This Sunday is the Super Bowl of Monuments, the punishing, glorious Paris-Roubaix. Its storied cobbles pummel the riders no matter how many customizations are made to their bikes. Legends are born on the pavé. The Hell of the North is as much about the abject misery of crashes and mechanicals as it is about triumphs. Riders and teams relish the fray so much they tweet about the race four months ahead in anticipation.

Last year Peter Sagan tore away from a favourites group with 54-km to go and swept up Silvan Dillier from the day’s breakaway. Dillier and Sagan worked well together to keep the chase at bay. Sagan had the faster sprint to take his first cobble trophy.

A nice moment between Sagan and Dillier after last year’s velodrome sprint. Photo: Sirotti

The Course

There are 52.8-km of pavé over 257.5-km, with the first set of 29 sectors at Troisville at the 96.5-km mark. The hardest, five-star sections of cobbles are the 2.4-km Trouée d’Arenberg or Trench of Arenberg (km 162.5), the 3-km Mons-en-Pévèle (km 209) and the 2.1-km Le Carrefour de l’Arbre (km 240.5). The Trench is dead straight and often mossy. The Mons-en-Pévèle section is slightly downhill at the start. The Carrefour is close to the end and the place where decisive moves from a select group are often made. The Trench has the worst cobbles, but all three sections are an uneven, irregular ride.

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.

Movistar’s Marc Soler on the Arenberg sector last season. Photo: Sirotti

A tough pairing of lesser-rated sections is Hornaing (km 175, 3700 m) and Warlaing-Brillon (km 182.5, 2400 m) between Arenberg and Mons-en-Pévèle. The position battle is fierce between the two long, bumpy roads.

The final sector is 300-metres long and comes right before the turn into the famous Roubaix velodrome.

The sector formerly known as Secteur Pavé Chemin de Saint-Quentin is now known as Secteur Michael Goolaerts. As well as renaming the cobbled sector, a monument was erected in his memory near the place where the young Belgian fell during a cardiac arrest at last year’s edition.

The Contenders

Peter Sagan (Slovakia/Bora-Hansgrohe): The reigning champ hasn’t had a very sharp spring, with fourth in Milan-San Remo his best result in four WorldTour Spring Classics. But you’ve got to give the guy wearing number one on his kit respect.

John Degenkolb (Germany/Trek-Segafredo): Winner in 2015 and runner-up in 2014, the German raced four Spring Classics and placed 84th at Milan-San Remo, 22nd at E3 BinckBank, runner-up at Gent-Wevelgem and 29th at the Tour of Flanders. However, he is second only to Sagan with the bookmakers.

Greg van Avermaet (Belgium/CCC): The 2017 winner has four spring top-10 results in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Strade Bianche, E3 BinckBank and the Tour of Flanders. At the age of 33, he might be running out of time to win again.

Van Avermaet was second at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Photo: Sirotti

Alexander Kristoff (Norway/UAE-Emirates): Has responded to his team bringing in another sprinter with two wins including Gent-Wevelgem. Willed his way onto the Tour of Flanders podium last week.

Zdeněk Štybar (Czech Republic/Deceuninck-Quick Step): Twice the runner-up in the Roubaix velodrome, Štybar didn’t have a very good Tour of Flanders (or Milan-San Remo, Gent-Wevelgem, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne), but won Strade Bianche and E3 BinckBank. Will have a crack squad including Philippe Gilbert, Yves Lampaert and Kasper Asgreen, last week’s surprise Tour of Flanders runner-up.

Oliver Naesen (Belgium/AG2R): He was a little ill for the Tour of Flanders, but still came seventh. Also has top-10 placings in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, E3 BinckBank and Gent-Wevelgem.

Wout Van Aert (Belgium/Jumbo-Visma): His cyclocross rival Mathieu van der Poel has been slightly hotter this spring, but Corendon-Circus didn’t get a wildcard spot in ASO race. Has only six WorldTour one-day races under his road belt this season, but was runner-up in E3 BinckBank and third in Strade Bianche.

Hugo Houle, in the breakaway at last week’s Tour of Flanders, is the sole Canadian entrant.

Direct Energie will be showing up in their new kit as Total (not the cereal) Direct Energie. Unfortunately, their ace Niki Terpstra won’t line up in Paris, having suffered a concussion last week in Flanders.

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