When it comes to professional cycling, most of the world thinks racing begins and ends with the Tour de France. Sure, that grand tour may provide 22 days of highly covered racing plastered with all sorts of viewer sweepstakes.
But for pure drama, intensity, and display of cycling brilliance, Paris-Roubaix is the year's greatest race.
The "Queen of the Classics," Paris-Roubaix is a 155-mile slog across northern France's exposed flatlands, starting just outside of Paris and pushing up to the town of Roubaix. And it's being televised live in the US for the first time ever this Sunday.
Paris-Roubaix is largely considered cycling's hardest race because of the battering winds blowing down from the North Sea and the savage pathways of ancient, jagged cobblestones laid during the reign of Napoleon. Don't believe it? Here are five reasons why this race always lives up to the hype.
1) It's the "Hell of the North"
Paris-Roubaix's most common moniker, most fans think the race is called the Hell of the North because of the tortuous riding conditions. It actually refers to the obliterated landscape that remained after World War I. But this race is a war, often destroying bikes and riders alike as they get tossed around and into each other. Need proof? Check American George Hincapie and his crash in 2006.
2) The Cobbles
Paris-Roubaix isn't the only race of the year to go over cobblestone roads, but these are the most noted. The race is made up of27 sections of cobbles
, or sectors, numbered in descending order and rated by difficulty on a five-star scale. These cobbled sectors are so cherished that a group of preservationists known asLes Amis de Paris-Roubaix
annually go out and repair the roads.
The most famous stretches of cobbles include the Forest of Arenberg (Sector 16, a 2.4 kilometer sector where the race leaders typically separate themselves from the peloton), Mons-en-Pévèle (Sector 10, a long 3km stretch that includes two 90-degree turns that usually create a crash or 17), and Carrefour de l'Arbre (Sector 4, the final 5-star section where the winner is often decided and ends at the steps of a tavern in the middle of nowhere).
3) It's dirty
There are two weather conditions for this race: dry or wet. Basically, this translates to dust or mud, thanks to the cobblestone roads, and rain is expected for the race this weekend. While it won't be the mud wrestling scene from Stripes, it should lead to some great imagery as opposed to the lung-choking dust clouds that rise when it's dry. Either way, all finishing riders get to shower in the famous stalls deep inside the fabled Roubaix Velodrome stadium where the race finishes each year.
4) Power and Luck
Because of the lack of climbing, this race is about pure strength and power heavily complimented by a healthy dash of good fortune. Year-in and year-out there seems to be no denying that the race winner did not deserve to win (as was the debate at this year's Milan-San Remo) simply because the strongest riders always push to the front and the weak drop away.
Consider last year's edition where Garmin rider Johan Vansummeren got into an early break and just kept powering ahead until no others could hold his wheel even though the race's strongest rider, Fabian Cancellara, was held back by an invisible leash by all other riders who feared his strength. But sometimes lucks smiles upon the winner with the occasional train crossing the route. And with Cancellara out after his injury last week, it's a wide open race this year.
From the opulent start in front of the Castle of Compiègne (built for Louis XV) to the finish in the historic velodrome, Paris-Roubaix is riddled with dense history. It's about strength, strategy, suffering and luck. But no matter how much a rider tries to master the course, the course always ultimately masters the racers. Unlike all other races throughout the year, Paris-Roubaix has a mystique that remains unchanged and unsolved but by one single rider.
And no matter which cyclist you root for during the race, you always cheer for the one who stands atop the podium and lifts the most tantalizing trophy in the sport. As they say Over There, "To win Paris-Roubaix, you must love it."
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Paris-Roubaix is airing live on NBC Sports Network (Cox channel 69, DirecTV channel 603) this Sunday beginning at 6 a.m., or view live European coverage streaming via the internet at cyclingfans.com.
And when the race is over, get out and ride Phoenix's version of Paris-Roubaix.