This year’s Paris-Roubaix was one for the ages – a race that will long be etched in the memory of riders, spectators and even the most occasional of fans.
Heinrich Haussler is one who certainly won’t forget last month’s unprecedented autumnal Roubaix, the first wet edition of the “The Hell of the North” since 2002.
Although there is a sense he’d prefer to wipe those six hours of cold, sloppy mud and nerve-riddled racing from his memory.
“Looking back now after a couple of weeks you think ‘awesome, only half a year go to the next Roubaix’ – maybe even looking forward to next one. But directly after the race and two days afterward, I was completely in the box,” Haussler told VeloNews a few weeks after the dirt was cleaned and the aches had passed.
“It was probably the hardest race of my life.”
The crash-riddled, muck-splattered mayhem of Roubaix made for a perfect afternoon for us on the couch. It was a very different story for the scores of riders slip-sliding over the sodden cobblestones.
Some 70-plus DNFs or riders finishing outside the time limit tells its own story.
As a veteran of 13 editions of Paris-Roubaix, the 37-year-old Haussler thought he had the cobblestones sussed. But inches of rain in the days before and morning of the race made October’s outing an altogether different version of “Hell.”
“I seem to perform better when the weather’s really bad, rainy and cold wind. I was looking forward to the race and especially the conditions, I thought it was going to be awesome,” Haussler recalled on the telephone.
Haussler sure got the drama he had anticipated. The tension in a peloton racing on fearful adrenaline made the entry to the curtain-raising cobbled sector a fight for survival.
“The nerves in the bunch, the fighting for that first sector, you couldn’t even brake. If you braked, you were in the second part of the peloton. You basically just closed your eyes and hoped for the best,” he said.
“It was absolutely epic, something I will never ever forget.”
Riding blind: ‘My eyes were inflamed for a week’
The 2021 Roubaix was set to be a spectacle long before the peloton pedaled out of Compiègne. The race was back after a two-and-a-half-year absence, and a storm through northern Europe was teeing up the first wet men’s Roubaix in 19 years.
With heavy winds gusting across northern France and the rain still falling, Haussler and more than 170 GoreTex-shrouded riders braced for carnage as they rolled through the neutral zone.
They got it.
The race exploded the moment the commissaires dropped the flag and unleashed the peloton. Some riders were so nervous there was a crash after just 200 meters.
“The race started already at kilometer zero. We weren’t quite sure how strong the wind was going to be so there were all these massive attacks. It was full-on from kilometer zero,” Haussler said.
“As soon as the first section, I couldn’t see anything with the mud so I got rid of my glasses. I put them on top of my helmet, and I rode pretty much the whole race without the glasses just to see where I was going.
“My eyes were inflamed for a week afterward – red with s**t and dirt in there. When you blinked you could feel it all in there. The pieces of dirt would rip and dig into the top of your eyeballs.
Haussler rode off experience – and as it turns out, a very flat set of tires – to finish 10th, just one minute behind his winning Bahrain Victorious teammate Sonny Colbrelli.
With the knowledge of 13 previous rides through Roubaix, the Aussie veteran steadily worked through the bunch and hooked up with an all-star group that included the likes Wout van Aert and Yves Lampaert.
Racing blind and with cassettes, chains, and bidon valves packed with mud, Haussler and his rivals entered a whole new world of adrenaline and exhaustion as the race neared its end.
“Some of the last sections, I didn’t even care anymore. Sometimes I just put my head down, closed my eyes, and hoped for the best and just steered the bike straight – it was that bad,” Haussler said.
“After the finish, I think everyone was the same, I was in bits and pieces. I couldn’t enjoy it or be happy for Sonny or anything. I was just completely dead.”
Extra-low pressure rules the pavé
Haussler’s Bahrain Victorious team was arguably the most successful squad of this year’s Paris-Roubaix.
Colbrelli claimed the cobblestone trophy, Haussler finished 10th, and Marco Haller rolled home 17th. Many other WorldTour teams didn’t even crack the top-20.
What made the difference? Tires – and very soft ones at that.
“I think the team had the best setup from the whole peloton. Especially with the tires, the [Continental] tubeless 32 millimeters, I think we had a massive advantage this year,” Haussler explained.
“This was one of the first years my arms and hands didn’t cramp up after the race.”
Continental’s radical new rubber and Haussler’s penchant for riding nearly flat made the perfect combination on the near-gripless pavé.
While most of the Bahrain Victorious team rolled at around three or four bar (44-60psi), Haussler took things to another level.
“I don’t think anyone else in the peloton runs as low as me,” Haussler said. “I changed bikes because I had a mechanical, but my second bike at the finish had 2.6 and 2.7 bar.”
For context, Lizzie Deignan rode her Pirelli P-Zero tubeless tires at 2.3 bar (33psi) when she made history at Paris-Roubaix Femmes.
“I really like riding super low pressure, and when I knew it was raining I decided to risk it,” Haussler said.
“I knew I would suffer a little bit in the first 90Ks [before the first set of cobbles], just from the rolling resistance. But I knew once we hit that first section that on the cobblestones, where the differences were made. That’s why when I was on the cobblestones I was never really in trouble.”
Maybe those tire pressures are the one thing Haussler will want to remember about this year’s Paris-Roubaix.