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Trouée d’Arenberg, Carrefour de l’Arbre, Mons-en-Pévèle… Which of Paris-Roubaix‘s infamous cobblestone sectors is the toughest?
Among those best placed to answer that question are the classics stars of Deceuninck-Quick-Step. In the absence of Paris-Roubaix, Sunday, Zdenek Stybar, Yves Lampaert, Bob Jungels and Kasper Asgreen describe the pain, suffering and ‘other dimensional’ experience of their most feared sectors of pavé.
The place where the race properly kicks off is Arenberg and that makes positioning crucial. In some years, I didn’t even make it to the front before entering that sector, it’s like a crazy bunch sprint, and if you miss a beat you are unable to return to the head of the peloton. There’s a big fight, the bunch splits into several groups, you can encounter a mechanical like I did some years ago, when I had to change a wheel, so anything can happen there. You never go flat out in Arenberg, but you still have to be extremely focused, because there’s a reason they say you can lose the race there. The interesting thing is that not the cobblestones are decisive, but the fight for positioning, which starts some ten kilometers before you hit the forest. From some ten riders next to each other you go to maximum two, because the sector is so narrow and the trees and the many fans who are there make you feel like inside of a tunnel.
I have five Paris-Roubaix starts, and on all occasions, I found Carrefour de l’Arbre to be the most energy-sapping sector. It comes so late in the race, when you are beginning to feel tired, and having Camphin-en-Pévèle just before means you don’t have any time to rest. Carrefour is long, has some corners where you need to pay extra attention, and the huge crowds on both sides of the road make you feel like in another dimension.
I’ve done Paris-Roubaix as a Junior, U23 and in my maiden pro season, and every single time it was the same sector, Carrefour de l’Arbre. Back in 2012, when I won the Espoirs race, I was alone at the front and Carrefour de l’Arbre was the most demanding part of my breakaway, it seemed like it would never end. Because it features so close to the finish, it usually decides the race, and I still remember how much I suffered there the only time I raced Roubaix with the pros. For me, it was a question of surviving.
Carrefour de l’Arbre, because it sucks out the most speed. It’s very slightly uphill and the cobbles aren’t in the best condition in that part, which makes it really tricky. Add to that some corners where you have to go really slow, and you understand why it’s so difficult to get the bike back to speed again. Carrefour de l’Arbre is also the sector that inflicts the most pain to your hands and wrists. There’s also the fact it comes so late in the race and it’s part of a wearing combo that includes Camphin-en-Pévèle and Gruson, and your legs are spent, but you still have to dig deep and keep the speed going on those bumpy cobbles.