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LILLE, France (VN) – The Paris-Roubaix peloton will be anxiously poking at weather apps and praying for blue skies Friday night.
Men’s and women’s teams began to recon the cobblestones Thursday ahead of this weekend’s Paris-Roubaix, and some didn’t like what they saw. Although many sectors of the iconic stones remain clean and dry, a slate of squads encountered sections of pavé deep in damp, slick mud after recent rainfall through the region.
Also read: Rainy Roubaix? It could happen
“I’ve seen a lot of riders fall during the recons,” Philippe Gilbert said Thursday. “I can’t imagine how we do this race without falling or hitting the ground. If it starts raining [Sunday] it will be really chaotic. I’m not looking forward to it. I’ve raced in snow, in 45-degree [C] heat, in gusts of wind, but never in mud like I saw today.”
More rain, more mayhem
Forecasts are calling for rainfall and heavy winds Friday afternoon and further showery spells through both Saturday’s inaugural Paris-Roubaix Femmes and then Sunday’s men’s race. Even the grizzled classics veteran Gilbert is anxious about what could lie in wait come this weekend.
“It will be chaos on Sunday; it will be a Paris-Roubaix like I have never ridden before,” he said. “It will be anything but fun and I hope the weather forecast changes.”
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Multiple cyclocross champ and MTB ace Mathieu van der Poel also experienced the stones Thursday. Although less despondent than Gilbert, the cross-discipline ace is equally wary of the carnage that could ensue when scores of riders arrive en masse at the mucky pavé.
“I think it’s quite cool if it rains but it will dangerous, for sure,” van der Poel said Thursday.
“If it’s dry, it’s already a pretty hard race. If it’s wet, it’s even more technical but the problem is you’re riding with a big bunch and if they crash in front of you, it’s difficult to avoid. I think it will be cool if it’s safe enough to ride a wet Roubaix once.”
Hello, dear cobbles of @Paris_Roubaix 👋
Please be kind to us on Sunday. Merci beaucoup! 🙏 pic.twitter.com/NA5aSfXXYx
— Alpecin-Fenix Cycling Team (@AlpecinFenix) September 30, 2021
Forecasts as of Friday suggest that some rain – whether in dribbles or downpours – is a dead-cert before the weekend is out. However, half the damage has already been done after recent damp weather. The farmer’s fields have started to blend into the ancient stone tracks crisscrossing through them, meaning that pre-race scouting rides have taken on added importance.
“It was good to have the recon under a little bit wet conditions because I’ve done several recons and it was always really dry and sunny, so it’s really different,” Christine Majerus told VeloNews of her ride Wednesday.
“The mud makes it harder because you cannot ride on the side, you have to ride on the cobbles, which makes it a bit harder … you need to make the decision if it is useful or is it too risky [to ride on the side of the cobbles].
The foul conditions will likely squeeze the brakes on the type of flat-out power racing seen in recent editions of the men’s race. Instead, this weekend could see a grinding, attritional battle between the most powerful and most lucky.
The muckiest of sectors will see riders without the luxury of choosing favored lines, typically across the central crest of the cobbles or in the grassy verges toward the side. Instead, the race will be a test of nerve as the peloton pushes through an inch of mud that could disguise jutting stones or potholes.
“If it’s wet, it’s going to be a lot slower. You have to relaunch the bike from a very low speed a lot of times, whereas in the dry you can carry the speed a bit more through the corners,” Kasper Asgreen said. “The weather will of course make it a lot harder and you also have the element of crashes, which will be much higher in the rain.”
‘Cross is boss?
The prospect of a wet race has given rise to a swell of hype for the peloton’s cyclocross contingent. Riders like Majerus, van der Poel, Wout van Aert, Marianne Vos, and Ždenek Štybar are all as adept in the mud as they are on the tarmac.
But this weekend’s ‘cross contingent believes years of racing on the knobbly tires won’t afford them that much of a headstart when they are packed in with riders slip-sliding over the stones.
“If you’re riding in a bunch, you also have to deal with other riders,” van der Poel said. “It’s going to slippery and hectic. I think it’s OK if you can handle your bike but it’s not always the case that you have the cards in your own hands.”
Like always in Roubaix, positioning will be crucial when the racing veers off the pavement and onto the pavé this weekend. Riders at the front of the bunch avoid the risk of getting held up behind the carnage unfolding in front, making the entry to every secteur a bunch sprint for the best line. As Štybar said, the biggest advantage will come not from CX skills, but “from having strong legs.”
Whether the rain falls as forecast in the next 48 hours or not, it’s a guarantee that at least some of the sectors will still be slick this weekend. After a two and a half year pause for the men, and a lifetime of waiting for the women, “The Hell of the North” just got a bit more hellish.