Belgian favourite Wout van Aert is banking on a collective challenge to bitter rival Mathieu van der Poel in Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix bike race, dubbed the “Hell of the North”, which could be raced in treacherous conditions.
The gruelling 256.6km race features 29 sections of rough-hewn cobbled sections which are so notorious they are given a star rating of 1-5 for danger.
These cobbles cause crashes galore and riders choose bikes depending on the weather, with Sunday’s race more difficult to judge as it should be raced in fine weather, but with puddles in various places from midweek downpours.
At last week’s other great cobbled classic, the Tour of Flanders, one hapless competitor, Filip Maciejuk, hit a puddle covering a pothole and veered in front of the peloton causing a race-changing mass crash.
On Sunday, riders from Van Aert’s Jumbo Visma team and the German DSM outfit will use a technology which changes the air pressure in the tyres, from soft on the cobbles to hard on the asphalt.
Van Aert is the most feared one-day rider around, making him a marked man, but in his favour he will have with him French powerhouse Christophe Laporte and also last year’s winner Dylan van Baarle.
“The race can also be won between the cobbled sectors if you have two or three riders with you in the closing stages,” Van Aert said.
Van Aert was one of the fallers behind the puddle-pothole crash in the Tour of Flanders.
“I could be feeling better. My fall has left me with pains in my knee and ribs,” he said, pushing the Paris-Roubaix favourite’s tag onto Van der Poel.
The Dutch rider declared he was “100 percent ready” this week and is also counting on back-up from his team.
The Trouee d’Arenberg, at the Arenberg coal mine, is the first major difficulty along the route and from there it will be seen how much support remains for the two favourites.
The giant Italian Filippo Ganna from Ineos Grenadier is, at 26, emerging as a contender on the road after his years as a time-trialist and track racer.
“This is so different from a track, I can’t say it’s my favourite surface,” said Ganna, who will be chaperoned by Luke Rowe and Michal Kwiatkowski.
“But I’m a bit heavy to get over the hills,” Ganna said. “I’ll be conserving energy and fuelling as much as possible up to Arenberg.”
The roads along the route, where no cars or tractors run, were covered in grass last week before a last-gasp rush to clear it using grazing sheep and goats.
The race often earns its gruelling tag. The 2021 winner Sony Colbrelli fell to the floor at the finish line, unrecognisable in a coat of mud while 2022 champion Van Baarle rode into the Roubaix velodrome cloaked in dust.
Whoever the 2023 winner is, he will be covered in glory and handed a giant cobble as a memorial trophy.