Strong men prepare to wrestle in the mud at mythical Paris-Roubaix

Compiègne (France) (AFP) –


The miles of mud and millions of cobblestones on the epic Paris-Roubaix one-day race on Sunday will be turned into a spectacular splatter-fest by heavy rain.

Rescheduled for October this year instead of April, Paris-Roubaix is a major date of the French sports calendar with its 257-kilometre course including 55km of rough, cobblestone roads where the usual traffic is heavy farm vehicles and ambitious amateur cyclists.

In April, the wheat would usually be high in the fields of northern Picardy region but the October date means the sweeping fields will be exposed to winds that could make the race faster and potentially even more risky.

Given the wet and windy forecast, a young and powerful rider might be expected to win over the bone-shaking cobbles and the mud-slick country roads.

With that in mind the recent world champion Julian Alaphilippe and Olympic mountain-bike champion Tom Pidcock, who is young but slight, have been left at home by their teams.

But debutant Mathieu van der Poel appears to have the panache to win a race that his French cycling legend grandfather Raymond Poulidor rode a record 18 times.

"It'll be cool if it rains," said the 26-year-old Alpecin rider who proved his form when he finished in a small group just behind Alaphilippe in the world championships last week.

Remarkably for a race that finishes on the Franco-Belgian border there has been no rain on the race itself since 2002, but if it continues on Sunday it will make slippery the already treacherous, rough-hewn cobbles.

Sagan with his winner's cobblestone
Sagan with his winner's cobblestone FRANCOIS LO PRESTI AFP

Much of the race is contested on tarmac but the 25 teams of seven riders will also endure 30 paved sections, each given a 1-5 star difficulty rating, that set the pulses racing for an avid television audience in France.

The 55km of cobbles, containing more than six million stones preserved as part of local culture in the former mining region.

- Six million cobblestones -

The winner of the race is awarded a cobblestone for their efforts, while local officials plead each year with the fans and curious onlookers not to take away any as souvenirs.

The race was last run in 2019 when it was won by Belgian Philippe Gilbert. The Quick-Step rider escaped with Nils Pollitt and outpaced the German in the Roubaix outdoor velodrome, which can make for thrilling cat-and-mouse finishes on its steep banks.

Race folklore has it that the road -- and especially the cobbles -- decides the winner,

Van Der Poel agrees.

"You can be as adept as you like, if someone in front of you falls, you down with them. You have to ride your luck to win here," he said.

Gilbert, the hugely popular defending champion, now rides for Lotto, while another crowd pleaser, 2018 champion Peter Sagan from Slovakia is capable of making a tilt in his last race for Bora-Hansgrohe.

Philippe Gilbert and Peter Sagan at the 2019 edition
Philippe Gilbert and Peter Sagan at the 2019 edition Stephane MANTEY POOL/AFP

Jumbo's Belgian star Wout van Aert, the Dane Kasper Asgreen of Deceuninck and Dutch Ineos powerhouse Dylan van Baarle all possess the pedigree and physical traits needed for a win on this race that may just come down to a 'last man standing'.