By Kip Mikler, VeloNews editor
During the days preceding Paris-Roubaix, the talk is often of the weather, which, over the years, has often put the hell in the Hell of the North at this one-of-a-kind spring classic.
TUNE IN TO VELONEWS.COM beginning at 8 a.m. Eastern time Sunday for our live updates from the 102nd Paris-Roubaix, with on-the-spot assistance from VeloNews editor Kip Mikler, European correspondent Andrew Hood and photographer Graham Watson.
If it rains for Sunday’s 102nd running of the race, as it did memorably two years ago, the 26 cobblestone sections of the 261km route will become the enemy of the 184 racers scheduled to start. If wet, the unevenly placed, oddly shaped stones that make up the “roads” of the Arenberg Forest and other sections of pavé will claim scores of riders in the form of punctures, crashes and mangled bikes.
If it’s dry for this third race of the World Cup series, as it was last year, the advantage will go to the powerful thoroughbreds, men who can power through crosswinds and withstand the punishment that comes from pounding through the cobbles at high speeds. Men like Belgium’s Peter Van Petegem (Lotto), who completed the rare Flanders-Roubaix double last year when he won a three-man sprint against fellow bruisers Dario Pieri (Saeco) and Viatcheslav Ekimov (U.S. Postal) in the Roubaix velodrome.
26. Troisvilles: km 99.8 – 2200 metres (rated 3)
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On the eve of the race, clouds were gathering and a few raindrops fell on the Place du Palais in Compiegne, where the 261km race will start at 11 a.m. on Sunday. Up north, the riders inspecting the course found damp conditions in the trees and some mud along the worn single-track paths that run beside the bricks. The open sections were dry, but not enough to be dusty. Sunday’s forecast called for cloudy skies at the start in Compiegne, and possible rain to the north.
Some riders admit the weather can make or break their race; Fassa Bortolo’s Belgian hope, Frank Vandenbroucke, said the rain favors lighter riders who will more easily float over the cobbles at the slower speeds. Others, including U.S. Postal’s American leader George Hincapie, claim that it doesn’t matter to them if it’s rain or shine.
That’s the attitude Postal’s director for the race, Dirk Demol, likes to hear. “It doesn’t matter, and that’s how we have to be,” Demol told VeloNews on Saturday. “There’s nothing we can do about it. It’s Paris-Roubaix, you have to take it how it comes.”
Demol won Paris-Roubaix in 1988, and he knows the course well enough that he doesn’t consider it necessary for his riders to inspect things before the race. That’s an assignment he handles himself.
“I went on Thursday to see the whole course,” he said. “I took a lot of notes, and with the communication we have now, I will tell them what [to expect]. I prefer the riders to have an extra rest day. If I take them to the cobbles, we leave at 8:30 in the morning and we are back at maybe 7 in the evening.”
CSC assistant team director Sean Yates, also a veteran of Roubaix, said this race can’t be won without experience and proper preparation. “This race only comes around once a year. You can’t ride it next week, so you have to make sure that you do everything right. I think you really have to concentrate for that six hours or whatever the race lasts. Obviously, you get paid to ride the bike and concentrate, but in this race it is doubly so.”
If it rains during the first 99km — before the first section of pave at Troisville — it will have little effect on things, but if it’s stormy in the north, home to the 26 sections of pave ranging from in length from 100 meters all the way up to 3.8km, things will get interesting.
The man on everybody’s minds this year is Quick Step’s Johan Museeuw. In his final race here, the 38-year-old will attempt to equal the record of four Paris-Roubaix wins, held by fellow Belgian Roger De Vlaeminck (1972, ’74, ’75, ’77).
Despite downplaying his chances, Museeuw showed good form at his favored race, the Tour of Flanders, last Sunday; and he helped lead out his young teammate Tom Boonen in a sprint victory in abysmal conditions at Ghent-Wevelgem on Wednesday.
Museeuw will have the advantage of coming to the line with what is arguably the strongest team. If things go his way, he will have the pledged support of Boonen, who showed he is capable of great things himself at Roubaix when he finished third here two years ago when he was just 21.
“This team is super strong,” Boonen said earlier in the week. “I don’t think we have anything to be scared of on Sunday.”
And if Museeuw should falter, Boonen might find himself in position to take one of the most cherished titles there is for a Belgian racer.
“Obviously he has an obligation to his team, but Tom Boonen has been here in third, and he won [Ghent-Wevelgem] Wednesday,” said Yates. “[Quick Step] have got to play their cards. Sentimentally they’d like Museeuw to be up there, but likely it’ll be Boonen that’ll be there at the end. If it comes down to a sprint, it’ll be hard to beat Boonen. We know he likes the weather, and we know what the weather’s going to be like tomorrow….”
The man seen as the most likely to derail the Quick Step train is Van Petegem, who has shown with some impressive performances this spring that he hasn’t lost the form that earned him the win here last year. Van Petegem’s Lotto team has just as formidable of a line-up as Quick Step, with Flanders revelation Leif Hoste (third to Steffen Wesemann and Dave Bruylandts there last week) and Leon Van Bon leading the charge.
Other riders to watch will include Hincapie, who Demol said is in as good a position as ever heading into his key target for the spring. “The team is stronger than it has ever been before for this race,” Demol said. “We have seen some great results from George. We also have a strong [Max] Van Heeswijk. For sure he is ready for tomorrow, he’s talked so many months of the race tomorrow. All the riders are on, everybody is in good shape.”
Whether it rains, as Yates has predicted, or not, the dark cloud hanging over the festivities the day before Paris-Roubaix remains the troubling news of the doping allegations involving the Cofidis team. Start lists were issues Saturday evening with a big “non-partants” stamped across the Cofidis roster.
UCI president Hein Verbruggen said he agreed with Cofidis’s decision to suspend racing activites, but the fate of France’s No. 1 ranked pro team was on everybody’s minds the night before Paris-Roubaix.
“They’ve obviously taken a stance that they want to gather all the information they’ve got and then make a decision,” said Yates. “All I can say is that I and basically everyone involved in cycling — we want to eliminate this kind of stuff, and I think they’re taking the right stance in stepping back and assessing the situation.”
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