Paris-Roubaix: L’enfer du Nord

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It is around this time every year that Paris-Roubaix arrives. It’s one of the races that riders will circle in their diaries or in the case of Bradley Wiggins this year- the only race. It’s a race so expansive in history that it carries an aura that the other Monuments can’t quite match. They may be longer, hillier or older but they don’t take riders from Paris to Roubaix and they aren’t referred to as the ‘Queen of the Classics’. This year’s race is likely to crown a new champion- unless holder Niki Terpstra can repeat his 2014 effort.

This race has a rich history and has collected more than a couple of nicknames. One of the most popular names, as dramatic as it is iconic, is the ‘Hell of the North’. This name could be a suitable description of the race splitting cobble sections that are a constant presence in the latter half of the race. Unlike some of the pavé sections across the border in Belgium, Roubaix’s seem to go on forever and, whilst some have been smoothed over, others remain horribly bumpy and awkward. The best riders will attack these sections at bone juddering tempo, grit their teeth and pray they avoid a puncture. However, the ‘Hell of the North’ name originates from an even darker place. After the First World War, with the race approaching its twentieth edition, the route took riders through a bare battlefield region where death stained the air. Roads were muddy with trees beaten down and there was said to be shell holes and other unmistakable signs of war. Organizers on reconnaissance had endeavoured to avoid the worst sections, but the race went ahead through bleak northern France. These days, the toughest conditions occur when a nasty cobbles section is met with lashings of rain.

Another brilliant feature of the race is the track finale in the Roubaix Velodrome. The laps can act as victory parade for a solo winner but have also seen fantastic sprints. The Velodrome finish has been used throughout history and the race would not be the same without it.Between them Tom Boonen (4) and Fabian Cancellara (3) have won seven of the last ten editions of this race. Both could lay claims to being a modern-day ‘Mr. Paris-Roubaix’, a tag that has stayed with four time winner (and four further times runner-up) Roger De Vlaeminck. Even before him, the name has been used to describe Gaston Rebry in 1935. Make no mistake, the Belgians have had a firm grip on this French race with 55 victories. This year both Boonen and Cancellara are injured and a major brass ring awaits one of the eager contenders. Niki Terpstra is one of two other former winners in the race and he is shaping nicely to go well again. Bradley Wiggins is another contender and has made this his sole aim for the season. When Wiggins aims for something he is rarely unsuccessful and adding Paris-Roubaix to his Tour de France win will give him a special double. His open stance on this race has painted a target on his back (like a bigger version of the mod logo seen at his Team Wiggins kit launch). Others will surely force Wiggins into making the pace, a challenge that he and Team Sky may duly accept.

Spoiler alert, the winner of the race is coming from this list: Niki Terpstra, Zdenek Stybar, Stijn Vandenbergh, Greg Van Avermaet, Bradley Wiggins, Geraint Thomas, Ian Stannard, Jurgen Roelandts, Jens Debusschere, Peter Sagan, Arnaud Demare, John Degenkolb, Stijn Devolder, Sep Vanmarcke, Alexander Kristoff, Luca Paolini and Filippo Pozzatto. The race comes a day after the Grand National- where anything can happen- but in Roubaix only the best survive. It would take race conditions akin to the snow in the 1957 Liege-Bastogne-Liege to upset the favourites and this isn’t going to happen. A young or lesser rider may attack early and finish high- earning himself a bumper contract next year- but they won’t win this race. The best French hope is Demare who would love to go well in Roubaix and was left frustrated with a puncture when riding with the leaders in Flanders.

I’m going to narrow it further and give my four picks for the race. For me, it’s going to come down to a battle between Terpstra, Van Avermaet, Wiggins and Degenkolb. I have discussed how Kristoff is proving his super talent but I just can’t see him completing an Easter double. Wiggins as leader effectively rules out Thomas and Stannard unless the World Time Trial champion is having a bad day or Team Sky throws a curve ball. They should both go well here and their presence as lieutenants boosts Wiggins’ chances. His tactics are hard to predict as we have never seen the Brit go full gas in a Monument race. Team Sky will face obvious opposition from Etixx-Quick Step. In Terpstra and Stybar they will surely feature on the podium and my preference goes for the defending champion. He should be given the nod as slight team leader which in an Etixx line-up usually means you will go well. He was second in Flanders last weekend. Of my four, Degenkolb has the hardest job to do. However, he also went well in Flanders and was second here 12 months ago. You rarely seen Degenkolb attack as he tends to follow and rely on his brilliant sprint- one I’d love to see bring home a win inside the Velodrome. Lastly there is Van Avermaet. I’ve previously shown favour to Terpstra for this race but I’m going to go with Van Avermaet for the win. He stormed into 2015 with a strong showing in Qatar and has risen above a strange doping claim which could have clouded his mind. He has really taken on the classics and hasn’t been afraid to attack. You need to be bold in Roubaix, and Van Avermaet could jump away with Sky and Etixx reluctant to make the chase.

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