Paris-Roubaix. The Queen of the Classics. The Hell of the North. Danish filmmaker Jorgen Leth dubbed the 1976 edition of the race A Sunday in Hell. The cobblestones inspire hatred in some riders, fear in others, and joy in still others. The pave gives Paris-Roubaix a mystique that no other one-day race can match and that perhaps not even the Tour de France can surpass.
Tomorrow, 26 sections of pave will do as much to determine the outcome of the 261-km race as anything that the riders do. The stretches are rated in difficulty, with 1 being the easiest and 5 being the hardest. The starters will reach the first section at Troisvilles, about 2.5 hours into the race. The section starts at 99.8 km and is a No. 3. In the 10 km that follow the Troisvilles stretch, two other No. 3 sections will confront the riders at Viesly (106.3 km) and at Quievy (113.7 km). In addition to these, the riders will tackle a No. 2 stretch before leaving Quievy.
After leaving Quievy, the racers will go over three No. 2 sections at Haussy (121.9 km), Saulzoir (128 km), and Verchain-Maugre (132.9 km) before taking on two No. 3 sections at Maing (136 km) and at Monchaux-sur-Ecaillon (139.2 km). Then, the riders will face one of the hardest parts of the race.
The three sections at Haspres (145.8 km), Haveluy (158.3 km), and the Arenberg Forest (166.5 km) will break up the field. The sections at Haspres and at Haveluy are No. 4, and the Arenberg Trench is No. 5. The Trench will perform its usual task of breaking the dreams of some and the bones of others. It will not decide who will win, but it will decide who will not.
After the field leaves the Arenberg, it will go over No.3 sections at Wallers (173.2 km), Hornaing (179.5 km), Warlaing (186.9 km), Tilloy (190.4 km), Orchies (201.5 km), and Auchy-les-Orchies (207.6 km) before confronting another No. 5 stretch at Mons-en-Pevele (213.2 km). The riders will then go over a No. 2 section at Merignies (219.8 km) and two No. 3 stretches at Pont-Thibaut (223 km), and Le Moulin de Vertain (229.1 km) before confronting the course's last difficult sections, the No. 4 sections at Cysoing and Campain-en-Pevele and a No. 5 stretch at Le Carrefour de l'Arbre (244.8 km).
Two No. 1 sections will await the riders. The first will be at Hem (253.6 km), and the second is intended to be a symbolic one outside the velodrome in Roubaix (260 km). If the winner approaches the velodrome alone, the last section of pave will remind him of what he has overcome.
Who will the winner be? It is likely to be one of the following men: Tom Boonen (Quick Step), Johan Museeuw (Quick Step), George Hincapie (U.S. Postal Service), Peter Van Petegem (Lotto), or Steffen Wesemann (T-Mobile). After his victory at Gent-Wevelgem, Boonen goes to the head of the class. On Wednesday, five Quick Step teammates took Boonen into the last km. If the man whom Johan Museeuw has referred to as "the next Museeuw" receives anything like that kind of support tomorrow, then he will be hard to beat.
Tomorrow, Museeuw will ride his last Paris-Roubaix and his penultimate bicycle race. He has admitted losing some of his speed, but what remains is formidable. The Quick Step team that has helped him win in the past is still there, and it carried Boonen to victory on Wednesday. Do not be surprised if the Lion of Flanders roars one last time.
George Hincapie (U.S. Postal Service) has excellent form, and his victory at Three Days of De Panne proves it. Hincapie brings plenty of strength to the race, and he has a good sprint. The American's team, however, is not as strong as some of the other contenders'. Barring an exceptional individual exploit, a place on the podium is the best that Hincapie can hope for.
Peter Van Petegem (Lotto) cannot be ruled out. He has not shown his best form this season, but last year's Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix winner knows how to win classics. If he finds his form, he could win.
Steffen Wesemann (T-Mobile) thrust himself into the limelight with last week's victory in the Tour of Flanders. Wesemann is a tough, experienced rider who in 2002 was runner-up to Museeuw with a broken pedal cleat and who finished seventh at the 2001 Hell of the North with similar problems. Look for him to race well tomorrow, although probably not well enough to win.
For tomorrow's action, check in at http://www.roadcycling.com! Au revoir!