‘Paris-Roubaix is bulls***’: Cycling’s iconic exercise in suffering which turns even its own champions against it

Sunday's famous cobbled race dubbed the Hell of the North is a classic like no other where peril is part of its appeal for riders and fans – as 2016 winner Mathew Hayman knows only too well

Lawrence Ostlere
Thursday 10 January 2019 16:38
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There is nothing quite like the challenge of the Paris-Roubaix
There is nothing quite like the challenge of the Paris-Roubaix

Nothing captures the lunacy of Paris-Roubaix quite like the elaborate drama that precedes it, when the race director delivers his review of its famous cobbles as if he’d strode the 275km route assessing each deadly stone with tape measure and spirit level, earnestly tapping his clipboard, like a man judging some particularly vicious barbed wire before asking someone else to jump through it.

“The first sector lets the rider know if he has what it takes and can boost his confidence… or not,” race director Thierry Gouvenou warns menacingly of the stretch from Troisvilles to Inchy.

“This is the moment to pray one last time,” is his take of the 1.7km section through Orchies.

“This sector forms some nice zigzags crossing the fields,” he says of Tilloy to Sars-et-Rosières, before adding: “Unfortunately, the riders will not have time to enjoy the scenery.”

This is Paris-Roubaix, schadenfreude by design, yet there is so much to admire as the riders pick through the beautiful chaos of the classics race known as the Hell of the North, which runs on Sunday. It is a relic of a different era, a 122-year-old bike race still much the same as when two Roubaix factory owners and cycling enthusiasts dreamt up a route from the capital to their hometown. And it is its history which makes it so compelling.

Like the cruelty of 1988, when Thomas Wegmuller battled to the front and closed in on victory only for a plastic bag to entangle itself and freeze his gears. Or the theatre of 1990, when the 265km race was won on the line in the velodrome by Eddy Plankaert in a photo finish. Or the punishment of 1981, when an infuriated Bernaud Hinault fell seven times, the last one after colliding with a dog, and still clawed back to win. “Paris-Roubaix est une connerie,” he scowled afterwards – “Paris-Roubaix is bull****”.

Perhaps its closest comparison in wider sport is the Grand National, filled as it is with intermittent danger and uncertainty which act as something of a leveller. Becoming a multiple winner is a hard thing to do, so achieving sustained success brings legendary status. Only two riders have claimed four victories in Roubaix – Belgium’s Tom Boonen and his compatriot, dubbed Monsieur Paris-Roubaix in the 70s, Roger De Vlaeminck.

Paris-Roubaix has a long and storied history (STF/Bruno Bade)

In 2016 Boonen was denied a fifth title by surprise winner Mathew Hayman, who out-sprinted his rival at the finish, and Hayman is back for more on Sunday with the Mitchelton-Scott team. “This will be my 17th Roubaix,” the 39-year-old Australian tells the Independent. “Roubaix has always been special to me. Over the years it has meant so many different things, whether it’s riding for other people, just getting to the finish and obviously in 2016, a dream come true with not only being able to race for the podium but to be able to win it.

“I came to start my career racing in Holland and Belgium and fell in love with the Classics straight away. Roubaix is a bit more special – it suits me with the style of racing, how flat it is and the hours it takes to get to the finish. I’ve finished every one I have started. Whether that’s a record or not, it doesn’t really matter, but it’s a race that’s special and I’m really looking forward to being there on the weekend.”

There hasn’t been a sopping wet race since 2002. This year, the forecast is again clear but torrential rain in the build-up has already liberally greased up the stones and turned loosened soil into mud. Images of idyllic country roads have cropped up on social media all week, usually accompanied by a Scream face emoji.

Paris-Roubaix 2018 route

“Even in the dry Roubaix is dangerous,” says Hayman. “Our team-mate Mitch Docker a few years ago had a bad crash there, so it’s something you always have in your mind, the danger that’s involved.”

On Sunday Quick-Step Floors will be the team to watch having assembled a troop of classics specialists headed by Dutch rider Niki Terpstra, winner of last weekend’s Tour of Flanders. They face the challenge of last year’s winner and world No1 Greg van Avermaet as well as world champion Peter Sagan.

But ultimately it is very hard to know who will arrive at the Roubaix velodrome first. It is an exercise in suffering, a test of courage in the face of imminent broken bones and a trial of luck in the face of likely punctured tyres. Above all, it stands as a particularly terrifying monument to its own great traditions.

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