|Paris-Roubaix is not nicknamed the Hell of the North (l'enfer du Nord) for nothing. With 52.7km of cobbles this year, knitted into a parcours totalling 259km, Paris-Roubaix is difficult and epic enough. But these are no ordinary cobbles - many of the stretches of pave (there are seventeen overall) are narrow and contain particularly unkempt, jagged cobbles which not only lead to many punctures but also crashes, as inexperienced or exhausted riders weave from their paths and come to grief. While the Tour of Flander’s stretches of cobbles are largely maintained, the majority of those used in l’Enfer du Nord are not. Thankfully (for the riders, maybe not for the fans) this year’s weather is expected to be dry, providing a dustier edition of Paris-Roubaix rather than a grime-covered, muddy one. Still, one of the most feared sections of Paris-Roubaix is back this year - the Arenberg Trench. A hundred kilometres from the velodrome finish in Roubaix, it is expected to be where the first selection, if not the final one, is forged.
After the race start in Compiegne (not actually Paris), the first hundred kilometres, before the initial cobbled section, are a race to get out of the peloton for the riders who aren’t consigned to particular domestique work or contenders. Most importantly, making the break of the day means that the paths on the cobbles are much clearer and that the likely carnage in the peloton can be avoided. Of course, especially for the wild cards, the team sponsors garner some television airtime . Moreover, it can act as a springboard for a good result: last year, Arnaud Coyot and Florent Brard both finished in the top ten after infiltrating the early escape. But pretty soon after that first section of pave at Troisvilles, it will be demoralising for many of the mere mortals in the peloton, watching the favourites move to the front, gliding with apparent nonchalant ease, while they simultaneously move to the rear, wrestling with a bike which has suddenly turned into a bucking bronco and trying to stay upright as the bunch tightens when the road narrows. And there’s still 150 kilometres and twenty-six cobbled sections to go.
Chaos on the cobbles photo c. T-Mobile
The trick to riding these cobbles is to grit your teeth, stick the bike in the highest gear you are comfortable with and power over the bumps. Easier said than done, especially when surrounded by riders. Bit by bit, energy ebbs away, and the biceps are endlessly shaken and juddered. L’enfer du Nord tends to be a war of attrition, as gradually the strong men rise to the fore or make the crucial move while others fade away.
The first four-star section of difficulty is the third, at Quievy after just 104.5km. From here on in, the peloton gradually reduces in number as riders puncture, fall off the back or crash. As the race wears on, more tired riders choose to ride in the dusty strip to the side of the cobbles, but this is still just as dangerous for punctures. Indeed, once the legs cry “no more” and the big gear cannot be turned, riders weave all over the road, as the cobbles cruelly reduce them to low speeds.
the Arenberg Forest 'Pave' photo c. Fotoreporter
After ten sections of ball-battering, bone shaking cobbles, the first five-star section comes - the Arenberg Trench (Trouée d’Arenberg). Reintroduced into the parcours this year with new cobbles, it may be “restored” but is still fiendishly difficult to negotiate. 2400m of semi-sunken, slippery cobbles in a wet forest, it is traditionally the most hellish section of the course, and has seen many dangerous crashes, such as Museeuw’s in 1998 which almost ended his career. Crashes can happen so easily with treacherous potholes abounding here. Also, as the bikes hop and skip on the particularly rough surface here, deviation from a straight line can lead to a fall, while water bottles popping out of cages like act like grenades.
The riders themselves believe that coming out of Arenberg in the front group will be crucial to maintaing victory aspirations. After a reconaissance ride, former winner Servais Knaven said: “Arenberg will be very hard. They’ve changed it, but it is still very difficult. It is an important moment in the race, and we’ll have to see which team is in front and how many riders they have in front, as well as how many we have in front.” With little respite, the four star Wallers section then follows, acting to extend any gaps created in the forest.
The pavécomes thick and fast, with tough sections including Hornaing and Orchies before the second five-star offering, at Mons-en-Pévéle, after 205km. Though less well known than the Wallenberg Forest and the Carrefour de l’Arbre, its 2.6km section of cobbles is just as energy sapping, and could provide another launchpad for a decisive attack.
The fourth to last cobbled section is the 2100m Carrefour de l’Arbe after 242km. In most years, the final selection has already been made here, so it serves as a place to turn the pace up to drop more rivals, or put in a solo attack. It is a slightly uphill section, which leads to a lonely, windswept crossroads. You’re almost out of Hell, with just three more “easy” sections left. However, a puncture picked up here or on one of the last sections is likely to destroy any chances of glory: you will be hard-pressed to find any rider chivalrous enough to wait for you when in contention for the “Queen of the Classics”.
The 259km journey through Hell comes to an end in the velodrome at Roubaix. In the past, better sprinters on paper have been outwitted here as more wily rivals use the banking of the track to come past them for victory. Coming in with a group, it takes considerable composure and ability to take the right line and choose the right moment to administer the killer acceleration. Suddenly, it’s over – the toughest of the Classics, but also the most prestigious. All those who finish deserve kudos after coming through this supreme test of endurance.
Whoever wins l’Enfer du Nord, arguably the best-known one-day cycle race in the world, is worthy. They must be endowed with a select armoury of skills: the legs, the power, experience, bike handling, composure, tactical skill, the awareness and luck. As says the famous saying connected to Paris-Roubaix: “jamais un cloche ne gagne la Pascale” – the Easter race is never won by a tramp.
Climb - Name - Kilometer and Length - Difficulty Rating
(1 - least difficult, 5 - most difficult)
27. Troisvilles – km 98, 2200m - ***
26. Viesly – km 104.5, 1800m - ***
25. Quievy – km 107, 3700m - ****
24. Saint-Python – km 112, 1500m - **
23. Vertain – km 119.5, 1900m - ***
22. Capelle-sur-Escaillon – Le Buat – km 126.5, 1700m - ***
21. Verchain Maugré – Quérénaing – km 138, 1600m - ***
20. Querenaing – Maing – km 141, 2500m - ***
19. Monchaux-sur-Ecaillon – km 144, 1600m - ***
18. Haveluy – km 155.5, 2500m - ****
17. Trouée d’Arenberg – km 163.5km, 2400m - *****
16. Wallers-Hélesmes – km 170, 1600m - ****
15. Hornaing – Wandignies – km 176.5, 3700m - ***
14. Warlaing – Brillon – km 184, 2400m - ***
13. Tilloy – Sars-et-Rosières – km 187.5, 2400m - ***
12. Orchies – km 198.5, 1700m - ***
11. Auchy-les-Orchies – Bersée – km 205, 2600m - ***
10. Mons-en-Pévèle – km 210.5, 3000m - *****
9. Mérignies – Pont-à-Marcq – km 216.5, 700m - **
8. Pont-Thibaut – km 219.5, 1400m - ***
7. Templeuve l’Epinette – km 225, 200m - *
Le Moulin de Vertain – km 225., 500m - **
6. Cysoing – Bourghelles – km 232, 1400m - ****
Bourghelles – Wannehain – km 234.5, 1100m - ****
5. Camphin-en-Pévèle – km 239, 1800m - ****
4. Carrefour de l’Arbre – km 242, 2100m - *****
3. Gruson – km 244, 1100m - **
2. Hem – km 251, 1400m - *
1. Roubaix – km 257, 300m - *