Spring Classics #3: Paris-Roubaix 2018

The queen of the classics. The Hell of the North. An inhuman, brutal race of attrition over 257 kilometers.

Ladies & Gentlemen, Paris-Roubaix, which began in 1896 is of the toughest acts of single-day voluntary human endurance.

In the last spring classic, Tour of Flanders, we started the journey into the cobbles. The 116th edition of Paris-Roubaix, involved riding 54.5 of those 257 kilometers on cobbles.

The dreaded Arenberg Forest Cobbles (PC: Cyclingweekly.com)
Most of us have ridden a road bike. Imagine riding that at 40+ kmph. Imagine riding that at that speed for 257 kilometers. And then imagine 54.5 of them being on roads that look like this.
Sean Kelly, a 2 time winner of Paris-Roubaix, describes spending the next day recovering his "sore legs and sore arms".

It is an iconic race. It rates its cobbled sections from 1 to 5 stars. 1 feeling like riding over speed bump, 5 feeling like riding on a jackhammer. And it finished with a sprint inside a velodrome!!

PC: Eurosport/Tiz Cycling
And the winner gets a "Sett" (A cobble stone) as prize! How cool is that?

Defending champion, Greg Van Avermaet with his cobble. PC: CNN

When it rains, the cobbles and roads become extremely muddy resulting in flashback images from our childhood. When it is dry, it is pure dust-storm, like a New Delhi morning after Diwali(minus the toxic air).
A wet Paris-Roubaix. PC: SBS
There's no other way to describe it. It is a cruel race. 4 time winner, Tom Boonen was quoted as saying "Without bad luck, it is an honest race". It comes down to will of the man who wants to win it so badly. Luck plays a major role in winning this race. A wrong flat tire or a mechanical failure or simply being caught in a bad position if there's a crash infront of you, would mean that you spend the rest of the day chasing your dream while seeing it fade away in the horizon. Many great riders have failed, George Hincapie, Lance Armstrong's famous right hand man, being the most famous failure. He came so close in 2001, but the cobbles caused constant punctures and he had no support because of the narrowness of the road and his team being stuck behind due to inclement wet weather and mud. It was 2001-2002, when they had the last "wet" Paris Roubaix. And since then it has been a dry race.

But the week leading into it, the forecasts and picture showed that it might be another wet-version.
Just to show my respect for these riders, many teams went to recon the route for Paris-Roubaix on Thursday. Last Sunday they rode the brutal, 267 km long Tour of Flanders at an average speed of over 41 kmph. Then mid-week, they rode 150 kms to survey this route. And on Sunday, they raced over 257 kms again. Not that they were sleeping it off on other days.
The 3x World Champion on a recon ride. PC: Peter Sagan.
And there was a lot of trash talking going into the race. Peter Sagan, who was getting tired of being the "marked man" and frustrated with the lack of cooperation from other teams, expressed his anger publicly, to which Tom Boonen (who retired last year), asked Sagan to "keep his mouth shut".

Sagan, simply posted a lovely picture of him & Boonen with a "❤️" and no words. (Maybe he would let his actions do the talking!).

As the riders lined up on Sunday though, it was a nice, bright, sunny day and no chances of rain. Which meant, muddy place and splashing about was out of the question. It didn't make what was infront of them any easier. Just warmer. A tail-cross wind was expected, which would make being stuck behind a crash even worse, as a guy who is stuck would need to make even more effort to catch the guys in the front.

As usual, the favourites were QuickStep Floors and their rider Philip Gilbert, who had announced that his target was to win this race this year. Along his teammate, Tour of Flanders 2018 winner, Niki Terpstra and a genius Team director, Patrick Leferve (who has been responsible for over 760 wins for QuickStep in the last 20 years, 25 in this year alone), it was hard to stop QuickStep, given the continuing trend of epic confusion in the peloton everytime someone attacked and everyone staring at Sagan to chase.

The race started at a frantic pace, with the teams unwilling to let a breakaway form early in the race. Each team was marking the other one, trying to chase down attacks. There were brief attacks from various riders, but no-one really got that far for the 1st 50 kilometers of the race, which were covered in 1 hour (brutally fast riding).

With 221k to go, a breakaway finally began to form with Jelle Wallays (Lotto Soudal) & Ludovic Robeet (WB AquaProtect Veranclassic) gaining 38 seconds on the peloton. Jack Bauer, the former New Zealand national champion (Michelton-Scott) was seen in bandages and a torn jersey, having being involved in a crash early on in the race.

The Peloton began to calm down as riders tried to join the 2 men in the front, finally forming a 9 man breakaway including Sven Erik Bystrom (UAE Team Emirates), Swiss National Champion: Silvan Dillier (Ag2R LaMondiale), Geoffrey Soupe (Cofidis), Jay Thomson (Dimension Data), Marc Soler (Movistar), Gatis Smukulis (Team Delko-Marseille Provence KTM), Jimmy Duquennoy (WB AquaProtect Veranclassic).

On a fast day with a tailwind, the gap grew quickly as the riders at the front quickly grew their lead from 4'10" at 200k to go to 8'39" with 180k to go.
PC: Eurosport/Tiz Cycling
Rising star, Wout Van Aert's tweet came on the air and it made me think of all those people, who don't even ride 10% of this man(he rides 40,000+ kms each year) and "demand rest" each time they have the tiniest bit of pain. Pro cycling is a hardcore sport, and this tweet shows it.

Entering a corner, there was a crash involving BMC's Stefan K√ľng who had to abandon, which came as a big blow to Greg Van Avermaet as Kung is an essential cog in his operations.

The 1st of 29 cobbled sections started with a 3 star, 900 meter section (15, 3 star sections and 3 terrifying 5 star sections in 2018), which prompted the commentators to joke that "A hovercraft is the only comfortable vehicle through these roads".

The teams in the peloton began to push and fight for position, bring the gap down below 7 minutes. Niki Terpstra, who despite riding his heart out last week, still had enough energy in his legs to lead the peloton in the 1st section. Peter Sagan was seen bunny hopping to avoid a slippery patch.
PC: Pauline Ballet
And then, the 1st crash of the day. 20 deep into the field, riders went down and the ones on the front made it count as the developed their lead. Involved in the crash was Geraint Thomas from Team Sky, who was riding today to survey the cobbled sections involved in this year's Tour De France. Another crash saw Michael Goolaerts (Verandas-Willems Crelans) go down. Unfortunately, he went down so hard that the 23 year old, had a cardiac arrest on the spot and had to be revived using a defibrillator & later airlifted to a hospital. There's no news of his recovery at the time of my writing this piece, but i'm sure all of you will join me in wishing a full recovery for Michael.

The next cobbled section saw the breakaway broken into 2 parts, with the weaker riders just falling apart on the jittery, bone-shattering cobbles. Meanwhile, behind in the group of favourites, Juraj Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) & his team-mate German champion, Marcus Burghardt, began to push the pace. Due to the crash, 4 groups had formed behind with defending champion Greg Van Avermaet & European Champion, Alexander Kristoff(Katusha Alpecin) in Group 3, almost 45 seconds behind.

Former World Time Trial Champion, Tony Martin (Katusha Alpecin) began to ride at the front setting the cat among the pigeons, bring the gap down to 5'34". Martin tried to break the peloton, trying to create another breakaway, but wasn't allowed to do so by Team QuickStep.

With 144k to go, Van Avermaet joined the back of the peloton as the front breakaway group hit Sector 26, a 4 star section of 3.7k in length, being the joint-longest cobbled section of this year's race. 4'52" behind, the Peloton had another joinee, Alexander Kristoff as he managed to cover the gap and join a frantically moving Peloton.
PC: Eurosport/Tiz Cycling
Between the cobbles, we were greeted to some beautiful French countryside. At 137.5k to go, French & Belgian National Champions; Arnaud Demare(FDJ) and Oliver Nasen(Ag2R LaMondiale) stopped to get some repairs which left them playing a game of high-speed catch-up.

Meanwhile, there was another crash involving Daniel Oss(Bora-Hansgrohe) and Giani Moscon(Team Sky). News of Margnus Cort Nielsen from Astana, crashing and retiring came on air, showing just how cruel this race was turning out to be. Tony Martin moved back to the front of the peloton, driving it at over 53 kmph. Today's coverage had many super-slow motion shots of the riders going over the bumps, showing just how badly these guys shake as they go over these cobbles. The gap moved to under 4 minutes with 123.3k to go.

At the end of Sector 21, 2015 Paris-Roubaix champion, John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) was seeing changing his bike at the worst time possible, given the peloton was rampaging like a raging bull with the gap down to 2'30" with 112k to go.

The 3 star cobbles were doing their damages and claiming their victims. And with less than 100k to go, the 3, 5 star sections loomed: Arenberg Forest(at 94k to go), Mons-en-Pevele(at 47k to go) and the often, race deciding, Carrefour de l'arbre (at 15k to go, which features all past winners of the Paris-Roubaix).

Another major crash happened, with pre-race favourite Matteo Trentin (Michelton-Scott) hitting the deck hard.

Sector 19, Arneberg Forest, a dark narrow stretch of road, which segregates the men from the boys appeared. The stretch is so brutal, that it was removed by the organisers for 7 years, deeming it unnecessarily hard. It is 2.4k long stretch of hell.

The dark forests of Arenberg. PC: Eurosport/Tiz Cycling

As expected, the speed went down from 47 kmph to 39 kmph to 30 kmph. Even when the peloton came across, 2'34" later, they were riding at 32 kmph. And when that happens, on a flat stretch of road, you can imagine just how brutal the road conditions are. Arnaud Demare looked to be in some trouble keeping up with the Peloton and then the camera moved to the front, where Philipe Gilbert attacked with Mike Tuenissen(Sunweb) opening up a small gap at the front, even as Daniel Oss tried to chase them down.

PC: Eurosport/Tiz Cycling
The forest took its toll, as just Bystrom, Dillier, Wallays & Soler remained at the front. Gilbert was opening a gap even as Nils Polit(Katusha-Alpecin) tried to bridge over to them. Gilbert began to open a solid gap of over a minute, gulping down Soupe (*sorry for the pun*). The riders approached a railway crossing. In the past years, these level crossings have been a problem, but given SNCF was on strike today, the riders just flew by the crossing, no problems whatsoever.

No Trains, No Problems. PC: Eurosport/Tiz Cycling
Arnaud Demare's legs seemed to join SNCF's strike, as he got dropped. And after the drama of the last 2 classics, Team Bora-Hansgrohe took charge and began to chase down Gilbert. And just as soon as they caught Mr. Gilbert, his teammate Zdenek Stybar attacked. The QuickStep train has a LOT of fast moving bogeys, and it takes an intense effort to just keep them in place.

Riders approached the 2400 meter, 3 star Sector 16, which is going to be a part of Tour De France 2018. Stybar meanwhile, opened a 20 second gap and caught Marc Soler, who had dropped from the front of the race after Arenberg and was in no-man's land. The runners-up from 2018 Tour of Flanders, Matts Pedersen tried to bridge the gap between the Peloton and Stybar.

PC: Eurosport/ Tiz Cycling

Soon enough, Stybar dropped Soler but behind him counterattacks were coming from Daniel Oss and Tony Martin. As the riders crossed Sector 13, a 3 star, 1.3k long segment, with 60k to go, they finally caught Stybar even as Oliver Nasen was dropped behind.

The gap to the front was down to 38 seconds as Burghardt began to push along with Team Sky's Luke Rowe, who's making a comeback this year after last year's horrific crash where his leg in 20 places and was told he would never ride again. Counterattacks were coming in hot, from Jens Debusschere(Lotto Soudal) and even Greg Van Avermaet, but were both caught. Avermaet attacked again at a feed station, where riders were slowing down to collect their bidons. Everyone was looking at each other, and this time Peter Sagan went.

And ironically, everyone just looked at each other and let Sagan go. With 27 second gap, and no one chasing him, Sagan made a move with 53 kilometers out. Famous wins have happened from here, including Tom Boonen's 2012 win at Paris-Roubaix. Like a proper team strategy, Marcus Burghardt slowed down the peloton, allowing Sagan to bridge over to the front.

Sagan joined the front of the race with 51.4k to go and 32 second lead. Would that be enough for the 3 time World Champion?
PC: Eurosport/ Tiz Cycling

Behind Sagan, Wout Van Aert & Jasper Stuyven (Trek Segafredo) tried to bridge with Sagan. Earlier this week, Peter Sagan was asked which race he wants to win the most, and after his classic answers of "We'll see" and "I don't know", he replied "Paris-Roubaix".

Taylor Phinney (EF education Cannondale Drapac) tried to counterattack, but again, Burghardt nipped it in the bud. Sector 11, the 3000 meter, 5 star: Mons En Pevele approached. Meanwhile, behind Sagan's group, there was a major crash again, this time taking down Kristoff, Martin & Rowe.
PC: Eurosport/Tiz Cycling

With Sagan's lead almost upto a minute with 43k to go, Niki Tersptra decided to go, launching a counterattack and splitting the peloton. In doing so he managed to drop Philip Gilbert, thereby effectively ending his hopes of winning this year's Roubaix.
PC: Eurosport/Tiz Cycling
A 6 man group (Which somehow shows Gilbert in this screenshot), formed including Van Avermaet, Terpstra, Sep Vanmarcke(EF Education Cannondale Drapac), Taylor Phinney, Wout Van Aert & Stuyven.

Nils Politt also tried to bridge to the 2nd group with yet another QuickStep rider, Yves Lampaert.

Only 8 cobbled sections remained, including 1 brutal 5 star section. At 30k to go, with 45 second lead to Group 2, and 1'30" to Gilbert's group, Peter Sagan was seen doing repairs to his bike stem, while riding. Yes, you read that right.
"When they said all-round rider, did they mean a mechanic too?"  PC: Eurosport/ Tiz Cycling
As the riders reached Sector 7, a 3-star section of 1.3k which would also be a part of 2018 Tour De France, Wallays who had been bravely riding with Dillier & Sagan was finally dropped as the 2 men at the front increased their lead to over a minute.

A trivia came up, that no defending World Champion has won the Paris-Roubaix since 1981, when the legendary Frenchman, Bernard Hinault won the race and never came back saying "This is a race for stupid people" (i'm just paraphrasing to make it more PG 13).

Sagan was just brutal upfront, pushing at over 52 kmph, growing the gap to over 1'30" over Group 2 with 20k to go.

Sector 5, a 4 star, 1.8k long stretch, also a part of TDF 2018 approached and this time in the chasing group, there was a major tragedy, as Wout Van Aert had a mechanical and had to drop-off. With the guys going at 50 kmph, even a 10 second bike repair meant he had no hopes of catching the men at the front. Even Greg Van Avermaet dropped to the back of Group 2 as they came out of the cobbles, approaching the notorious Carrefour de l'arbre (Crossroads of the trees).

Peter Sagan too, had a scare as he ducked to avoid a flag fluttering stupidly in the middle of the road, as if Carrefour de l'arbre wasn't hard enough. The gap began to drop as Niki Terpstra accelerated behind, dropping Phinney from the group, making it 4 people (himself, Avermaet, Vanmarcke & Stuyven).

By now, being a Sagan fan, my palms were sweaty, not only from the fact that the gap was below 1 minute with 10k to go, but also because Swiss champion, Silvan Dillier was riding just as strong even after being in a breakaway for over 200 kms.

I doff my hat to Niki Terpstra, who doing a lot of pacemaking behind Sagan. I mean, winning a race as brutal as Flanders, at an average speed of 41 kmph and doing this, the Sunday after that brutal effort is just mind-boggling. If I ever ride 267 kms at 41 kmph average, that would be the only race in the year I would end up doing. Terpstra, was riding as if he had been doing a recovery ride last Sunday.

Meanwhile, Peter Sagan who was today's favourite both for me, Stanley Lemieux (the 7-month old baby of Gwen Jorgensen & Patrick Lemieux) & many others, was back to pushing at 50+ kmph. Sector 2, the final 3 star, 2.1k long segment came and went, but with 6k to go and a 54 second lead, it was going to be either Sagan or Dillier, who was going to lift the Cobble for 2018. Terpstra accelerated again, but Sagan was riding at 61 kmph, with 2.8k to go, as the 2 men at the front grew their lead to 1'03".

Even as they approached the velodrome, Sagan and Dillier were working together and finally, they entered the velodrome for the last 1.5 laps of the track.
PC: Eurosport/ Tiz Cycling

On any given day, with fresh legs, Sagan could beat Dillier easily. But could he do it, with almost 6 hours of riding at over 43.5 kmph?

The bell rang heralding the final lap, Sagan, let Dillier lead till the final turn. And then, like a proper track sprinter, accelerated, dropped to the bottom line of the velodrome and raised his hands in celebration! (at this moment, I started crying too; yeah I'm too passionate about sports).
The king of kings. PC: Eurosport/Tiz Cycling

Sagan won his 2nd monument, after Tour of Flander 2015. And in his typical fashion of providing entertainment to his millions of fans, picked up his golden bike and hoisted it in the air.

When he was asked "How does it feel", he coolly replied "Amazing". What an amazing man.

Dillier, who rode in the breakaway for 221 kms, finished an impressive 2nd while Niki Terpstra, got his 2nd podium in 2 weeks, finishing 3rd.
PC: Eurosport/Tiz Cycling

That wraps up an amazing day of cycling. Thank you for reading and I hope you enjoyed it.

Small request: Last week, Cristiano Ronaldo scored a goal through a bicycle kick. I love Cristiano Ronaldo, and that goal was very impressive. And many people, who have no association with football were sharing the goal.

Not demeaning any sport, cycling is a very hard sport. You can imagine the effort in riding 250+ kms, let alone at 43.5 kmph. These guys ride 40,000 kms each year and take major risks for very little rewards.

Please share this blog, or just urge show a small cycling clip to your friend/colleague to get them started on cycling. More viewership would result in more sponsors for these incredible athletes, who deserve equal, if not more attention, than 1 goal.

Thank you. :)


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