Your new favorite race: Paris-Roubaix

Here's your guide to Paris-Roubaix, whether you're a rank beginner or a cobblestone aficionado.

Welcome to the VeloNews 2017 WorldTour fan guide. Great news: There are tons of cycling races all season! Less-great news: Like trying to pick an ice cream flavor at Ben & Jerry’s, tons of choices can be overwhelming. So, we’ll try to help out by giving you quick, fun overviews of major races. Stay tuned for more previews.

Your new favorite race: Paris-Roubaix, April 9

Okay, same disclaimer here as last week for Flanders: I realize Roubaix isn’t new to most fans. For many of you, it’s already your favorite race. I still remember my first image of riders on the Roubaix pavé — it was Graham Watson’s iconic photo of Bob Roll, on the cover of Mountain Bike magazine. I was perplexed. So read on for a primer on all things Roubaix.

Why should you care about this race? Every major race on the calendar is unique in its own way, but Paris-Roubaix stands apart, completely unlike your typical road races, even the other cobbled classics. Unlike it’s fellow WorldTour events, 55 kilometers of the 257km route are held on pavé so rough that simply driving a car across them (let alone racing a carbon bicycle) is dangerous. The Flanders cobbles won’t transform a Skoda into demolition derby fodder. The Roubaix cobbles this with some regularity. These cobblestones are so special, so hallowed, that there is a society dedicated to preserving the sectors that make “The Hell of the North” so devilishly hard.

Unique race dynamics go hand-in-hand with a unique course, making Roubaix so special. Tactics are often far more aggressive, less cagey, because riders want to lead on the pave to avoid mayhem. Fans are almost always treated to an exciting race this special Sunday in April.

Most dramatic edition in recent history? Tough question — if you’re a breakaway guy, editions like 2012 when Tom Boonen won alone are your jam. If you prefer suspenseful sprints, 2016 was about as good as it gets. I love an underdog. In 2007 Stuart O’Grady was allowed to fly free after his CSC team leader Fabian Cancellara gave him carte blanche. It was amazing. O’Grady had made the early breakaway, after 25km of racing. He was set back by a flat in the Arenberg Forest, but he soloed to victory, holding off the likes of Tom Boonen, Juan Antonio Flecha, and other favorites. O’Grady was the first Australian to win Roubaix.

Your race’s defining feature: Unless you’ve skimmed up to this point, it should be obvious that cobblestones are Roubaix’s defining feature. But perhaps we should drill down a little more — which sector is most essential. On one hand, the cumulative effect of all the pave dictates the race. By the end many are too worn down to follow the winning attack, or too fatigued to sprint well in the velodrome. On the other hand, the Arenberg Forest is a truly iconic sector, even if it does appear relatively early in the race. You can’t win Roubaix on the Arenberg, but you can definitely lose it there. You can also lose body parts there. This is where Johan Museeuw shattered his kneecap in 1998, nearly losing his leg to gangrene.

Some races will rip your legs off — Johan Museeuw nearly lost one of his (literally) after a crash in Paris-Roubaix 1998 resulted in a terrible infection. Photo:

Arenberg is great, but I’m going to say that Le Carrefour de l’Arbre is THE cobblestone sector of Roubaix. The fourth-to-last sector, only 17km from the finish is where the decisive move often goes. Boonen launched a winning attack here in 2009, for instance. That edition also has some of the most dramatic race commentary ever when Thor Hushovd overcooked a turn and crashed into a barrier.

Here’s a full guide to Paris-Roubaix’s cobblestone sectors >>

But the thing is … Some years we miss out on an epic showdown between the big favorites because a crash takes one of them out in the early stages of the race. Most recently, Fabian Cancellara was knocked out of the running last year in his final Roubaix, taking Peter Sagan out of the group as well. Other notables have come to grief on days they thought would be theirs to win the cobblestone trophy: Boonen crashed out in 2011; in addition to Thor’s crash (AY TOOOR!), Johan Vansummeren and Flecha also went down 2009. How can we forget George Hincapie’s steerer tube snapping in 2002, causing one of the wackiest (and most heartbreaking) crashes of all time?

Ladies first? Unfortunately, no. The Women’s WorldTour gets back to it at Amstel Gold Race a week from Sunday. We hope Ladies Roubaix happens someday.

Who are you betting your beer money on this year? With my head, I’m betting on Greg Van Avermaet, who has a strong BMC team and is on top form. With my heart, I’m betting on Tom Boonen for a record fifth victory — admit it, you’d love to see Tommeke get that Hollywood ending on the velodrome in Roubaix.