on separate days, the women on Saturday and the men Sunday, the logistics are still pretty difficult to map out.

The men’s race starts in Compiègne to the north of Paris, which is a two-hour drive from the Roubaix velodrome where both events finish. With the women’s race expected to finish shortly before 5 pm local time, and potentially, plenty of post-race work to complete, a late night is on the cards for anyone working on both.

It means that there is little real overlap between the two races in terms of support and only six staff will be involved in both races in some capacity for Trek-Segafredo with a few additional cars thrown into the mix.

“Saturday we have some staff from the team to go to help with the women and after the race Saturday they come with I think three or four cars to the hotel in Compiègne not so far from there,” Meersman said. “Then they have on Sunday also so we have some staff who do Saturday and Sunday. Coming over from Saturday to Sunday, we have six people.”

Among those that do the swap over are two of the team’s support managers, Glen Leven and former pro Koen de Kort, as well as operations manager Elke Weylandt.

The challenge of logistics is made a little bit more difficult with some team members off supporting part of the men’s squad at Itzulia Basque Country this week. It ultimately means that the team is maxed out in terms of staff and support vehicles.

Elisa Longo Borghini was the second Trek-Segafredo rider to win Paris-Roubaix Femmes
Elisa Longo Borghini was the second Trek-Segafredo rider to win Paris-Roubaix Femmes (Photo: Tim de Waele / Getty Images)

Help on the side of the road

It’s not just the full-time team staff that get involved and teams rely on support from volunteers and contractors to get them through much of the classics. These support personnel are integral to getting teams through races like Paris-Roubaix, providing bidons and mechanical support throughout the route.

Many of the helpers are around throughout the whole spring and some will carry on into the Ardennes classics, too.

“On Sunday for the men, we have 18 people on the road 18 people in six cars. It is not the feeds, it is just the extra support for all the cobbled sections. We do all the cobbled sections and even more. Normally after kilometer 30, you can give bidons. But if it’s possible, we put some people before kilometer 30. Because sometimes it goes hard and the peloton and the riders want to want to throw away their clothing, but it goes so fast that they cannot come back to the car. So, then we put people on the side and then we tell the guys.”

There are three people in each car and they cover all of the 29 cobbled sections in the men’s, with the women’s group doing the same for the 17 sections on that route. For most, there is one group at each bit of pavé, but some sections are so long that there needs to be two — one in the middle and another at the end.

In total, the six cars will make 34 stops Sunday, in addition to the feed stops made by the soigneurs. It takes some serious planning to make sure that the helpers know where they’re going and make it in time to serve the riders, should they need it, as they pass through.

Recons are an important part of pre-Paris-Roubaix prep but it’s not just for the riders. In the months before the race, one of the support staff members heads out and does his own recce of the route and maps out how each car will get between its designated cobble sector.

Luc Meersman talks with Fabian Cancellara
Luc Meersman talks with Fabian Cancellara (Photo: Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images)

There are plenty of factors to be taken into account, including roadblocks and Paris-Roubaix parties going on in the surrounding villages.

“I have one of the bidon guys who is responsible for their timing and routes. He gives each car its maps and the route that the riders do and what they have to do with the car. I do the recon for the riders, but he does one for the guys who give the bidons and wheels,” Meersman explained.

“The most important thing is how to go from place one to place two, in maybe 20 minutes. “He checks all the local markets, but sometimes in France, there’s something to do in the village at Sunday, because it’s Paris-Roubaix and they do some a festival at the marketplace. If one of your cars has to pass a small village, but there’s something going on then we have to go around the village. So, we are looking for all these things.”

Despite the careful planning, things can still go wrong and the support staff might not make it to the cobble section in time for the riders.

During the race, Meersman is regularly updating the riders about where to look for help if they need a new wheel or a bottle. He will also tell them if one of the groups of helpers has not made it to the cobbled section on time.

Meersman, who is sat in the passenger seat alongside fellow DS Steven De Jongh, is in constant communication with the helpers along the road. He does this either through cell phone contact or via the two walkie-talkies that he has with him.

“An accident can always happen or you have to go somewhere and a police guy says ‘no, you cannot go on the parcours,’ you know? If it’s not possible to be on one point, it is what it is and then they have to send me a message in the car. We have a group on WhatsApp. And then they say car three will not be at cobble section 15, for example, because something happened. I don’t have to know what happened, I only have to know you’re not there. And then we say to the riders, riders that they are not here at the end of the cobblestones.”

It takes an army of people to keep a team running at a race like Paris-Roubaix and the helpers on the cobbles play an integral part of it. With two Roubaix races going on at the weekend, even more planning and organization is needed to ensure the smoothest of rides on one of the bumpiest racing days of the year.

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