Paris-Roubaix, his last Sky ride, will bring out Wiggins' inner 12-year-old

Two of the race's most popular nicknames, the Hell of the North and the Queen of the Classics, sum up both its appeal and danger

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The Independent Online

It is typical of Sir Bradley Wiggins that his final ride for the team that guided him to a breakthrough British victory in the Tour de France should be the most arduous Classic of them all, Paris-Roubaix, tomorrow.

Two of the race’s most popular nicknames, the Hell of the North and the Queen of the Classics, sum up both its appeal and danger.

Its 59km (37 miles) of cobbled farm tracks known as pavé – gap-toothed, broken, mud-soaked, table-sized slabs of stone running through the bleak plains of northern France – constitute its main challenge. Paris-Roubaix is both a throwback and a sort of homage to the sport’s most hallowed era of the 1940s and 1950s, when riders raced with the bare minimum of team support on roads half destroyed during the war.

Paris-Roubaix’s fearsome reputation also gives it a dark appeal. Wiggins recalls, as an eager, impressionable youngster, riding up and down a stretch of cobblestones near his mother’s flat in Kilburn, north-west London, pretending he was Johan Museeuw, a Belgian cycling legend who won the race three times.

“That thought has never gone away,” Wiggins told Cyclingnews website last April, two days before racing to ninth place in Roubaix, where he described training on the cobbled sectors as “making me feel like a 12-year-old again”. Other Classics contenders “might be too cool to admit they feel that too”.

After what will be his last race with Sky, Wiggins starts a lengthy build-up for the 2016 Rio Olympics in a small British-based squad with a mixed track and road squad. With no Tour de France on his schedule, the Londoner now does not have the pressure of trying to repeat his 2012 win. Furthermore, Wiggins has had the opportunity, unlike in 2014, to intensify his specific training for each of Roubaix’s 27 sectors of pavé.

Paris-Roubaix is well known as a dangerous race. But, as Wiggins put it last year: “These guys [Classics specialists] come through all the risks. They put themselves on the line and I think that’s what Sunday’s about – forget everything else and just be willing to end up in hospital at the end of the night.”

Tomorrow’s Paris-Roubaix will represent the end of an era for Wiggins. One of just five of the original riders at Sky to have remained in the squad since its inception in 2010, he is now pulling down the curtain on his time with the team in a race which has – like the Tour de France before Wiggins’ 2012 triumph – remained unwon by a British rider. Just two, in fact, have made it on to the Paris-Roubaix podium: Roger Hammond, who carved out a career as a cobbled Classics specialist in the 1990s and finished third in 2004, and sprinter Barry Hoban, third in 1972.

“It just wouldn’t be the same anywhere else; it’s a fitting end,” Wiggins said. “It’s probably the only race other than the Tour de France where riders plug on just to get to the finish. Even when you’re out the back and crashed. I’d ride on with a broken collarbone just to finish in Roubaix because it was my last race. No other race would be like that.”

Asked to compare the race with the Tour, Wiggins said: “It would be bigger in my eyes at the moment. That’s not to say that the Tour wasn’t huge, because it was. [But] I think it would be more enjoyable because it’s only one day and it’s over in six hours.”