After the extended series of Belgian cobbled classics, the men's professional peloton heads across the border into northern France this weekend for the 108th edition of Paris-Roubaix.
The 259km race is known as the 'Queen of the Classics' and the 'l'enfer du Nord' because of the hellish conditions the area was left in after the first world war and because of the terrible conditions the riders have to overcome on the 27 sections and 52.9km of cobbles during the race.
Flanders and northern France are very similar in many ways, yet the cobbles, or pavé, are markedly different. In France they are bigger, rounder, with wider gaps between each one. That makes them more difficult to race on and seems to make them hurt even more, as the pain on the faces of the riders shows as they clean their battered bodies in legendary velodrome showers.
Milan-San Remo has the Cipressa and the Poggio and the Tour of Flanders has the Koppenberg and Kapelmuur. Paris-Roubaix has the evocative sounding sections of pavé such as Orchies, Mons-en-Pévèle, Cysoing à Bourghelles and Carrefour de l'Arbre. The history of the racing on these cobbles is what makes Paris-Roubaix one of cycling's five Monuments. And these sections of ancient roads are now rightly protected by the 'Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix' association that pays for their restoration.
The race was first held in 1896, when the cobbled roads were farm tracks and narrow roads that lead between coal mines. Now the fields and leftover slag heaps are points of reference for the riders as the route twists and turns through the countryside and the sections of pavé slowly and painfully count downwards to the finish in Roubaix.
The Arenberg and star ratings
Paris-Roubaix has started in the town of Compiègne, 80km northeast of Paris, since 1977 and the town proudly hosts the team presentation on Saturday afternoon.
On Sunday morning the first section of cobbles comes after 97km of racing, with the other 26 dotted along the route at painfully short intervals.
Perhaps the most famous and is the Trouée d'Arenberg, the terribly sounding Trench of Arenberg. The 2.4km section passes through a thick wood, making the cobbles slippy and dangerous.
Arenberg often causes the first real selection at the front of the race, and position going into it is vital. The bunch will hit the cobbles at over 50km an hour and then string out in long line. A crash or a rider losing a wheel can cause a split and eliminate huge chunks of the peloton. There is still a hundred kilometres to race but whoever emerges from Arenberg at the front often goes on to fight for victory in the velodrome.
The French newspaper L'Equipe awards five stars to the longest and most difficult sections of pave and riders have lists taped to their handlebar stem so they know the order in which they will face them.
Section ten at Mons-en-Pévèle has five stars but it is the double whammy four-star section of Cysoing à Bourghelles and Bourghelles à Wannehain (number 6) that causes more problems. It is rapidly followed by the Camphin-en-Pévèle (5) and Carrefour de l'Arbre (4) sections. Both have five stars and the corners in the tight corners cause further problems, further pain for the riders and more spectacular racing for the huge crowds that pack the route.
The fans will be more tightly controlled by police this year but watching Paris-Roubaix here is better than watching from the touchline of a soccer match and surely more exciting than following a golfer as he sinks a tournament winning put.
Can Boonen win number four?
Tom Boonen won his third Paris-Roubaix last year, joining Eddy Merckx, Johan Museeuw and Rik Van Looy as a three-time winner in dominant style.
Boonen and his Quick Step teammates shaped the race with a series of attack after the Forest of Arenberg and then he was part of a select breakaway of six riders that went on to fight it out on the final sections of cobbles near Roubaix.
Boonen was on the front through the Carrefour de l'Arbre section as first Juan Antonio Flecha, and then Thor Hushovd, crashed in spectacular style on corners. Boonen knew it was his chance and surged away, with Filippo Pozzato unable to close the gap and get on his wheel before the velodrome.
Boonen must have a chance of a fourth victory on Sunday but is probably having nightmares of being beaten by Fabian Cancellara yet again. The Swiss Saxo Bank rider dropped Boonen with a kilometre to go to win the E3 Prijs Harelbeke and then cruelly dropped him on the Kapelmuur before taking the Tour of Flanders.
Cancellara won Paris-Roubaix in 2006 and is the favourite for another if he can avoid punctures and crashes on the cobbles. His Saxo Bank team controlled much of the action at Flanders and Stuart O'Grady, Baden Cooke and Frank Hoj will again do much of the hard work mid-race over the cobbles. Matti Breschel was livid after being given the wrong bike during a change at Flanders. He is also clearly on form and also deserves a second chance of success.
Saxo Bank will have the responsibility for controlling the race and the other teams will try to take advantage of that. Quick Step also has Stijn Devolder and Sylvain Chavanel, while almost every other big team has a leader capable of winning or at least being in the hunt for victory on the cobbles.
George Hincapie found his form just in time for Flanders and things will surely go his way after years of accidents and misfortune. BMC also have Alessandro Ballan and Marcus Burghardt, with the USA's Jackson Stewart and John Murphy also in the initial BMC roster.
The Cervélo TestTeam is without Heinrich Haussler and Team Sky has lost Edvald Boasson Hagen due to his ongoing Achilles heel problem, but both teams will still be strong on Sunday. Cervélo TestTeam has Hushovd, Roger Hammond, Jeremy Hunt and Theo Bos, while Sky has the experienced Flecha, Mathew Hayman and Michael Barry, plus young guns Geraint Thomas and Ian Stannard.
Tyler Farrar leads the Garmin-Transitions team and morale will be sky high in the US team after his impressive sprint win at Scheldeprijs on Wednesday. Martijn Maaskant, Johan Van Summeren have both proved their talents on the cobbles, while David Millar has discovered a rich vein of form and an a neo-pros' enthusiasm for the classics. It will be fascinating to see what the Briton can do on Sunday.
The form of Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) is uncertain after his illness before Flanders and the same could be said of the Liquigas team. They have Manuel Quinziato and Daniel Oss but neo-pros Peter Sagan and Kristjan Koren will also make their debut on the pave. Lars Boom leads Rabobank, while Bernhard Eisel and Lars Bak will captain HTC-Columbia.
All of these riders have a chance of victory but they will have to over come the 52.9km of cobbles, last the 259km race distance and have the strength to respond to attacks and survive crashes and punctures. Only one of them will celebrate in the Roubaix velodrome and get to kiss and collect the winner's cobblestone trophy.
Paris-Roubaix course map
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