After revisiting the day Frenchmen Henri and Francis Pélissier became the first, and only, brothers to occupy the top two spots in one of cycling's monuments, we fast forward 81 years from 1921 to 2002. In the sodden centenary edition of the Hell of the North, the gruelling cobblestone classic in northern France lived up to its nickname as veteran Johan Museeuw made history and youngster Tom Boonen came of age despite being booed by his own fans.
Since the retirement last year of Mat Hayman there are no current riders in the pro peloton who have experienced first-hand a wet Paris-Roubaix. The Australian, who famously won the race on his 15th attempt in 2016, was the last man standing from that crazy 2002 edition when fans were last treated to the chaos of a wet Roubaix.
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Slippery cobbles in northern France have not exactly been an unknown quantity since. It has rained on numerous other one-day races featuring cobblestones, while Dutchman Lars Boom memorably won the sodden Stage 5 of the 2014 Tour de France which took in seven cobbled segments usually used in Paris-Roubaix.
But on that wet July day in 2014 the inclement weather prompted Tour organisers to remove two segments, reducing the amount of pavé to around 15km – a far cry from the 51km used earlier that spring in Roubaix (it didn't even include the brutal Arenberg Trench despite finishing in Wallers, a cobblestone's throw away from the legendary sector cutting through the woods).
As Hayman, who finished that apocalyptic edition in 2002 outside the time limit, told Rouleur magazine in 2017:
In the rain, an already famous race becomes even more famous.
2002 was the year of the third and final roar of Johan Museeuw and a breakthrough performance from the pick of the Flandrian lion cubs, a little-known neo pro by the name of Tom Boonen – whose record fifth win Hayman was to deny 14 years later.
With Jennifer Lopez topping the charts and Star Wars: Attack of the Clones disappointing viewers in the box office, a mud-spattered Museeuw took the spoils after an incredible 41km solo break four years after his career almost came to an end in similarly demanding conditions.
Roubaix and the rain
Does a race that's synonymous with suffering and sadism really need rain on top of the kitchen-sink savagery it already throws at its participants – grown men who are prepared to jostle and barge their way at speeds in excess of 60kph towards a narrow strip of cobbled barbarity better suited to ox carts from a previous century?
In 2014, a dozen years after Museeuw's win, the Inner Ring blog posted an entry entitled The Paris-Roubaix Rain Dance which looked into the meteorological conundrum of this particular region of northern France.
The average rainfall in spring in the region is 144mm and Lille, the nearest city to Roubaix, is equal 13th among 118 places in France for the number of rainy days a year. It is, in short, one of France's wettest places.
"So why doesn't it rain for Paris-Roubaix?" the blogger asked.
Is it just a statistical oddity, a rarity for it to be dry year after year on this one day? Is it climate change? No, it's all perfectly normal. Yes, Roubaix is so far north it's almost Belgian and yes, it's one of the rainiest regions all year round. But it has a surprisingly dry spring.
The reason is therefore quite simply: March and April curiously happen to be the driest time of the year in that neck of the French woods. There has been some rain on Roubaix day since 2002 – 10 years later, when Boonen won his record-equalling fourth crown, it did drizzle. But it was only enough to dampen the soil, which meant not only no mud but none of the eye-catching dust clouds which make for much of the spectacle (and difficulty) when the rain holds off.
It's worth adding that rain on the cobbles doesn't necessarily bring about utter carnage. When Boom won the wet pavé stage of the 2014 Tour there were some spills, but only one withdrawal in Chris Froome – and that because he had cracked his wrist the previous day and then fell again before reaching the cobbles.
And when the Tour returned to the cobbles in 2018 – in a nail-biting stage featuring 22km of pavé stirringly won by a resurgent John Degenkolb in Roubaix – there were frequent crashes despite the hot weather, with Froome, again, going down in a dramatic pile-up that captured the imagination.
But it is the wet editions of Paris-Roubaix which seem to stick in the mind. Who can forget the brutal 1994 race when only 47 riders finished due to snow falling the previous day as the muddy Moldavian Andrei Tchmil took the spoils?
"It was complete mayhem – like a war zone," says Peter Cossins, author of The Monuments, who was covering the race that year for the first time. He feels that the absence of rain at Roubaix has left something of a void for spectators and riders alike.
"I remember a rider coming in saying he'd crashed four times and adding, 'If only I'd crashed three times I might have won'. That was the average. Riders aren't doing that anymore. The race doesn't seem as chaotic as it used to be when you think back at the years [Bernard] Hinault or [Sean] Kelly won in the wet. That was the way Roubaix was – playing out under the April showers. For it not to have rained in 18 years is pretty mind-boggling."
The centenary edition: setting the scene
All the talk in the lead-up to the 2002 race was of a battle between Belgians Johan Museeuw and Peter van Petegem, the Italian Andrea Tafi and the American George Hincapie. All four riders had finished in the top four in Flanders a week earlier, where Tafi had come out on top.
But Hincapie's third place in the mid-week Gent-Wevelgem made him the in-form rider and dark horse for Roubaix. A year earlier, in another sodden edition, the US Postal rider had finished fourth behind a Domo clean sweep on the podium, led by Servais Knaven and with Museeuw settling for second.
For his part, Museeuw was low on morale. Losing to his rival Tafi in the Ronde van Vlaanderen had left him very disappointed. Annoyed at missing the opportunity of crowing his illustrious career with a record-breaking fourth Flanders win, the Belgian even threatened to quit the sport rather than race for a third Roubaix title.
One rider no one considered a threat was the Belgian neo-pro Tom Boonen – although Museeuw had ridden with the 21-year-old in the break in the recent Classic Haribo and was further impressed by him at Omloop Het Volk and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. "I haven't seen too many neos do that yet. Too bad he's not in my team," he said at the time.
While most of his rivals fretted about tyre pressure and the weather forecast, the highly superstitious Museeuw had gone through his usual ritual ahead of the race. "On Thursday, after training, I filled two bidons with Holy water at the Saint Godelieve Abbey in Gistel, which I poured over my wheels on Sunday morning," he later told the Belgian publication Sportmagazine.
"Johan's superstition went very far", his soigneur Dirk Nachtergaele elaborated. "On Saturday evening I had to disinfect and grease his new bib shorts. He also slept that night in the same room of the modest castle just outside Compiègne where we stayed every year. Johan also wore his favourite undershirt, in which he had already won several World Cup races, although he had to make the name of the old clothing sponsor illegible with a black marker. Then, of course, he had his paternoster from Padre Pio, the talisman given to him by a supporter in 1992."
When the rosary went missing before the start, Museeuw became agitated. "We searched the entire bus with a number of riders," said his then Domo-Farm Frites teammate Wilfried Cretskens. "Fortunately, we found the paternoster under a seat – it had fallen out of Johan's pocket. Barely five minutes later the starting signal sounded."
Boonen gets in the break
The sun shone deceptively over the 190 riders at the start. But it didn't last long. Over the next seven hours, only 41 riders would make it to the Roubaix velodrome inside the time limit. The looming grey clouds had already psychologically destroyed many of the participants.
Speaking to Rouleur in 2017 about the wet and windy forecast, Hincapie said: "Basically, a lot of guys can't handle that. They wake up, see the weather and mentally, they're done. You're racing against half the peloton instead of the whole one."
Fourth in Flanders and third in Gent-Wevelgem, Hincapie was leading the US Postal Service team that day with the young Boonen one of his domestiques. Boonen was told to get in the day's break, following the advice of his directeur sportif Dirk Demol, who himself won Roubaix in 1988 on a rare day the breakaway went all the way to the velodrome.
Under cool spring sun, Boonen was one of 33 riders who edged clear of the pack an hour into the race after a strong northeast wind and heavy drizzle saw numerous echelons form. Also present in the move were Museeuw's teammates Max van Heeswijk and Enrico Cassani, Cofidis road captain Nico Mattan, a fresh-faced Thomas Voeckler, Lotto domestique Hans De Clercq and veteran breakaway specialist Jacky Durand, the surprise winner of the Tour of Flanders a decade earlier [link to previous Re-Cycle].
Very much an unknown quantity, Boonen was given a free hand in the break and didn't have much work to do. His fellow escapees didn't recognise him, presuming he was mere foil for his teammate Hincapie, who was back in the bunch with his US Postal henchmen Floyd Landis and Antonio Cruz.
Two hours in, before the first cobblestone section at Troisville, drizzle turned to rain. An already cold and windy day was now marked by heavy showers and scummy, slippery pavé. The roads soon became a mud bath.
Carnage on the cobbles
It's hard to paint an exact picture of the barbarity that day without skipping over countless case studies which also merit mention. But naming every victim and describing every crash would take longer than replaying the entire race itself over again.
It was on entering the Troisvilles section of cobbles, and slamming on the brakes because of a pile-up, that Britain's Max Sciandri, his back wheel parallel to his handlebars, realised things were "going to be a totally different ball game".
Also speaking to Rouleur, South Africa's Robbie Hunter, who was in the break, recalled the particular challenges of the task in hand: "Everybody's done a cobbled section with a bit of water here or there, but that really doesn't compare to riding a full Paris-Roubaix on sectors of wet cobbles that are covered in mud and scattered with oil from vehicles that have bust their sumps. Unless you've done a Roubaix like that, you can't fathom how bad it really can be."
It didn't help Hunter that his Mapei team – as well as fellow Belgian team Lotto – were racing on new tyres from Michelin which they had only tested in dry conditions. "They were really s***," he recalled.
Boonen later compared riding on muddy cobblestones to riding on cobblestones with a layer of soap on top. What he had going for him was his cyclocross background, which made him more accustomed to the conditions than many others. But as the Belgian told Rouleur, in such conditions your biggest enemy is not always your own shortcomings, but those of your rivals.
On those sectors in the rain, you don't just depend on your skills, but on the 50 guys in front of you as well. That's the most dangerous part.
Falling becomes part and parcel of racing on a day like this, as Hayman, riding his third Roubaix that year, told Rouleur: "You have to be prepared to fall in a wet Roubaix. Maybe not once, not twice, a fair few times. It's super dangerous, slippery and it all happens pretty quickly."
Despite the presence of their teammate Boonen in the break, Landis and Cruz had led the chase for US Postal back in the pack.
Museeuw makes his move
After the first 10 sectors of cobbles and heading into the Arenberg, the break had been whittled down to 12 riders, including Boonen, with a lead of over four minutes. Mattan, still present in the move, was particularly impressed by his young compatriot: "It was as if he was already riding his tenth Paris-Roubaix. He knew where to ride on each sector and he did so with ease."
With Domo's Cassani attacking from the break, behind his team leader Museeuw upped the tempo in the Arenberg – the site of his horrific crash in 1998, where a subsequent infection from the mud seeping into his shattered kneecap led to gangrene and, almost, amputation.
When Museeuw came back to win his second Paris-Roubaix in 2000, he pointed to his knee as he crossed the finish line in the velodrome ahead of the chasing pack.
"Even the guy who triumphed in the last rainy Roubaix had a horror story from an earlier wet one," says the established cycling journalist Shane Stokes, for whom the fixation of fans with rain and cobbles borders on the irresponsibly perverse.
I'm against the notion of riders being gladiators and that there should be crashes to enjoy a race. Even if a wet edition is more spectacular to watch, it's important to keep the riders in mind, not to forget that they're human beings.
Between Museeuw's last two Roubaix wins, in the hellish 2001 edition, Frenchman Philippe Gaumont also crashed heavily on slippery cobbles in the treacherous Arenberg, fracturing his femur – yet another reminder of the appalling challenges when the heavens open.
That Museeuw used the Arenberg as a launchpad in 2002 was clearly a sign of the great, fearless champion that he was. Sticking with the Belgian's surge were his teammate Knaven, Hincapie, Sciandri, the Swiss Steffen Wesemann and the Dane Lars Michaelsen who, absurd as it sounds, was riding Roubaix as part of his stag weekend celebrations, with six friends following in an accredited vehicle behind.
In a boost for Museeuw, his big rival Tafi had been laid low by a fever and was well off the pace, the Italian set to spend the rest of the race in desperate pursuit well off the pace behind. The select chase group that formed around Museeuw was regularly bolstered by riders dropping back from the break, which was just seven strong as it passed through the second feed zone in Orchies.
On the five-star sector of Mons-en-Pévèle, Museeuw's group merged with the front men just as the Belgian veteran was flexing his muscles. He attacked at Merignies in sector 8 around 45km from the finish.
"I know it's a long way to go alone but that's tactics," he said.
I didn't know the day before I'd go from so far out. If you don't feel okay, you wait till the finale. But I felt great that day. I was 100 per cent sure I was the best.
Hincapie tried to react but later admitted his "legs were just rubber". Meanwhile De Clercq, who had been in the break, skidded in oil, crashed and broke his wrist. Although he didn't know this at the time.
"I did the last 45 kilometres of Paris-Roubaix with a broken wrist," he told Rouleur. "At first, you just ride on adrenaline. But you become tired and it is so slippery. On the last pavé section, I could only hold the bars with my right-hand."
Boonen leads the chase
The race's youngest rider was caught short by Museeuw's attack, his wheels skidding in oil before a gap of 15 seconds suddenly opened up. He rode in pursuit with teammate Hincapie, prompting Domo DS Peeters to cry in Museeuw's ear, "Don't stop – two are chasing." He omitted the fact that they were both from US Postal for fear of damaging his rider's morale.
With snot streaking through the mud on his pained face, Museeuw extended his lead to one minute over whom the French TV commentators erroneously described as the "two Americans" in pursuit, who were forced to dodge an official car which had got stuck in the mud.
When one of the US Postal riders crashed into a ditch in sector 4 at Camphin-en-Pévèle, Boonen's father André, watching on TV, screamed "Tom!" at his screen. "I couldn't tell the difference between them," he later told Sportmagazine. But it was not his son who hit the deck, but an exhausted Hincapie.
"After Museeuw's attack, I felt the energy tank slowly drain," Hincapie said 10 years later. "In the beginning, I floated over the cobblestones, but I made a beginner's mistake by dressing too lightly in the cold weather and eating too little. I became cold and when I slipped, I could barely respond. The remaining 18km were the longest in my career. I still don't know how I managed to become sixth."
His leader in the ditch – "In my entire career, never had I been so completely bonked… empty… dead," Hincapie would tell Rouleur – Boonen was momentarily caught in two minds: slow down and wait or continue the chase on his compatriot ahead. After some dithering – perhaps his only fault that day – the youngster opted for the latter.
"Maybe I should have done that sooner, because I had been thinking for a while that George had trouble staying in my wheel," said Boonen. But the Belgian found himself booed and doused in beer by his own supporters on the side of the road. French TV were not the only ones who had failed to identify the correct nationality of the rider chasing Museeuw.
Museeuw makes it three
The lone leader's red lips were the only thing of colour as Museeuw hit the race's third and final five-star cobble section at the Carrefour de l'Arbre. Behind, Boonen had been joined by Wesemann, who had crashed earlier in the day before the cobbles, requiring a change of bike and shoes.
But it was a fight for second place: Museeuw's gap continued to grow, and the leader was preoccupied not by doubts of the victory, but by how he would celebrate that victory. The grizzled 36-year-old had contemplated walking over the finish line and symbolically hanging up his bike before announcing his retirement.
"But I wasn't ready for it yet," he told Sportmagazine. "So, in a fraction of a second I decided to put ten fingers in the air, one for each World Cup victory." His huge winning margin of 3:04 over Wesemann has not been bettered since.
"This is a dream because two years ago I almost lost my leg. After all I've gone through there's nothing more beautiful than winning Paris-Roubaix," said the tearful Belgian.
Victory saw the Lion of Flanders draw level with fellow post-war three-time Roubaix winners – the Italian Francesco Moser and fellow Belgians Eddy Merckx and Ric Van Looy. Only compatriot Roger De Vlaeminck had won more – but his record would be levelled not by Museeuw, but the rider who had emerged from the gloom to lay down a career-transforming marker that day.
Forced to ride the last kilometres on a flat front tyre, Boonen settled for third place behind Wesemann in the velodrome. It was the first time a neo-pro had been on the podium of a major one-day race since Lance Armstrong in the 1992 World Championships. It was also two places higher than Mister Roubaix himself, Roger De Vlaeminck, on his debut.
"The thing that really stands out about that race more than Museeuw's win and the wet weather is Tom Boonen, because nobody had heard much about him before that day," Peter Cossins says. "He was supposed to be working for Hincapie but he got in the break, the leaders came across, it went pear-shaped for Hincapie, but Boonen just kept on going."
Boonen later told Rouleur that his debut Paris-Roubaix had been "one of the most fun days I've ever had on my bike because I was only 21 and nobody knew who I was." Even those Belgian fans who threw beer on him for trying to chase down Museeuw.
Of all the riders in the velodrome after the race, Boonen apparently looked the sprightliest. "I saw him walking, as fresh as a fowl, while great gentlemen like Hincapie and [Erik] Zabel stumbled around like zombies," Wesemann's Telecom manager Walter Godefroot said.
There was no doubting Boonen's class that day, the victor himself left in no doubt over to whom he was about to hand over the Belgian baton.
"I knew he was a big talent. I had followed him since he was an amateur. But it's not always that a big talent can come over and win something. I saw immediately that he could follow me, and I told him on the podium that he would be the new king of the classics."
What happened next
Three years later in 2005, Boonen won his first Paris-Roubaix – symbolically pipping his former teammate Hincapie and the Spaniard Juan Antonio Flecha in the velodrome a week after winning the Tour of Flanders.
Despite facing fierce competition from the Swiss powerhouse Fabian Cancellara, who beat Boonen one year later, the Belgian went on to win the Hell of the North on three more occasions – in 2008, 2009 and 2012, the last time as part of another famous Roubaix-Flanders double.
After years off the boil, Boonen looked set to put light between him and De Vlaeminck with an unparalleled fifth win in 2016, only to be denied by an inspired Mat Hayman in one of the most thrilling (not to mention dry) editions in recent history.
His cold shower in the decaying installations of the Roubaix velodrome after that mud-bath in 2002 was "the first and last time I have washed there," according to Boonen.
Museeuw finished 33rd in the 101st edition in 2003 as compatriot Van Petegem took the spoils, but the 38-year-old fared better in his final appearance in 2004 when he finished fifth the year Sweden's Magnus Bäckstedt caused a surprise. That third and final Roubaix win would prove the final big scalp of Museeuw's career, with just four more wins following before he hung up his cycling shoes.
As for Lars Michaelsen, he recovered from a crash to finish fifth and give his friends something to celebrate other than his impending nuptials. "I didn't realise how bad I looked afterwards," he told Rouleur. "I had my shower then went out in northern France for a nice dinner and a lot of Belgian beer with my stag do friends." The marriage followed two weeks later.
Is it wrong to wish for rain?
The long wait for rain at Roubaix continues. Eighteen years have now passed since muddy Museeuw had his final roar. If absence makes the heart grow fonder, then the affection for rain in northern France on the second Sunday of April has hit levels even Saint Valentine would struggle to contain.
Just take a look on social media – an invention that wasn't even around when the last drops of rain doused the cobbles. Every year, Twitter goes into feverish overdrive with calls for rain at Roubaix, as if the race was not complete without muddy pandemonium. It's not hard to comprehend why.
"It looks much more dramatic on a really wet day when everyone is suffering," says double Roubaix winner Sean Kelly, now in the Eurosport commentary box. "When you look back at the editions when it's so muddy that you don't know which teams the riders are on… that's what people want to see – wet and muddy conditions, even if, from a rider's point of view, it's much more difficult and dangerous. To the fans a horrible day makes much more spectacular racing."
Even Mathieu van der Poel, one of the rising stars of cycling in line to make his debut this spring, has joined the virtual rain dance, voicing his dismay that there hasn't been rain at Roubaix for so long and voicing his desire "to ride a wet Roubaix [with] rain, mud, stones".
But is all this clamour for the sodden and spectacular strictly necessary? Stokes doesn't think so. He sees cycling, and Paris-Roubaix in particular, dangerous enough as it is. "Rain at Roubaix will surely happen again, but I find it quite unsettling seeing people on Twitter welcoming the notion that it might be wet. Some people almost seem to relish seeing crashes. People are watching though the safety of television – they're so far back they don't see the riders as human beings."
Funnily enough, it's watching the race on television – and in particular dry editions of the race, when the pace is higher – where the true appreciation of Paris-Roubaix shines through, according to the journalist Daniel Friebe.
"I prefer it when it's hot and dusty because it's one of those races when the sense of speed can be quite vividly communicated through television pictures," he says. "Paris-Roubaix feels, particularly when it's good weather, frantic from the start. I quite like that. Whereas when it's wet and mucky it just feels like a slugfest and a war of attrition. That has its own appeal, but I don't lust for that."
Cossins agrees. The author of The Monuments sees Paris-Roubaix as something of an anachronism – a throw-back event of extraordinary sporting endeavour, akin to asking Rory McIlroy to play the British Open with hickory shafted golf clubs or giving Novak Djokovic a wooden-headed racket to beat Rafa Nadal with.
"Whether it's wet or dry, it doesn't matter – it's still bloody hard either way. Whatever the weather, it's always going to be a thrill and unpredictable," he says.
To be honest, I'm not sure if the weather makes that much of a difference in terms of whether it's viewed as an epic race or not. It didn't rain when Mat Hayman won, and I look back at that as one of the greatest Paris-Roubaix performances ever and one I'll probably remember for the rest of my life.
The current coronavirus crisis has put the cycling season on hold for the foreseeable future. It's a shame because, well, the forecast for the Easter weekend in northern France this year is… rain. It remains to be seen when, or indeed if, the 2020 edition of Paris-Roubaix will be rescheduled once Covid-19 has been brought to heel. There is talk of an autumn classics season, which could bode well for those calling for rain: October is the wettest month in that neck of the Arenberg woods.
-- Written by Felix Lowe. You also can subscribe to the Re-Cycle Podcast by Eurosport for audio episodes of the most compelling stories from cycling history.
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