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Into Hell

The Queen of the Classics, The Hell of the North - whatever you call it, Paris-Roubaix is a unique bike race. Criss-crossing the bleak landscape of the former coal-mining region of northern France, this venerable event inspires love among cycling fans, and fear and respect amongst professional riders. The cobbled roads that make it famous are intimidating; only the strongest and bravest will win in Roubaix. Every April the cycling world tunes in to experience another piece of history. Here is guide to watching Paris-Roubaix.

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Of the 257km route, 53km are on cobbles, over 29 sections. The sectors are given a number, counting down from 29 to 1, and are rated by difficulty. Three sectors are traditionally awarded the maximum five-star rating: the Trench of Arenberg, Mons-en-Pévèle and Carrefour de L’Arbre. Every sector has a banner at its start and finish giving its number between 29 and 1. As the sectors count down, the glory of Roubaix gets closer.

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The cobbles are looked after by Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix, a volunteer group founded in 1983. These ‘friends of Paris-Roubaix’ spend their weekends during March repairing and cleaning the cobblestones. Working with the organisers and local councils, the friends keep a watchful eye on sectors that are deteriorating, and recommend changes to the route if necessary.

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The name Hell of the North originates from the 1919 race. In a region scarred by the First World War, journalists and organisers set off together before the race to assess how much of the former route had survived the war. The scenes of desolation, of bomb craters, blackened tree stumps, thick mud and military graveyards, gave one of the party to call it hell. The name stuck.

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Since 1943 the race has finished in the Roubaix velodrome, with the exception of three years between 1986 and 1988 when sponsors La Redoute insisted it finish on the road outside their offices in Roubaix. The velodrome is an uncovered concrete track with relatively shallow banking and its ancient shower room is as famous as the track. Each of the open, three-walled stalls has a brass plaque to commemorate a winner.

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Weather plays a role in all bike races, but in Paris-Roubaix more than most. Warm, dry weather means dust flying up on the cobbled tracks. Rain means mud and slippery cobbles. Most fans pray for the latter because the racing is tougher and more dramatic. But really wet editions have been rare in recent years, the last was in 2002 when Belgian legend Johan Museeuw was victorious.

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Paris-Roubaix suits heavier riders who can put down power rolling over the cobbles. Lighter riders, and those not experienced in riding on the cobbles, will get bounced around and are more likely to end up lying in the grass verge than standing on the podium. The most successful riders in the race’s history are Tom Boonen and Roger De Vlaeminck, with 4 wins apiece. Belgium leads the way with 56 wins out of 110 editions, exactly double the number of victories France have notched up.

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There are two basic strategies for riding the cobbles. The first is simply to put the bike in a big gear and blast up the centre of the road. Experts in riding the cobbles, such as double winner Sean Kelly, have spoken of ‘floating’ across the top of the cobbles. Easier said than done for most of us. The second strategy is to be always searching for a smoother line, whether in the muddy gutter or even on the grass verge beside the road. However this is a risky strategy because the threat of punctures and crashes is higher.

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Paris-Roubaix is a technical as well as physical challenge. Most riders modify their bikes in some way, though the days of using suspension forks are long past. The cobbles are jarring, so extra layers of bar tape are applied. Some riders will use frames with a longer wheelbase and more relaxed angles. Bottles are particularly vulnerable to bouncing out of cages, so teams may swap carbon cages for alloy or titanium versions that grip the bottles better. Wider tyres may be used for greater comfort, and because punctures are frequent, teams will have more spare wheels than usual. Team helpers and family members are often sent out onto the course with a spare set of wheels for added coverage. Wheels being waved in the air from the roadside is one of the defining images of this crazy, beautiful race.

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