With Paris-Roubaix only days away, we are taking a look back at some of the most memorable editions of “The Queen of the Classics.” The race favors the strongest riders who can handle the rough cobblestones, but a healthy dose of luck is always crucial in this unpredictable classic. What can we learn from the history of this grueling monument?
The media, the fans, the riders all focus on five-star favorites before a major race — it’s only natural. With the woes of his 1985 injury behind him, Laurent Fignon was igniting the French fans’ enthusiasm by coming off a win in Milano-Sanremo earlier that spring. Two-time Roubaix winner Sean Kelly entered the race ranked No. 1 in the world. Defending champion Eric Vanderaerden of Belgium was also on the start line at Compiègne.
But Paris-Roubaix is unlike any other major race. Most cycling fans know this, but every so often the rough cobblestones of “The Hell of the North” reinforce that point when an unknown domestique, one who’s never won a professional race before, finds the right moment, sneaks away, and steals glory from the outright favorites.
What happened? As is typical, an early breakaway went clear within the first hour of the 266-kilometer race. The 15 leaders were mostly unknowns, and the peloton treated the chase with nonchalance. By his own admission, Dirk Demol was only in the breakaway to support ADR team leader Eddy Planckaert.
When the leaders reached the Arenberg Forest about 125km into the race, the advantage was 10 minutes and riders like Kelly and Fignon continued to prowl in the peloton, waiting for someone else to chase in earnest. American Roy Knickman (7-Eleven) led the break into that first rough cobblestone sector, but he flatted and was dropped. Soon the lead group was down to seven men. The field split behind as Kelly and other favorites such as Adrie van der Poel (third in 1986 Roubaix) and Planckaert, who was coming off a Tour of Flanders victory the weekend prior and who would go on to win Roubaix two years later, tried to bridge the gap.
But this group of 40 left the chase too late, and although the breakaway dwindled to five with 50km to go, the winner would come from their impossibly early move. Thomas Wegmuller attacked first, and it was a good one. He went clear on the cobblestones of l’Arbre with 17km to go, a move only Dirk Demol could follow. Coming into the finish, a plastic bag got caught in Wegmuller’s gears, possibly hampering his sprint finish, but Demol was sure the win was his regardless.
“With 20km to go I knew I couldn’t be beaten,” Demol said. “It was really my day.”
What did we learn? The peloton, even its biggest stars, are still wary of the Roubaix cobblestones. They are often cagey, unwilling to chase at full-gas if they fear their rivals will have more left in the tank at the end of the race. Also, we’ve learned that a large breakaway, with a clear run at the pavé, can work cooperatively on the flat roads and fend off a peloton.
Can this play out again? It’s pretty unlikely that a breakaway will stick all day in the modern peloton, which is better equipped to carefully monitor gaps and chase when it needs to. However, in 2016, Mat Hayman went up the road in an early break and stuck it out to ride with the leaders and beat Tom Boonen in a sprint on the velodrome.