Eddy Merckx leading Roger de Vlaminck in the 1973 Paris Roubaix
Ask most cycling fans what the most brutal race of the year is and I would bet that the most popular answer will be Paris-Roubaix.
For those who aren't as familiar with Paris-Roubaix, also known as "l'enfer du Nord" (Hell of the North), it is unlike any other on the professional cycling circuit. It is one of the oldest races on the calendar, having started in 1896. But that isn't what makes it special. Unlike most races that speed over smooth stretches of tarmac, this races is characterized by brutal stretches of cobbled roads that the riders must battle. Some of these cobbled stretches are so difficult on machinery that even automobiles don't use them... the only regular traffic they see are the tractors that tend to the surrounding fields. Chris Horner described it thus:
"The best I could do would be to describe it like this - they plowed a dirt road, flew over it with a helicopter, and then just dropped a bunch of rocks out of the helicopter! That's Paris–Roubaix. It's that bad - it's ridiculous."
The cyclists often have special bikes that are built specifically to survive the difficult course. There is a spectacular image of George Hincapie falling and separating his shoulder after the steerer tube on his bike snapped on one of the cobbled sections. Wheels fracture, tires puncture, and other mechanical problems abound during this race. Bikes break. Cyclists break. Riders have tried using cyclocross bikes and mountain bike forks with suspension to no avail. Ultimately, it is a test of strength and survival... a brutal race. But if you win it, there is cycling immortality.
George Hincapie with a separated shoulder after the steerer tube snapped during the 2006 edition.
Theo de Rooij, a Dutchman who was in contention in 1985 before crashing out, said:
“It's a bollocks, this race! You're working like an animal, you don't have time to piss, you wet your pants. You're riding in mud like this, you're slipping ... it’s a pile of shit.”
At which point, the interviewer asked if he'd race it again and he replied:“Sure, it's the most beautiful race in the world!”
Okay, so here are 3 guesses as to what will happen tomorrow:
- Garmin-Cervelo will be much more aggressive and will manage to place at least 2 of their 3 leaders (Hushovd, Farrar, Haussler) in the decisive break.
- Cancellara will stay with the pack but won't attack until later. After last week's 3rd place finish at Flanders, he will be more conservative and not try to attack until he's within the last 20km of the finish. But he'll attack then.
- Hincapie will work with Ballan to come to the finish and Ballan will help Hincapie finally win. (This is a sentimental pick but I'm going to stand by it.)