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The most punishing and notorious of all the cobbled sectors, Arenberg is as distinctive as a prison corridor. It’s long enough that when the riders take to its start, the end appears to finish beyond the horizon. The smoothest edges of the road are behind the barriers, thanks to an organiser that wouldn’t like to see the most dramatic part of the show consigned to the relatively benign dirt path.
There are no tactics approaching this corridor of pain, apart from to make sure you’re as close to the front of the group as you can be and to go as fast as you can. One more helpful tip: don’t crash.
Arenberg represents something more than it is. For one Sunday in April, it’s not just a straight and tree-lined stretch of cobbles in a rural area, it’s one of the most iconic and hard-fought 2.4km in professional sports.
After Arenberg there are still 16 sectors of pavé left, but it’s hard to understate its strategic importance. Riders outside of the first 40 or so to cross its threshold have no hope of winning, but still ride for the honour of being a Paris-Roubaix finisher. Even for those inside that blessed top 40, the odds of the winner coming from a rider behind the first 15 wheels fall off precipitously.
Why? Because la Trouée d’Arenberg is volatile, and will happily upend a rider for even the most momentary lapse in concentration. One touch of the brakes, one hesitation, one fall in the wheels ahead of you, and you’re relegated to applauding while a rival receives his winners’ cobble. Strength isn’t enough, focus and mental fortitude also count.
A cause of these high stakes is the seriousness with which the teams treat the approach to the secteurs. The pace will rocket from 5 km away, and a rider without a train of supporting riders will use a well-judged elbow to make space in a line of better placed opponents. The bunch will be strung out by the efforts of obedient riders who, by virtue of putting their noses in the wind, have given away their shot at victory. Their race is purely to the start of the next stretch of pavé.
If you’ve ever seen Jørgen Leth’s classic cycling film A Sunday In Hell, one of the most distinctive things – apart from the wool jerseys, the modified support cars, and the crashed riders – is the way Merckx takes to the front to chase down the breakaway: The whole peloton is strung out behind him with simply no room or no will to move up the bunch. Each rider’s face is a picture of picture of exertion and pain. That’s what the pavé does to you.
The Roubaix Grip – The key to holding on is letting go
The Roubaix Grip is the reason the pros seem to handle the pavé like a butcher his meat. It involves forcibly relaxing your hands and resting them on the tops, but still holding on. The natural human reaction to pavé is to hold the bars as if in a vice, finding security in the familiar roundness and solidity of the bars, but this will likely leave you felled emotionally and possibly physically by the first irregular cobble.
The pros aren’t imbued with some secret ability, their seeming weightlessness over cobbles is not god-given – although they might have you believe so. The key to floating over the cobbles* is in the grip, or lack of it.
*Practice riding the cobbles is of course crucial.
The pedal stroke – Momentum & motion
Pedal stroke rarely translates well in TV coverage, which can be said about many of road racing’s nuances and idiosyncrasies, but is unmistakable and blatant when seen in person. The difference between a climber on steep slopes and the straggling grupetto is probably the most radical example of this, but there remains something to be said about the way a classics specialist turns a gear over cobbles. Not forced, but not gentle, not heavy and not light, a measured and smooth display of power that contrasts heavily with the surrounding chaos.
Bottle Bombs – Falls in the spring
Last year’s Paris-Roubaix was run in 5 hrs 45 mins. It was a fine day, with little in the way of wind or bad weather, but that’s still time enough for each rider to drink their way through 10 bidons, and ample time for the same bottles, on touching the ground, to transform from vital sources of refreshment to vicious obstacles intent on getting between your spokes.
It’s why, more than any other race in the calendar, riders will jettison an empty bidon as soon as it is finished, because empty bottles are easily shaken from their cages. Imagine being the rider who, as he powers along in service of the team’s protected riders, notices his bidon working its way free from its cage and sees it pass out of the bottom of his field of vision, only to work its way under the wheel of his team leader. Careers have ended for less. Many team mechanics apply grip.
Mud slinging – A rainy Roubaix
To win Roubaix is an accolade of the highest order. But to win Roubaix in the wet is even higher. The pros call it a ‘Gran Cru’ because it isn’t just the cold it brings with it, or the lack of traction in corners, or the loss of visibility – these are problems any pro on a classics squad should be able to ride through with little more than a good jacket and lower tyre pressure. The problem occurs when the rain meets the packed dirt between the cobbles, where it forms a hard-wearing scum that clings to lenses, the teeth and the valves of bidons. This mud is inescapable, reducing the varied colours and graphics of the peloton’s jerseys to one grey-scale hue. When you see the winner dragging his fingers across his jersey, trying in vain to reveal the sponsor obscured by mud, it’s the race’s way of reminding us that, for this one day, all the riders are branded ‘Roubaix’.
Merci Roubaix – Ballerini & reverence
The Queen of the Classics inspires devotion in riders just as it does the fans. Perhaps the most celebrated example of this devotion is Franco Ballerini. The race had given him two victories and a handful of placings and, in 1993, a tooth-and-nail sprint against Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle. Much has been written about Ballerini’s base layer, but it’s worth noting that in his final Paris-Roubaix he, and his team, were out-ridden and out-classed by Domo-Farm Frites and Team Sky’s Servais Knaven. Ballerini rolled over the line in 32nd, helmet-less and mud-caked, eight minutes down on Domo’s podium sweep and revealed his base layer with the message: ‘MERCI ROUBAIX’. Gratitude from a true hero of the sport.