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Cycling: The Hell of the North returns this weekend

Peter Sagan, race winner in 2018, in action. Credit: Belga

Bearing the ominous epithet ‘The Hell of the North’, cycling’s most famous one-day race Paris-Roubaix takes place this weekend, with riders again taking on the fearsome cobbles between Paris and Roubaix after a two and a half year imposed hiatus.

Significantly, 125 years after the brutal race was first held, today (Saturday 2 October) will be the inaugural women’s edition. Even better for cycling fans, the women’s and men’s races will be on separate days which should allow the women’s event to be the centre of media attention rather than being overshadowed by the men’s event.

The fearsome cobbled section of the Trouée d’Arenberg, one of the toughest of the course. Credit: Belga

The men’s race is just shy of 258km in distance with a total of 55km punishing pavé sections, of which there are 30. These sections are where the race is won or lost – farmer’s tracks hundreds of years old that are little used today with asphalt roads being considerably more comfortable and faster. Many of the pavé sections are uneven with the great stones interspersed with perilous gaps, quite frankly unsuitable for anything smaller than tractor tyres.

And traction is precisely the problem for this year’s edition with rain forecast and the race notoriously challenging in even dry conditions. The slightest trace of moisture on the cobbles makes it nigh-on impossible to stay upright and after a race recon on Thursday, images surfaced of riders caked in mud who had learned just how difficult the conditions are.

Mathieu van der Poel in the mud on Thursday. Credit: Belga

Indeed, there is an element of schadenfreude in spectating this race – attempting to ride a road bicycle over such treacherous terrain seems nothing short of a suicide mission. Yet with the race being so renowned, a victory is one of the most coveted of all cycling accolades. Even for non-cycling fans, it is a riveting spectacle that, given the conditions this year, will be hugely entertaining.

After disappointment in last weekend’s World Championship race, Belgium’s Wout van Aert will be one favourite looking to round out the season on a high. His arch-rival, Holland’s Mathieu van der Poel, will also be doing his utmost to be crowned king of the cobbles.

Expect to see pile-ups and mud-plastered riders grimacing as they tackle the toughest race on the cycling calendar.

The women’s race is 116km in length and features 17 pavé sections and is due to start at 1:35 PM on Saturday 2 October. The men’s race starts at 11 AM on Sunday 3 October. Both can be followed on Sporza.

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