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The Knowledge, and What it Means for Paris-Roubaix

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John Wilcockson / Yuzuru Sunada

It takes a London taxicab driver about three years to earn a license. It takes that long because he or she has to learn the location of thousands of streets, hotels, hospitals, theatres and other points of interest within a 10-kilometer radius of central London—and they’re not allowed to use a GPS. If you’re ever in the United Kingdom’s capital city, you’ll see trainee cabdrivers plying the streets on mopeds or scooters with a handlebar-mounted clipboard displaying one of the 320 “standard” routes they have to learn. This demanding training course, called The Knowledge, has been in place for more than 100 years, since the days when cabs were horse-drawn carriages and bikes took precedence over cars.

That’s at about the same time as when cycling’s first place-to-place classics were inaugurated, including the gnarliest of them all, Paris-Roubaix, the 112th edition of which takes place this weekend. But you’re probably wondering what London taxicabs have to do with bike racing? Not much on the surface, but The Knowledge holds important lessons for pro bike racers tackling the spring classics and their complicated routes —especially Paris-Roubaix. Just as London cabbies aren’t permitted mistakes as they navigate the city’s labyrinth of back streets, so Roubaix’s warriors must have The Knowledge of exactly when the next sector of cobblestones is coming, which way will the wind be blowing around the next turn, or how many more kilometers remain to the finish.

They also have to be aware of their physical and mental capabilities at any point in the race. That “Self Knowledge” is just as important for potential classics winners—as was demonstrated at last week’s Tour of Flanders. Preceding that second monument of the year, I wrote a column about the three essential T’s for winning such a race: team, tactics and timing. And based on those factors I concluded that “Cancellara looks poised to out-power everyone once again.

Trek Factory Racing’s superstar did win the Ronde van Vlaanderen—despite the “team” element going missing after crashes stopped valued teammates Stijn Devolder and Yaroslav Popovych from being with him in the finale. As a result, Cancellara had to place greater emphasis on the “tactics” and “timing” parts of the equation. Instead of being in a position to make a solo break, as he had wanted, Cancellara was forced to make his biggest effort the last time up the Oude Kwaremont climb to drop main rivals Tom Boonen and Peter Sagan—both of whom had made tactical errors efforts in making too many strong efforts on previous uphills and stretches of cobbles.

Only Team Belkin’s Sep Vanmarcke could stick with the big Swiss—just as he did at Paris-Roubaix last year. But once clear, Cancellara (with Vanmarcke on his wheel) still had to bridge a 45-second gap to two earlier breakaways: instigator Greg Van Avermaet of BMC Racing and his non-working shadow Stijn Vandenbergh, who was there to defend for his Omega Pharma-Quick Step team leader Boonen. But Boonen was spent, and his Omega Pharma team’s tactics of relying on superior numbers in the lead group misfired. Vandenbergh wasn’t the man they wanted in the winning breakaway.

With the two chasers catching the two frontrunners after the last climb, they all knew that the race would likely end in a four-man sprint, and Vandenbergh was the weakest sprinter of the four. A much better sprinter, Milan-San Remo winner Alexander Kristoff of Team Katusha, attempted to bridge; but he made his solo effort into a fierce head wind and fell short. Perhaps, with better knowledge of the course, the Norwegian would have realized that if he had waited a couple of kilometers the course turned to give a tailwind for the final, flat 9 kilometers to the finish.

Instead, the race came down to a game of tactics and timing between the four in front. Cancellara, the most experienced of the four, used the perfect tactics. When Vandenbergh made a predictable attack inside the last 3 kilometers, Cancellara waited—and watched Van Avermaet chase down his fellow Belgian. And as those two began pulling away, Cancellara again waited—and forced Vanmarcke to chase and close the gap. Finally, before the sprint, Cancellara first checked on his team radio that the chasers were out of contention; then—with the knowledge that he’d been perfecting his sprint all week—he waited at the rear of the quartet before putting everything into a long acceleration, knowing that the strong tailwind would help him hold off the pursuing Van Avermaet and Vanmarcke. Cancellara had won the Ronde for a third time.

Cancellara has already won Paris-Roubaix three times in the past eight years, and now he’s shooting for a fourth cobblestone trophy, to join race record holders Boonen and Roger De Vlaeminck. Boonen didn’t have his heart fully into the Tour of Flanders after his partner’s miscarriage the previous week; but we can expect him to be up for this Sunday’s challenge. The Belgian knows that he has four or five teammates capable of sticking with him after this monument’s first major sort-out is made on the dreaded 2.4-kilometer cobblestone sector through the Forest of Arenberg with 95 kilometers of racing remaining.

On the team factor, Trek will no doubt have Devolder, Popovych and Grégory Rast with Cancellara, while the other strong teams appear to be Belkin (Vanmarcke can count on men like Lars Boom and Maarten Tjallingii), BMC (Van Avermaet should have Thor Hushovd, Taylor Phinney and Michael Schär at his side), Cannondale (though Sagan may have only Maciej Bodnar or Oscar Gatto with him in the final two hours), Garmin-Sharp (on-form Tyler Farrar needs helpers such as Sebastian Langeveld and former winner Johan Vansummeren), Katusha (with several East European guards for Kristoff), and Team Sky (which has 2012 Tour de France winner Brad Wiggins as its wild card alongside Geraint Thomas, Edvald Boasson Hagen and Gabriel Rasch).

Because there are no climbs to speak of in Paris-Roubaix, having strength in numbers can dictate the final tactics—as happened when Vansummeren won in 2011. This is why The Knowledge is so important in a race that has 28 sectors of rough cobblestones on a course that is constantly doubling back on itself in the final two hours. A northwest wind is forecast for Sunday, which will generally be blowing dust into the riders’ faces on a day of expected sunshine. The ones with The Knowledge will be aware of the places where side winds (and occasional tailwinds) will be blowing, making attacks more favorable.

All the contenders have this week been scouting the course—which has undergone a few alterations from last year. But the final 50 kilometers, which contains 10 cobbled sectors, are almost the same as the years that Boonen (2012) and Cancellara (2010) conducted long, winning solo breaks over those sectors. As a result, they know the terrain perfectly; they have The Knowledge. But what may separate them, besides team strength and tactics at critical times, is the Self Knowledge. Both of them are big, confident riders who know how to win.

Their duel on Sunday should be one of the best in the century-old history of Paris-Roubaix; but should they mark each other too closely, there’s always the chance that a third favorite could ride off with the trophy. It could be a sprinter such as Sagan, Kristoff or Farrar. It could even be that talented native Londoner who knows more about The Knowledge than any of them: Sir Bradley Wiggins. The Olympic time trial champion is more than capable of sustaining a long solo breakaway, and he has made Paris-Roubaix a big goal of his 2014 season.

Multiple Tour champ Bernard Hinault hated Roubaix’s cobblestone back roads, but he made it his goal in 1981. After overcoming a number of setbacks in the race he made it into the winning break, and then, on the velodrome finish, out-sped runners-up De Vlaeminck and Francesco Moser—two men who shared seven Roubaix victories between them. Just like Boonen and Cancellara today.

Can history repeat itself? Maybe we should ask a London cabbie….