There is a strange beauty to the roads of northern France. And in many ways it is a beauty only truly understood by cycling fans. At first glance, of course, there may be little of interest in this flat, windswept region, abandoned by major industry decades ago. But for any self-respecting cycling fan, this is sacred land. After all, this is Paris–Roubaix country.
And with the legendary cobbled classic only days away, there was a true aura mounting as we ventured with cycling computer company Stages to meet with Alexander Kristoff and his UAE Emirates team. Former American pro Jim Stemper, program management director for Stages, flew over just days before the race to install the company’s latest Dash M50 computer on the team bikes before the team did their Roubaix recon on the Thursday before the race.
Meeting in the small town of Rumes, just over the French border in Belgium but only about 10 kilometers from the legendary cobbles of Orchies, we quickly went to work installing the computers before Kristoff and his teammates descended from the bus. “It just really helps when I am here and can work directly with the riders,” Stemper said, while fine-tuning the installation and chatting with the UAE mechanics.
Soon enough the team riders were rolling down the N508 highway on their way toward the first cobbles. Coming into Orchies, we quickly hit the roundabout that leads the riders into this legendary section of cobblestones. After the Arenberg Forest, it’s in Orchies where a second major selection often takes place in the race before the riders attack the final 60 kilometers.
Stretching his legs on this slowly winding road that parallels the autoroute to Lille, Kristoff took to the front, eyeing the perfect line, as the team strung out in a fluid single file. For anyone who has ridden the roads of Roubaix, it is common knowledge that the faster you ride the easier it is to absorb the constant shock of these brutal stones. Your riding position, too, is important, and Kristoff said that he had been working on his position since the beginning of the year in an effort to be more efficient on the roughest cobblestones.
“The cobbles here in Roubaix are just much harder than Flanders,” he explained. “And my position on the bike may not be the best for Roubaix, because I sit a bit forward. When you are riding hills with cobbles like in Flanders that is okay because you are really pushing on the pedals. Being forward doesn’t affect you so much when the speeds are slower, but here in Roubaix, with the higher speeds, being forward can hurt you. If you are too far forward the cobbles just dig into you.”
Orchies is then followed by two crucial sections of cobbles, Auchy-les-Orchies and Capelle-en-Pévèle. Coming in quick succession, they always blow the field apart. And anyone hoping to win on the Roubaix velodrome at the end of the day knows they must be at the front here. On this training ride, Kristoff accelerated ahead of his teammates approaching the final two turns.
“My shape is good,” he said. “It’s going to be windy. I prefer a headwind because that will make it harder for breakaways.”
The genius of Paris–Roubaix is its unpredictability. As the route zigzags its way to Roubaix, the wind is constantly changing and of course the treacherously cobbled roads provide endless surprises, constantly forcing gaps at the most unforeseen times.
“A lot of it is about having lady luck on your side,” said Allan Peiper, one of the UAE team’s sports directors, who was hired this year for his formidable experience in the classics. “Roubaix is just so unpredictable. How many watts will guys be putting out here is just so hard to say. I mean, the wind is always changing, the cobbles too. It just really depends on the rider.”
Sitting up after Capelle-en-Pévèle, Kristoff then rode over the following sections with his teammates before attacking the last brutal sections of pavé that include Camphin-en-Pévèle and the ominous Carrefour de l’Arbre.
Again the team spread out as they did the final test on their equipment and studied the many nuances of these roads. The Carrefour de l’Arbre in particular is infamous, as it is here where riders traditionally have their last chance to break free. And it is here at the end of the Carrefour, where the UAE bus waited for Kristoff and his boys.
Rolling up to the bus Kristoff was greeted by a band of international journalists. “I can’t really tell you one section that suits me best, but I can tell you one section I don’t like is the last one we just did,” he said, jokingly. “The Carrefour de l’Arbre is just so long and hard. What makes it even harder is that it is the last of three really, really hard sections and they come at the end of the race. If you are still in the race after the Carrefour then you are in the race for victory. And come Sunday, I hope to still be here.”
Learn more about The Stages Dash M50 here.