By John Wilcockson
The organizers of Paris-Roubaix are constantly looking for ways of making their cobblestone classic a little more challenging. And the course for the 99th edition this Sunday looks to be the most challenging yet — both from the perspective of its rugged route and the expected weather conditions: cold, wet and windy.
From the start outside Napoleon’s former palace in the town of Compiëgne — 80km northeast of Paris — the opening two hours of the race are on smooth, straight, rolling roads through Noyon, Ham and St. Quentin. With a forecast for west wind, the field of 190-or-so riders will likely break up into echelons before arriving at the first of 24 zones of cobblestones (known as pavé in France) at Troisvilles, 97km into this third round of the 2001 World Cup.
In the next 40km come eight sections of pavé (including a longest of 3.7km), which come in quick succession, with the intermediate asphalt stretches all less than 6km. This is the same cobblestone opening as last year, including the first feed zone at Solesmes (115km). Given the treacherous state of the first two pavé sections, it’s likely that only 60 men will be left in contention before the vital 34km section between Maing and Wallers.
This is a completely new part of the course. Instead of following the course of the past two years — heading east around Valenciennes with long sections of regular pavement before tackling the Arenberg Forest section from north to south — the 2001 route takes a shorter western route. Three new sections of cobblestones are included (1.6km, 1.7km and 2.4km long), with the third section ending just 6km before hitting the ancient Arenberg Forest road in the more-traditional south-north direction. Last year, a 20.4km stretch of asphalt preceded the Forest, causing a front pack of about 60 riders to regroup. The new route should see more attacks, with a much smaller group of leaders reaching the Forest, especially as the distance to the finish from Wallers is only 82km, as opposed to 95km in previous years.
Next comes a 32km stretch from Wallers to Auchy — which is the same as last year’s, including the demanding 3.7km pavé section at Hornaing and the spectacular, snaking Chemin des Priëres (Path of the Prayers) cobblestones out of Orchies. On this year’s shorter course, the winning break could start even before Orchies, perhaps as early as the second feed zone at Beuvry (194km, or 60km from the finish).
Big changes have been made to the next stretch, which takes a more intricate (but shorter) course, including the difficult pavé section at Pont Thibaut (raced in the opposite direction from last year), through Templeuve to Cysoing. By this point, only the strongest half-dozen men should be left in contention. Perhaps fewer.
The final 26km remains the same as previous years, with the key stretches of pavé being the 1.8km length at Camphin-en-Pévële, immediately followed by the 2.1km section that makes a left turn and heads uphill to the Carrefour de l’Arbre (14km from the finish). By now, only one or two should be left to battle it out to the finish, which comes after one-and-half laps of the century-old, 500-meter-long velodrome in Roubaix.
By shortening the race by 18km, the organizers have made the course much more intense, as confirmed by a key statistic: 29 percent of the route’s second half is on cobblestones, compared with 22 percent a year ago. This should favor the strong, aggressive riders — rather than those who are more comfortable sitting in the wheels and waiting for an opening after the lead pack has regrouped on a section of smooth asphalt.
In the past two editions, Johan Museeuw and Andrea Tafi both benefited from the presence of Mapei teammates in the front group when they made their winning solo attacks. With the new course, the team leaders are likely to become isolated sooner, giving rise to a less-controlled finale.
Mapei riders have won Paris-Roubaix in five of the last six years. But that streak is unlikely to continue given the move by defending champion Museeuw and his henchman Wilfried Peeters to the new Domo-Farm Frites formation, which also boasts world champion Romans Vainsteins. As for Mapei-Quick Step, it still has Tafi and reliable lieutenant Stefano Zanini, while re-signed two-time winner Franco Ballerini, now 35, will be racing for the final time in his career. He hopes to go out in a blaze of glory.
Domo and Mapei hold the keys to the victory, but other teams are ready to challenge — particularly the two U.S.-based squads. Mercury-Viatel is led by Dutch champion Leon Van Bon, who was second to George Hincapie in Wednesday’s Ghent-Wevelgem, and perhaps last year’s runner-up, Peter Van Petegem, who’s still recovering from illness.
U.S. Postal Service’s unequivocal leader is Hincapie, who has finished top 10 at Roubaix the last three years and has the reliable Viatcheslav Ekimov as back-up.
Other teams with strong hopes are Telekom (headed by Steffen Wesemann and Erik Zabel), Lotto-Adecco (with 1994 winner Andrea Tchmil, Hans De Clercq and Niko Eeckhout), Fassa Bortolo (Alessandro Petacchi and Fabio Baldato), Tacconi-Vini Caldirola (led by last Sunday’s Flanders winner Gianluca Bortolami), Lampre-Daikin (Ludo Dierckxsens), CSC-World Online (Tristan Hoffman and Rolf Sorensen), Rabobank (Erik Dekker and perhaps cyclo-cross standout Sven Nijs), Cofidis (Nico Mattan and Philippe Gaumont) and Crédit Agricole (Thor Hushovd and Stuart O’Grady).
So, with about half the 25 teams going into the “Hell of the North” with high aspirations, and the more challenging course with its more-concentrated 47.3km of pavé, this Paris-Roubaix looks like it could be better than ever.
On Friday, there was some sunshine drying out the wet clay that covers much of the cobblestone sections. But rain has fallen on eight of the last 10 days, and the weekend forecast envisions steady rain on Saturday, with showers on Sunday — which should make this Paris-Roubaix the muddiest edition since 1994, when Tchmil made his breakthrough.
Who will be first at Roubaix’s ancient velodrome this Sunday? Well, Tchmil is again in everyone’s predictions, but given the style that Hincapie won at Wevelgem on Wednesday, the 27-year-old American will be challenging. But judging by recent World Cup results, you have to be at least 30 to make the winners’ circle. Here are the top race favorites (ranked by their ages):
Tchmil (38), Ballerini (36), Ekimov (35), Museeuw (35), Sorensen (35), Tafi (34), Bortolami (32), De Clercq (32), Zanini (32), Dekker (30), Wesemann (30), Zabel (30), Mattan (29), Van Bon (29), Vainsteins (28), Hincapie (27), Petacchi (27), Dierckxsens (26).