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Roubaix roulette: Luck is key to ‘Hell of the North’

At Paris-Roubaix, "the Hell of the North," skill and science are no match for luck.

In a sport that’s becoming more programmed, more robotic, and, frankly, less engaging, Paris-Roubaix stands out as the last bastion of pure, unadulterated racing.

Across the 257-kilometer journey from Compiègne to the Roubaix velodrome, a rider’s brawn and bravado are perhaps his most valuable skillset. Luck? That’s important as well. While grand tours reward the team with the biggest budget and the most detailed plan, Paris-Roubaix is still largely a gamble. Team tactics and well-laid plans are often no match for bad luck.

Outsiders still have a genuine shot at victory. For the brave and the determined, the Hell of the North can turn to heaven. The punishing pavé and the unpredictable ravages of the six-hour race regularly deliver a rider who breaks the mold — an interloper, journeyman, or simply the most tenacious on the day.

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For every Tom Boonen, there is a Stuart O’Grady, who raced nearly 40 monuments before he struck gold in 2007. For every Roger De Vlaeminck, there is Magnus Bäckstedt, the plucky Swede who won a four-up sprint in 2004 after pre-race favorite Johan Museeuw punctured out of the lead group with 6km to go. Then there’s last year’s winner Mat Hayman, who bashed his way through the Forest of Arenberg 15 straight springs before the stars aligned.

“Roubaix is a race that throws up a special winner every few years,” Hayman said after hoisting the fabled cobble overheard. “It’s guys like [Johan] Vansummeren or O’Grady, they’ve always been up there, in the front, racing well. And if the stars align, like they did for me today, it’s possible. A lot of riders are able to live off that dream that it might happen to them one day at Roubaix. I am proof of that.”

In most major races, the strongest rider typically wins. Roubaix is not your typical race. Its script can be rewritten several times in an afternoon, and riders know it.

In fact, it’s the unexpected victories by the likes of Hayman or Vansummeren, who won in 2011, which keep guys coming back year after year. Ask Manuel Quinziato, the 37-year-old Italian who’s raced 36 monuments in his career, which race is his favorite: Paris-Roubaix.

“It’s the one race that everyone believes they can win someday,” says Quinziato, who’s taken the start in Compiègne 12 times. “I was eighth [in 2009]. You see riders who come back year after year, and sometimes it can happen. That gives you hope to keep trying.”

Often these second-tier winners start Roubaix in a worker role. That’s what happened in the case of Servais Knaven, who attacked out of a group that included his more famous Domo Farm Frites teammates with 10km to go to win in 2001. (His compatriot, Niki Terpstra, deployed a similar tactic to win in 2014.) Knaven’s win meant so much to him that he never washed the mud from his bike. The frame was on display at a Rapha store in central Amsterdam last year.

“It was the biggest win of my career, and the most beautiful,” says Knaven, who is now a Team Sky sport director. “Roubaix is a race where weird things can happen, where it does not always go the way everyone expects.”

Other races occasionally see surprise winners, of course, but Roubaix takes exceptions to the extreme. In 1988, Dirk Demol, now a sport director at Trek-Segafredo, started as a helper for team leader Eddy Planckaert, who was fresh off defeating Phil Anderson at Flanders the previous weekend. Demol was ordered to cover early moves, and rode into an early breakaway 30km from the start. It held all the way to the finish. Demol’s historic 222km escape is the longest breakaway victory in Roubaix history.

“There were five of us in the break, and with 30km to go, they told us that we were not going to get caught. Then I knew I would have a chance,” says Demol, who never won another pro race. “That’s what’s special about Roubaix. You never know if it’s your day. I always tell the guys, ‘If you keep fighting in Roubaix, you might get something back.’ It’s not like other races.”

Johan Museeuw won his third and final Paris-Roubaix in 2002. He was not always so fortunate, flatting out of the lead group two years later, and suffering a terrible crash in 1998. Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com

Crashes, punctures, and other mechanicals take their collective toll. Then there’s luck — you never know how it will fall. George Hincapie lived for the cobbles and was America’s best chance to win. In 2006, Hincapie was at the height of his powers, coming off a second place to Boonen the previous year. After barreling across the pavé at Mons-en-Pévèle, his steerer tube snapped and Hincapie crashed out with a broken clavicle. In five more attempts, he’d never finish in the top five again.

The Roubaix veterans know to take their chance when it comes. Many pros consider crashing and mechanicals as part of the allure and challenge of Roubaix. They can’t control it, so they don’t sweat it. Most embrace the chaos.

“There is no race like Roubaix. Everything has to go right to win,” says Belgian hard-man Stijn Vandenbergh, a former lieutenant of Boonen’s at Quick-Step who is now at Ag2r La Mondiale. “I was in good position in 2013 when I crashed into a spectator. Of course, Roubaix is the race I dream of winning.”

When things do go right at Roubaix, it’s as if fate is on your side. This spring, Boonen will be looking to avoid a repeat of 2016, when Hayman won. He hopes to have a Hollywood ending in the final race of his illustrious career. He’s also chasing a record fifth Roubaix crown.

[pullquote align=”right” attrib=”Tom Boonen”]”When you are strong and going well, you do not even feel the cobbles. It is like you are floating over the stones.”[/pullquote]

“When you are strong and going well, you do not even feel the cobbles. It is like you are floating over the stones,” says Boonen, who races without gloves. “And sometimes when things go bad, you just keep pushing, because you never know if the riders in front of you will also have troubles.”

Because Roubaix is such a lottery, teams will often have multiple plans for the day. While John Degenkolb has taken over the leadership role from Cancellara at Trek-Segafredo, his young teammate Jasper Stuyven will be waiting in the wings if an opportunity presents itself.

“You start every Roubaix with a plan, but it’s a race that rarely goes to plan,” says Stuyven, 24, who won Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne in 2016. “We will start with John as our leader. We will also be ready to react to how the race goes.”

In 2007, O’Grady took a page from the opportunist’s playbook. A veteran sprinter who was a classics stalwart, but never an outright leader, O’Grady was designated to cover early moves to set up CSC captain Fabian Cancellara. The Australian rode into an uncharacteristically large group of 30 riders that established the early break. The chase was disorganized and came late, and despite puncturing mid-race, O’Grady managed to stay with the favorites as they powered out of the Forest of Arenberg. O’Grady then bridged out to the leaders and counter-attacked with 20km to go. No one thought he stood a chance. He crossed the line nearly a minute ahead of Juan Antonio Flecha to become Australia’s first Roubaix winner.

Two-time world champion Peter Sagan has never had much luck with Roubaix, but Bora-Hansgrohe is hoping to change that this weekend. In five Roubaix starts, his best placing has been sixth in 2014, an uncharacteristic blot on the Slovakian’s otherwise impressive palmares.

“Of course, he has the ability and skills to win, and it’s a race that is perfect for him, but Roubaix is a special race,” says Bora-Hansgrohe sport director Patxi Vila. “There are some random factors. You can do everything perfect, but you can have that puncture in the wrong moment or someone can crash right in front of you. You also need some luck to win Roubaix.”