Paris-Roubaix to be harder than before

With podium places in Milan San Remo and the Tour of Flanders on his palmares, Stuart O'Grady is...

An interview with Stuart O'Grady, April 9, 2005

With podium places in Milan San Remo and the Tour of Flanders on his palmares, Stuart O'Grady is Australia's best Classics rider. With two days to go to Paris-Roubaix, O'Grady told Gerard Knapp just how much he's looking forward to this year's 260km of cobbles and mud.

Despite the removal of what was considered the most dangerous section of cobbles on the Paris-Roubaix parcours - the dreaded Forêt d'Arenberg - the lead rider for French team Cofidis, Stuart O'Grady, believes Sunday's epic race could actually be harder without the famously-brutal section.

After checking out the new sections of the parcours that organizers have added to replace Arenberg, the Australian expects the race to have a different level of intensity. "Before you could feel the race would chill out a bit (after Arenberg), as the race would then enter good sections of asphalt, they would take in some food and drinks and then prepare for the next section. But now, they've replaced it with absolute goat-tracks, it's constantly twisting left and right; there just no place to recover," he said. "It's just going to be full-on."

O'Grady was speaking to Cyclingnews at a restaurant in Chantilly, close to the start of Sunday's big race, where he had dropped in to say hello to representatives from his helmet and shoe sponsor, Specialized. Indeed, the restaurant reflected the growing impact the race build-up was beginning to have on the area to the north of Paris, with tyre manufacturer, Continental, also hosting a gathering at the same venue.

However, it's not like O'Grady is going to miss the bone-jarring cobbles of the d'Arenberg Forest section. "It had got to the point where it was just causing too many accidents; it was just too dangerous and the organizers decided that the health and welfare of the riders was being threatened to such an extent that their safety was also important." This section had claimed many famous victims, including three-time winner Johan Museeuw, and O'Grady believes while, "it made for great television", it had gone beyond being just another selective section.

"I mean, there's still over 54 kilometres of cobbles in the thing," he said.

And while the prospect of even more rain may bring smiles to the faces of the spectators and press, for the riders it's a different matter. "Oh, I can't wait to have an inch of mud caked up on my face," he said, only half-jokingly. Indeed, a slight gastro problem on the night after finishing the race is not uncommon, after riders inevitably ingest a heady mix of mud and cow-dung that fills the narrow 'roads' of northern France.

O'Grady said he did "60-70 k's" of the course on Thursday "and got absolutely soaked". He found it to be in classic Paris-Roubaix condition - muddy. "If it rains tomorrow, and it's predicted, then we're in for it. Even if the roads do dry out by Sunday and it doesn't rain, after this week the cobbles will still be wet as the water just sits there and doesn't dry out that quickly.

"From now on, every drop of rain will turn it into mud."

O'Grady said he had "gone fairly deep" in the Tour of Flanders last Sunday - "everyone goes deep just to finish it" - and he felt he struggled through the first 150km of Gent-Wevelgem last Wednesday, "but after that the legs came good and I started feeling better.

"But it's impossible to back up [after Flanders] and then do Gent-Wevelgem with the aim of winning and then Roubaix. It's just not possible."

As for O'Grady, his priority in this month of madness had been the Tour of Flanders, where he finished on the podium in 2003 and this year came in just over two minutes behind winner Tom Boonen, in 16th position.

However, this time last year, O'Grady was recovering at home after a cracked rib all but spoiled his 2004 Spring Classics season, that had started so well with a podium finish in Milan-San Remo.

O'Grady's tip for Paris-Roubaix this year had been last year's winner, Magnus Backstedt, but, "Maggie's got an injury now and I'm not so sure how he will go".

"Yes, Tom (Boonen) is going well, and Hincapie . there's about 25 or so riders who could win it on the day, as long as everything goes their way and they have the right amount of luck on the day."

And it's that last ingredient that has really upset the favourites over the years. "For sure, I've had punctures in the race that have put me almost out the back, waiting minutes for a spare wheel as the hammer's gone down," he said of the cruel twists that are a factor of every Paris-Roubaix.

"But I'd prefer to be here now than sitting on the couch watching it on TV," he said. And as for this Sunday, "I'll be happy to get to the finish without breaking any bones."

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