GENT, Belgium (VN) — Fans hoping to see a rainy Paris-Roubaix next month might be disappointed yet again.
While it’s still two weeks away from the Hell of the North, long-range forecasts don’t suggest major precipitation across northern France on April 8. Of course, that could change, but several forecast models suggest cloudy skies, strong northerly winds and little chance of rain.
That’s good news for most in the peloton who have to race across the cobbles, but unwelcome to anyone yearning to see hellish conditions in cycling’s most brutal race.
The last wet and muddy Roubaix was all the way back in 2002. Johan Museeuw won that year’s at least partially muddy battle in what was the last of his three Roubaix wins.
But what will happen if it does rain and conditions are muddy, slippery and treacherous? In a word, chaos. Almost no one racing in today’s peloton has raced on Roubaix’s treacherous cobbles in the wet.
“We have a whole generation of riders who have never raced in the rain,” Knaven said. “No one today is experienced in the rain at Roubaix.”
Knaven is correct. No one who raced in the 2002 Roubaix is active in the peloton today. Many, like Knaven, are sport directors, including Max Sciandri, Lars Michaelsen, and Tristan Hoffman.
That’s not to say today’s pros haven’t raced in bad weather. They do all the time. But racing over Roubaix’s unique cobbles is a different kind of race when it’s wet. Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step), one of the more veteran pros in the peloton, turned pro in 2002, but he did not start that year’s Roubaix. In fact, Gilbert is scheduled to start only his second career Roubaix next month, after having raced it in 2008. So if it does get sloppy at Roubaix, riders will be pedaling into the unknown.
“The 2014 Tour de France, we had that wet stage over the cobbles. Besides that, it’s been dry every year at Roubaix,” Knaven said. “In Flanders, it’s different. We’ve had bad weather, but the cobbles are different. Roubaix in the wet is a very different kind of race.”
Knaven won the epic 2001 Roubaix, which was the last Roubaix raced under even more horrendous conditions than 2002. To honor that day, Knaven never even washed his winning muddy bike, and it was hanging in a Rapha store in Amsterdam in its original condition.
“Riders today won’t know how the wet pavé feels under the tires,” Knaven said. “It’s a different feeling. Of course, if it rains, they will have to learn quickly.”
While Roubaix has remained untouched by rain for more than 15 years, that anomaly certainly doesn’t ring true in other dates in the northern classics. Riders in the 2015 Gent-Wevelgem suffered in hurricane-like winds, with only 39 riders making it to the finish line. Throughout the classics’ history, wind, cold and even snow have buffered the races year after year.
Looking ahead to the next few races, weather looks like typical Belgian spring weather. Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem looks good, with mostly sunny skies and a high of around 58F. Wednesday’s Dwars door Vlaanderen is expected to see cooler temperatures in the mid-40s, with wind and rain. Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen should see temperatures in the mid-50s and an afternoon chance of showers.
Knaven said managing the weather conditions is a key part of any team’s strategy for success in the classics. The colder and more extreme the weather, the more important clothes and fueling become.
“Bad weather makes the classics even harder,” Knaven said. “The demands of these big Belgian races are even harder when it’s cold and rainy. It’s 6C (42F), but in the race, it feels like zero. That really takes it out of your body.
“You need to be careful about keeping warm, eating right and drinking enough. It’s important to keep warm. Because once you get wet and cold, it’s very hard to warm up again. It’s very important to wear the right clothes.”
The weather is another rival in the race during the northern classics. So far, it looks like it’s typical Belgian weather all the way through the classics, except on the Sunday of Roubaix. Spring could be back just in time to deliver another dry day in hell.