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Paris-Roubaix: Welcome to hell

Ever wonder what it feels like two days after finishing Paris-Roubaix? Start with imagining you have a case of the flu

It’s a bollocks this race! You’re working like an animal, you don’t have time to piss, you wet your pants. You’re riding in mud like this, you’re slipping, it’s a piece of shit …
—Theo De Rooy, in 1985 after abandoning Paris-Roubaix

OUDENAARDE, Belgium (VN) — Two days later, a rider might think he’d come down with the flu. But those who’ve ridden Paris-Roubaix before know better: there’s a sickness in their bones and joints, and it’s the lasting effect of the pavé.

Paris Roubaix is 254 kilometers long on mostly flat roads. It’s also one of the hardest races on the road calendar, and a race that 1981 winner Bernard Hinault summed up, simply, as “bullshit.”

Roubaix is a week after Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) and riders generally race both, the cumulative effect of the cobbles of the northern classics deep inside them.

“It’s not much harder than this race to your body,” said Sky’s Bernhard Eisel on the Flanders start line in Bruges Sunday. “In those two races you just squeeze everything out of your body. You’re riding 50ks of cobbles — it’s crucial. There’s a certain point you get used to it. We have the abilities and the body to do it. But at the same time, two days later, you just feel like two days after a big, big crash. Or you can — if people have never raced a bike — you can compare it like having the flu, or something.

“You start feeling your joints, and everything is just aching. And you probably have a good sleep, and you wake up in the morning and you’re like, ‘Oh. I had a flashback: I did Roubaix.’”

The Dutchman De Rooy, who called the race “bollocks,” was asked in 1985 if he’d ever do it again. His face covered in mud, he said that he would: “It’s the most beautiful race in the world.”

The Hell of the North has a special mystique among directors, racers and fans. It may not be as outright difficult as Flanders, which features a passel of ridiculously steep cobbled climbs over its 260km parcours, but its cobblestones are much sharper and rougher than those in Belgium.

“Both are really hard. There’s more climbs in [Flanders] and that makes it harder, but it’s hard on both,” Sky’s Edvald Boasson Hagen said.

The Paris-Roubaix route features 27 cobbled sectors, or more accurately granite setts, and finishes on the smooth surface of the Roubaix velodrome, ending the bumpy season of the northern classics. And, likely, it couldn’t come a kilometer sooner.

“It grinds them down. I think as you can see here, it’s not just so many people going off the front. It’s more — that the peloton is getting smaller and smaller and smaller,” Sky’s performance manger Rod Ellingworth said. “We know it just grinds them down. And that last hour — it doesn’t look like they’re going fast, does it? And I don’t think the attacks are, they’re nothing special.”

Nothing special, but good enough to earn a monument, if a rider can survive the granite.