Ah, Paris-Roubaix. The Queen of the Classics, typically called a rather unqueenly Hell of the North, is this Sunday, April 13. As any diehard road rider can attest, this manly race over beastly cobbles is for the supernatural racer only, the flahute as the Belgians say, one who thrills when gobbling up the kilometres in throat-scorching dust or oil-slick mud.
Recent contests have seen Australian flahute Stuart O'Grady grab the coveted cobble trophy in 2007, his CSC teammate Fabian Cancellara solo to victory in 2006, and Mister Classics himself, Belgian Tom Boonen, outsprint the bridesmaid George Hincapie in 2005.
What impresses the snot out of me most is that Paris-Roubaix isn't an isolated race that the Classics riders save their energy for; no, the 260km quad- and wrist-wrenching event comes after a rapid succession of major races, including Ghent-Wevelgem, Tour of Flanders, Milan-San Remo, Tirreno-Adriatico, Paris-Nice, and Het Volk, all in less than a month.
Our friends at VeloPress have recently published a 224-page coffee-table book called "Paris-Roubaix: A Journey Through Hell." Like most books of this ilk, one gets caught up in the storied faces of Paris-Roubaix's biggest winners and forgettable also-rans. The stark black-and-white photos of decades-old races harken back to the good old days before race radios, soft-shell helmets, and million-dollar salaries.
The highlights of the book include graphic photos of inevitable crashes, personality highlights and anecdotes, and a history of the grand event. One can't help but get inspired to ride some rough-stuff after reading this book, with a spot-on introduction provided by American Bob Roll, next to one of my favourite Paris-Roubaix photos: Bob taking the less enviable route, off the cobbles and into the goop, courtesy of Brit snapper Graham Watson.
So in the spirit of the legends who raced over the cobbles and into our hearts, take some time to ride in the rain more than once this season, just you and your thoughts, along with some embrocation of sorts rubbed deep into your legs. Ride into the wind, and seek out some rough-stuff to add some spice to your Saturday ride. Bring along small, wrapped jelly sandwiches with the crusts cut off, Eddy Merckx style. Wear a cotton cycling cap instead of glasses. Use the drops of your bars for 85 percent of your ride.
And as you're rinsing off the grit of an epic ride in the shower, thank God you don't have to subject your body to such brutality like O'Grady, Cancellara and Boonen. But by all means, make sure to tape this Sunday's Hell of the North, and re-live the pain from the comfort of your sofa.
For the 2008 Paris-Roubaix preview, visit Cyclingnews.com.