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The Great Paris-Roubaix Conundrum: Wet and Slippy Versus Dry and Dusty

By William Fotheringham | Images by Chris Auld

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The 2021 cobbled classics season ended not with bangs, clatters and a few curses, but with a whimper of frustration and the gentle pitter-patter of rain falling on northern France. It won’t be the highest up the list of things that I feel Covid-19 has robbed me and mine of, but it’s been frustrating to watch the weather reports for Lille and environs and ponder that we might, finally, have had the wet Paris-Roubaix we have been waiting for since Servais Knaven’s mud-spattered win in the gloop of 2001.

PELOTON

Which brings me to the big question. The one which comes up every April, until the point where we all realize that, yet again, Paris-Roubaix is going to be DND (dry’n’dusty) rather than WNS, (wet’n’slippery). Which is actually better: the wet Roubaix most connoisseurs seem to want, or the dry one is what we always have to put up with? And what is the actual difference, given it’s been so long since we saw the cobbles soaked and muddy? 

It’s been two decades since we saw the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix soaked and muddy

Not everyone wants a wet Roubaix, of course. Since publishing my “biography” of Jørgen Leth’s iconic film A Sunday in Hell, I’ve set up numerous screenings of the film around the UK (the blasted pandemic robbed us of last spring’s of course) and when we do Q&A afterwards, one thing is always asked: was Leth frustrated by the fact that the edition he shot of Roubaix, the 1976 race, was DND not WNS? 

Leth told me that, contrary to what one might imagine—don’t we all love those images of riders covered in gunk, red-rimmed eyes peering through the mudpack?—he preferred to have a DND edition to work with. The dust is one factor. The great clouds of it billowing across the course like gunpowder smoke at a battle give him magnificent material—those helicopter shots, those images of bike riders and team cars emerging from the miasma to that insane chorale. 

the 1976 edition of Paris-Roubaix memorialized in “A Sunday in Hell” was dry and dusty.

There was also the fact that for Leth, a dry Paris-Roubaix was far better for his cameramen to work in, reducing the chances that things would go wrong technically. But most importantly, perhaps, in 1976 a dry Hell of the North made for a better narrative: the favorites stayed together for longer, the winning break took longer to form, and it stayed together until the finish, meaning that the race was not decided until the final meters. 

Which is where I start wondering about the WNS or DND conundrum. The irony is that on the wettest, nastiest day I can recall in “Hell” in recent years, in the 1994 Roubaix, the narrative wasn’t that interesting. It was obvious that Andrei Tchmil was going to win from about 50 kilometers out. The most intriguing, suspenseful Roubaix of recent years, the completely mad 2016 edition, was dry. And dusty. Won by Matt Hayman, the race was made by Tom Boonen, who raced in a gloriously devil-take-the-hindmost fashion. 

For sure, the wet makes a difference. The fact that the riders are more likely to crash is delicately balanced against the fact that they are traveling more slowly over the cobbles. It was Marc Madiot who said this week that the trouble with a dry Roubaix is that the riders hit the sections at 45kph. Is it harder to see team cars through a dust cloud or through a pile of wet mud? Hard call. 

Is it harder to see team cars through a dust cloud or through a pile of wet mud at Paris-Roubaix? Hard call.

Technically it’s a different challenge, because the option of riding on the dirt at the pavé edge is not there, and there are puddles to dodge, but is it harder? Hard call. It’s well known that when it’s wet, the riders keep further apart, due to the flying gloop and the lack of margin for error: it’s physically more demanding because drafting is less of a factor, but that’s not better, necessarily. An Alpine climb is physically more demanding than any in the Basque Country, but Itzulia looked pretty damn good this week. 

My perfect Roubaix remains the 1994 edition. When it rained for weeks in northern France, the cobbles were drenched, and it snowed as they pulled out of Compiègne at the start. When Andrei Tchmil made his escape there were no motorbike cameras there to capture the moment, I seem to recall, because all the motorbikes had crashed on the insanely slippery mud, and were trying to catch up. The way I see it, cycling is pretty crazy as a sport. Paris-Roubaix is the craziest race that sport boasts. And a wet Paris-Roubaix is the craziest of the crazy. If you like cycling because it’s extra-ordinary, well, you have to love a wet Paris-Roubaix.

So, rain or drought? WNS or DND? Well, personally I’d always thought I’d go for WNS. But I have a horrible suspicion that that’s actually not for any practical reasons, but because every year I have an idealized view of Paris-Roubaix that I hope will come along, and in my mind’s eye, that view stems from images of Kelly, Madiot, Moser and Kuiper, covered in mud, slipping and sliding through the gloop. The Hells of my youth, mainly captured by Graham Watson for Winning magazine. My favorite image? Walter Godefroot covered in yick, from Miroir du Cyclisme. The Tchmil and Knaven editions of Roubaix fit that paradigm.  

However, I have recently come to a horrible suspicion that I want to see a wet Roubaix because most years that’s what I don’t get to see. And the truth is, of course, that after the last couple of editions have failed to materialise, I’ve realised I don’t much care any more whether it rains or not in the second week of April in northern France. I’d take any kind of Paris-Roubaix right now, wet or dry. 

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