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Paris-Roubaix arrives amid uneasy mood among riders following major crash

Fatigue, pressure to hit the winning line first or the addition of course obstacles could all be affecting riders ahead of Hell of the North

Broken chains, broken ribs, broken elbows, broken jaws, broken dreams, broken tools, people bending broken rules, take a deep breath, feel like you’re choking, everything is broken.

Pardon that partly plagiarised Dylan verse of an intro, it’s just no other sporting event brings it to mind as aptly or as fast as Paris-Roubaix. Also known as the Queen of the Classics, the Hell of the North, or simply la Pascale, the Easter race, it’s still the most famous one-day bike race in the world and by all accounts the hardest to win.

It’s also one of the oldest, first staged in 1896. Sunday’s 121st edition, between Compiègne, 80km north of Paris, to the Roubaix Velodrome, close to the Belgium border, covers 260km in all, including 29 sections of the fabled granite pavé, where anything can and often does go wrong — from part mechanical failure to full frontal face plant on to the mud-splattered ground. Buy the ticket, take the ride.

Coming off a sweeping right-hand bend in dense woodland, with 35km to go, the crash unusually happened at the very front, taking out a dozen riders including Tour de France contenders Jonas Vingegaard, Primoz Roglic, Jay Vine and Remco Evenepoel

In all those years of Paris-Roubaix though the mood among some riders feels different going into this Sunday’s race, the natural anticipation replaced by genuine fear. Every rider understands full well the risks involved in this sport, but rarely have they been laid so bare as the one single crash that decimated Thursday’s Stage 4 of the Itzulia Basque Country.

Coming off a sweeping right-hand bend in dense woodland, with 35km to go, the crash unusually happened at the very front, taking out a dozen riders including Tour de France contenders Jonas Vingegaard, Primoz Roglic, Jay Vine and Remco Evenepoel. Six of them were taken to hospital, including tour-time Tour winner Vingegaard, the Danish rider sustaining a broken collarbone and several broken ribs, with Evenepoel also breaking his collarbone and scapula.

According to his team Total Energies, Belgian rider Steff Cras also suffered from “a right pneumothorax, several associated rib fractures and two dorsal vertebral fractures, in addition to several hematomas, wounds and dermabrasions”.

Inevitably it has re-raised questions around rider safety, given this apparent black spot had no protective barriers (and why TV cameras remained on the injured riders for so long). Ultimately it seems the riders themselves might just need to be a little more cautious.

Last Sunday at the Tour of Flanders, the equally bone-crushing 270km from Antwerp to Oudenaarde, Van der Poel broke clear 45km from home on the notorious Koppenberg, the 12th of 17 rain-soaked and part-cobbled climbs, with a 20% uphill gradient

All of which emphasises the complete oddity and undeniable greatness of being Mathieu van der Poel. Because rarely, if ever, has there been such an overwhelming favourite for any Paris-Roubaix as Van der Poel, who at age 29 is unquestionably the best and most famous one-day bike racer in the world right now.

Last Sunday at the Tour of Flanders, the equally bone-crushing 270km from Antwerp to Oudenaarde, Van der Poel broke clear 45km from home on the notorious Koppenberg, the 12th of 17 rain-soaked and part-cobbled climbs, with a 20 per cent uphill gradient. While most riders behind him were forced to unclip their pedals and walk, Van der Poel soon went two minutes clear and never looked back.

At the finish line, he slowed to a freewheel and then unclipped his pedals, standing alone in his moment of glory, his bike raised above his head, a Belgian-born Dutch man, triumphant in Flanders yet again.

Van der Poel is also known for his uncanny knack for avoiding crashes, his extraordinary bike-handling skills perfectly evident in last year’s Paris-Roubaix, which he won in record time, with an average speed of 46.84 km/h (29.10mph).

Though born in Kapellen, he is unequivocally a Dutch rider, last Sunday’s victory his third Flanders win in all, and 38 years after his father Adri van der Poel denied our own Seán Kelly in a four-man sprint finish, in 1986, by the width of his front tyre.

That was the only Monument title Kelly didn’t win, although he remains one of only three so-called English-speaking riders to win Paris-Roubaix, and still the first and only Irish rider to land cycling’s most coveted one-day trophy, not just once but twice, in 1984 and 1986.

“It’s a horrible race to ride, but the most beautiful one to win,” Kelly once said. “You can be the greatest going into the race, can be in your best shape, but there are so many fences to be jumped, the crashes, the mechanical problems, all of that.”

For sure, crashes will always be a part of the race. On Wednesday, a day before the Itzulia Basque crash, Paris-Roubaix race director Thierry Gouvenou announced the addition three speed-reducing chicanes at the entrance to Trouée d’Arenberg, one of the fastest sections of the pavé, aimed at partly reducing the speed of the peloton.

Is this what fans want to see? Riders completely covered in blood after sliding face-first at 50mph/80 km/h on sharp rocks in a forest?

—  American rider Matteo Jorgenson

When Van der Poel got a look at them, he said on X: “Is this a joke?”

American rider Matteo Jorgenson was more welcoming of the chicanes. “Is this what fans want to see? Riders completely covered in blood after sliding face-first at 50mph/80 km/h on sharp rocks in a forest? I’ll take a couple of turns and some guys sliding out on pavement any day …”

Putting more safety first shouldn’t lessen the appeal of Paris-Roubaix. It will always be hard enough anyway: the 1976 race was vividly captured by Danish director Jorgen Leth in his documentary Sunday in Hell, the closing scenes of which resemble a sort of purgatory, as the riders, naked and bruised, walk among the concrete shower room. Merckx, by then a three-time winner, finished sixth, and certainly looks close to death. The winner Marc Demeyer died five years later of a heart attack.

Last year, Van der Poel also won his first Milan-San Remo, 62 years after his maternal grandfather and French cycling great Raymond Poulidor, three-time runner-up in the Tour de France.

By cycling’s standards, his beastly physique may not lend itself to an outright Grand Tour victory. Last month, he also committed his future to Alpecin-Deceuninck for another five-years, his first and only professional team, a loyalty unheard of cycling.

Sunday’s quest for victory is certainly made easier by the absence of his Belgian rival Wout van Aert, who also suffered several fractures in a crash at Dwars door Vlaanderen last month, an early finish to his spring season, same as Vingegaard, Roglic, Vine and Evenepoel.

For Van der Poel, another Paris-Roubaix victory may or may not hinge on a crash, but improving rider safety can only improve his chances too.

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