“It's going to be a big mess when the cobbles are wet. I'm not really in the group of guys that are really looking forward to it, actually. I think it's really dangerous and for me, the race doesn't need all these extra difficulties.”
The last wet Paris-Roubaix was in 2002. It wreaked havoc among the peloton with crashes and punctures. Riders were slipping and sliding, barely able to stay upright on the mud baths and precarious cobbles. Though it was a spectacle for fans, and has provided some of the most iconic pictures in our sports history, it was not a race that is held fondly in the memory of many riders who competed that day, being grim, cold, dangerous and wet.
This year, the prospect of a rainy Roubaix is on the cards once more, and Wout van Aert isn’t looking forward to it. Despite his exceptional bike handling skills thanks to his background in cyclo-cross, the six-time Tour stage winner thinks that the rain could detract from the race itself, with crashes and mechanicals deciding the winner instead of skill and strength.
“It will just be a lot of pressure I think,” he says. “Especially in the first sector when the right bunch is still quite big. You always need a bit of luck with mechanicals but then it will be even more so [with the rain]. For me it doesn't need to be like that.”Image: Peter Stuart
But, in his typical relaxed demeanour, Van Aert went on to explain that “the weather is the weather” and he will take it as it comes, hopefully honing in on any skills he has to give him the upper hand. The Belgian will be aiming to do better than his 22nd place in Roubaix in 2019, and looks to be in the perfect form to do so. Victory at the Hell of the North would round out Van Aert’s breathtaking season, one that includes a win in Gent-Wevelgem, Amstel Gold Race and three stages of the Tour de France.
He has looked largely unstoppable for most of the year, but showed a glimpse of fatigue at the World Championships last weekend, stating that he “didn’t have the legs [he] wanted” after the race, finishing in 11th place. “I felt really good coming into the World Championships but it's not always easy to have the right feeling at the right moment and sometimes it happens,” he explains. “I wasn't too far from it, if you look closely at the race there was maybe one guy who was really better than all of us in the front group, and all the others were quite on the same level.”
Speaking just after a recon of the Roubaix cobbles, Van Aert explains he has recovered well from Worlds and felt strong during his ride – positive signs just a few days before the main event. With his palmares and off-road capabilities, Van Aert is likely to be a marked man at Paris-Roubaix, as he has been most of this season. Is this something that adds extra pressure? “I'm more relaxed now so I'll take it how it comes and there's not much to do anymore about my shape,” he says.
The Belgian expects his strong Jumbo-Visma teammates to be an asset on the road to Roubaix. With the likes of Mike Teunissen, a rider who finished 7th in Roubaix in 2019, riding in support of him, Van Aert will have plenty of help to keep him out of trouble. “I think we have a strong team with a lot of big guys really suited for the cobbles,” he says. “I think Mike has proven a few times he can ride the final Paris-Roubaix and got some nice results here. So hopefully the guys can keep us as long as possible in position and out of trouble.”
Van Aert fully expects tough competition from his rivals, citing Deceuninck Quick-Step as the team to watch during the race. “All the Quick-Step guys are always favorites for me on the cobbled races,” he says. Van der Poel and Dylan van Baarle are also on the Belgian’s radar. Having seen their form at the recent World Championships, he explains that they too are favourites to watch.Wout van Aert wins on the Champs Elysees (Image: Getty)
At the Tour de France this year, Van Aert took victory in the mountainous stage over Mont Ventoux, in the sprint finale of the Champs Elysees and in the ITT in stage 20. His impressive versatility means he has options ahead of Roubaix and won’t approach the race with a concrete plan. “It’s a race where you don't need to think in perfect scenarios because so much can happen,” he says. “If you're still there [in the final] you can think about the right tactic.”
“Also even in the sprint I’ve seen so many examples here when faster guys on paper have been beaten by the strongest guys in the race. So it's a really tricky final.”
The unpredictability of Roubaix is what makes it such a spectacle and one of the most popular races on the calendar for fans worldwide. Even better, this year, Sunday in Hell will be extended to a Weekend in Hell as the women’s peloton will take on the cobbles on Saturday as part of Paris-Roubaix Femmes. Marianne Vos starts as a favourite for the Jumbo-Visma women’s team.Image: Peter Stuart
“For sure I'm gonna watch it on television,” Van Aert says. “I think it's really exciting that they finally have their own addition, it's about time.”
The women will race the day before, and Van Aert notes that he’ll be asking his colleagues for tips on the course if needed. “If we see some strange things or something we'll definitely send a message or have a conversation,” he says. “It's rare that they race the day before as most of the time they're racing classics on the same day so there's not an option anymore to talk about things.”
Training in Belgium, it’s not been difficult for Van Aert to get some practice on the rough stuff: “It's not too hard to put in some cobbled sections so every now and then, I do it in training, so we'll be okay,” he explains, calm and relaxed ahead of the final cobbled Classic of 2021.