Strava might have taken the segment into the mountains, but it’s arguable that segments were invented a whole lot earlier.
Paris-Roubaix is ‘The Queen of the Classics’: it’s one of cycling’s hardest and most infamous one-day races, mainly thanks to the inclusion of long cobblestoned segments – or what the French call secteurs pavés.
But these aren’t any normal cobblestones like you’d find in town: they’re old neglected farm roads, used for centuries by horses and now churned up by tractors and farm machinery. The large cobblestones can be unevenly placed, with huge gaps in between, which are perfect for causing pinch andats or buckling a wheel, or even tossing a rider to the floor. Riders use special tubular tyres for the event, double wrap their handlebar tape, and even use cyclocross bikes or road bikes with suspension to help deal with the discomfort and the vibrations of the pavé.
Bleak and beautiful, and almost haunted by the ghosts of riders past, each segment is rated for difficulty for the race each year, between one and five stars – with five indicating the ultimate in difficulty. They’re even kept in a certain state of (dis)repair by an organisation called The Friends of Paris Roubaix. Some riders favour ‘the gutter’ – riding in the dirt at the edge of the road; others, riding on the crown, where the cobbles are smoothest, and you’ll frequently see racers dodge and weave between the two. When dry, the cobbles can be boneshaking, treacherous and dusty; in the wet, they become muddy, slippery and dangerous.
Paris-Roubaix 1985 was a classic wet year
The first five-star secteur the race hits is the so-called ‘Arenberg Trench’. An arrow-straight line through the grim Arenberg forest, the 2.4km of pavé come around 100km from Roubaix – but even so, these tremendous cobbles that date from the Napoleonic era, and which have since subsided because of the mining tunnels underneath can prove decisive.
Paris–Roubaix is not won in Arenberg, but from there the group with the winners is selected.
That was said by Jean Stablinski, who should know: he was a former miner who worked under Arenberg, who turned pro in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Although he never won Paris-Roubaix, it was Stablisnksi who suggested the segment be included in the race.
In its first appearance in 1968, the incomparable Eddy Merckx powered through, attacking the lead group and making the decisive selection on the way to his first Paris-Roubaix win.
Arenberg was where, in 1996, the trio of Johan Museeuw, Gianluca Bortolami and Andrea Tafi emerged with the front group. Gradually the three, who were all on the Mapei team, pulled away from the rest and entered the Roubaix Velodrome, for the traditional 1.5 laps finishing parade together. They were so sure of the win that the team’s directeur sportif took a phone call from the sponsors, who wanted to dictate who placed first, and Mapei took all three podium spots.
The forest is Paris-Roubaix. It’s unique, only in this race do you have to ride through Arenberg, no other,
said Franco Ballerini, Paris-Roubaix winner 1998, and Mapei rider in ‘96 who punctured and could not finish with his team-mates that year.
It was also on the Arenberg cobbles that Tom Boonen had a mechanical problem that deprived him, that year, of a historic fourth Roubaix win. The Belgian Boonen would go on win in 2012, and join Roger De Vlaeminck at the top of the Paris-Roubaix pantheon. De Vlaeminck, another Belgian, won four times in the 1970s and is known as ‘Monsieur Roubaix’.
Watch De Vlaeminck prepare and race in 1976.
The next five-star secteur is at Mons-en-Pévèle. It’s where Fabian Cancellara, the other great Roubaix specialist of the 21st century, escaped from the pack in 2010. Boonen was stuck at the back of the pack as Spartacus hammered out a three-kilometre lead over the cobbles.
The week before Roubaix, Cancellara also won the Tour of Flanders, a historic double victory. The Mons-en-Pévèle segment was also featured in the 2015 Tour de France route, though it did not claim any big-name victims that year.
CARREFOUR DE L’ARBRE
The final five-star secteur is called the Carrefour de l’Arbre (the ‘Crossroads of the Tree’) and it’s the one to watch for race-winning moves and drama. Although it has in the past been a little smoother, riders now say that it has degraded so much that it’s just as bad to race over as the Trouée d’Arenberg.
If you come out of the Carrefour de l’Arbre in front then you’ve got a good chance of getting to the velodrome, 20km away, with that lead still intact. It was true for the giant Swede Magnus Backstedt in 2004, Boonen in 2005, Cancellara in 2006 and Stewart O’Grady in 2007. And the Carrefour was in 1985, where Frenchman Marc Madiot, riding for the Renault-Elf made his move. Six years later, he did exactly the same thing, seeming to float over the cobbles to become a celebrated double Roubaix winner.
Watch Marc Madiot in 1991
The Carrefour de l’Arbre also starred in the 2014 Tour: it was where the defending champion Chris Froome crashed for a second time that day, exacerbating a wrist injury that led him to retire from the race.
The hallowed Roubaix Velodrome
It’s not pavé of course, but survive the 25-or-so secteurs beforehand, and the velodrome is a sight for sore eyes: 1.5 laps of the concrete velodrome surrounded by cheering crowds, ears ringing with glory.
Watch Marcus Backstedt take the sprint in 2004
A win here is a career-defining moment, but even finishing – and cleaning up afterwards in the famous Roubaix showers – is something that marks a professional rider out. We’ll have to wait until April 10 to find out who next will write their name in history.
The Key 4 Segments in Full Race Order
AUCHY-LEZ-ORCHIES – BERSÉE
Full list of the Paris-Roubaix key segments
— Trouée d’Arenberg
— Carrefour de l’Arbre
— Quiévy — Saint-Python
— Haveluy — Wallers
— Hornaing — Wandignies-Hamage
— Tilloy-lez-Marchiennes — Sars-et-Rosières
— Auchy-lez-Orchies — Bersée
— Côte Hameau du Buat
— Cysoing — Bourghelles (1st part)
— Cysoing — Bourghelles (2nd part)