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The run-up to Paris-Roubaix 2022: A look back at the season so far

A look at the buildup to the cobbled monument that finishes in a velodrome after taking on 55km of cobbles in the men's ‘Hell of the North.'

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When Matej Mohorič screamed down the Poggio like a madman and snagged what might be the riskiest and most daring Milan-San Remo win ever attempted, I thought to myself, well, that’s probably the most exciting thing that’s going to happen in this classics season.

One could understand that logic easily: Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl appeared all but nonexistent, van der Poel was fully recovered, Wout van Aert and Jumbo-Visma were on some insane form in Paris-Nice (and later, in E3 Harelbeke). “Superteam” rhetoric was in full force during the spring stage races dominated by Jumbo-Visma (despite a flagging Roglič) and UAE Team Emirates, and for a spell, it appeared Ineos Grenadiers had been left behind. All of this would be dispelled within the coming weeks. This was a good thing.

Also read: Exclusive – Tom Boonen talks Quick-Step’s classics misery, Pogačar, and van der Poel

Even with Pogačar smothering Strade Bianche, the two wins by van der Poel, and the wins by the Ineos-Grenadiers, this has been a phenomenally exciting classics season. Van der Poel’s wins did not come easily to him, and the finale of the Tour of Flanders had me and countless others on the edges of our seats.

Van der Poel, despite his strength, continued to be one of the peloton’s boldest and most exciting riders. Ineos put the hurt on during Brabantsje Pijl, and it was the young Magnus Sheffield who took the win after a daring move in the finale where he went solo, his teammates disrupting the chase behind.

At Amstel Gold Race, it was a two-up, photo-finish sprint between Benoît Cosnefroy (who’d reappeared from the shadows after a lackluster 2021 season) and Michał Kwiatkowski who, after so many years helping others, was able to taste victory for the first time since his Tour stage win in 2020.

These were exciting stories and entertaining races, despite their wins from so-called “dominant” riders and teams. There is, in fact, a lot of flexibility within narratives that appear at first pejoratively boring. Yes, Ineos won two classics, but neither of those wins was in any way predictable.

In fact, one could say that this season is defined by just that — a surprising lack of predictability. Who among us could have predicted Valentin Madouas finishing on the podium in the Tour of Flandres ahead of Tadej Pogačar? Who could have predicted that Quick-Step would all but vanish from the scene after manhandling these spring races for so long?

Who could have predicted Magnus Sheffield from Rochester, New York, would win a spring classic before his much-discussed compatriot Quinn Simmons, and ahead of his own teammate Tom Pidcock?

Who could have predicted that Amstel Gold Race would have yet another photo-finish blunder after what happened last year? Not to mention such feats as Pogačar being very gifted at riding the cobbles, or the young Eritrean debutant Biniam Girmay pipping a resurgent Christophe Laporte at Gent-Wevelgem.

I think it’s worth acknowledging how lucky we are to be witnessing such great racing, a season that’s followed the thread of the last four, each seemingly better than the last.

Also read: Paris-Roubaix Femmes: 10 riders to watch for the ‘Hell of the North’

There are several factors responsible for what we are seeing. The first is aggressive tactics augmented by a collective penchant for risk-taking. Rather than having one team — usually Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl or Jumbo-Visma — drive on the front and control everything until that fiery period which inevitably erupts around 50-30 kilometers or so, decisive moments have been happening earlier, with important moves beginning as far out as 100km in the case of De Ronde.

Between teams and riders, there is little solidarity, especially in chasing groups — there have been many cases (most recently Brabantse Pijl) where final or semi-final selections had been made and their gaps ballooning to 30 seconds almost instantaneously due to opportunism up front and confusion, exhaustion, wariness, or conservative tactics behind.

The lack of any single dominant team (historically Quick-Step) has enabled races to disintegrate earlier. The diverse characteristics of the riders making it into a race’s finale (e.g., in the case of De Ronde, Pogačar, Madouas, and van der Poel are quite different from one another) has meant that tension lasts longer and features more constant attacking by those riders who do not want to end up in a sprint.

These adventurous and individualistic tactics have drawn many analogies among commentators to the cycling of the mid-20th century. The long solo victories in races like Strade Bianche are seen as further indication that the Merckx era of pioneering marauders and charismatic mavericks is coming back, replacing the tired micromanagement and team time-trialing at the front we’ve grown so used to.

I’ve even found myself screaming at the TV at van der Poel during Amstel and De Ronde, or Remco Evenepoel in Brabantsje Pijl: “Why are you riding? Why are you taking turns with guys like Pogačar or Pidcock behind?” Indeed, energy conservation doesn’t quite square with race scenarios where an attack can happen at any moment and therefore the safest place may in fact be at the front pacing, assuming control for small segments at a time.

Another factor is the start lists. In this regard, an appropriate analogy can be found in ecology. In the longleaf pine ecosystem of the southeastern United States, fire is necessary for biodiversity and the life cycles of many plants. The pines dominate the forest, but without fire, their needles smother the forest floor, preventing any new seeds from germinating.

If Jumbo-Visma, van Aert and van der Poel are the pines, there exists enough variability and chance (much like a lightning strike) to spark a fire and burn up the needles, allowing other riders to flourish. Unfortunately, the most common of these “lightning strikes” has been illness, which has been rather disturbingly normalized and accepted in the peloton. There have been races where fewer than 100 riders have finished, and others where teams aren’t even sending full rosters.

That’s enabled more opportunities for others and has weakened quite a few teams, but at what cost? One is not sure what the solution to this is. There doesn’t seem to be much action on behalf of the CPA or the UCI or investigation into the causes of the outbreak of “bronchitis” (which is itself a symptom and not a stand-alone disease). As such, there are not many conclusions to draw except that these illnesses are now just the cost of doing business, hopefully not resulting in more serious after-effects.

Also read: Paris-Roubaix: 10 to surprise — who will be the ‘outsider’ of 2022?

The bright side of the roster equation is the increased chance for younger riders such as Sheffield and debutants like Girmay to beat some of the best names in the bunch on their own merits. Other riders who are not traditionally classics men such as Madouas and Teuns have also found success in this particular ecosystem and encouragement in a more open playing field.

Girmay’s decisive victory over a dominant Laporte and Pogačar’s participation and ease on the cobbles have somewhat dispelled the popular myth that one must specialize from childhood and spend years suffering on the cobbles in order to win or be competitive there.

This and the very addition of the winner of the Tour de France to the lineup are perhaps encouraging to others wanting to make their marks in the classics and thus, one can argue are, through the dynamics and publicity they produce, good for the sport.

Finally, there’s the matter of new technology. This is somewhat surprising given the UCI’s historical regulatory rigidity. Matej Mohorič’s use of a dropper seat post in Milan Sanremo was credited by the Slovenian as being a major tactical advantage. It remains to be seen what effect Team DSM’s on-bike tire pressure adjustment system will have in Paris-Roubaix.

While this innovation in the sport is no doubt exciting and forward-thinking from a technological standpoint, one could also take a more critical view: these gizmos may be cost-prohibitive, and make the barrier of entry into contention even higher for those teams who do not have as much money to spend on such adaptations. Additionally, tire pressure has always been a mix of alchemy and science when it comes to Paris-Roubaix, a rich discursive and practical tradition that could potentially be cast into the dustbin of history. I personally find this rather sad.

Taking all of what has been said so far and applying it to Paris-Roubaix makes for an exciting thought experiment. With van Aert and van der Poel back, the usual discourse of a war between the “two vans” is sure to flare up, as are the same questions being asked of Ineos-Grenadiers, Jumbo-Visma, and a bafflingly absent Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl.

However, Paris-Roubaix is its own monster, so delightfully unpredictable and reliant on luck. Call me a Luddite, but I don’t think that it will ever be possible to outsmart the “Hell of the North,” not with team tactics, and certainly not with technology.

People have been trying the latter for years (it makes up quite a bit of the commentators’ discussions during non-pavé interludes). Everything from tire pressure, suspension systems, double-wrapped handlebar tape, bike frames of subtly different geometry, weight, material, special bottle cages, tire selection, etc. have been tried, and none of it seems to make that race any easier, less painful, or more predictable.

In the face of the páve, we are all Icarus. And that’s part of the appeal.

Throw in a recovering van Aert, a wily (if tired) van der Poel, a brilliant Ineos-Grenadiers, and a whole lot of bike racers who have proved willing to take advantage of gaps in the roster and aggressive tactics, and we are in for what might be the most open Roubaix in a long time, one this writer plans to wake up at four in the morning in order to see.

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