Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Paris-Roubaix 2012

Paris-Roubaix 2012 - click to enlarge or,
for a full-size zoomable .pdf, click here
(image credit: ASO)

"The last great madness of cycling." (Jacques Goddet)

The Grand Tours may be the three points about which the worldwide cycling calendar rotates, but let nobody tell you they're the greatest races. They may last a total of nine weeks and cover around 9,000km between them each year, but even combined they come nowhere close to the sheer amount of spectacle, horror and beauty packed into a single day and 257.5km by the legendary Paris-Roubaix - the last of the insanely dangerous, heroic races from cycling's early history. The reason it earned the nickname The Hell of the North is what organisers found along the parcours when they mapped out the route for the first edition after the First World War, an apocalypse that can still be seen in the landscape almost a century later. There's a reason that the race is still known by that name, too.

Paris-Roubaix is all about pain, and the rider who can most withstand pain has the best chance of winning - unless, that is, fortune is not on his side; if it's not, he'll be just another victim of the cold cobbles of Arenberg or Le Carrefour de l'Arbre or Mons-en-Pévèle or any of the 27 notorious sections that make this race what it is, an event that somehow survived from the days before health and safety regulations. Make no mistake: people are going to be hurt, some of them seriously. You cannot ride cobbles carefully, because they'll shake even the best-prepared bike to pieces. The only way to tackle them is to hit them head-on, at full speed, then hope for the best and hang on as you skim over the top - and pray that next time you can see where you are it'll be because you've reached tarmac safety and your eyeballs have stopped rattling around in your skull, not because the paramedics have just returned you to consciousness en route to the hospital. It's no wonder that some of the toughest riders in cycling would have nothing to do with this race - even The Badger, Bernard Hinault, rode it only twice before he pronounced it bullshit and stayed away forever. Chris Boardman called it a circus, and saying that he had no intention of becoming a clown refused to take part. Theo de Rooij summed it up most eloquently of all: "“It's a bollocks, this race! You're working like an animal, you don't have time to piss, you wet your pants. You're riding in mud like this, you're slipping ... it’s a pile of shit!” he told reporters. They asked, jokingly, if he'd be back the next year. "Sure," he replied without a moment's hesitation, "it's the most beautiful race in the world."

As ever this year, the race doesn't start in Paris - instead, riders set out at just past 10 o'clock in the morning (CET) from the Place du Général de Gaulle in Compiègne, the town that has hosted every start since 1977 and the one chosen by Hitler to sign the 1940 Armistice (control of Northern France thus being handed to the Nazis. He chose it because it had also been the place where the 1918 Armistice, in which Germany accepted defeat at the end of the First World War, had been signed). Approximately ten minutes later they'll arrive at Compiègne-Clairox, where the neutral zone ends and the real race begins - this is the point where some of the lowlier domestiques with no illusions about their chances of even finishing this race will start trying to escape the peloton and get their sponsor-pleasing time out in front.

Profile - click to enlarge
(image credit: ASO)
It's a flat race, this; Paris-Roubaix inflicts pain in a different way to other races. The first 97.5km are even relatively easy compared to what lies ahead: the rough, iron-hard, block-shaped pavé cobbles. Then they reach Troisvilles à Inchy (Section 27): 2.2km that gets progressively worse through the section and the site of a memorial to Jean Stablinski who worked in the mines below Trouée d’Arenberg before he became a professional cyclist (and was the man who first suggested that the rough miner's track through the forest there might be ideal for the race). The hedge alongside the road was planted to stop mud flowing off the fields, but it doesn't always work and the section can be slippery.

4.3km later, it's Viesly à Quiévy (S26, 1.8km) - the cobbles here are reasonably smooth (for cobbles), but as the section is straight and slightly downhill high speeds and accidents happen. It's then only 0.7km to the next lot, Quiévy à Saint-Python (S25, 3.7km) which starts off straight, then rounds a difficult and dangerous corner before entering a 2km long climb that, although it ascends only 22m, drains strength from the riders' legs. Saint-Python (S24) lies 1.3km ahead on the other side of the hill, the first part often being slathered in mud, then there's a welcome 7.5km of tarmac.

The 27 cobbled sections - click to enlarge
(image credit: ASO)
Vertain à Saint-Martin-sur-Écaillon (S23) comes around 119.5km into the race, not an especially difficult section though high speeds can again lead to disaster here. Another smooth 4.2km lead to Capelle-sur-Écaillon à Ruesnes (S22) with 1.7km and the steepest climb of the parcours at 7%, which those riders with a hope in Hell will tackle with 46-tooth chainrings before they leave the cobbles behind for 14.4km en route to Aulnoy-lez-Valenciennes - Famars (S21, 2.6km) and Famars à Quérénaing (S20, 1.2km), new cobbled sections that made their first appearance in the race last year and as such, have not yet been raced in the wet - anything could happen here. Quérénaing à Maing (S19, 2.5km) is 2.3km further on, first used 16 years ago and thus more familiar, one of the less dangerous sections but with one muddy part; closely followed 0.5km later by Maing à Monchaux-sur-Écaillon (S18, 1.6km) and a different matter entirely - the first part has several deep holes than can swallow a front wheel and snap forks like cocktail sticks. The next 10km, which are smooth and allow riders to calm their nerves, couldn't come at a more welcome moment. After 163.5km the parcours takes in the 2.5km Haveluy à Wallers (S17), also known as the Hinault section since being officially renamed in his honour in 2005. The cobbles here are in fairly good condition, but the entire stretch can become muddy.

Trouée d'Arenberg, 2010

After Wallers, there are exactly 7km to Trouée d’Arenberg (S16). One of the most infamous and feared places in cycling, Arenberg features 2.4km of extremely harsh cobbles; battered by iron-tyred mining carts since the time of Napoleon, their craggy shapes and mismatched sizes prevent bikes from skimming over them no matter how fast the rider pedals. Stablinski pointed out that the section is too far from the end to decide who will win the race but, he claimed, "from there the group with the winners is selected." The section has come to symbolise the entire race because it's so hard and dangerous: since 1999, the direction from which riders tackle it has been reversed to make it slower, because as speeds increased it had become too dangerous even for Paris-Roubaix - as Johan Museeuw knows, because in 1998 he shattered his leg here and very nearly had to have it amputated after dirt got into the wound and gave him gangrene. Fillipo Pozzato has questioned whether the section should even be in the race - "It's the true definition of hell. It's very dangerous, especially in the first kilometre when we enter it at more than 60kh. It's unbelievable. The bike goes in all directions. It will be a real spectacle but I don't know if it's really necessary to impose it on us." Philippe Gaumont's career nearly ended here, too - he smashed his femur in 2001...
"My knee cap completely turned to the right, a ball of blood forming on my leg and the bone that broke, without being able to move my body. And the pain - a pain that I wouldn't wish on anyone. The surgeon placed a big support in my leg, because the bone had moved so much. Breaking a femur is always serious in itself but an open break in an athlete of high level going flat out, that tears the muscles. [With my heart pumping] at 180 beats per minute, there was a colossal amount of blood..."
Gaumont spent six weeks in hospital after his crash, completely unable to move.

Arenberg cobbles
(unknown copyright)
4.1km later is Millonfosse à Bousignies (S15, 1.4km) and Brillon à Tilloy-lez-Marchiennes (S14, 1.1km) 3.1km after that, more new sections introduced last year and  completely unknown quantities in the rain. At 185.5km is Tilloy à Sars-et-Rosières (S14b, 2.4km) with several corners, the muddy surface churned up by the tractors that use the road through the year, then Beuvry-la-Forêt à Orchies (S13, 1.4km) at 192km - the first half is very rough, the second (which was created specifically for the race) is far easier. Orchies (S12), chemin des Prières et chemin des Abattoirs (a fitting name if ever there was one) is 3.4km ahead, 1.7km of reasonably smooth cobbles but sometimes muddy and with a dangerous corner after 1.1km. Auchy-lez-Orchies à Bersée (S11, 2.6km) waits at 203km. The last part of the section had to be left out for two editions from 2007, but has since been repaired with new cobbles - however, since Paris-Roubaix is Paris-Roubaix, large and irregular stones were used and it's the hardest part of the section. There are 1.9km of smooth tarmac to Mons-en-Pévèle (S10), the longest cobbled section at 3km and one of the hardest with two dangerous corners (especially the second) and stones comparable to those of Arenberg.

Mérignies à Avelin (S9, 0.7km) is located a little more than 40km from the end of the race and is often rated the easiest cobbled section, which means it's extremely hard-going rather than inhumane like the tougher bits. 2.3km up the road is Pont-Thibaut à Ennevelin (S8, 1.4km), which has been made easier in recent years though the first part can be muddy, then Templeuve - L’Épinette (S7) and Templeuve – Moulin de Vertain (S7b) from 223.5km, 0.7km in length and very bad at first before the riders reach the latter section as it was protected by a layer of earth for many years until rediscovery in 2002; at which point it was dug up to mark the 100th edition of the race. 6km later is Cysoing à Bourghelles (S6, 1.1km) which starts off in good condition before becoming very bad and then very good again, then there's a short smooth section to Bourghelles à Wannehain (S6b) 1.1km) which starts off in good condition before becoming very bad and staying that way to the end.
"A horrible race to ride, a great race to win." (Sean Kelly)
Carrefour de l’Arbre
(image credit: John.john59 CC BY-SA 3.0)
Camphin-en-Pévèle (S5, 1.8km) begins at 237.5km. The first part is simple enough, if uncomfortable, until it reaches a hazardous and often muddy corner halfway through. The last 0.3km is generally considered to be fairly awful. With that over, the surviving riders have less than 17km to the finish line, but unfortunately for them those 17km contain the infamous Carrefour de l’Arbre (S4), 2.1km in length and beginning at 240.5km - straight, flat, exposed and, in bad weather, the very definition of what Paris-Roubaix is all about: suffering. It's likely that the fastest rider here will win.

On the other side of Carrefour de l’Arbre there are only three cobbled sections left and none of them compare to those that have been left behind. Gruson (S3, 1.1km, 242.5km) is slightly downhill with stones in good condition (Gruson was also the name of a little black dog that knocked Bernard Hinault off his bike during the 1982 edition), Willems à Hem (S2, 1.4km, 249.5km) and in very good condition but often windy (nobody knows when this section first formed a part of the race. It's certainly been used since 1968, but may also have been used in the early 1950s) and, finally, the 300m Espace Charles Crupelandt (S1); laid in honour of 1912-1914 winner Charles Crupelandt. Crupelandt went away to fight in the First World War and returned to cycling with a Croix de Guerre medal - only to be arrested and banned from racing for life, almost certainly as a result of lies put about by jealous rivals concerned they couldn't beat him. Unofficially, the road has become known as Chemin des Géants, Road of the Giants, because interspersed between the cobbles are commemorative plaques - one for every winner since the race began in 1896. They lead into the Roubaix velodrome and to the finish line where the winner will be presented with a single block of pavé on a stand, before he takes away some far greater than any trophy.

(unknown copyright)
You cannot predict which riders might be victorious at Paris-Roubaix, because the outcome depends entirely upon chance and all too often any one individual's chances end at the first cobbled section. Also, the forecasters say it's going to rain this year, which will turn parts of the parcours into a treacherous quagmire. Some years, it takes a lot of rain to wash away the blood. "It is Hell!"

Five guys from Rapha ride the parcours
The evolution of Paris-Roubaix bikes

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