"The Hell of the North"
Very few bike races are nicknamed with such marked connotations. But Paris-Roubaix really is a Sunday in Hell, for those riding at least. For those lucky enough to be watching from the sofa, a ‘Sunday in Paradise’ would perhaps be more accurate.
Following its postponement, Paris Roubaix will take place on Sunday 3rd October 2021.
Throughout the day, the riders must tackle some of the most difficult cobblestones around. The Trouee d’Arenberg sector is infamous in cycling folklore and is the most difficult sector of the race. In 2019, there was over 50km of cobblestones — no surprise then, that only 100 riders finished.
Paris-Roubaix is one of cycling’s five monuments and is one of the oldest races around — the first edition took place in 1896. Roger De Vlaeminck and Tom Boonen hold the record for the most wins with four apiece.
In 2020, for the first time since World War II, no edition of Paris-Roubaix took place due to the global pandemic. This fact alone makes us even more excited about The Hell of the North this year.
We are also thrilled to see the inaugural Women’s Paris-Roubaix this year.
Paris - Roubaix 2021 profile (via La Flamme Rouge)
Despite its name, Paris-Roubaix has started in Compiègne in recent years, which is located north-east of Paris and closer to the finish-line.
The first 100km features no cobblestones. The breakaway will form and establish a lead in this phase of the race.
The 2021 route features 30 cobblestone sectors in total, which is up from 29 in 2019. Troisville à Ichy is the first sector — it begins 98.6km in and is just over 2,000 metres in length. The revered Trouee d’Arenberg arrives with nineteen sectors and just under 95km left. The Carrefour de l'Abre is the final five star cobblestone sector. Occurring after 242.8km and with just 15km remaining, it is one of the final key chances to attack. A race of attrition, it's all about staying out of trouble and to the front, but the cobbles can throw up surprises at any moment.
The finish remains in Roubaix, just metres from the France-Belgium border, and is one of the most romantic yet epic finishes in cycling. The riders enter the Roubaix velodrome, where unless led by a solo breakaway, the final sprint for victory will take place. Four riders have won solo since 2010, but none since 2014 where Niki Terpstra claimed victory.
John Degenkolb, the 2015 Paris-Roubaix winner (Image credit: Alex Broadway/ASO/SWpix)
The startlist for 2021 is yet to be confirmed, and the postponement of the race from April to October has thrown up more question marks regarding who we could see on the start. Nonetheless, we can expect many of the key protagonists to be present.
We’ll start with a team synonymous with the cobblestones — Deceuninck-Quick-Step. The Belgian outfit won the most recent edition in 2019 with Philippe Gilbert, who has since moved on to Lotto-Soudal — more on him later. Deceuninck are undoubtedly the team with the most depth when it comes to cobbled classics. Any of Florian Sénéchal, Yves Lampaert, Zdeněk Štybar and Kasper Asgreen could feasibly win. Having so much strength at the top-end of a team is crucial in a race where a puncture or crash could end an individual's chance in an instant. Looking further down the teamsheet, 'The Tractor' Tim Declerq can ride on the front of the peloton all day to ensure the breakaway is in Deceuninck’s favour.
Away from DQS, there are two riders that stand above the rest on the favourites list, Mathieu van der Poel and Wout Van Aert. The two cyclo-cross stars have already displayed elite form on the road in 2021, with Van der Poel winning Strade Bianche in stunning fashion and Van Aert three stages at the Tour de France. The two riders seemingly have no weaknesses — they are strong enough to attack away from the others and if anyone goes to the line with them, they are almost impossible to beat in a sprint. Van Aert is one of the fastest riders in the world right now; he won on Champs-Élysées at the Tour de France this season, whilst Van der Poel beat Van Aert himself in a sprint at the Tour of Flanders last year.
Image credit: Alex Broadway/SWpix
Lotto-Soudal have an intriguing team with great experience. Now 39 years old, Philippe Gilbert has one monument left to win in his illustrious career — Milan-San Remo. He starts Roubaix as the defending champion, although he hasn't won a pro bike race since September 2019. Lotto-Soudal have another former winner in their ranks in John Degenkolb. The 2015 victor is dangerous in a sprint should he be there in the finale. Lotto’s rider to watch is Florian Vermeersch, who is just 22-years-old, but he has a bright future in the classics.
On paper, Trek-Segafredo have one of the stronger cobble classics lineups, though they can be unpredictable. They didn’t even finish in the top 50 at Omloop earlier this year, yet won Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne with Mads Pedersen the following day. Jasper Stuyven and Pedersen make up the heart of their team and like Degenkolb, both are quick in a sprint. Rivals must be aware of Quinn Simmons though, who despite his age (he’s just 20), is developing rapidly and has spoken before about his endearment to the classics.
BORA-Hansgrohe have rebuffed their classics squad with the 2019 Paris-Roubaix runner-up Nils Politt. The German has displayed fair form in 2021, too. He will work in conjunction with Peter Sagan, one of the best classics riders of his generation. Sagan is moving on to Team TotalEnergies from 2022, which means this could be his final outing in a Bora-Hansgrohe jersey.
Peter Sagan won Paris-Roubaix in 2018 (Image credit: Alex Broadway/SWpix)
AG2R-Citroen have turned their focus from the Grand Tours to the classics after losing Romain Bardet to sign Greg Van Avermaet, Bob Jungels and Stan Dewulf. GVA won the Hell of the North in 2017 in a five-man sprint. At 36, he is still a perennial contender. Oliver Naesen is one of the best cobble riders in the peloton, although he has never finished in the top 10 at Paris-Roubaix.
When you think of Movistar, the last race that comes to mind is Paris-Roubaix. The team have always been GC-centric with a focus on the Grand Tours. However, the addition of Ivan Garcia Cortina does provide them with some impetus on the cobbles. The Spaniard s developing quickly and is fast in a sprint finish, although he has no notable results at Roubaix to this point.
Other riders to keep an eye on include Victor Campenaerts, Taco van der Hoorn and Christophe Laporte.
Favourites: Wout Van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel, Florian Sénéchal, Kasper Asgreen, Peter Sagan
Outsiders: John Degenkolb, Quinn Simmons, Victor Campenaerts, Taco van der Hoorn, Christophe Laporte
Cover image credit: Alex Broadway/SWpix