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Apr 10, 2015 – On a humid Sunday afternoon in April 1960, a tall, lean Englishman with a prominent nose who won an Olympic team pursuit medal in his amateur days grabbed the headlines at Paris-Roubaix. His name was Tom Simpson. This coming Sunday afternoon, 55 years later, another tall, lean Englishman with a prominent nose who won an Olympic team pursuit medal in his amateur days also has the potential to grab the headlines at Paris-Roubaix. His name is Sir Bradley Wiggins.
by John Wilcockson/photos by Kåre Dehlie Thorstad
Back in 1960, television cameras were too heavy to be carried on motorcycles, so for the first cycling classic to be televised live (only the final 45 minutes) French TV mounted one camera on a Jeep and another in a helicopter, along with a couple of fixed cameras at the velodrome finish in Roubaix. For most of that 45-minute broadcast, the cameras showed just one man on the TV screen: Simpson.
In a race that saw significant attacks by favorites Louison Bobet, Roger Rivière and Rik Van Looy, the upstart Simpson broke clear on a short cobbled climb 45 kilometers from the finish. He was half a minute clear when he raced through the village of Mons-en-Pévèle, and at Cysoing, with 18 kilometers to go, he was 1:25 ahead of the peloton led by Van Looy. The overhead TV camera transmitted shaky, grainy black-and-white images of Simpson as he negotiated the mainly cobbled roads, until the redbrick village of Hem, with 5 kilometers to go. That’s where he was caught by two chasers, Belgian Pino Cerami and Frenchman Tino Sabbadini, and Cerami went on to win the 1960 Paris-Roubaix, while an exhausted Simpson rolled in a minute later with the chase group, taking ninth place.
This year, American viewers can catch four hours of live-streaming Paris-Roubaix via NBC Sports, with full-color HD images relayed from lightweight TV cameras carried on motorcycles and helicopters, along with fixed cameras at the key cobblestone sectors and the finish—which is still at the Victorian-era velodrome. The course is very different from 1960, but it still features the villages of Mons-en-Pévèle (47.5 kilometers from the finish), Cysoing (28.5 kilometers) and Hem (6 kilometers). If everything goes right for him in his final UCI WorldTour race for Team Sky (before he prepares for his world hour record attempt in June and an Olympic track swansong next year), Wiggins might well upstage Simpson and become the first British rider to win Paris-Roubaix. (To date, only two Brits have stood on the Roubaix podium, both on the third step, Barry Hoban in 1972 and Roger Hammond in 2004).
This 113th edition of the Hell of the North is 253.5 kilometers in distance, and features 27 sectors of cobblestones, numbered from No. 27 to No. 1 and totaling 52.7 kilometers. In other words, the final 155 kilometers of racing sees the riders on the dreaded Paris-Roubaix pavé for 33 percent of the time. The organizer, ASO, inspected all the sectors this week and graded them from one star (easiest) to five stars (the most difficult). Three sectors were given five stars, and six have four stars.
The oldest five-star stretch is the so-called Trouée d’Arenberg, first included when the course took its major eastward shift in 1968. It’s a dead-straight, 2.4-kilometer-long section of ancient granite cobblestones through a forest that is closed to traffic the rest of the year. (Trouée is often translated as “trench”—but that is the French word “tranchée.” An accurate translation is “breach” or “gap” because trouée is an “opening” through the trees of the Arenberg forest. So it’s best translated as the Arenberg Gap, not Trench.)
To help you follow the race better, listed below are the nine toughest cobbled sectors and their distance from the finish (the “kilometers to go” number you’ll see in the top left of your TV or computer screen).
It looks like being a dry edition of Paris-Roubaix, with temperatures in the 50s and 60s Fahrenheit and a moderately strong wind from the southwest. Overall, this will provide tailwinds, but because the course makes frequent changes of direction, only two of the nine toughest sectors look like having favorable gusts (see above list).
The most strategic sector could well be the 3-kilometer-long stretch at Mons-en-Pévèle, just inside 50 kilometers to go, because riders who come out of it in front will enjoy tailwinds for most of the following 25 kilometers (which include four “lesser” cobbled sectors). Then comes the final battlefield, with cross- and headwinds on the four-star and five-star sectors between Camphin-en-Pévèle and Le Carrefour de l’Arbre (a sector that ends 15 kilometers from Roubaix).
After inspecting the route this week, course director Thierry Gouvenou of ASO said:
“Le Carrefour de l’Arbre has become a more and more delicate sector to ride over time. In terms of difficulty, it is practically the same as the Trouée d’Arenberg this year. I think that through the entire length of the sector there’s not a single flat cobblestone!”
Even though the cobbles are likely to be dry this weekend, their sharp edges remain just as sharp, and the dried mud from the adjacent fields is always kicked up into dust by the race vehicles. Also, the farm roads that feature the worst pavé are extremely narrow, which forces the contenders to race at the front to avoid the inevitable crashes and mechanical disasters. These problems were mentioned this week by Swiss veteran Martin Elmiger, who finished a strong 10th at last weekend’s Tour of Flanders and is an outsider for Paris-Roubaix, though he may well have to work for his regular IAM Cycling team leader Sylvain Chavanel. “In this race,” Elmiger said, “you really have to be permanently well placed, and have a little boost of good luck, too. Just a simple puncture or a crash is enough to lose all hope of doing well…. And Sunday, which looks to be sunny, dry and dusty, the cobbles will be very dangerous.”
This is a tough race to predict—especially without four-time winner Tom Boonen and three-time winner Fabian Cancellara. The obvious favorite is Alexander Kristoff, who won Flanders and also took this week’s Scheldeprijs (in a field sprint). Some feel that Kristoff’s effort of winning six races in 10 days will catch up with him, though the Norwegian thrives on hard work. He said this week that Boonen “was the first rider I wanted to be like [and] that has pushed me to work even harder to succeed like him.” But other than Ghent-Wevelgem winner Luca Paolini, Kristoff’s Katusha team is not the strongest this coming Sunday. And the flatter roads of Paris-Roubaix make it easier for strong teams to dominate.
That was demonstrated last year when Boonen’s squad outnumbered the others in the final breakaway group and Niki Terpstra rode away to his solo win. The Etixx-Quick Step team could repeat that tactic on Sunday, with Terpstra maybe helping teammate Zdenek Stybar take the win. And in other recent editions (when the favorite didn’t win), Johan Van Summeren took a solo victory in 2011 after his Garmin team leader Thor Hushovd was heavily marked; Stuart O’Grady won solo in 2007 after CSC team leader Cancellara suffered in the unseasonable 80-degree heat; and, in 2001, when the Domo-Farm Frites team of defending champion Johan Museeuw dominated, it was his support rider Servais Knaven who escaped to take the win.
Coincidentally, Knaven is now the lead sports director for Team Sky—whose three top classics riders, all British, Geraint Thomas, Ian Stannard and Luke Rowe, will likely ride for Wiggins on Sunday. Talking to Britain’s Cycling Weekly this week, Knaven said, “Bradley’s in a good place. He’s one of our best riders for Sunday. Do you call him a leader? Paris-Roubaix is a different race with different tactics. If one of our protected riders attacks, then he will have his freedom.”
Should that materialize and Wiggins breaks clear through Mons-en-Pévèle, Cysoing and Hem, the Brit with the prominent nose may well finish off the effort Simpson began a half-century ago.
20 TOP FAVORITES FOR 2015 PARIS-ROUBAIX
***** Kristoff (Team Katusha)
Terpstra (Etixx-Quick Step)
Wiggins (Team Sky)
**** Boom (Astana)
Stybar (Etixx-Quick Step)
Thomas (Team Sky)
Van Avermaet (BMC Racing)
*** Devolder (Trek Factory Racing)
Paolini (Team Katusha)
Stannard (Team Sky)
** Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin)
Vandenbergh (Etixx-Quick Step)
Oss (BMC Racing)
Vanmarcke (Lotto NL-Jumbo)
* Elmiger (IAM Cycling)
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You can follow John at twitter.com/johnwilcockson