Paris-Roubaix gets more attention than any other classic on the calendar, with the assembled press examining the race from every angle -- from rider form, to bikes, to stones, to cars, to the fans and watering holes along the route. I'm about 3,800 miles too far west to examine much of anything right now, but here are 10 things I'm thinking about Roubaix:
- Within minutes of his victory in Wednesday's Scheldeprijs, Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions) was already telling the assembled press that he wouldn’t be among his team’s protected riders for Paris-Roubaix. When asked why, he noted that the team has two proven leaders for that event – Martijn Maaskant and Johan Vansummeren. Indeed, both have done notable rides in the cobbled classics, with Maaskant finishing fourth at Roubaix on his first try in 2008, and Vansummeren doing incredible support work for Leif Hoste at Lotto. But despite those riders solid record in past years, I still have to ask again – why is Farrar not a/the protected rider for Garmin at this year’s Roubaix?
This year, at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Farrar was third. Vansummeren was 52nd and Maaskant was 121st. At Gent-Wevelgem, Farrar was ninth, Vansummeren was 21st, and Maaskant was hors delay. At the Ronde, Farrar was fifth, with Vansummeren 55th at 5:13 back and Maaskant 90th at 13:20. At all three days of DePanne, Farrar was also the top finisher of the three. Now, yes, I realize that on some of those days, particularly those most likely to end in bunch sprints, Vansummeren and Maaskant were likely doing the donkey work for Farrar, and at some point in that job, you get to pull the plug and coast in. Maybe even save a little bit for Roubaix. But if Farrar was the team's leader and top finisher for hardman’s hilly cobbled classics like Het Nieuwsblad and the Ronde, and for moderately hilly cobbled races like Gent-Wevelgem, and for flat “sprinters” races with cobbles like DePanne and Scheldeprijs, why turn around and start talking about how you have better guys for a flat, cobbled race a week later?
Yes, Farrar has only ridden the race once before, and experience counts. But Maaskant has been given protected status for two years now based on his high placing on his maiden voyage to hell. And besides, everyone always talks about how experience counts, but then someone always comes along and proves it doesn’t matter as much as some people say it does – look at Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) at last year’s Milan-San Remo. And besides, Roubaix’s been won out of a hardman’s bunch sprint before – think Guesdon and Backstedt – and Farrar’s as good a candidate as Garmin has right now from that perspective. So unless Farrar has quietly confided to his team that his form is about to come crashing down around him, or they’re just trying to take some heat off him by saying he’s just there to help out, I’m failing to see the logic here.
- Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) quietly re-entered the classics peloton at the Scheldeprijs on Wednesday after having to scrap the Ronde due to illness. The Scheldeprijs doesn't really suit him, so it's hard to tell anything from his 67th place, but if he’s recovered, Pozzato should jump right back onto the favorites list for Roubaix. His gutsy ride there last year helped him shake some of the negative connotations of his carefully cultivated pretty boy image. He’s still pretty, of course, but he can take a punch, too.
- With Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) taking the weekend off to reload for the Ardennes classics in his native Wallonia, Leif Hoste takes over leadership duties for Omega Pharma, which – as we’ve already beaten to death – really, really needs a classics win right now. I have mixed feelings about Hoste. I’ve had pleasant conversations with him at a team launch. I’ve also seen him shove a race official against a crowd barrier before the start of Philly for having the nerve to brush him as he went past. But that’s personality, which doesn’t matter very much at Roubaix, and I respect the hell out of his riding and his toughness. In addition to strong rides at Roubaix, he’s been a bridesmaid several times over at his native Ronde, which can draw you some criticism from the native press. One of the most memorable, steely-eyed responses I’ve witnessed was when a reporter asked him, after the 2004 Ronde, how he could dare chase down fellow Belgian Dave Bruylandts (then with Marlux) in the finale, bringing eventual German winner Stefan Wesseman (then T-Mobile) with him. Hoste’s response, paraphrased: “This isn’t the world championship. I get paid to ride for Lotto. Not for Belgium.” It wasn’t a popular answer given the venue, but it was delivered with such unflinching conviction and force, I don’t think anyone held it against him.
Hoste has been fairly quiet this spring, mostly riding in Gilbert's shadow, but his form appears good and he's done his best rides when he hasn't been the center of attention.
- Roubaix organizer ASO announced on Tuesday that 100 gendarmes will be posted at the Carrefour de l’Arbre cobble sector to clamp down on the hooliganism that went on there last year. In addition to widespread littering, drunkenness, and I have to imagine ample public urination, spectators sector spit at and poured beer on competitors and pounded on and threw rocks at team cars and other race vehicles. So good on the neighboring towns and organizer for doing something to address it this year --- the only problem is that they’ve announced their clampdown way too early.
Look, those people are coming to this race no matter what, and organizers would have been far better off rolling their security force into the Carrefour unannounced on Saturday and Sunday. That way, they’d have most of the crazies in one spot where they could keep an eye on them, and the delinquents wouldn’t have had time to plan evasive action. But now that ASO's told them the plan on Tuesday, the hooligan crowd will know that the Carrefour won’t be the party it was last year, so they’ll move on. Yes, originally the Carrefour was popular because it’s the last decisive sector of the race at just 14k to the finish, but the racing ceased to be the primary focus for the undesirable crowd a few years ago. So I suspect they’ll easily abandon the Carrefour and move upstream to somewhere like Mons-en-Pevele. It’s still a 5-star sector and still within the decisive final 40 kilometers for those that have maintained some interest in the race, and at a yawning 3,000 meters long, it’ll be tough as hell to patrol. And even better, they'll already know most of the gendarmes will be hanging out at the Carrefour.
- With wholesale Ronde DNF-ers Footon-Servetto not invited to Roubaix, which team is going to take the dubious prize of finishing the least number of riders? My money’s on Euskaltel. Sure, Caisse d'Epargne and Milram don't seem to have much of a taste for making the finale either, but for totally mismatched affinities, it's hard to beat a bunch of Basques on cobblestones.
But let’s circle back to that Footon non-invite for a second. In the midst of all the recent kvetching about ASO’s Tour de France invites – which include the fairly unimpressive Footon – ASO's treatment of Footon at its classics shows just how much the organization is just grudgingly abiding by the 2008 agreement to invite then-ProTour teams to the Tour through 2010. While that document got Footon an invite to the big ball, that's as far as their love with ASO goes -- they won’t be attending Roubaix, Fleche Wallonne, or Liege-Bastogne-Liege. I have to admit, while it’s unfortunate that Footon is going to the Tour in a spot that could otherwise be used by more interesting teams, I’m glad that parties involved in the whole UCI/ASO ProTour dustup are finally bothering to read the agreements they’ve signed, and then go a step further and abide by them. What's next, reading contracts before we sign them?
- With the jaunt down into France from Belgium, the overall flavor of the peloton changes a bit, even if the basic cobbled classic game stays the same. Gone will be the Belgian second division teams, like Topsport Vlaanderen and Landboukredeit, and in come the French second division teams, like Cofidis and Saur-Sojasun. With swaps like that being made along (understandable) national lines, it speaks to the strength of the Dutch Vacansoleil squad that they’ve stayed on the roster as the action’s moved south. Of course, so has BMC, but thus far they’ve done so with recruiting rather than results.
- New observers of the Paris-Roubaix experience often have one of two reactions. Let’s address them right now.
The first common reaction is, “Some of the roads I ride are bad like that! Why, after this bad winter, there are tons of potholes, and a bunch of gravel at the edges, too!” I get where you’re coming from, but no, your roads are not bad like that. It is not like riding a potholed road. Or a road with frost heaves. Or a gravel road. Or chipseal. Or your neighbor’s cobbled front walk. And chances are, you aren’t riding those roads at 45kph, so even if the road was the same, the experience really isn't. No doubt your roads are bad, but they are not like the ones at Roubaix. Have your Roubaix fantasies as you ride those roads – it’s fun – but don’t confuse them with reality.
The second common reaction is, “Those roads are terrible. You know, they should use mountain bikes/suspension/bigger tires etc., etc., etc.” Yes, the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix are horrible – more horrible than those in all the other cobbled classics, as a matter of fact. But there are also only 53 kilometers of them. The other 200 or so kilometers of Paris-Roubaix are paved, and that makes a lot of the equipment suggestions from the peanut gallery pretty inefficient. There was a time in the 1990s when mountain bike technology made some inroads at Roubaix, when Duclos Lasalle was winning on a RockShox Ruby and Johan Museeuw started the race on a horrific dual suspension Bianchi, but that anodized nightmare died out pretty quickly. Now, we’re back to the adaptations that have been a constant since the 1970s and 1980s – slightly bigger tires and clearance for them, a bit of extra padding here and there, and wheels that can take a pounding. Though cycling is painfully and detrimentally resistant to change at times, these equipment choices have stayed constant for a reason – they help you a bit on the cobbles, and don’t punish you for the other 200k.
- If you lurk around race caravans a bit, you get to see all the crap that gets taped to the team car dashboard to help directors and mechanics get their jobs done. Some are constants – start lists, kilometer numbers for climbs or cobbled sectors – but one of the less common ones is a diagram, usually hand drawn, noting where each rider's spare bike is on the roof of the car. For Sunday, Saxo Bank should look into that.
- Want to know one reason I like Paris-Roubaix? Since the race’s name comes from two cities, English language cycling publications aren’t tempted to translate it. For some reason, English speakers have some contrary and irrepressible urge to both translate foreign race names into our own language, and give our own races foreign names (Tour de Georgia, anyone?). And in translating foreign language race names, we’re terribly inconsistent, which only makes matters worse. Why do we talk about the Tour of Flanders, but the Giro d’ Italia? For that matter, why the Giro d’Italia, but the Tour of Lombardy? I once read a sider in a popular American cycling magazine that discussed someone’s win in the Across Flanders Race. I had to spend a minute clearing my head of images of head-strap wearing RAAM riders before I could figure out they were talking about Dwars door Vlaanderen. Even city-based race names aren’t immune from the desire to translate – after all, there’s the perverse need to put an “h” in Gent for Gent-Wevelgem, despite how the Belgians like to spell it on their maps.
But Paris-Roubaix? Nice and clean.
So what’s the worse race-name mangling I’ve ever seen? A few years back, in some Armstrong-centric series on Versus (Road to Paris, Stalking Lance, etc.), they had a segment on the Ronde van Vlaanderen. But on the segment intro -- a nice white letters on black screen divider -- what spelling did we get? Not the native Ronde van Vlaanderen. Not the Americanized Tour of Flanders. Not the French Tour des Flandres. We got, instead: Tour de Flanders. Some mongrel mix of French and English, all slapped together for a Flemish race. Well done.
That said, my hypocrisy knows no bounds – in this very post I mentioned Milan-San Remo, not Milano-San Remo. But the Italians write about Parigi-Roubaix, so serves them right.
- Finally, disappointing to hear about Alessandro Ballan’s (BMC) provisional suspension by the team for his involvement in the latest blossoming Italian doping investigation, but good for the BMC management for acting quickly. There’s no sense in having things that happened while Ballan was at Lampre spill into their camp – they already have enough lingering baggage with the whole Phonak connection. At this point, I have to wonder at this point if Lampre will be at the start of Roubaix come Sunday. At just about this very time six years ago, Cofidis was busy packing up their things and slinking out of Compiegne as quietly as possible in the midst of a gathering dope storm. That scandal would cost David Millar (now Garmin-Transitions) two years on the bench. We’ll see where this one lands Ballan, Damiano Cunego (Lampre) and the rest of the parties in question.