Citing serious safety concerns, organizers of Paris-Roubaix have removed one of the most revered sections of cobbles from the route of this year’s race.
Noting that the condition of a large stretch of pavé through the Forest of Arenberg has degraded over the past year the Amaury Sport Organization has pulled the famous portion of cobbles from this year’s Queen of the Classics, scheduled for April 10.
“Organizers have decided not to ride on the 2400 meters of the famous Arenberg trench for safety reasons,” ASO noted in a statement. “The condition of the road has seriously deteriorated in recent years and a 200-meter section has collapsed and turned into a pool.”
Race director Jean-François Pescheux said Wednesday that past coal mining operations in the area triggered a sink hole, creating a 200-meter gap in the road. That area has filled with oily water, much of which has spilled out onto nearby cobbles, making the pavé exceptionally slippery and dangerous.
As difficult as the decision was, Pescheux said that safety finally forced the exclusion of Paris-Roubaix’s most feared cobbles from this year’s race. Regional officials have offered to help restore the area, repairing the damaged section in time for 2006. ASO officials said they share that goal.
Pescheux said that for this year ASO will replace the infamous pavé with a 2.7-kilometer section at d’Avesnes-le-Sec.
“There will be two full kilometers more pavé this year than there were last year, for a total of 53.2km,” Pescheux said.
But Arenberg has attained legendary status in the century-old classic and simply adding more cobbles may not satisfy all. Defending champion Magnus Bäckstedt said the absence of the cobbles at the Arenberg Forest will mean that Paris-Roubaix will be a different race.
“It’s just not Paris-Roubaix without it,” Bäckstedt told VeloNews on Wednesday.
Bäckstedt’s win last year came soon after race favorite Johann Museeuw flatted and missed out on the final charge into the Roubaix velodrome. It’s precisely the role luck plays in Paris-Roubaix that makes it appealing, Bäckstedt suggested. The cobbles of the Arenberg – last year located at kilometer 166.5 in the 260km race – have often proved to be decisive.
“Being in the lead group when you hit the Forest of Arenberg is a sign that you are having a good day,” he said. “Once you’ve made it through there and you’re still with the leaders, you’re having a great day… you know you’ve made it. You know that you still have a chance”
Bäckstedt said that he understands the reasoning behind the decision, but it pains him nonetheless.
“I can understand when people, race organizers and the like, make decisions like that and safety is a big concern for me, too,” he added. “But Paris-Roubaix is different. It’s not like we are operating on the belief that it’s going to be an easy day, now are we?”
“If you want to eliminate the danger, the hazards and the risks, you might as well run it on 260 kilometers of flat roads and be done with it,” he said. “Things like slippery cobbles – even big gaps in the road – are what give this race its charm!”
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