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Matteo Trentin has seen it all during his long and eventful racing career.
But there’s something about Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix that gives him pause — leaves.
Leaves, as in detritus from nearby trees covering some sectors of the already treacherous cobbles.
“Just imagine how many leaves will be on the ground in the Arenberg forest, and how dangerous that will be,” Trentin told VeloNews. “Coming in October, Paris-Roubaix will be a very different race than normal.”
With a rare autumn Paris-Roubaix on tap this weekend, the risk of leaves on the cobblestones is just one more wrinkle in what will make Sunday’s race different on many levels.
The Queen of the Classics has been dethroned nearly two years running, but it’s back just in the nick of time to cap a tremendous week of racing with the worlds-Roubaix double.
Following its hiatus since April 2019 — the last winner? Philippe Gilbert — Paris-Roubaix in October is going to be a very different race than its traditional date at the peak of the spring classics.
What’s certain, however, is it still will be hell on wheels no matter what the conditions.
Here are five ways Paris-Roubaix in October will be different than any edition seen before:
Fall weather — forecasters calling for rain
OK, it can rain just about every month in northern France.
Yet it hasn’t rained on Paris-Roubaix in April since 2001 and 2002. A generation of riders has no idea how to race the elite men’s edition on wet and slippery cobbles.
Six hours of racing over the punishing pavé of France’s untamed farm roads is something else if it’s wet, muddy, and slicker than ice.
“We have a whole generation of riders who have never raced in the rain,” Ineos Grenadiers sport director Servais Knaven said in an earlier interview. “No one today is experienced in the rain at Roubaix.
“Riders today won’t know how the wet pavé feels under the tires,” Knaven said. “It’s a different feeling. Of course, if it rains, they will have to learn quickly.”
Also read: Rain at Paris-Roubaix? It just might happen
Sure, other races featuring cobbles have seen sloppy weather, including stage 5 at the 2014 Tour de France, which traced over some of the Roubaix cobbles.
Knaven said that’s nothing compared to the Hell of the North in the wet.
“The 2014 Tour de France, we had that wet stage over the cobbles. Besides that, it’s been dry every year at Roubaix,” Knaven said. “In Flanders, it’s different. We’ve had bad weather, but the cobbles are different. Roubaix in the wet is a very different kind of race.”
It hasn’t rained on Roubaix in April for nearly 20 years.
Now that it’s in October, destiny — and a fast-moving front — might deliver showers all weekend long.
Missing that touch on the pavé
Another factor that will make this Paris-Roubaix different — handling the pavé.
In a normal calendar year, Paris-Roubaix is the crescendo of nearly a month of racing across cobbles and bergs that gives the entire peloton a certain degree of confidence heading into northern France.
Last time Paris-Roubaix was held:
Remco Evenepoel was winless as a pro
Chris Froome was the reigning Giro d’Italia champion
Tadej Pogacar was a neo-pro
Primoz Roglic wasn’t a Grand Tour winner
Alejandro Valverde was World Champion
— CafeRoubaix (@CafeRoubaix) September 29, 2021
Besides a few sectors of urban cobbles featured in last weekend’s road world championships in and around Leuven, however, no one’s been on monument-level cobblestones since April.
Those first sectors could be a real shock for the peloton, especially since it’s been 18 months since the last Roubaix.
“It will be interesting to see how everyone can be on their bikes after so long not racing Roubaix,” Zdeněk Štybar told VeloNews. “The cobbles at Flanders and other races are different. These are real hard and bumpy.
“No one has raced Roubaix since 2019,” he said. “It will not be the same as if everyone was racing the northern classics for a month before. People will be nervous.”
Leaves on cobblestones
Granted, most of the cobble sectors are forgotten tractor lanes across wide-open fields. There won’t be any leaves on the road at Carrefour de l’Arbre, for example.
Leaves could be a factor, however, in one of the most notorious sectors in the entire race at the Trouée d’Arenberg.
The 2,400m sector is a straight line through the Arenberg forest. Crews were out last week to help clear debris, overgrown grass, and weeds off many of the key sectors.
Right now, most of the trees still have their leaves, and likely won’t lose them fully for another few weeks.
Gusting winds, however, could blow leaves onto the Arenberg and a few other sectors that pass through wooded areas, such as Beuvry-la-Forêt and Orchies.
Add possible rain, and the mix could add another layer of risk to some of the most dangerous sectors in the race.
Trentin is hoping that race organizers will try to clear the Arenberg with a sweeper the morning before the peloton hits it at full speed.
“If you see the classics in the last years, you see them take a broom car over some of those sectors, and I am counting on ASO that they will do the same,” Trentin said.
Traditional runway is gone
Another key factor will be the unpredictable condition and form of many of the riders.
We already saw last weekend at the Flanders worlds how many of the pre-race favorites, including Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel, simply ran out of gas in the most decisive phases of the race.
Many expect a similar scenario Sunday.
Following a strange season marked once again by the Olympic Games and COVID-19 — remember, that’s why Roubaix is in October anyway — many of the Roubaix favorites have not had their traditional preparation for the race.
Most top classics riders begin preparing for the spring classics in November, with the idea of hitting their peak in March and April.
Also read: Amstel Gold Race, Roubaix swap dates in 2022
This year, they’ll be racing perhaps the most physically challenging and prestigious one-day race of the calendar as a stand-alone race in October.
“Paris-Roubaix normally is the peak of the northern classics calendar. Now it’s by itself,” Sep Vanmarcke told VeloNews. “I do not think many of the classics riders will have that perfect preparation for Roubaix. Some raced the Olympics and the worlds, and some others have been to smaller races. It’s going to be hard to predict.”
No hierarchy in the bunch
And finally, almost no one will know who will be strong or who could be a direct threat.
Last weekend’s worlds gave a preview of who will have the legs to go the distance, but that race was contested under national teams, with riders often sacrificing their chances for a compatriot rather than racing for their own chances or for their respective trade teams.
As Vanmarcke said, almost no one will really have a strong sense of who is strong or which teams will come into the race ready to win.
— Peter Sagan (@petosagan) September 29, 2021
That should create a very different type of race dynamic, perhaps opening up what typically is already a highly unpredictable race into a free-for-all over cobblestones.
Some riders, like 2017 Roubaix winner Greg Van Avermaet, did not race the worlds, and his last monument was back in April.
“After a few difficult weeks, I was happy to regain some good sensations during the last stage of the Benelux Tour, racing on roads that I know by heart,” Van Avermaet said this week. “My recent form was not good enough for me to be selected for the world championships in Belgium. I have been part of the national team since 2007 and it was a bit difficult for me to miss this edition.
“Despite everything, I will be happy to see Roubaix again after 18 months of waiting,” Van Avermaet said. “I would have preferred to race it in the spring, especially since my form was good which my third place at Ronde Van Vlaanderen proved, but that’s how it goes.”
Of course, all of these factors could add up to an amazing race Sunday.
No one will know their true fitness, there will be no hierarchy or established pecking order; add some wet roads, a few leaves, and a load of mixed ambitions, and the 2021 edition of the Hell of the North could be one for the ages.