PARIS (AFP) — With over 50 kilometers of treacherous cobbled sections, cycling’s epic one-day classic Paris-Roubaix deserves its deadly reputation, but the team of the moment Quick-Step believe they can tame it on Sunday.
Known as the ‘Hell of the North’ and evocative of exhausted, mud-splattered survivors collapsing at the finish line of the Roubaix velodrome, race mythology dictates the cobbles themselves often select the winner.
But in Nicki Terpstra and Philippe Gilbert, the Belgian outfit have at least two contenders strong enough to surmount the many challenges thrown at the peloton during a 257km race of attrition.
Despite participating only once previously, in 2007, Belgian Gilbert is ready to go full gas in his bid to secure a fourth one-day classic ‘Monument’, having already won the Tour of Flanders, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Tour of Lombardy.
“I have invested a great deal in getting ready for this race and now its time to go out there and deliver and we’ll see what happens,” Gilbert told reporters on Saturday.
“The conditions look set for a top quality race, I really hope none of the top guys fall and that the best man wins. It’s a beautiful race and it’s not just the cobbles because often it comes down to a sprint.”
Terpstra could take up the baton Gilbert falter on the cobbles. The Dutchman soloed to victory in the Tour of Flanders last week and won Paris-Roubaix in 2014. “Paris-Roubaix suits me even better than the Tour of Flanders,” said the 33-year-old earlier this week.
Quick Step have dominated the cobbled classics season with Terpstra also winning E3 Harelbeke and Yves Lampaert triumphing at Dwars door Vlaanderen, while Elia Viviani claimed the Three Days of De Panne title and Fabio Jakobsen won Scheldeprijs. It is that strength in depth — those latter aren’t even on Quick-Step’s Paris-Roubaix team — that has reigning champion Greg Van Avermaet of BMC Racing feeling wary.
“This season they have many leaders and they are making others hurt,” he said at the team presentation on Saturday. “I have just one chance, but they have four.”
Asked if he might strike up a partnership with someone from another team, the champion frowned. “I would, but you know that is not as easy as you might think,” lamented the Belgian.
While the course is 257 kilometers long, “the real race starts at Arenberg”, Paris-Roubaix race director Thierry Gouvenou told AFP this week. The notorious Arenberg Forest is one of three five-star difficulty’ cobbled sections. Coming at the 93-kilometer mark, the shade leaves its cobbles often greasy and slick.
“Riding on these cobbles is a violent experience,” former professional racer Gouvenou told AFP. “You need to be slightly mad to launch yourself into Arenberg at top speed. The slightest error and you can’t maintain control.”
World class bike-handling skills weren’t enough for Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) last year. The world champion suffered a puncture when brought down by another rider’s fall as he was trying to follow Van Avermaet. Marked out of contention for victory at Flanders last week, the Slovak will be hoping he doesn’t suffer the same fate on Sunday.
For Gouvenou, Arenberg is strategically crucial. “You don’t win the race at Arenberg, but this is where the winning selection is made,” he said. The next five-star point is at Mons-en-Pevele (208.5km), from where a long-range winning bid is possible. The final five-star sector is at Carrefour de l’Arbre, which comes just 17 kilometers from the finish.
“I have lost in the sprint twice,” said another Quick-Step contender, Zdenek Stybar. The 32-year-old Czech finished second in 2015 and 2017. “The penny has dropped now, I have to finish solo.”