WAREGEM, Belgium (VN) — Cycling’s holy week is upon us, and in the next 10 days the world’s best classics riders will bounce over the cobblestones at the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. Both races carry their own distinct flavor. Roubaix dishes out constant punishment with long sectors of rough, bumpy pavé. Flanders, meanwhile, serves up painful, leg-cracking climbs across an unending series of narrow, winding roads. Both races attract thousands of zany fans who stand alongside the roads all day to swill beer and cheer for their heroes.
Which race serves up the best ambiance? Which one dishes out the most physical punishment? Which race is just harder to win? Journalists like me can be armchair quarterbacks in the Flanders vs. Roubaix debate all we want. But the riders know best.
So, I conducted another highly unscientific poll at E3 Binck Bank Classic, Gent-Wevelgem, and Dwars Door Vlaanderen to better understand how the pro riders compare Flanders to Roubaix. Here’s what I found:
We’ve all seen those iconic images of exhausted riders, coated with mud and dust, as they pedal over the Roubaix velodrome to finish the race best known as the “Hell of the North.” Paris-Roubaix dishes out more than 50 kilometers of cobblestone roads that are so rough and uneven, that simply holding onto one’s handlebars is a challenge. Unsurprisingly, my poll delivered a near-unanimous answer when I asked which race delivers the most physical punishment and suffering. It’s Paris-Roubaix.
“From the abuse it gives to your body, it’s definitely Roubaix,” said Heinrich Haussler (Bahrain-Merida). You get to the velodrome and your body is a complete mess. You are dripping every bit of energy on those last cobbled sections. You finish and your arms and hands are cramping. It just puts your body to the ultimate limit.”
Now, riders did say that Flanders presents a tougher physiological test, since the speed of the peloton is so uneven across the many bergs dotting the course. The peloton accelerates into each berg, causing riders to go anaerobic before they even hit the climb. They must then generate enormous power up the climb, and try to recover on the descent. The repetition of this effort puts a rider through extreme physiological pain.
Still, the stones of Flanders are tame when compared to those dotting the Roubaix course. Those rough roads dish out abuse to a rider’s hands, arms, shoulders, and lower backs. Simply to finish in the Roubaix velodrome is an achievement.
“It’s a full body workout,” said Mitch Docker (EF Education First). “There’s much more suffering at the end of that.”
Best crowds and ambiance
Verdict: Tour of Flanders
We journalists often gush about the otherworldly fan experience you find at the Tour of Flanders, which is born from a magical combination of bergs, bikes, and lots of high-ABV beer. Guess what? The pro riders appreciate it too. My poll delivered a unanimous answer to this question. The Tour of Flanders has the best ambiance.
“I think there is nothing that can beat Flanders,” said Dutch rider Mike Teunissen (Jumbo-Visma). There is a crazy crowd at the start and finish, and also on the roads where you see lines of two or three people at every point of the race. The atmosphere is just greater.”
Roubaix does have its own screaming crowds, of course, and fans swell within the Arenberg Forest and Carrefour de l’Arbre. But the riders simply fly by those crowds, which limits their ability to enjoy the rowdy atmosphere. At the Tour of Flanders, by contrast, the riders slog their way up the steep bergs while fans cheer them on. The finishing circuit across the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg concentrates fans into one area, and the enormous VIP tents lure fans to the roadside.
There’s another factor to Flanders’s otherworldly ambiance. The race comes after two weeks of racing across the Flemish countryside, and all of the events drive interest in the main event. Throughout this block of racing, the crowds and energy build.
“In Belgium, you have this weeklong build-up, with De Panne, Gent-Wevelgem, Dwars Door Vlanderen, and then you get to the big one with Flanders,” said Owain Doull (Sky). “I’ve raced these races since I was a junior, and there is just something about the atmosphere and energy that makes [Flanders] unlike anything else.”
Most challenging tactics
Verdict: Tour of Flanders
This question generated mixed answers. However, more riders felt that the Tour of Flanders produced the most challenging race tactics. Breaks form and are then brought back. The winning move often goes dozens of kilometers from the line, forcing the chase group to play cat-and-mouse.
“Roubaix is less about tactics,” said Stijn Vandenbergh (Ag2r La Mondiale). “Sometimes there is a big group left at [Flanders] and it becomes more about tactics. The [attack] can go anywhere.”
Riders felt that Paris-Roubaix was most often won by the strongest and toughest rider in the race, while Flanders required more race craft and teamwork to win. Plus, the narrow and winding roads dotting the Flemish countryside place a premium on course knowledge. Roads constantly twist from right to left, causing the group to swell and string out.
“It’s certainly Flanders because of the roads,” said Ian Stannard (Sky). “I think at Roubaix, generally, the roads are bigger to start with. You don’t turn onto these tiny tracks that you can only fit two riders on, like at Flanders. The smaller roads make for a lot of stress.”
The race most want to win
There was a near-unanimous answer to this question: Paris-Roubaix. The Tour of Flanders may have the crowds, bergs, and beer, but Roubaix has the history, the mythology, and more buzz. The only rider who listed Flanders as his answer was Vandenbergh, who hails from Oudenaarde, site of the Flanders finish line. Even Vandenbergh admitted his local bias: “Afterwards I could party!”
Many riders traced their love of Paris-Roubaix back to their experiences as a cycling fan.
“Since I was a kid I always watched Roubaix, it was the one race I really liked,” said Michael Schar (CCC Team). “It was the highlight of the year for me. It’s historic and feels good to come to the velodrome.”
Whether or not this fact elevates Roubaix over Flanders is open for debate. Many riders followed up their answer with a familiar caveat.
“I would say Roubaix. But hey, if I could win Flanders I would also be happy,” Teunissen said.