Paris (AFP) – With over 50km of treacherous cobbled sections, cycling’s epic one-day classic Paris-Roubaix deserves its deadly reputation, but team of the moment Quick-Step believe they can tame it on Sunday.
Known as the ‘Hell of the North’ and evocative of exhausted, mud-splattered survivors collapsing at the finish line of the Roubaix velodrome, race mythology dictates the cobbles themselves often select the winner.
But in Nicki Terpstra and Philippe Gilbert, the Belgian outfit have at least two contenders strong enough to surmount the many challenges thrown at the peloton during a 257km race of attrition.
Despite participating only once previously, in 2007, Belgian Gilbert is ready to go full gas in his bid to secure a fourth one-day classic ‘Monument’, having already won the Tour of Flanders, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Tour of Lombardy.
“I have invested a great deal in getting ready for this race and now its time to go out there and deliver and we’ll see what happens,” Gilbert told reporters on Saturday.
“The conditions look set for a top quality race, I really hope none of the top guys falls and that the best man wins.
“It’s a beautiful race and it’s not just the cobbles because often it comes down to a sprint.”
Dutch teammate Terpstra could take up the baton should the cobbles bump off Gilbert’s challenge. He soloed to victory in the Tour of Flanders last week and won this race in 2014.
“Paris-Roubaix suits me even better than the Tour of Flanders,” said the 33-year-old.
Quick Step have dominated the cobbled classics season with Terpstra winning E3 Harelbeke and Yves Lampaert triumphing at Dwars door Vlaanderen, while Elia Viviani claimed the Three Days of De Panne title and Fabio Jakobsen won Scheldeprijs.
It is that strength in depth — those latter two haven’t even made Quick Steps’s Paris-Roubaix team — that has reigning champion Greg Van Avermaet of BMC feeling wary.
“This season they have many leaders and they are making others hurt,” he said at the team presentation on Saturday.
“I have just one chance, but they have four.”
Asked if he might strike up a partnership with someone from another team, the champion frowned.
“I would but you know that is not as easy as you might think,” lamented the Belgian.
— A violent experience —
While the course is 257km long “the real race starts at Arenberg”, Paris-Roubaix race director Thierry Gouvenou told AFP this week.
The notorious Arenberg Forest is one of three ‘five star difficulty’ cobbled sections. Coming at the 93km mark, the shade leaves its often mishappen cobbles greasy and slick.
“Riding on these cobbles is a violent experience,” former professional racer Gouvenou told AFP.
“You need to be slightly mad to launch yourself into Arenberg at top speed. The slightest error and you can’t maintain control.”
World class bike-handling skills weren’t enough for Bora’s Peter Sagan last year. The world champion suffered a puncture when brought down by another rider’s fall as he was trying to follow Van Avermaet.
Marked out of contention for victory at Flanders last week, the Slovak will be hoping he doesn’t suffer the same fate on Sunday.
For Govenou, Arenberg is strategically crucial.
“You don’t win the race at Arenberg, but this is where the winning selection is made,” he said.
The next five star point is at Mons-en-Pevele (208.5km), from where a long range winning bid is possible, then finally at Carrefour de l’Arbre 17km from home.
Otherwise it will likely end in a small group sprint finish.
“I have lost in the sprint twice,” said another Quick Step contender, Zdenek Stybar, the 32-year-old Czech who came second in 2015 and 2017.
“The penny has dropped now, I have to finish solo.”