In Dante’s Inferno, the 14th-century epic poem, Dante Alighieri is guided through Hell by the ancient Roman poet, Virgil.
On Easter Sunday, after travelling through the nine circles of hell, they emerge “to return to the fair world.”
It seems fitting, then, that Paris-Roubaix returns to its customary position in April this year. On Easter Sunday, the men’s peloton will endure the “Hell of the North,” and 30 cobbled sectors, emerging 256.7 kilometres later in Roubaix.
When the first edition of Paris-Roubaix set out on 19th April 1896 for the newly constructed Roubaix velodrome, cobblestone roads were simply normal terrain and crisscrossed much of France.
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Asphalt arrived midway through the twentieth century as France modernized and rebuilt following the horrors of World War I and II. Cobbled roads became representative of less economically developed areas and so there was a scramble to pave roads everywhere.
By 1965, when Rik van Looy (Solo-Superia) won his third Paris-Roubaix, the course included just 22 kilometres of pavé. Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix, a group of volunteers formed in 1977, has been instrumental in preserving the remnants of these cobblestone roads as well as maintaining them so that they can be raced on.
Much like the nine circles of Hell in Dante’s epic poem, each of the cobbled sectors in Paris-Roubaix serves a different function in the race and has its own history and symbolism attached to it.
30. Troisvilles to Inchy, 96.3km: 2,200m (***)
The first sector of cobbles is a mere hors d’oeuvres to the obstacles that await later in the race, but it still holds great importance as the first time that the peloton can test its legs, and equipment, on the pavé. In 2021, it was where the main field first split, splintering into three groups and separating teammates from their leaders.
29. Viesly to Quiévy, 102.8km: 1,800m (***)
Much like the previous sector, the cobbles in Viesly begin to reduce the peloton as riders fall away from the main field due to mechanicals, crashes or simply exhaustion. In 2013, a crash tore through the peloton while in 2021, the break fractured on this sector.
28. Quiévy to Saint-Python, 105.4km: 3,700m (****)
The longest section of cobbles arrives fairly early in the race. It is punctuated by a 90-degree right-hand bend about halfway through the sector, marking the start of a slightly uphill drag for the rest of the sector. Punctures for Alexander Kristoff (then UAE Team Emirates), André Greipel (then Arkéa-Samsic), and Matteo Trentin (then Mitchelton-Scott) hampered their chances in 2019, while Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) required a wheel change here in 2018.
27. Saint-Python, 110.1km: 1,500m (**)
Saint-Python has borne witness to many of history’s most important events; it has been struck by Julius Caesar’s legions; the plague; and Allied bombing during World War II. Its cobbled road, which features in Paris-Roubaix, has proved less consequential over the years, instead, it has acted as one of the sectors that adds to the overall difficulty of the race.
26. Haussy to Saint-Martin-sur-Écaillon, 116.6km: 800m (**)
By this point in the race, cobbled sectors arrive thick and fast, each one a little harder than the last as the effort of riding over them begins to accumulate. It was on this sector last year that Luke Rowe (Ineos-Grenadiers) forced a small breakaway with Max Walscheid (then NTT Pro Cycling), Florian Vermeersch (Lotto Soudal) and Nils Eekhoff (Team DSM).
25. Saint-Martin-sur-Ecaillon to Vertain, 120.9km: 2,300m (***)
First introduced in 2005, this sector is relatively simple but still an important part of the softening-up process before the more difficult sectors later in the race.
24. Capelle to Ruesnes, 127.3km: 1,700m (***)
The riders descend onto this sector and the road continues downhill for the first few hundred metres before climbing upwards at a gradient that reaches seven percent. In 2021, crashes in both the breakaway and peloton saw Walscheid and John Degenkolb (then Lotto-Soudal) slip out of contention on this sector.
23. Artres to Quérénaing, 136.3km: 1,300m (**)
Positioned about 25 kilometres before the Trouée d’Arenberg, this sector is an uphill drag. The early breakaway was caught here in 2019, reshuffling the race before the Arenberg.
22. Quérénaing to Maing, 138.1km: 2,500m (***)
Once the first few hundred metres have been negotiated on this sector, it is mostly downhill. Despite its early position in the race, Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) accelerated on this sector in last year’s edition, thinning out the peloton.
21. Maing to Monchaux-sur-Ecaillon, 141.2km: 1,600m (***)
Arriving less than a kilometre after the previous sector, the cobbles between Maing and Monchaux-sur-Ecaillon are in relatively good condition though a slightly uphill gradient increases the difficulty of this sector. In 2019, Florian Senechal’s (then Deceuninck-Quick-Step) relentless pace reduced the peloton to just 40 riders on this sector, even at this early point in the race.
20. Haveluy to Wallers, 154.2km: 2,500m (****)
The last sector before the famed forest of Arenberg, this sector is still rated four stars, which marks it out as exceptionally difficult. It is relatively flat, though the first half rises a little, and often witnesses jostling for position as riders seek to be at the front of the peloton for the Trouée d’Arenberg.
19. Trouée d’Arenberg, 162.4km: 2,300m (*****)
There are two races at Paris-Roubaix, so the old adage goes, the one before the Trouée d’Arenberg and the one afterwards. First proposed by former professional Jean Stablinski who had worked in the mines underneath the road, the Arenberg has since become the symbol of Paris-Roubaix.
There is a slight descent before the Arenberg, and the peloton may approach speeds of 70kph, clattering onto the cobbled section. Trees grow on either side of the road blocking out the sun, and, in the dim light, moss grows on the cobblestones, making them even more treacherous.
The dangers of the Arenberg were illustrated in 1998 when Johan Museeuw (then Mapei) shattered his kneecap and nearly lost his leg from a gangrene infection, while in 2001 Philippe Gaumont (Cofidis) broke his femur.
Following these crashes and concerns about rider safety, the Arenberg was removed from the 2005 edition and the council spent 250,000 euros improving the sector’s condition, but it still remains infamous for its difficulty.
18. Wallers to Hélesmes, 168.4km: 1,600m (***)
The “Pont Gibus” as it is known to honour the nickname given to Gilbert Duclos- Lassalle — a former Paris-Roubaix winner — was reintroduced in 2013 following a five-year absence and €1 million renovations. After this sector, there is a brief respite ahead of the Hornaing.
17. Hornaing to Wandignies, 175.2km: 3,700m (****)
On much of the cobbled sections in Paris-Roubaix, riders stay in the gutter in an attempt to avoid the worst of the cobbles. On the Hornaing, the gutter is scarred by potholes and broken tarmac, making it one of the most difficult sectors in the race. It was the site of a seemingly decisive split in 2017, when a quartet containing Peter Sagan (then Bora-Hansgrohe), Maciej Bodnar (then Bora-Hansgrohe), Daniel Oss (then BMC Racing) and Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) escaped, but a puncture for Sagan shortly afterwards doomed their chances of victory.
16. Warlaing to Brillon, 182.7km: 2,400m (***)
The road sinks on either side between Warlaing and Brillon, creating a long, large, cobbled speed bump on this section. In 2018, Sagan and Degenkolb attacked on this sector but were countered by Quick-Step.
15. Tilloy to Sars-et-Rosières, 186.2km: 2,400m (****)
This sector holds a special place in cycling history for it was here that three Mapei riders — Johan Museeuw, Gianluca Bortolama, and Andrea Tafi — broke clear and rode to the finish, completing a clean sweep of the podium. When it was included in the 2010 Tour de France, it was the site of a race-ending, rather than a race-winning, incident as Frank Schleck (Leopard Trek) crashed out of the Tour.
14. Beuvry-la-Forêt to Orchies, 192.5km: 1,400m (***)
Discovered by Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix in the winter of 2007, these cobbles were first introduced into the race in the 2008 edition. A monument to two-time winner Marc Madiot stands at its entrance. Gaps opened up in the front group on this sector last year, when Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Fenix) and Stefan Bissegger (EF Education-EasyPost) were caught out.
13. Orchies, 197.5km: 1,700m (***)
In 1976, route director Albert Bouvet found six new sections of pavé, including this one in Orchies. The cobbles are relatively smooth at the beginning but become more and more ragged as the sector continues. One of their jagged edges snagged and punctured Oliver Naesen’s (AG2R La Mondiale) wheel in 2018, ending his race.
12. Auchy-lez-Orchies to Bersée, 203.6km: 2,700m (****)
Conditions on this sector were so bad in the mid-2000s that it was removed from the race in 2007 and 2008. Although it was reinstated in 2009, it is still known for its particularly knobbly cobblestones and the false flat that rises all the way to the end of the sector.
11. Mons-en-Pévèle, 209.1km: 3,000m (*****)
Situated fifty kilometres from the Roubaix Velodrome, Mons-en-Pévèle is one of the decisive sections of the route. In 2016, the first five riders to ride over its cobbles — Tom Boonen, Ian Stannard, Sep Vanmarcke, and Edvald Boasson Hagen — constituted the top five at the finish. In 2010, meanwhile, it was on this sector that Fabian Cancellara dropped Björn Leukemans and began his solo ride to victory.
10. Mérignies to Avelin, 215.1km: 700m (**)
Once the race reaches Avelin, it is only 40 kilometres away from the finish line. Although it is not one of the most difficult sectors on the course, in 2002 Museeuw launched his race-winning attack here, dropping George Hincapie (then U.S. Postal Service) and Tom Boonen (then U.S. Postal Service).
9. Pont-Thibault to Ennevelin, 218.5km: 1,400m (***)
One of the sectors to feature in the decisive 2014 Tour de France stage that saw Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) gain time over his GC rivals, there are two sharp, left-handed corners in Pont-Thibaut where crashes can sometimes happen. Attacks also often happen here, such as in 2014 when Sep Vanmarcke (then Blanco Pro Cycling) attempted to break free of the leading group.
8. Templeuve, 224.4km: 700m (**)
In bygone editions, an unbroken 15-kilometre section of cobbles stretched from Templeuve to Bachy but today it distances just 700m, making for one of the shortest sectors in the race.
7. Cysoing to Bourghelles, 230.8km: 1,300m (***)
There are just a few hundred metres of pavement between this sector and the following one and together they form a formidable obstacle. A relatively smooth surface at the start gives way to cobbles separated by crater-like cracks on which Gianni Moscon (then Ineos-Grenadiers) almost crashed last year.
6. Bourghelles to Wannehain, 233.3km: 1,100m (***)
In 2021, Gianni Moscon (then Ineos-Grenadiers) crashed on this sector following a puncture on the previous cobbled sector. These two incidents altered the entire complexion of Paris-Roubaix, effectively ending Moscon’s race and allowing the chasing group to contest for victory instead.
5. Camphin-en-Pévèle, 237.8km: 1,800m (****)
Although not as well-known as its more celebrated counterpart, the Carrefour de l’Arbre, which follows immediately after it, the Camphin-en-Pévèle is still one of the most difficult sectors of Paris-Roubaix. The final 300m are particularly challenging.
4. Carrefour de l’Arbre, 240.5km: 2,100m (*****)
On the Carrefour de l’Arbre, the road seems to contort itself into some continuation of the furrowed fields on either side of it and the middle section of the road rises upwards so that cobbles lie at jagged angles. This sector is the third, and last, of the five-star rated cobbles, and arrives just 15 kilometres from the finish line. It proved decisive in 2004 when a group containing eventual winner Magnus Bäckstedt (then Alessio-Bianchi) emerged as the strongest to contest for victory.
3. Gruson, 242.8km: 1,100m (**)
It is unlikely that the race can be won on this sector, but it can certainly be lost there. Last year, eventual runner-up Florian Vermeersch attempted to break clear of the lead group on this sector, while in 2019, Sep Vanmarcke suffered a mechanical, ending his hopes of victory.
2. Willems to Hem, 249.5km: 1,400m (***)
Partially resurfaced in 2019 to create smooth tracks on either side of the cobblestones, the penultimate sector could act as a launchpad for a last-ditch attack. For the last four editions, however, the leading group has remained intact on this section of cobbles.
1. Roubaix – Espace Charles Crupelandt, 256.3km: 300m (*)
Compared to the rest of the cobblestones on the course, this last section is nearly as smooth as asphalt and is a largely symbolic last sector. Nonetheless, it is still a last-minute obstacle to negotiate before the Roubaix velodrome.