Known as the Hell of the North and the Queen of the Classics, Paris Roubaix is arguably the toughest one day race of the pro cycling calendar.
Cycling's Paris Roubaix and the final round of the Masters tournament fall on the same day this year. Both are monuments of their respective. Both feature iconic scenery and the trophies from each are coveted by their competitors.
But at the end of the day on Sunday, the rider who hoists Paris-Roubaix's cobblestone trophy over his head will arguably have worked a lot harder than the man who puts on the green jacket in Augusta.
The winning check at the Masters is $1.4 million. Along with his cobblestone mounted on a marble base — perhaps the strangest trophy in world sports — the rider will pocket $39,000 for winning the toughest one-day test of man and machine in cycling, the Paris-Roubaix. Life really isn't fair.
Only because it is even older than the Tour de France does Paris-Roubaix get away with inflicting such cruelty on its participants. Born in 1896, it can do this because it is a tradition and because cycling values its traditions, even when they're just plain mad. If Paris-Roubaix was a new race, being organized for the first time this Sunday, there would surely be outrage and an army of health and safety apparatchiks forbidding it.
"It's the only race other than the Tour de France that people talk to me about, outside of France," Christian Prudhomme, the Tour's director, said this week as we rode together by car along the Paris-Roubaix route.
Prudhomme and his colleague, Jean-Francois Pescheux, were inspecting the renowned cobblestone paths that make this race a bone-shaking, wheel-puncturing festival of mayhem. Along with the riders, the cobbles are the stars of this show and its bullies, too. They aren't the smooth stones one finds on the boulevards of Paris. These are roughly hewn granite rocks haphazardly laid into tracks through farmland, caked in mud and often hundreds of years of old.
Brutes. Barely fit for tractors let alone bicycles. Their bumps, crevasses and holes pound riders' forearms and hands and shake loose nuts and bolts. If there's rain, the stones will become as slippery as soap. If not, the riders will choke in clouds of dust. The 160-mile route is studded with 27 sections of cobblestones. They make this race as wearing as a day of hard climbing in the mountains on the Tour — but with added pounding and bruising, "as though they're holding a jackhammer in their hands," Prudhomme said.
"You're in pain for the whole week that follows," said French ex-pro Thierry Gouvenou, who rode in 12 Paris-Roubaix.
American cyclist Chris Horner's verdict a few years back was especially memorable.
"The best I could do would be to describe it like this: They plowed a dirt road, flew over it with a helicopter and then just dropped a bunch of rocks out of the helicopter! That's Paris-Roubaix. It's that bad, it's ridiculous," he told dailypeloton.com.
For riders' mechanics like Geoff Brown, on the Garmin-Barracuda team, there is no tougher challenge. Paris-Roubaix is "the litmus test to see if you're any good at your job," Brown said.
Tires are wider and pumped to half the pressure than on the Tour so they better absorb bumps and don't fall into cracks between the cobbles. Every nut and bolt on Garmin's bikes is being glued into place so they don't shake loose, and double or triple layers of shock-absorbing tape are going on handlebars, Brown said.
Organizers' cars are reinforced underneath with metal sheets so the stones don't rip out their innards. Gouvenou said the atmosphere at the start in Compiegne, north of Paris, will be noticeably more apprehensive than at other races.
"There's a real fear of the unknown and that means everyone is tense," he said. Riders will be steeling themselves like boxers, "you have to prepare yourself for pain."
The founders 116 years ago were textile manufacturers Theodore Vienne and Maurice Perez, who wanted a race to the velodrome they had built to keep their workers happy and healthy in the industrial northern town of Roubaix, according to cycling historian Pascal Sergent.
Sergent recounts that a newspaper editor, Victor Breyer, was dispatched from Paris to trace a route. Breyer arrived in Roubaix covered in mud, drenched by rain, exhausted by cycling on the cobblestones and declaring that racing on them would be "diabolical" and dangerous. Luckily (unluckily?) for riders of yesteryear and today, Breyer changed his mind after a good night's sleep.
The first winner, Josef Fischer, was greeted with a rendition of "La Marseillaise" as he rode into the Roubaix velodrome and a glass of champagne after crossing the line on April 19, 1896.
The 1899 winner was Albert Champion, who moved to the United States and went into the spark-plug business, lending his initials to what is now ACDelco, the auto parts firm.
Paris-Roubaix's "Hell of the North" nickname is said to have been coined in 1919 by a journalist to describe the shelled and destroyed World War I wastelands the race picked its way through. It took that year's winner, Henri Pelissier, more than 12 hours to reach Roubaix — twice as long as it took Garmin's Belgian rider Johan van Summeren to win last year.
Because the cobbles guarantee punctures, crashes and other drama, the race is also something of a lottery where the best don't always win. Tough for the best, great for the rest.
No winner of Paris-Roubaix can be called merely lucky and thus undeserving. But there are riders who perhaps deserved to win who have not.
Like George Hincapie, the big American who fought back tears in 2006 after his handlebars sheered off on the bumps, tossing him into the dirt. He and Frederic Guesdon of France will line up Sunday for their 17th Paris-Roubaix.
Or Thor Hushovd, the beefy Norwegian who misjudged his speed on a sharp bend in 2009, slamming off a barrier and onto the stones. He remains obsessed with winning this race "in which anything can happen."
Brave and mad, the lot of them.
Paris Roubaix: The Favorites
Tom Boonen (Omega-Pharma QuickStep): With the epic season he is already having and the added cushion of Swiss powerhouse Fabian Cancellara recovering from a broken collarbone, the Belgian rider is poised to take his fourth win at Roubaix. With a strong team behind him that features French champion Sylvain Chavanel and Boonen's expertise on the cobbles, it seems that the odds are his favor as long as nothing out of the ordinary goes wrong...which at Paris Roubaix it always does.
Thor Husovd (BMC Racing): The Norwegian "God of Thunder" hopes that this will finally be his year on the cobbles. Foiled last year when he played cat-and-mouse with Fabian Cancellara while his then-teammate Johan Vansummeren surprisingly soiled to victory in the Roubaix velodrome, Hushovd hopes that with his experience in the race and the strength of his team will be able to propel him to the top of the podium. Also if it comes down to a sprint finish, Hushovd is a likely bet to win the race.
Alessandro Ballan (BMC Racing): Hushovd's teammate may or not lay second fiddle this year as the former World Champion has been in fine form this season with a strong showing at last week's Tour of Flanders. Ballan knows Roubaix well and don't be surprised if to see the BMC squad decide to back the Italian over the Norwegian mid-race if Ballan is well positioned and riding in good form.
Juan Antonio Flecha (Team Sky):The Spanish rider, who was born in Argentina, has always been an anomaly in the Spring Classic races...a cyclist from the Iberian peninsula who thrives in the cold, Northern French spring. Flecha has recovered from his earlier injuries and seems to be racing well this season. While Roubaix has always been a tough nut to crack for him and has plagued him seemingly every problem under the sun, if things go right Flecha could be the first Argentine to lift the cobblestone over his head.
Peter Sagan (Liquigas): The young Slovakian rider has proved in the past few years he is a force to be reckoned with. He's got a power kick in the sprint, excellent in-race intelligence and power in his legs and lungs that puts other pros to shame. While he doesn't have the strongest team around, Sagan could be a dark horse candidate and will definitely be in the mix of those vying for a shot at the podium.
Johan Vansummeren (Garmin-Barracuda): Some said that last year's win was only a fluke because the rest of the field was so worried about letting Fabian Cancellara escape that Vansummeren was overlooked. However the lanky Belgian had already finished twice in the top 10 at Roubaix before last year's win and rides the cobbles as good as anyone in the peloton. Vansummeren is a smart rider and the Garmin-Barracuda squad is one of the best run teams in the game. He's definitely an longshot, but don't count him out.
Based on reporting by John Leicester of The Associated Press.