Roubaix Racetrack

Words: Servais Knaven | Date:

Servais Knaven on Paris-Roubaix

The view from within a bike race is a privileged position; one that us fans rarely get to enjoy. Whether having ridden them, or from behind the wheel of the team car, the Team Sky directeur sportifs have an unrivalled understanding of what the biggest races are really like.

For ‘Roubaix Racetrack’, the third in a series of articles about the spring Monuments, Servais Knaven, one of the strongest Classics riders of the late nineties and early noughties and now a DS with Team Sky, tells us about this Sunday’s ‘Hell of the North’:

Crowd at Paris-Roubaix

“I rode Paris-Roubaix 16 times, finishing all of them, and I won it once too. I’ve now also done the race five times in the team car. It has always been my favourite race of the year but it’s hard to explain why. I was good in it, which I suppose makes it a bit easier to like!

What people don’t see is that the first 90km is on rolling, open roads with cross winds and that makes the race already pretty intense. You go at hard speeds and it is demanding but you still have to try and conserve energy as much as possible.

Peloton riding

After that, there’s a sprint every time to get on to the cobbled sections. The group could be 100 riders, or only 15, but there’s always a big fight for position. And on the cobbles it’s always full gas.

Being in the top 30 or 40 positions from the first cobbles onwards will save so much energy that you can use in the final. Every little energy you spend for nothing, you feel at the end. For me, it was always the race with the highest average heart rate. Maybe the maximum wasn’t that high but it’s always pushing and never easy.

Peleton riding on cobbles

The day after, you feel every muscle in your body. You feel muscles that you weren’t even aware that you had and that feeling will stay for a couple of days. It was better when I got older so the body gets used to it I guess, but the first years were crazy – I had pain everywhere. Luckily I never had any blisters on my hands, but many guys get them really badly. It’s really important to prevent it, especially if you get some on the recon a few days before that – those guys aren’t happy.

Driving the car behind the race is probably an even more crazy experience. On the bike you’re pretty narrow, 50cm wide, whereas in a car you’re maybe 1m85cm and so with all the spectators and all the cars in front of you, riders dropping back, or coming up from behind, you need extra eyes.

Racing on cobbles

There’s always a big fight in the cars to keep position on the road too. Everyone has a number and you have to drive in that order, but of course some guys try to go a little bit further ahead than they should. We have the same fight for position as the riders when we approach the cobbles too.

We always put two sports directors in the car during the Classics because you cannot both drive and give instructions at the same time. Gabriel Rasch drives the car and I’m the passenger, watching TV, listening to radio tour and talking with the riders to give them feedback.

Last year Luke Rowe came ninth and he’s one of the guys who stepped up last year. I have the feeling he can take another step this year. Then we have Ian Stannard of course – it’ll be his big goal for the season so I’m 100% sure he’ll be ready. They’ll be our main captains for the day, with Christian Knees and Salvatore Puccio and other experienced riders around them. I think we can go for a good result.”

Helicopter from underneath

Rapha is celebrating the spring Monuments with a competition offering generous prizes. Guess the winning time of Paris-Roubaix and a Team Sky–inspired pro package will be yours. Servais Knaven has also very kindly offered his advice to help your predictions:

“The direction of the wind most affects the speed of the race. Paris-Roubaix goes north so look out for whether the winds are northerly or southerly. Then, of course when it’s raining the races goes a few km/h slower too.”

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