PARIS-ROUBAIX’21 PEZ Preview: Who Will be King of the Cobbles?


Hell of the North Preview: Paris-Roubaix in October! Better than no L’enfer du Nord as in 2020, and the weather forecast say’s there is a 90% chance of rain on Sunday, so we may get a muddy Roubaix. Ed Hood is looking forward to cobbled battle through the worst of the elements – here is his hell of a preview.

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Paris-Roubaix, 1919 – Grim up north. Photograph PR

It’s a misnomer; ‘Paris – Roubaix’. The race start long ago quit the City of Light, Grand Architecture, romance – and traffic Armageddon, for Compiègne. The town north of Paris perhaps most famous as where the Germans signed the 1918 armistice and where Hitler returned the favour by accepting the French surrender in 1940.

The Roubaix velodrome – The centre of cycling late on Sunday afternoon

But Roubaix is the real deal, where the finish has always been situated, in the North, which was the industrial Heartland of France, with Roubaix once renowned for textile production. The peak of that industry is long past and the city is now most famous for the velodrome where for one Sunday each year it becomes ground zero for cycling fanatics worldwide. But as any travel writer will tell you; ‘the journey is more important than the final destination.’ This one is indeed quite a journey: 258 hard, flat, fast kilometres including 30 sectors of cobbles, totalling 55 kilometres.

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Cobbles – ‘Pave’ in French – ‘Kasseien’ in Dutch – we even have a word for them in Scotland – ‘cause’ays’. The three toughest sectors are Tranchée d’Arenberg, Mons-en-Pévèle and the Carrefour de l’Arbre, often the scene of the ‘coup de grace’ by the eventual – solo – winner.

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The Arenberg Trench is perhaps the most famous but comes with almost 100K still to ride to the velodrome; it’s ‘for sure’ – to use ‘Euro-Pro’ speak – the place where you can’t win the race but can definitely lose it. If there was ever a race where experience counts, this it.

Bois de Wallers Arenberg
Bois de Wallers Arenberg

It’s not just how to ride the dreaded – or loved, depending on your motivation – cobbles, it’s how to handle the massive fights for position which precede ever sector, where to eat, where to turn on the gas, where to cruise and crucially when and where to make THE move. The phrase, ‘fortune favours the brave’ has never been more appropriate than in this race, hedging your bets and waiting doesn’t result in you hoisting that cobble in the track centre at the finish of this epic.

It was dry and dusty for the last Paris-Roubaix in 2019

xpedo cxr pedalbanner with Brian McCullough

The last time we had the deep joy of settling down on the sofa to watch, with a beer or two was in the spring of 2019. And with the race now taking place in the capricious autumn this year rather than the globally warmed and dry spring we may be treated to that most beautiful of things, a wet and muddy, ‘Queen of the Classics’.

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The much missed Paul Sherwen in the Roubaix mud

In this race where experience and dreaming big count for much let’s go back and look at the top eight protagonists at the sharp end on that day in 2019.

Paris-Roubaix 2019

Philippe Gilbert [now Lotto-Soudal & Belgium] won on that occasion but whilst he’s no, ‘has been’ – fifth in Het Nieuwsblad and fourth in the Brussels Cycling Classic give lie to that thought – it’s hard to see the 39 years-old being ‘up there.’ Albeit it’s no surprise for ‘veterans’ to win this race, witness Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle at 37 and 38 years-of-age, Matt Hayman at 37, Gilbert himself at 36 and Cobbled Royalty, Johan Museeuw also at 36 years-of-age.

Philippe Gilbert – A true star, but…

But the man who was second to Phil Gil that day, Nils Politt [BORA–hansgrohe & Germany] is certainly a name to conjure with, he’s improved year on year with this season witnessing a Tour de France stage win and a GC win in his home Tour of Germany. He has the ideal big, strong build of a ‘Classicer’ – like joint ‘recordman’ on four wins, Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara or Magnus Backstedt and is one who takes races by the scruff of the neck – he’ll be in the mix.

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Politt was on the attack more than once in last Sunday’s Worlds

As will the wily man who was third, former Belgian Elite Road and reigning Elite Time Trial champion, Yves Lampaert [Deceuninck – Quick-Step & Belgium]. He’s returned consistently strong results all season, most recently winning a stage in the Tour of Britain before performing a strong but ultimately futile team role in the Worlds. Lampaert defines the word ‘flahute’, not of tall build but compact, solid and tough in the Andre Tchmil, ‘Stuey’ O’Grady and Peter Sagan mould.

Lampaert on the cobbles in 2019

We should perhaps be accusing the man who was fourth of being on the decline but third in Het Nieuwsblad, fourth in Le Samyn and fifth in de Ronde this year remind us that big, strong Sep Vanmarcke [Israel Start-Up Nation & Belgium] is still a ‘beast of a boy’ as we say in Scotland and will be extremely highly motivated for this race.

Sep Vanmarcke – Highly motivated

Peter Sagan [BORA-hansgrohe & Slovakia] was fifth, when you’ve done it all and been at the top for as long as he has it’s hard to keep the motivation strong; we see him more as a foil for Politt, this year – albeit the bookies say fourth favourite at 12/1 and have Politt at a distant 25/1.

Can’t rule out Sagan in Roubaix

Sixth was a man who will certainly be in the mix again, Frenchman, Florian Sénéchal [Deceuninck – Quick-Step], he has the big, robust build and the form, a stage win in the Vuelta – where he demonstrated how fast he can finish – a win in the Primus Classic and top 10 in the Worlds. And remember he was top 10 in de Ronde and second in the E3 this year, one to watch, the bookies concur with the man from Cambrai as fifth favourite @ 25/1.

Sénéchal another man for Deceuninck – Quick-Step

In seventh spot was Mike Teunissen [Jumbo-Visma & The Netherlands] a man who piled up the podiums in 2019, but hasn’t scaled the same heights these last two season.

Mike Teunissen – Plan ‘B’ for Jumbo

Finishing eighth was a man who would no doubt revel in the skies opening, former World Elite Cyclo-Cross Champion, Zdnek Stybar [Deceuninck – Quick-Step & Czech Republic]. It’s two seasons since ever-popular ‘Stybie; won Het Nieuwsblad and the E3, at 35 years-of-age it would be easy to say his best years are behind him but his recent top 10 finishes in the Worlds and Primus Classic belie that; the bookies agree and he’s one of the top 10 faves at 22/1 – and remember that he’s twice stood on the podium of a race dear to ‘crossers hearts.

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Cyclo-cross and Roubaix go hand in hand

The most famous ‘crosser to make the race his own was, of course the other joint ‘recordman’, Roger De Vlameninck who rode the race on 14 occasions, winning four times (1972, 1974, 1975, 1977), finished second four times, third once, fifth once, sixth once, seventh twice and abandoned only once, in 1980.

strade bianche

And on the subject of ‘cross, we must include reigning World Elite Cyclo-Cross Champion, Mathieu Van Der Poel [Alpecin Fenix & The Netherlands] a man whose build and background would seem to qualify him as a winner of this race one day. His season was compromised by a bad crash in the Tokyo Olympics MTB race but his win in the Antwerp Port Epic indicated he was BACK, perhaps this gave pundits – including me – false hope for the Worlds, where he rode an anonymous race to finish eighth. But his best form can’t be far away now and the 2021 Strade Bianche winner will be highly motivated for Sunday, the bookies agree and have him as second fave @ 5/1.

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Second time lucky for Van Aert?

Mention of Mathieu goes hand in glove with his rival of many seasons, former Elite World Cyclo-Cross Champion, Wout Van Aert [Jumbo Visma & Belgium] a man who went into the Worlds as hot favourite but finished a disappointed 11th on the day. Did he ‘peak’ too early, at the Tour of Britain, should he have abdicated Belgian Worlds team leadership to Remco, or was it simply a ‘jour sans?’ Answers on a post card please – but Sunday should help and the bookies have him as race fave at 10/3.

On the subject of the men with the algorithms, who else do they rate?

Mads Pedersen – Not scared of an attack

Their third favourite is robust Dane, Mads Pedersen [Trek-Segafredo] one suspects this forecast must be based on the race taking place on a day of bad weather – remember his Harrogate Worlds win? – his recent form suggests nothing special.

Jasper Stuyven looked strong in the Worlds

Sixth favourite at 16/1 with the bookies is 2021 Primavera winner and disappointed fourth place finisher in his home town Worlds, Jasper Stuyven [Trek Segafredo & Belgium]. He’ll be out to make amends, he’s big, strong and fast.

Kasper Asgreen has the form

Kasper Asgreen [Deceuninck – Quick-Step & Denmark] at 18/1 also fits that description; given daylight in the closing stages it’s not difficult to see the 2021 E3 and Ronde winner as first onto the velodrome.

Could Van Avermaet do it again?

It may nostalgic but bearing in mind his 2017 win here, his third spot in the Ronde back in the spring and his stinging omission form the Belgian World team, Greg Van Avermaet [AG2R Citroen & Belgium] should not be forgotten.

Jasper Philipsen if it comes to a sprint

And finally, whilst it’s not a ‘sprinters race,’ form is form and a man on fire right now is Jasper Philipsen [Alpecin Fenix & The Netherlands] with four major UCi wins in just 11 days.

Has the season been too long for Wout

One set of initials? and ‘yes’ I got it well wrong at the Worlds, but here goes again: WVA.

Roubaix Promo

# Stay PEZ for race reports and news from Paris-Roubaix. Saturday’s first women’s edition and Sunday for the men. For live action go to SteepHillTV. #

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