Paris-Roubaix is this Sunday, and it is regarded by many as the hardest bike race on earth. The stage was set last week at the Tour of Flanders when Fabian Cancellara took the win out of a select group of four.
Like many Americans, I followed the Tour de France to some extent even before I got seriously engaged in cycling. Greg LeMond gave us an American hero who was able to twist the tails of the French and we loved it. When I started getting more interested in the pro cycling scene, a neighbor started telling tales of the hard men who ride the spring classics, and especially "The Hell of The North", Paris-Roubaix.
He brought me a VHS tape of the previous year's race, one in which rain and mud added to the intensity of an already brutal race. The famed cobbles, or pave, sections are little more than paths paved with rocks the size of loaves of bread, and the fight to be near the front of the pack before these sections is warlike.
There is a reason that the name "Roubaix" is used for everything from the warmest winter clothes to the most robust wheels and bike frames. Paris-Roubaix is considered to be the ultimate test for both riders and their equipment.
Last year, the drama was high as two riders battled it out to the end. Here's a YouTube video of that race.
Bike racing gets little TV coverage here in the US, so we are dependent on outlaw feeds from sites like www.cyclingfans.com and SteephillTV for live viewing. These sites are a bit of a pain in the ass. If you choose to go that route, you'll find the view cluttered with ads and links for browser upgrades, etc. DO NOT download them! If you can get an English language feed on which you can click the full screen button, got for it and the ads will go away. Otherwise, you can watch the race later on YouTube. My problem with that option is that in searching for the recording, I'm inevitably exposed to the results.
These are not the races of diminutive climbers like Contador and Froome, but are dominated by the hard men like Fabian Cancellera and Tom Boonen. Peter Sagan has the kind of talent and toughness to contend, but to date he has not been up to the task of winning. Team tactics are in play in the early battles leading to the cobbles, but you won't see lead out trains and team leaders surrounded by squadrons of domestiques. Sometimes a contender is lucky enough to have teammate or two along deep into the race, but it usually comes down to man-to-man combat. No mass sprint, no time bonuses, no saving legs for a later stage. The first man over the line wins, and that man is usually one bad son-of-a-bitch.