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Paris-Roubaix: Behind the scenes with EF Education First-Drapac

Take an inside look at how a WorldTour team prepares for the "Hell of the North," Paris-Roubaix.

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“Pick a side — the right is faster,” says Andreas Klier. “You can see, if you choose left here you’re screwed.”

The riders on EF Education First-Drapac call Klier, the 2003 Gent-Wevelgem winner, “GPS.”

“Coming out of this section, you will have a sidewind here during the bike race,” he continues.

You don’t have to spend much time with Klier to understand how he earned the nickname. He knows every inch of these roads.

“This is going to be a man-against-man sector,” he says.

It’s three days before Paris-Roubaix and team EF Education First-Drapac have come to pre-ride the Roubaix cobbles. Klier explains the topography and sectors to his riders.

Klier retired from racing in 2013, and his exhaustive knowledge of classics geography has immeasurable value. As the team’s sport director, Klier is the voice in Sep Vanmarcke’s earpiece during the cobbled one-days.

Vanmarcke and Co. may have ridden the French pavé dozens of times in their careers, but the recon ride remains a critical part of race prep. It’s just one piece of a much bigger puzzle. Racing Paris-Roubaix takes about six hours, and teams like EF spend thousands of man-hours getting ready for the action.

Andreas Klier imparting his knowledge of the pavé to EF Education First-Drapac’s classics squad during a Paris-Roubaix course recon. Photo: Dane Cash | VeloNews

“Roubaix is unique. It would be impossible to count all the hours of everyone who is working on logistics, training, preparation,” says Ken Vanmarcke, Sep’s brother. “That is something that makes this race unique. It’s one of the biggest or the biggest one-day race and everyone wants to win.”

Like his perennial classics contender sibling, Ken is part of EF’s classics team, but he won’t pin on a number this Sunday. He’s a trainer and co-director, and one of a stable of team staff putting nose to grindstone to get the squad ready for the “Queen of the Classics.” That work begins almost shortly after the the preceding year’s Roubaix grinds to a halt in the velodrome.

“Always in May, I’m already looking forward to the next year,” say Sep Vanmarcke. Thrice a top-five finisher at Roubaix, he is one of EF’s two leaders for Sunday. Sebastian Langeveld, third in 2017, is the other.

Vanmarcke and Langeveld will both race on through the summer and early fall, of course, but when your first love is the pavé, it’s hard to not to think about the spring classics all year long.

Preparation really begins to ramp up over the winter.

“We do the first testing of material on the pavé in December. This year we went with Sep, Sebastian, and Pierre Rolland,” says Ken Vanmarcke.

“We start building the Roubaix bikes in January. It’s not the only thing they have to build up. They are also building the time trial bikes, the Tour de France bikes.

“There is so much stress during the season, so it’s important to start things early and in the right way. That’s why it’s important to start on time, and if something changes, you have to adjust.”

Those adjustments continue through the classics themselves as the riders take on the many “tune-up” races in Belgium ahead of De Ronde. The Roubaix pavé is too different from that of Flanders, however, to simply rely on a single tech setup for both cobbled monuments. Indeed, many teams and the bike manufacturer partners roll out new bikes and tech specifically for Paris-Roubaix.

The week leading up to the event is a frantic race in and of itself: a race to get ready for the race. The riders must decompress from the frenzy of the Flemish classics quickly to get into Roubaix mode. That is especially challenging for those that ride Scheldeprijs on Wednesday.

Often a crash-fest that finishes in a sprint, Scheldeprijs is not as attractive a tune-up opportunity as many of the other cobbled one-days. A number of stars skip the race, with Vanmarcke among them in 2018. Taylor Phinney was at the start line this year. He offers a simple rationale behind that decision: “I don’t know if I’m supposed to say this, but nobody cares about Scheldeprijs.

“You do this race so that you don’t have to do a six-hour training ride.”

After Scheldeprijs — again a crash-filled affair this season — EF relocates from Lokeren, Belgium to Chantilly, France.

Thursday is the all-important Paris-Roubaix course recon. Everyone in EF’s 2018 classics lineup has ridden the Queen of the Classics before, but the recon ride remains an integral part of race prep.

“You need to get used to the Roubaix cobbles again,” says Mitch Docker, who joined the squad this year from Orica-Scott. “Even though you think you know them, and every year you come back and you’re like, ‘Oof, here we go.’

“They’re big. They’re hard. It’s just a reality shock, you’ve got to get your head around it again, so you’re not hitting them [Sunday] saying ‘Whoa, what am I doing?'”

EF’s recon on Thursday gives Klier a chance to impart his exhaustive knowledge of the terrain to his seven starters. He reminds them of the details of each sector, where they should ride, where the wind will blow, what to expect for the race. Even those who have done the race a dozen times before stand to benefit from listening to GPS Klier on the radio.

Of course, the recon part of the ride is only half the battle. The other aim of Thursday’s ride: Making sure every one of EF’s seven Roubaix starters is completely satisfied with his tech setup — tires above all — ahead of the race.

EF’s Paris-Roubaix squad pulled over to make a few adjustments just after riding the Arenberg Trench during a pre-race course recon. Photo: Dane Cash | VeloNews

At various points along the recon, Klier asks his riders if they are happy with their specific bike setup. When someone replies, “I’m fine,” Klier presses for clarification: “Are you fine, or are you happy?”

Mechanic James Griffin is along for the recon to make the necessary adjustments while out on the ride. After each major cobbled sector the riders pull over to assess the tire situation, and Griffin goes to work. Over the course of the afternoon, each rider will ideally become more content with the tech setup.

“Sep and Sebastian, they need maybe one or two adjustments. They are born on the cobbles. Their bed is made on the cobbles,” Ken Vanmarcke says.

Others riders need more time to dial in their gear.

Once the recon is done, riders chat with the media. Vanmarcke knows the questions that are coming. He’s heard them phrased dozens of ways before: “How can you finally win a major classic?”

The team does a bit more riding on Friday. That gives the riders a chance to try out any of the adjustments they requested the day before, and to request any 11th hour changes.

While the mechanics get to work handling those, team staff continue poring over the route to get all the important players ready for action.

“We go over the maps and routing. We tell them exactly where to stand with the wheels,” Vanmarcke says. “Andreas [Klier] is very good at knowing where punctures might happen. At Flanders, he told a crew to stand in a certain point, and we had one of riders puncture within 200m.”

Mercifully, things are a bit less complicated at Roubaix. The team simply positions staff at every cobbled sector. It helps to have plenty of manpower to take on the challenge. Vanmarcke says the team brings on eight extra staff members, who are essential to supporting the squad out on the road. Seven different crews are assigned four sectors each, allowing EF to have wheels ready wherever they’re needed.

Allocating more than a dozen crew members all over the French countryside is a logistical challenge — one that EF faces with an old-school approach. The American outfit boasts the most futuristic cars in the peloton thanks to Tesla, but when it comes to the Roubaix pavé, EF eschews electronic navigation for a more trusted tool.

“We use these detailed French army maps,” Vanmarcke says. “A normal road map would not work for Roubaix. These maps have every sector of cobbles. It would be a risk if you tried to use GPS or digital maps. They are too slow and you risk losing power at a certain point. With a paper map, you can put your finger on it, hold it upside down, turn it around, do anything you want.”

After months of preparation leading into the frenzied final week, Friday night and Saturday are mostly about getting in as much rest as possible. The big exception is the team presentation Saturday afternoon. The plaza at Compiègne is packed with fans and media, a healthy reminder of how important this race is.

Sep Vanmarcke chats with the media at the Paris-Roubaix team presentation. Photo: Dane Cash | VeloNews

“It’s already been a couple of years now I’ve done this, so I can handle it a bit better,” says Sep Vanmarcke, “but there’s always the focus and the attention. People get a little bit nervous. As long as it’s a healthy nervous it’s alright.”

Once the riders put the team presentation behind them, they get their marching orders from the sports directors at a pre-race meeting. Weeks of seeing how the other classics have played out, months of data gleaned from training rides, years of classics knowledge, distilled into a plan the sports directors hope will put one of the riders in pink atop the podium on Sunday. Then comes that one final sleep before Roubaix.

On Sunday, all that’s left is the main event, 257 kilometers from Compiègne to the Roubaix velodrome, with roughly 50 of those kilometers paved with the gnarliest cobblestones riders will race all year.

“I was surprised this week,” says Vanmarcke. “I suddenly realized, ‘Well, that’s it already for Flanders and now we have only one left.’ It goes by really fast, as usual.”

Six hours of racing, and another visit to the Hell of the North will be completed. Afterward, another cobbled classics season will be the rearview mirror.