By Jason Heaton
on 4.4.12
Photo by Isaiah Jay & Patrick Kenny

The so-called Grand Tours of cycling, the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a Espana, get all the attention from casual cycling fans. They’re colorful pageants in the warm days of summer, usually won by a photogenic skinny guy who goes up mountains like a spandex festooned goat. But the Spring Classic races are the ones we like, where the hard men of cycling do battle on muddy cobblestoned farm paths in the unpredictable spring weather of Northern Europe. Even the names of these races – Ghent-Wevelgem, Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde – are hard to pronounce, much less ride. But the Queen of the Classics is the one aptly known as the “Enfer due Nord,” or the “Hell of the North,” Paris-Roubaix.

Special thanks to photographers Isaiah Jay & Patrick Kenny for providing the inspiring photography. Be sure to view the full set at tenspeedhero.com

Paris-Roubaix is one of the oldest races in professional cycling, first run in 1896. It gets its name from the fact that the race starts on the outskirts of Paris and mercifully ends 258 punishing kilometers later on the smooth velodrome in the northern French town of Roubaix. In between are 27 sections of cobblestoned road totaling over 50 kilometers. And we’re not talking about nicely-laid quaint brick roads. These are century-old massive stones heaved akimbo by years of frost and wagon traffic. If the weather is dry, huge clouds of dust choke the peloton. If it is wet, the course becomes rutted and slippery and the riders and their bikes end up caked with mud. The most infamous section of cobbles is the Arenberg Forest. The forest is dark and perpetually damp, making the cobbles slick and though it is less than three kilometers long, the stones are huge and misshapen, eager to puncture a tire, bend a rim or throw a rider into the ditch.

To ride the cobbles well is a test not only of a rider’s strength and skill (and dentalwork) but also of his bike. Most Paris-Roubaix cyclists ride specially-designed or modified bikes with added tire clearance for wider tires and mud shedding and more sturdy but compliant frames to absorb the jarring of the rough roads. Some riders have been known to use modified cyclocross bikes with cantilever brakes. Tire choice and pressure is important too. The wrong decision on race day can mean a puncture or crash. And one crash on the narrow, crowded roads pretty much spells the end of the race for many a rider.

There are few hills on the Paris-Roubaix course and hence the riders are a different breed than the delicate thoroughbreds who dance on their pedals in the mountains. They are brawny men, with the power to surge across the cobbles and still have the strength to win a sprint at the end. These guys live for the Spring Classics. Most of them will train to peak their seasons in April, hoping to win some muddy glory before going on to quietly support their teams in the summer races. Since most of the Spring Classics are run in Belgium and northern France, many of the riders also hail from these parts and are heroes to the legions of Belgians who line the race course clutching giant mugs of frothy Belgian ale to ward off the chill air. Hard men like Johann Museeuw, Peter van Petegem, Roger de Vlaminck and the great Eddy Merckx all won multiple Paris-Roubaix races over the years and their names are spoken with reverence in pubs across Belgium.

The man who is poised to become only the second man to win four is Belgian Tom Boonen. “Tomekke,” as he is known to fans, is the quintessential cycling hard man, having won three Tours of Flanders (his third just this past Sunday) and countless other spring races. He wins by driving a hard pace throughout the race, whittling down the field of weaker men, and then choosing the right moment to break away. If anyone manages to stay on his wheel, they then have the unenviable prospect of facing Boonen’s ferocious sprint at the end.

If you’re lucky enough to be in northern France next Sunday, you can camp out on the roadside with a million other rabid cycling fans and watch the grim spectacle firsthand. But for most of us, it will mean following the live text updates on cyclingnews.com or watching the live video on NBC Sports Network. However you watch it, the 2012 Paris-Roubaix should be another historic one, especially if Tomekke pulls off his fourth victory, and our money is on him to do it.

Oh, and rain is in the forecast for northern France for this Sunday.

Paris-Roubaix – April 8, 2012 10am CEST

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