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The Course: Paris-Roubaix and its cobbles

27 sections of rough, bone-jarring cobblestones await the riders for "Hell of the North"

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LILLE, France (VN) — Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard) crashed while out for a training ride on the cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix on Thursday, seemingly for no reason at all. His front wheel vanished, putting the pre-race favorite promptly on the rocks of Roubaix.

And so it goes on the granite setts of the “Queen of the Classics,” one of the oldest races on the calendar that’s halted only for two world wars.

Far worse things have happened on these roads. Horrendous crashes while barreling into the Arenberg Forest alone have altered careers: Frenchman Philippe Gaumont broke his femur in a 2001 crash, filling his leg with blood, and Johan Museeuw’s crash on the Arenberg pavé nearly cost him his leg because of gangrene.

There seems a tortured relationship with Paris-Roubaix for the peloton and its directors; here is one of the most storied races in cycling history, and yet it can bring absolute misery in the form of the flu that feels as if it’s settled in riders’ bones two days after the race, crashes, punctures, mud, and a myriad of other problems. Filippo Pozzato (Lampre-Merida) once called the Arenberg the “true definition of hell.”

“It’s unbelievable. The bike goes in all directions,” he said. This year, Arenberg comes at kilometer 158.

This 111th edition of Paris-Roubaix runs 254km, with more than 50km of cobblestone roads spread over 27 numbered sections and varying degrees of difficulty. The cobbles begin at 98.5km and pepper the route thereafter, with the aforementioned Arenberg in the middle of the race and the Carrefour de l’Arbre at the 236.5km mark.

The final sector of stones, Roubaix, comes with 1.5km to the line. The Arenberg doesn’t come near enough to the finish to launch a solo attack, but it’s there that the field will see an enormous squeeze and it will likely be thinned significantly. The Carrefour is followed by three more rough sections, and is likely to see the winning move launched from it. The final cobbled section, Roubaix, is short and in excellent condition, so it shouldn’t make a winner. But one never knows.

The route, like all the great races, has changed over time, but the spirit remains. From 1896-1967 the parcours actually ran from Paris to Roubaix, but the “Queen of the Classics” now starts in Compiègne, northeast of Paris. It is the third of cycling’s five monuments — the most important one-day races on the calendar.

Paris-Roubaix first ran in 1896, and it once took 12 hours to complete on the post-World War I shelled roads. It’s only disappeared from the calendar twice, as world wars ravaged Europe.

The wind blows over these roads and the rain often falls upon them. How many photos exist of Roubaix racers’ faces, layered with mud and sweat?

It’s easy to conceive how the name “Hell of the North” was bestowed upon the Queen, but in fact it was the post-World War I bleakness that earned the race its moniker. It was, quite literally, a tour through the hell of northern France in the aftermath of the war. A caravan traveled the pockmarked roads after the battles, wondering if Roubaix still existed.

Belgians have triumphed at Paris-Roubaix 55 times. The French have won 22 titles and the Italians are third with 13. Roger de Vlaeminck won Roubaix four times, as has fellow Belgian Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step). Eddy Merckx, Francesco Moser, Johan Museeuw, and others have won it three times. Should Cancellara win Sunday, he’ll join them.

The prize for the Queen is a rock, as sweet as a diamond and as rough as a sawblade. The winner also gets his name engraved upon a plaque in the showers at the finish, so that those who wash the mud from their faces can see a name in the stall that one day could belong to them.

Cobblestone sectors
No. 27: 98.5km into the race, Troisvilles à Inchy (2.2km)
No. 26: 105km, Viesly à Quiévy (1.8km)
No. 25: 107.5km, Quiévy à Saint-Python (3.7km)
No. 24: 112.5km, Saint-Python (1.5km)
No. 23: 120km, Vertain à Saint-Martin-sur-Écaillon (2.3km)
No. 22: 130km, Verchain-Maugré à Quérénaing (1.6km)
No. 21: 133km, Quérénaing à Maing (2.5km)
No. 20: 136.5km, Maing à Monchaux-sur-Écaillon (1.6km)
No. 19: 149.5km, Haveluy à Wallers (2.5km)
No. 18: 158km, Trouée d’Arenberg (2.4km)
No. 17: 164km, Wallers à Hélesmes (1.6km)
No. 16: 170.5km, Hornaing à Wandignies-Hamage (3.7km)
No. 15: 178km, Warlaing à Brillon (2.4km)
No. 14: 181.5km, Tilloy à Sars-et-Rosières (2.4km)
No. 13: 188km, Beuvry-la-Forêt à Orchies (1.4km)
No. 12: 193km, Orchies (1.7km)
No. 11: 199km, Auchy-lez-Orchies à Bersée (2.6km)
No. 10: 205km, Mons-en-Pévèle (3km)
No. 9: 211km, Mérignies à Avelin (0.7km)
No. 8: 214.5km, Pont-Thibaut à Ennevelin (1.4km)
No. 7: 220.5km, Templeuve (Moulin-de-Vertain) (0.5km)
No. 6: 227km, Cysoing à Bourghelles (1.3km)
No. 6: 229.5km, Bourghelles à Wannehain (1.1km)
No. 5: 234km, Camphin-en-Pévèle (1.8km)
No. 4: 236.5km, Carrefour de l’Arbre (2.1km)
No. 3: 239km, Gruson (1.1km)
No. 2: 246km, Willems à Hem (1.4km)
No. 1: 253km, Roubaix (0.3km)

Total distance of cobbled sectors: 52.6km

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