Paris-Roubaix 2021 - Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel the obvious favourites for wet Hell of the North
Rain and wind are expected to animate Paris-Roubaix this Sunday where rivals Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel will lock horns after their shared disappointment in last weekend’s World Championships road race. The first wet edition since 2002 promises fireworks over 30 slippery cobblestone sections in northern France as the race returns to our screens after 903 days on the sidelines.
Zdenek Stybar of Czech Republic and Team Deceuninck - Quick-Step, Wout Van Aert of Belgium and Team Jumbo - Visma & Mathieu Van Der Poel of Netherlands and Team Alpecin-Fenix during the 64th E3 Saxo Bank Classic 2021
When the peloton rolls out of Compiègne to get the 118th edition of Paris-Roubaix under way it will be a whopping 903 days since Philippe Gilbert, then 36, out-kicked Nils Politt in the Roubaix velodrome to take a victory in his fourth Monument. That win – in a pre-Covid era – seems like a distant relic as we look back after all the global calamity of the past 20 months.
That was a time when Chris Froome was the reigning Giro d’Italia champion, Remco Evenepoel had yet to notch his first pro win, Primoz Roglic and Egan Bernal hadn’t won any Grand Tours between them, Tadej Pogacar was still a neo-pro and Alejandro Valverde was World Champion. Neither Wout van Aert nor Mathieu van der Poel had a Tour de France appearance to their name, or a Monument win in their palmarès. It was, in short, an entirely different era for pro cycling.
Following cancellation in 2020 – Paris-Roubaix being the sole Monument to be floored by the pandemic last year – and this season’s early postponement, Gilbert is now 39 years old as he looks to defend his crown in what are expected to be suitably hellish conditions. For the switch in the calendar from spring to autumn seems to have secured what the month of April repeatedly failed to bring about for the best part of two decades: a wet Paris-Roubaix.
It’s unprecedented for the Queen of the Classics to come sandwiched between the World Championships and Il Lombardia – but if this is the final remaining vestige of the protracted pandemic crisis, then we’ll accept fallen leaves on the cobbles in the Arenberg forest just the once. Especially if, as predicted, Sunday could be the first wet and muddy edition of Roubaix since 2002.
With the recent World Championships being held in Flanders, culminating in Julian Alaphilippe’s panache-fuelled victory in the nail-biting men’s road race on Sunday, at least some form of symmetry and synchronicity was respected, with the cobbles of northern France coming one Sunday after the cobbled bergs of Belgium – as they would do in April of any normal season.
Van Aert, of Jumbo-Visma who was pre-race favourite to take the rainbow jersey in Leuven, will look to bounce back from his disappointing 11th place at the Worlds after he and Belgian teammate Jasper Stuyven failed to deliver after all the hard work done by their compatriots – most notably Tim Declercq and Remco Evenepoel.
The Belgian champion is riding his third Paris-Roubaix and has yet to crack the top 10 after finishing 13th and 22nd in his first two fact-finding attempts. But Van Aert has come on leaps and bounds since the last running of this race in 2019 so expect him to be up there with the frontrunners. Those should include Dutchman Van der Poel, who makes his long-awaited Roubaix debut for Alpecin-Fenix.
Both cyclocross stars won maiden Monuments in 2020 at Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders respectively, and both are looking to break their duck for 2021 in what will be the penultimate Monument of the season (Il Lombardia takes place the following Saturday). After excelling in his maiden Tour de France this summer – enjoying a stint in yellow and a stage win before withdrawing ahead of the Alps – Van der Poel has not been his usual swashbuckling self since his nasty spill in the MTB race at the Olympics.
On Sunday Van der Poel was given something of an armchair ride in the Worlds road race by the Belgian team – not that it got him anywhere: he never looked likely to play a major role in the finale, even before Alaphilippe’s sequence of attacks provided the defining moment of an enthralling race.
When interviewed last year about Roubaix, Van der Poel admitted he was a huge fan of the race, but lamented the climatic fluke that had kept the cobbles dusty on race day for so long. “Since the start of the millennium it has always been dry,” he said. “I want to ride a wet Roubaix. Rain, mud, stones, man verses man on the pedals. Wonderful.”
Well, Mathieu, your wish is our command... Heavy rain and gusty wind is expected to infiltrate the route on Saturday morning before the women’s inaugural race, and again on Sunday during the men’s race. Such challenging conditions will make a huge difference – not just for viewers at home, but in the way the race is ridden.
If a small minority of riders like Van der Poel are motivated by bad weather, the vast majority of the field will have already checked out before the start: no one wants to hurtle downhill at breakneck speed towards the Arenberg trench with the prospect of slippery, muddy cobblestones in store. It’s as much a mental obstacle as a physical one – and something none of the current peloton have ever experienced.
So, without further ado, let’s hurtle through the four Rs – the riders, route, rain and ratings – ahead of Sunday’s Hell of the North.
Five former winners will take to the start with defending champion Philippe Gilbert (Lotto Soudal) joined by Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe; 2018), Greg Van Avermaet (AG2R-Citroen; 2017), John Degenkolb (Lotto Soudal; 2015) and Niki Terpstra (Team TotalEnergies; 2014). With the exception of Slovenia’s Sagan, all of those riders are still waiting for a win in 2021 and it would be extremely fanciful to see any of their respective droughts end in the rain.
As for Sagan, the former triple world champion has seen his stock fall worse than Blockbuster video these past few seasons. The 31-year-old is seemingly unable to cope with the explosiveness of the likes of Alaphilippe, Van Aert and Van der Poel – riders who share the same skillset he used to possess in buckets. Having agreed a two-year deal with pro-continental Team TotalEnergies, Sagan could benefit from entering his ninth Paris-Roubaix under the radar. It will be interesting to see how he dovetails with 2019 runner-up, the rangy German Nils Politt, and equally interesting to see how former champions Gilbert and Degenkolb combine for Lotto Soudal.
All eyes, though, will be on the stellar paring of Van Aert and Van der Poel, whose shared cyclocross background should put them in good stead on the wet cobbles. The Dutchman will have the experience of 2018 runner-up Silvan Dillier to fall back on, as well as the in-form sprint duo of Jasper Philipsen and Tim Merlier. The Belgian, meanwhile, lines up alongside Mike Teunissen, who came seventh last time round.
Danish champion Kasper Asgreen is the fulcrum of a typically solid Deceuninck-QuickStep squad and it’s worth remembering that he outfoxed both Van Aert and, ultimately, Van der Poel in the Tour of Flanders finale back in the spring. Meanwhile the in-form Dutchman Dylan van Baarle is always comfortable on the cobbles and enters as a dark horse following his silver medal ride at the Worlds; support from Ineos Grenadiers teammate Gianni Moscon could make Van Baarle a viable outside bet.
But with six top 10s in the last seven editions, Zdenek Stybar (Deceuninck-QuickStep) is clearly in possession of the particular blend of grit, positioning, bike-handling, power and tactical acumen – not to mention the good luck – required to perform well over the cobbles, even if the Czech powerhouse has never won in the Roubaix velodrome, having twice come runner-up (in 2015 and 2017). Could this be the year that Stybar finally stands on the top step with a cobblestone trophy in his hands?
Paris-Roubaix is a race which often rewards experience and dogged persistence – just ask Mat Hayman – so the outside chances of riders like Jens Keukeleire, Sebastian Langeveld, Alexander Kristoff and even Sep Vanmarcke should not be discounted.
Gilbert - Huge blow to see Paris-Roubaix cancelled... but at least now I can defend my title
Unlike Il Lombardia, whose course is more fluid than Lake Como, the Paris-Roubaix route is fairly entrenched in tradition – as immovable as Mapei from the podium in the late 90s. The opening two hours of racing take place over normal roads and are a mere amuse bouche ahead of the cobblestone activity, which begins in earnest with the first of 30 sections at Troisville after 96.3km.
In total, just over a fifth of the 257.7km race plays out on the pavé – and even if the route deviates ever so slightly from 2019, from sector 23 at Quérénaing, with 138.1km remaining, it’s a carbon copy of the race won in such barnstorming fashion by Gilbert.
As such, the flashpoints remain the same as in any year with the three five-star sectors of cobbles: the feared Trouée d'Arenberg (2.3km long sector 19 with 95.3km remaining), Mons-en-Pévèle (3km; sector 11; 48.6km), and the headline act, the infamous Carrefour de l'Arbre (2.1km; sector 4; 17.2km). That’s not to say that several other three- and four-star sectors – such as Hornaing à Wandignies, Auchy-lez-Orchies à Bersée and Camphin-en-Pévèle – won’t play a key role. The race starts at 10:15 BST on Sunday, with an estimated finish around 16:15 BST.
Initially scheduled to take place in 2020, the rescheduled first edition of the Paris-Roubaix Femmes includes 17 sectors of cobblestones over 115.6km. It starts in the town of Denian and covers the final 85km of the men’s route in its entirely, including the finale in the iconic Roubaix velodrome. Starting at 12:35 BST on Saturday, it is scheduled to finish at 16:00 BST.
The fall-out from the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in a unique weekend in the Hell of the North, with the inaugural women’s race taking place on the eve of the 118th edition of the men’s race – and both showdowns expected to be played out in fairly ghastly weather.
It’s the particular meteorological quirk of northern France that means there’s more chance of rain in the autumn than the spring: while April is the second driest month (behind March), October is the joint wettest along with July and August.
You have to look back 19 years to 2002 – when Jennifer Lopez topped the charts and Star Wars: Attack of the Clones disappointed cinemagoers in the box office – for the last wet edition of Paris-Roubaix. It was the year of the third and final roar of Johan Museeuw, the Lion of Flanders, who took the spoils after an incredible 41km solo break four years after his career was almost curtailed in similarly demanding conditions.
It was a pulsating race that also featured a breakthrough performance from a little-known neo pro by the name of Tom Boonen. The Belgian’s bid to win a record fifth Roubaix cobblestone trophy was denied 14 years later by Australian veteran Mat Hayman, who triumphed in the dry, dusty and unforgettable 2016 edition.
Hayman’s subsequent retirement means there are no current riders in the pro peloton who have experienced first-hand a wet Paris-Roubaix. This will all change on Sunday. Rain is scheduled throughout the day, although it may dry up a bit later on towards the end of the race – but certainly not before the treacherous crossing of the Arenberg trench. There will be an early tailwind but once the cobbles start, there will be some crosswinds with gusts up to 60kmph.
The sodden Stage 5 of the 2014 Tour de France took in seven cobbled segments usually used in Paris-Roubaix, but that was over seven years ago now. Rain certainly adds another dimension to the Queen of the Classics. 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.”
What’s more, 900 days of inactivity over the course saw, until recently, the gaps between the jagged stones build up layers of grass, weeds and moss. These banana skins have been removed in a large clean-up operation by the Amis de Paris-Roubaix volunteer group and local authorities – but that doesn’t remove the dangers of the slick and slippery stones themselves.
As the Danish rider Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig said this week: “The course is tough enough as it is without rain. I want to see a battle in which best riders go head-to-head, not one in which the winner is simply the one who manages to stay on her bike."
There’s definitely a solid argument for dry editions of the Hell of the North making for a better narrative: the removal of the mental anguish that comes hand-in-hand with a deluge means the favourites often stay together for longer, keeping the suspense going until far later in the race – as opposed to big-name riders crashing out and those who manage to ride their luck going solo and winning by a large margin.
That said, it is the wet editions which seem to stick in the mind, the rain adding a certain romanticism to proceedings for us viewers curled up on the sofa with a pot of tea on the go. Servais Knaven’s mud-spattered win in 2001 comes to mind. Or 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?
When Tchmil made his move, there were no motorbike cameras to capture the moment because they had all crashed on the slippery mud and we’re doing their best to catch up behind.
"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. Speaking to Eurosport last year for a special Re-Cycle feature on Museeuw’s win in 2002, Cossins admits that the absence of rain since 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."
Eurosport commentator Sean Kelly, a two-time Roubaix winner in the 80s, agrees that a race without rain seems to lack some of the magic. "It looks much more dramatic on a really wet day when everyone is suffering," he says. "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."
Not everyone, however, shares this clamour for the sodden and spectacular. Like Uttrup Ludwig, the cycling journalist Shane Stokes sees Paris-Roubaix as dangerous enough as it is without the extra layer of meteorological menace.
"Rain at Roubaix will surely happen again,” Stokes told Eurosport last year, “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."
Daniel Friebe, the ITV commentator and Cycling Podcast co-founder, agrees. "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."
Let’s leave the final word to Cossins, who believes that Paris-Roubaix is still “bloody hard” come rain or shine. "Whatever the weather, it's always going to be a thrill and unpredictable. 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.”
Paris-Roubaix is notoriously hard to predict in the best of times, but an edition held in October, in the rain, after a quite brutal Worlds, and at the end of a long season off the back of the myriad complications caused by coronavirus… well, picking a winner is even more of a mug’s game than usual.
Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert
Image credit: Eurosport
But here are the Eurosport rider five-star ratings for Sunday’s likely-to-be-very-wet Hell of the North…
Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel
Dylan van Baarle
Peter Sagan, Kasper Asgreen
Nils Politt, Yves Lampaert, Mads Pedersen, Zdenek Stybar, Jasper Stuyven
Philippe Gilbert, Sep Vanmarcke, Oliver Naesen, Stefan Kung, Sebastian Langeveld, Christophe Laporte, Gianni Moscon, Niki Terpstra, Florian Senechal, Mike Teunissen, Adrian Petit, Greg Van Avermaet, Sonny Colbrelli, Nils Eekhoff, Michael Valgren, Arnaud Demare, Alexander Kristoff, John Degenkolb, Jens Keukeleire