THERE is no other race like it, none that has claimed so many victims, caused so much heartache and injury, nor spawned so many memorable quotes.
“It’s bollocks, this race,” said Theo de Rooy of Paris-Roubaix in 1985, going on to complain that the cobbles and mud meant “working like an animal, you don’t have time to p**s, you wet your pants, you’re slipping. It’s a piece of s**t”.
Would de Rooy ever ride it again? “Of course – it’s the most beautiful race in the world.”
No other race engenders such paradoxical feelings. Bernard Hinault hated the cobbles that characterise this one-day Classic known as the “Hell of the North”, calling them inhumane, but still won, in 1981. Remarkably, he was the last Tour de France winner to triumph in the Roubaix velodrome; these days, as Hinault observed last year, Tour contenders don’t even ride.
Which is precisely what makes Bradley Wiggins’ bid so unusual. Ah, but his bid for what, exactly? Wisely, the 2012 Tour winner has not been explicit, admitting he would “love to win it” (who wouldn’t?), but saying only that he wants to be “in the mix” in the final part of the race.
All we really know is that Wiggins has made Paris-Roubaix one of three targets for the year, the others being the Tour of California and the Tour. On what precisely he wants to achieve, it is difficult to say, but this perhaps is the charm of Wiggins’ attempt to shine on the cobbles.
For a rider whose greatest successes on track and road have owed so much to meticulous planning and precise data, his tilt at Roubaix is a glorious throwback. This is one for the romantics, and it seems to be romanticism that has drawn Wiggins back to hell, given that he has spoken about it being a race he followed closely as a teenager in the 1990s, when Franco Ballerini, Andrea Taffi and Johan Museeuw were the warriors who would arrive, either spattered in mud or coated in dust, in the old outdoor velodrome whose crumbling walls and decrepit state seem entirely fitting.
You could argue that Wiggins isn’t quite turning Hinault’s assertion that Tour contenders do not ride Roubaix on its head, because he isn’t really a Grand Tour contender any more. With Chris Froome also on Team Sky, his options these days are more limited. The uncharitable might suggest that with another two years on his contract, he needed to do something spectacular to justify his £3 million salary.
But, as ever with Wiggins, there is method behind the apparent madness. He reasons that his talent – it was his sustained power on the flat, in the time trials, that won him the Tour, not his ability to dance up the climbs, a la Froome – is suited to Paris-Roubaix. “Once the fighting is done in the early sectors, it’s about spending long periods of time on your own, which I’m good at,” says Wiggins.
“That’s one of the beauties of it – it’s about sustained threshold [power]. Like a time trial, in other words – but with cobbles and other riders. There is a lot of risk involved but other than the reconnaissance of the race, there is physically not much difference in terms of the demands.
“I always remember the press cuttings from when I was a kid – Roubaix is always something I held up there. I’d love to win it, but to be part of that final, that final 40 or 50km, so many things have to come together to win, or just to play a part, even if it’s doing a job for Geraint Thomas or whatever.”
Wiggins is no Roubaix debutant. Before he re-invented himself as a Tour rider, when he was a journeyman pro on a succession of French teams, he was a regular starter. “This will be my eighth Paris-Roubaix,” he points out. “I always had a bit of an obsession with it.
“The last time I rode it was 2011. I was 23rd in 2009. There aren’t many people who have won the Tour and gone back and done well but I’d love to be in the final with those guys, the Boonens and Cancellaras, to be in the mix and see what happens. We have strong guys, too.”
Sadly one of them, Ian Stannard, will not be there, having crashed in Ghent-Wevelgem. Thomas, if he can avoid crashes, is a former junior winner of the race, and Sky also have Edvald Boasson Hagen and Bernhard Eisel. But Tom Boonen, the four-time winner, and Fabian Cancellara, a three-time winner and defending champion, are big favourites. When Cancellara heard Wiggins was targeting Paris-Roubaix, he said: “Good luck! With Tour de France weight you’re not going to go anywhere.”
But Wiggins is no longer the svelte Tour winner. He is noticeably chunkier – around 6kg heavier than in 2012 – and, although he has had a quiet year so far, this is his first stated goal.
It is difficult to imagine him winning, or even being in contention to win when the first warriors home swing into the Roubaix Velodrome. But he has surprised us before.