Think of major bike races and the Tour de France is probably the first (and only) thing to come to mind. And sure, the Tour is an amazing exhibition of world-class athletes conquering brutal distances over 22 days. But that’s also kind of the drawback, I mean, who can watch four to six hours of something every day for three weeks? For enthusiasts and entry-level viewers of pro cycling, the Paris-Roubaix can’t be beat. It condenses all the spectacle and masochism of a multi-stage race into one action-packed day.
It’ll be streamed live on Sunday, April 12th at 7:00 am EST – if you’ve never had the pleasure of seeing it and aren’t sure where to start, here’s a breakdown of six reasons why Paris-Roubaix is one of the most alluring bike races.
1. The History
At 119 years old, Paris-Roubaix is one of cycling’s oldest races. (This year’s race is the 113th running, as breaks were taken for both world wars.) Called “The Hell of the North,” both for the torturous conditions and the desolate post-World War I landscape it winds through, it is one of five major one-day races held in the spring known as Monuments — the most important one-day races of the year.
2. The Cobbles
The most infamous and fearsome feature of Paris-Roubaix are its 27 cobbled sections. Though it’s not the only race to feature cobblestones—the Tour itself will have three sections this year—they are still the defining characteristic of Paris-Roubaix for their sheer number and difficulty.
Laid during the reign of Napoleon, these cobbled roads are narrow, bendy, eyeball rattling and bone-jarringly uneven. Riders have reported feeling flu-like symptoms in their bones two days after the race.
A society of preservationists known as Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix banded together in the eighties with the express purpose of ensuring the cobbles remained intact while maintaining their difficult heritage.
Bent wheels, broken spokes and flat tires are par for the course here. Some companies even offer replacement wheels along the course to unlucky riders, regardless of sponsorship.
Since 1977, winners of the race have received their very own precious cobble as a trophy.
3. The Pain
Endurance sports are all about suffering. The burn of lactic acid in leg muscles, the sting of sweat that flows freely into eyes, the agony of cramps; these are the salve of weekend warriors and professionals alike. Each spin of the pedals bringing you closer to atonement — for the hours spent sitting behind a desk, for the croissants and doughnuts surrendered to in the break room. Trudging on even though the pain could be stopped at any moment.
Watching pro cycling provides vicarious catharsis writ large.
The giants of the sport’s history are often affectionately remembered as “hard men,” their victories not simply the times they topped the podium, but also times they overcame incredible pain to keep riding. In 1956, Fiorenzo Magni rode an entire stage of the Giro d’Italia (comparable to the Tour de France, but in Italy) with a broken collarbone, tying one end of an inner tube to his handlebars and gritting the other end in his teeth, which allowed him to steer with one arm. The most decorated rider or all time, Eddy Merckx, rode most of his career with a chronic back injury sustained in a near-fatal bike crash. “I was always in pain,” he remarked about riding afterwards.
“I think if you’re a really serious racer, you will enjoy suffering,” says Eon D’Ornellas, who rode Paris-Roubaix in the eighties as a member of Canada’s junior team. “If you’re suffering everyone else has to be suffering.”
D’Ornellas runs a bike shop in Toronto now and explains why anyone would want to race Paris-Roubaix, “the pros do it to let everyone know that they are a tough guy.”
Don’t let shaved legs, dorky helmets and skin-tight lycra shorts fool you — cyclists are a surprisingly macho bunch.
4. The Route
European bike races never lack for beautiful vistas, and Paris-Roubaix is no exception. The race begins in front of Chateau de Compiegne, a residence built for Louis XV and restored by Napoleon. The harshly beautiful landscape of northern France serves as the backdrop for the next six hours, culminating in a sprint around Roubaix’s exquisite outdoor velodrome.
As the name implies, the race was originally between the cities of Paris and Roubaix, but since 1977 the starting point has been the small northern commune of Compiegne. Every year the route changes slightly but it is always long and treacherous, with a significant portion devoted to cobbles.
This year’s course is 253km long, which is roughly the same as equivalent of biking from Toronto to Niagara Falls, and then back.
When it rains (as it often does in April), the course is treacherously wet. When it’s dry, riders in front stir up dirt and dust clouds that obscure vision and gum up cables and gears—even more incentive to get out in front and stay there.
5. The Strategy
Unlike most other major races, Paris-Roubaix is mainly flat, essentially turning the race into an all-out slugfest. Sure, riders attack on the asphalt and recover on the cobbles, but conventional strategies are pretty much out the window. Hills make attacks predictable, because that is where riders who are known for their climbing prowess will make their move. With a flat route the playing field is leveled, attacks can come at any moment, keeping everyone on their toes. It’s a purer form of racing, based on riders’ instinct in the moment.
In a typical Tour de France stage, riders often form into a large group called a peloton to increase their aerodynamic efficiency. But a tight group is the last place you want to be when approaching the cobbles, as a slight miscalculation by anyone can lead to a massive, day-ending pileup.
Fatigue also kills reaction time and leads to sloppy bike handling. I’ve gone over my handlebars twice, both times while riding casually on flat roads after the 100km mark. To put that into perspective, Roubaix riders are just hitting their first patch of cobbles at 100km into the race.
Eating early and often is critical to staying in the saddle on a long race like Paris-Roubaix. Kris Westwood is a former Canadian national cycling team member and continuing masters cyclist. He says that while amateurs often rely on energy bars and sugary gels, pros avoid them. “It rots your stomach, rots your teeth,” says Westwood, “you can’t eat like that day in day out.”
Instead, they rely on team members called soigneurs (from the French for “the one who provides care) to shuttle real food to them from a team car, typically sandwiches or homemade rice cakes. Failure to eat will result in the dreaded “bonk,” where blood sugar drops to the point that riders have no ability to accelerate. Dizziness and spotty vision are possible during a bad bonk too. Once you get to that point, you’re toast. “It’s almost impossible to come back,” says Westwood, “you have to anticipate it.”
6. The Bikes
Paris-Roubaix is as demanding on the bike as it is the rider. Companies have been trying for years to tweak their traditional road frames to make them more suitable for the cobbles. A suspension system was toyed with a few years ago, but those fell by the wayside because riders found them too heavy on the smoother sections of the race.
Trek introduced their Domane frame three years ago with Paris-Roubaix in mind. According to Barry Near, owner of a Trek bicycle shop in Toronto, three-time Roubaix winner Fabian Cancellera* likes his Domane so much that he rides it year round, even on the Tour de France. Near says the decoupler located in the carbon fiber frame that allows the bike to flex easier, which allows for more road compliance, “It soaks up the cobbles but feels like a road bike and there’s no weight penalty.”
These advances in bike tech trickle down to the consumer market too, since the International Cycling Union requires bikes used in competition to be “publicly available.” Meaning the average cyclist can ride the same bike as the their favourite pro, provided they can afford it.
*Cancellera was a favourite going into Paris-Roubaix 2015, but pulled out on March 27 following a crash during the Tour of Flanders (the other major one-day race featuring cobbles). He fractured two vertebrae in his lower back.