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Springtime in Paris means many things to many people. But for me, it is undeniably linked to a certain race: Paris-Roubaix. Call it my own “rites of spring” if you will, but ever since moving to France in the early 1990s, the great cobblestone classic, has been a fixture on my calendar. And even though this year’s race is on hold due to the coronavirus crisis, this weekend will still be Paris-Roubaix weekend for me.
I am sure there will be plenty of reruns of epic editions on French television this weekend, something I will enjoy to no end, as I never actually get to see the race on television. The reason, of course, is that I am in the race, only actually making it into the Roubaix velodrome a couple of kilometers ahead of the racers themselves. Most years, I have spent my day hopscotching across the back roads of northern France crisscrossing the race as many times as possible. But while my itinerary often changes, as I look back through my archives, certain cobblestone sections have simply proven timeless.
Here are just a few of my favorites.
This is always the first cobblestone section of the race and it is special because in so many ways the race really starts here. It actually comes after nearly 100 kilometers of racing, but throughout that time, the tension only mounts. Local fans wait in the towns and villages leading up to Troisvilles, often with homemade signs that announce the upcoming section. Turning left as the race route exits Troisvilles, the pack then funnels into the first narrow sector that starts with a long gradual descent, before rolling up a long false flat, making another sharp left-hand turn, and descending towards the main road again. It is here in this second turn where I generally position myself, as the pack stretches out and I can get my first glimpse of the peloton.
It is a tight, dusty turn, filled with photographers and fans. And the riders come around it quickly, offering little opportunity to identify them. Traditionally, though, the top riders are near the front. Four-time winner Tom Boonen, was rarely out of the top 20 in Troisvilles, as he would put his Quickstep team at the front before the cobbles and pace him through with apparent ease. But while the leaders are generally already in position at Troisvilles, it is not always the case.
I’ll never forget my first Roubaix back in 1993. Defending champion Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle, had a mechanical in the kilometers leading up to Troisvilles and was well off the pace when he hit the first section. It appeared as though the race was already over for him, but he battled back and won a second Roubaix at the end of the day. It was proof that, well, really anything and everything is possible at Roubaix. I often say, all of the drama of the three-week Tour de France can be found in this single day.
But while such turnabouts are possible in Roubaix, they are increasingly rare it seems. And while it is still possible to bounce back from a mechanical after Troisvilles, no one wants to expend any extra energy. And from here on out, the best place to be is clearly near the front.
La Tranchée d’Arenberg
While I often meet up with the race just after Troisvilles, the real priority at this point is getting to the Arenberg Forest, with sufficient time to find my position, something which is never easy considering the lines of cars parked along the D40 as you approach the end of this long, narrow sector.
Nearly two-and-a-half kilometers long, la Tranchée cuts like a knife through the forest. I can only imagine what the tension must be like as the pack races past the old coal mine shafts in Wallers, just meters before entering the forest. Speeds are always high at the entry before the riders hit the initial stretches that descend through the forest.
It is often said that Roubaix is never won in the Arenberg, but often lost. And I have to say that in all my years covering Roubaix, I have never seen anyone come out of the woods here with a serious gap, and battle their way back into the race.
Traditionally, I position myself right at the end of the cobbles to catch the riders coming out. You can see them coming down the tunnel that is La Tranchée, packed with fans, flags and banners. Those that have made it through at the front are riding with apparent ease. Those who made the day’s early break are in the best position here, as they avoided the battle behind and can pick their own lines. Here, the natural cobblestone riders are rarely out of position, and for years it was easy to see the likes of George Hincapie or Taylor Phinney at the front. Here, the favorites are always packed together, as they are already starting to mark each other. Roubaix legends like Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen could often be seen together, almost floating at the front. But for those caught behind, it is often a much different story, as they are struggling, knowing that they still have a very long day ahead of them.
While this section is not one of the best known, over the years, it has proven to be more than telling. Coming after the long section of Orchies that parallels the highway, Auchy-les-Orchies is tucked back in the fields of the abundant farmland found here. And while it comes just before the infamous Mons-en-Pévele sector, over the years, I have often noted that the eventual race winner is at or near the front already. Both Fabian Cancellara and Sep Vanmarcke paced the pack through this section back in 2013. At the finish in Roubaix, they could only be separated by centimeters. And Peter Sagan, actually made his winning attack in 2018, as the leaders approached Auchy-les-Orchies, before bridging up to the remains of the breakaway and powering to one of his greatest victories.
Le Carrefour de l’Arbre
This is nothing less than the mother of defections. Coming after several grueling sectors, the Carrefour dominates the race’s final selection. Two-time winner Marc Madiot once told me that the Carrefour de l’Arbre was the hardest section, and also the last section where it was possible to attack and break away. Just over two kilometers long, the leaders seem to sprint for the entire distance. Each turn offers an opportunity to gap a rider in difficulty, or force an error. And with only rare exceptions, I am guaranteed to get an isolated shot of the winner, as the Carrefour is less than 20 kilometers from the finish.
French authorities have made it increasingly difficult for fans to make their way here, and yet this section remains packed every year — although the alcohol levels may be lower. And while the fans may be screaming hysterically, on the riders’ faces there are only grimaces, as everybody is simply pedaling full-gas at this point, and those not pushing the pace are simply trying to hold on.
But here I must also make quick calculations, as I really only have time to capture the leaders, before making a mad dash of my own towards the Roubaix velodrome, where I position myself along the banks of the track for the final sprint to the line. Year in and year out, I come running into the velodrome with only minutes to spare. I have seen little of the race really, but I have experienced it with an intensity that is rarely equaled in the season. But then Roubaix is like that, as year in and year out, it produces emotions, unlike any others.