CW spends some time in the most iconic of Paris-Roubaix's cobbled sectors.
“To be successful in these races,” began BMC directeur sportif Allan Peiper when asked about what’s needed to prepare for the northern classics, “you’ve got to love them. The mental motivation won’t be there, otherwise.”
On that basis, it’s unlikely that the Europcar rider we saw on Friday ride the length of the Arenberg Forest on its cinder track while his team-mates weaved across the cobblestones searching for the best lines, is one of those who has embraced the Hell of the North.
But without his team car following, said rider (we couldn’t identify him as we were thrashing ourselves along the Arenberg’s crest as he went past) could get away with not taking on what is the Hell of the North’s first, of three, five star-rated sectors.
It’s unlikely that any rider on Omega Pharma-Quick Step would want to shirk a secteur pavé during a reconnaissance ride, but had anyone have wanted to yesterday, they wouldn’t have got away with it.
In addition to the three accompanying team cars, there were numerous photographers and even a vehicle from Belgian broadcaster Sporza in the following convoy. They may not be enjoying the best of classics campaigns, but clearly their popularity shows little sign of waning.
The person who looked most uncomfortable on the Arenberg cobbles was Bruno, the driver of a Norbert Dentressangle lorry, who delivered roadside barriers for site crew to put out along secteur dix-huit. A couple of ASO transit vehicles were also parked up along the Arenberg, which meant that riders recceing the sector faced another obstacle. Still, the way the professionals came off the crown and back onto it at high speed (with their rear wheels kicking out) to get round these vehicles was impressive.
BMC’s riders looked remarkably relaxed on the approach to the Arenberg, which is likely to be in complete contrast to Sunday’s race.
Riders head towards it from Wallers, and once a slight left-hand turn is navigated on the D313, not only does the road lead slightly downhill, but riders look straight into the Drève des Boules d’Herin, as the Arenberg is officially known.
Come race day, it’s likely to be a 60kph sprint here, instead of the type of pace that allowed Michael Schär to casually chat to team-mate Danilo Wyss.
Aside from the frequent, low-pitched thud of front wheels hitting the cobbles, and the rattling of chains, the sound you are most likely to hear in the Arenberg is either the occasional SCNF train passing through the level crossing immediately before it, or the hum of traffic from the nearby D40, onto which the riders turn left after completing the Arenberg.
Indeed, when CW visited for a walking recon on Wednesday afternoon, we saw more runners and people riding horses than we did cyclists (naturally, all were on the cinder track).
Peter Sagan’s only finish at Roubaix came in 2011, when he finished 86th (his other start, a year before, ended in a DNF). Yet, the superiority on the cobbles he possesses over his Cannondale team-mates was evident.
The Slovak looked smooth and relaxed, his pedalling style akin to somebody warming up on a velodrome. Compare that to other Cannondale riders (and those from Lampre-Merida, who rode the Arenberg minutes before), who looked hunched and incredibly uncomfortable as they travelled on the downhill section at the start. Needless to say, Sagan was significantly closer to those who started before him as he disappeared out of CW‘s sight.
The Arenberg is one of three five-star rated sectors in this year’s Roubaix, along with Mons-en-Pévèle and Carrefour de l’Arbre. Having ridden all of them this week, CW says that Mons is the least severe, relatively speaking, although it is remarkably difficult following a slight drag and a challenging left-hand bend at half distance. What the Arenberg and Carrefour have in common is that the best line through them is not easily distinguishable, and getting too close to the gutter will either cause you to clip barriers, the grass verge or, as Stijn Vandenberg and Zdenek Stybar found out last year, spectators.
CW predicts that around 100 spectators turned out to watch the teams ride the Arenberg. The majority of them positioned themselves at the start and finish of the 2.4-kilometre sector – probably just as well given how quickly flies come to greet you (most likely by biting) in the middle of the forest.