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Paris-Roubaix: Getting ready for Hell

Team mechanics were busy in Compiègne Saturday as they prepared each of their squad's bikes for Sunday's 100th edition of Paris-Roubaix. The most common modifications for tackling the French classic's giant cobblestones are a bigger inner chainring than normal (a 44 or 45 in lieu of a 39); wider, tougher tires (up to 25mm, and the majority appear to be clinchers); and slightly padded handlebar tape instead of the normal thinner variety. Other similarities aimed at making the bike less rigid are the use of titanium or aluminum tubing (with narrower gauges and thicker wall thicknesses than

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By John Wilcockson

Team mechanics were busy in Compiègne Saturday as they prepared each of their squad’s bikes for Sunday’s 100th edition of Paris-Roubaix. The most common modifications for tackling the French classic’s giant cobblestones are a bigger inner chainring than normal (a 44 or 45 in lieu of a 39); wider, tougher tires (up to 25mm, and the majority appear to be clinchers); and slightly padded handlebar tape instead of the normal thinner variety.

Other similarities aimed at making the bike less rigid are the use of titanium or aluminum tubing (with narrower gauges and thicker wall thicknesses than normal), and the replacement of carbon-fiber seatposts with titanium or aluminum alloy ones. More flexibility gives a better ride on the jarring cobblestones, and reduces the risk of punctures.

A flat tire at a crucial phase of the race can be huge problem, as you can’t rely on a teammate being with you to help pace you back to a group. But it’s not unusual for Paris-Roubaix winners to overcome all sorts of trouble. When Bernard Hinault won the race in 1981, he survived four crashes and two flats, and at one point had to pick up his bike and run through the wet grass behind a line of spectators as a narrow section of pavé was blocked by a crash.

It’s probably not a coincidence that the man who holds the record of four Roubaix victories, Roger De Vlaeminck, also happened to be a world cyclo-cross champion. So maybe the French team, La Française des Jeux — whose directeur sportif Marc Madiot is a two-time Roubaix winner — knows something. It’s team mechanics were busily fitting their machines with cyclo-cross-style cantilever brakes Saturday evening. These brakes are great should there be mud and water on the pavé — like there was last year — but it hasn’t rained for week in these parts.

Which doesn’t mean that there won’t be any mud. A few raindrops fell Saturday afternoon in Compiègne — where the race starts at 10:40 a.m. local time Sunday — and the latest forecast for the region has changed from what was expected. The wind will still be unfavorable, blowing from the northwest at about 20 kph, and the temperatures won’t go above about 55 Fahrenheit. What is different is that there is a good chance for rain showers, both Sunday morning and Sunday afternoon.

Rain would make the “new” Moulain de Vertain section — which comes 32km from the finish — extremely difficult to ride. On seeing that sector of pavé on Friday, one of the race favorites Peter Van Petegem said, “It was surreal, just crazy. You could say that the cobblestones weren’t laid there, but simply thrown at the road. I hope that it doesn’t rain….”

When Hinault won in ’81, there was a lead group of six that came into the velodrome at Roubaix, for the sprint. The Frenchman, then the world champion, began his “sprint” with one lap of the 500-meter track remaining, and simply powered his way to a one-length victory over De Vlaeminck.

The consensus Saturday night in Compiègne is that the 2002 edition might also end in a sprint between a small number of riders. Perhaps two, perhaps six. In such a situation, it will be the freshest rider who wins. Will that be one of the 35-year-old favorites, both former winners, Johan Museeuw of Domo or Andrea Tafi of Mapei? Or will it be a tall rider in a blue uniform who’s seven years younger than them? I think it will be. George Hincapie is ready. So is his bike.


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