Few expected race debutant Florian Vermeersch to finish second in last year's brutal edition of Paris-Roubaix. It was undeniably a breakthrough performance for the Lotto-Soudal rider, firmly writing his name into the history books as a key protagonist in a race that will go down through the ages. But how did he do it? What's the secret to conquering those savage cobbles? And how has his life changed since he secured that podium spot? The 23-year-old Belgian explains...
Paris-Roubaix is really just one of the hardest races in the year, both in terms of power and of how the body reacts afterwards. I had a lot of pain in my hands, my arms and my back after the race last year. The pain in the muscles and in the body is significantly higher than in other races.
I always race with gloves. In the recon, I ride without gloves because my skin is pretty tough, I don't suffer from blisters. But thinking about the possibility of crashes – when you crash, you crash on your hands and you have wounds on your hands... it's really not nice.
I don't train specifically for the cobbles. Just by riding the Classics and doing recons, you have plenty of time spent on the cobbles. In the last week I did two recons. That's like the crucial moment where you really adapt to the specific sectors of this race.
Riding Roubaix in the mud is a big difference, but I don't think anyone can prepare for it. Even if you would do a wet cobbled section of Flanders, it’s still not the same as a wet section in Roubaix.
The main difference in your body at Roubaix is that you shift your body weight a little bit more to the back. You divide your weight a bit more on the bike to be as comfortable as possible. I always push a bigger gear, but that's my style. Some guys can also push a lower gear with higher cadence but every person is different.
For the moment I'm a bit sceptical about Team DSM’s Scope tyre pressure system [that adjusts pressure on the move] because nobody has ever ridden with it. We'll just have to wait and see how it works. But it can go in either direction. Maybe it's a game changer. Maybe it's something that doesn't work.
My nutrition strategy for Roubaix doesn’t change. I’m on top of it. Every race I'm always at my limits regarding gel and drink intake because over the years, that's proven to be more and more important. I think if you have to change your strategy now then it's a bit too late. I like my routine. So, I will just do the same before the race on Sunday.
The things I expect for myself are also the things people around me or the media are expecting. They co-exist together. I always want to perform. Of course, there will always be pressure but I think I'm pretty good at handling it.
I get recognised more after last year’s race. People still remind me of my second place and how they experienced it themselves.
Sprinting in the Roubaix velodrome, you feel every tiny bit of muscle fibre scream for oxygen. You just want to relax, and you just wish every extra bit out of your body while you're already so exhausted. It’s a huge difference compared to a normal race or a non-Classic. But that's also what makes the Classics special.
Interview by Katy Madgwick