Over the last day, both Antoine Duchesne and Hugo Houle have been confirmed for Sunday’s 116th Paris-Roubaix, after the Tour de France the most famous pro cycling race that’s known as the Hell of the North. More than any other race, Paris-Roubaix is known for its cobbles–exhausting, bone-jarring, dream and machine destroying cobbles. It’s a race so hard that it requires specific equipment like double bar tape, secondary brake levers, wider tires and grip tape inside bottle cages. It’s the third Classic Monument of the season and it’s considered the Queen.

Teams doing recon of the cobbles on Thursday found them slick with mud.

Houle and Duchesne

In their first years with new teams Houle and Duchesne are racing plenty of the WorldTour. Only two racing days out of Duchesne’s 19 haven’t been in the WorldTour, and seven of Houle’s 19.

Houle ended his Flanders Fortnight on an frustrating note–getting disqualified along with 30 others at the Scheldeprijs for ignoring a level crossing.

Before that he had a fine run through E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem, Dwars door Vlaanderen and the Tour of Flanders, never finishing below 73rd and placing 29th in the Dwars.

Duchesne is known for his escapes and his late breakaway in Wednesday’s Scheldeprijs was a great show of savvy from Tony the Tiger. He will be pleased with his 51st place, and not just because it marks the second one-day race he has completed out of six started this year. Obviously, his exit from the Tour of Flanders was a controversial one.

The Course

There are 29 cobbles sections this year for a total of 54.5-km, with the first arriving 93-km into the 257-km race.

By now most know that the Hell of the North’s three hardest, or five star, sections are dead-straight Trouée d’Arenberg at kilometre 162, Mons-en-Pévèle at 208.5-km and Carrefour de l’Arbre at 240-km. These three 2-km+ sections are where the cobbles are at their most irregular and nasty, and where there are crowns to slip off.

Stybar and Sagan on the Mons-en-Pévèle sector, 2017. Photo: Sirotti

What fewer realize are that each five star sector has a four star sector proceeding it, with Camphin-en-Pévèle essentially ending just as Carrefour de l’Arbre begins. This makes the Big Three even more taxing.

The major shake-ups tend to come on these sections, with often a frantic regrouping on the milder sections and streets following the Carrefour de l’Arbre. Into the velodrome they go for the final battle. Last year Jasper Stuyven and Gianni Moscon caught up with Zdenek Stybar, Greg Van Avermaet and Sebastian Langeveld inside the velodrome to set up a five man sprint. Van Avermaet came around Stybar for the win.

Contenders

Quick Step has several contenders, with 2014 titlist Niki Terpstra and two time runner-up Stybar among the favourites. Philippe Gilbert and Dwars winner Yves Lampaert are threats as well.

Reigning champ Greg Van Avermaet‘s only 2018 triumph is a stage of the Tour of Oman in mid-February. Leading up to his 2017 victory he had three Flanders wins and two second spots in Strade Bianche and the Tour of Flanders. The Olympic gold medalist stood on the podium at E3 before eighth and fifth places at Dwars door Vlaanderen and the Tour of Flanders respectively. The Belgian has had a solid year in stage races so far, never outside the top-20 in three events.

EF-Drapac’s Sep Vanmarcke has stood on a couple of Belgian podiums this spring, third place at both the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and last week’s Dwars. His finest moment might be the tremendous fight back to seventh place at E3, battling on after getting caught in a crash over 100-km from the finish line.

You should always count in three-time world champion Peter Sagan (Slovakia/Bora-Hansgrohe). He took a fine third Gent-Wevelgem title last week before the usual frustrations at De Ronde saw him come in sixth. In Sagan’s six Hells he has only finished in the top-10 once, sixth place in 2014.

Other riders to consider are Sky duo Ian Stannard and Moscon, Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) and Oliver Naesen (France/AG2R).

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