Stuart O'Grady Previews Paris-Roubaix

Fri 5 Apr 2013

Mention Paris-Roubaix and it evokes an outpouring of emotion ranging from pain to exhaustion to elation. It is a cycling extravaganza. It is the Hell of the North. The Queen of the Classics. A Sunday in Hell. A Monument.

The “modern day” cobbled sectors, the deciding elements of the race, are steeped in history dating back to 1967 when the race began utilising more sections of pavé. The 2013 edition of Paris Roubaix has 27 sectors – that collectively add up to 52.6 kilometres of cobbles out of 254 kilometres in total. Each sector is given a difficulty rating from one to five based on its length, the unevenness of the cobbles, its overall condition and its location. There are three five-star sectors with the last coming just 20 kilometres before the finish on the Roubaix Velodrome. Only one sector is easy enough to be awarded one star.

Several nights before the race, Stuart O’Grady, former winner, multi-time veteran of Paris-Roubaix and team captain, answered questions about his captivating experiences surrounding Paris-Roubaix.

Q: Is Paris Roubaix a race of attrition or is there an actual plan that is meant to be followed?

There’s obviously a perfect scenario for each team. The team meeting before the race will identify this scenario and everyone is given a job based on the perfect plan, but as in most big races, people crash, they have punctures. It’s quite rare that all eight guys are on 100% form on the same day. The key is to be flexible, stay calm and do the best with what you have. Every single rider has a major role, and if one of the guys doesn’t fill his role for whatever reason, then someone else has to cover it and life becomes hard. You hope everyone sticks to the game plan, but at the same time, we have to be able to change tactics on the fly if other circumstances arrive. After Flanders, [Fabian] Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard-Trek) is obviously a favourite, but we’ve got to go out there and call upon our tactical knowledge to beat him. We have to race our way.

Q: What is your role as road captain in a race like Paris Roubaix?

The road captain is often the most experienced. I’ve been in every situation possible. I’ve been in hard Paris-Roubaix’s and great ones – well, they’re all hard but when they go well, it’s easy to forget that. It’s about keeping the guys cool, calm and collected. Anything can happen and at some point in a Paris-Roubaix something usually goes wrong. When you talk to the guys at the end of the race, everyone has a different story to tell because it’s a whole adventure out there on the road. It’s about keeping the team together, conserving energy and communicating well.

Q: What is it about the Forest of Arenberg that is so decisive?

Even though it’s far from the finish, it’s one of the most decisive parts of the race. Mostly, it’s about damage control. On each sector you have to stay at the front and stay out of trouble. Before entering the forest, it is absolutely imperative to be at the front. Over the cobbles each rider that is in front of you must be looked at as an object. That rider can have a puncture or a crash or drop a water bottle or a chain and all of a sudden, this object is now an obstacle. Every water bottle that is dropped is like a grenade. It’s a big fight for position. It’s like going to war. At the end of that battlefield, you assess who made it through. Who’s there? Who’s not there? You have a split second to assess and make a quick decision. You either have teammates and can go on the offensive, or you’re numbers down and now need to be a little bit careful making any moves.

Q: When you won in 2007, what went right?

I think a lot of things made that happen. One was obviously being on really good form. Without the legs, you can’t do anything. Also being in the right place at the right time. It was also quite a bit of luck. I crashed that day. I crashed when I was meant to be attacking and stretching the field out for Fabian. If I hadn’t crashed, I would have sacrificed myself in the next section for Fabian and he probably would have won. I had a puncture in the forest. So many things happened. In hindsight, I look back and see how many different things happened both good and bad to contribute to the win. All the stars were aligned on that day. There was also great team support, obviously. We had been all in for Fabian and it turned out the team support benefited me in the end.

Q: Last year, Sebastian Langeveld broke his collarbone ahead of Paris-Roubaix. This year he is injury free and going strong – how does that impact things?

I guess Sebastian has been the team leader for the classics teams for a couple years now. Obviously, last year it was a massive blow to have our number one guy crash out. A lot of chance was passed along to us, but unfortunately, we weren’t able to come up with any sort of result. Hopefully this year we can turn that around. He’s shown that he has really great form. He was up there in Flanders, and Paris-Roubaix should suit him even more than the Flanders circuit.

Q: What modifications will the team make to the equipment for Paris-Roubaix?

We have different frames for Paris-Roubaix. We have a frame with a slightly longer wheel base which makes the ride a little smoother across the cobbles. We use wider tires to absorb more of the shock. Some use more handlebar tape and more cushioning underneath the handlebar tape. I have my wrists bandaged up to make it a little more stiff. We’ve had different pedals in the past and slightly different strength carbon in the frame.

I imagine there are a hell of a lot more spare wheels in the car behind. They’re the first piece of equipment to go – a broken rim or a puncture.

Q: In part because of the team, cycling is enjoying a wider audience in Australia than ever before. For an Australian who might stay up to watch Paris-Roubaix for the first time on Sunday night, what can you tell them to expect to see?

(Laughs). If they’re flicking on Paris-Roubaix for the first time they’re going to say – “What the hell? What kind of bike race is this?” It’s a cross between mountain biking, road racing and gladiator warfare. They’ll see guys crashing, cobbles, dust, mayhem, chaos and a lot of tired faces. It’s an adventure. It’s the Hell of the North. You’re putting yourself through hell and everyone gets to watch it on TV. You finish the race and you feel like you’ve been in a car wreck. It’s pretty full on. It’s about as hard as cycling ever gets.

Q: We know you love this race, but you're not really making the race sound so appealing with that sort of description. What's the draw of this race?

Well, we all obviously love one thing, right? Pain and suffering. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be in this sport. I guess it’s all about pushing the body to the absolute limit. You either love it or hate of it. None of us, when we get to the finish, unless we win, feel anything but pain. The body is buckled. It’s the most pain you put yourself through that I can think of. You’re cramping. Your whole body is a wreck, but it’s satisfying. You’ve achieved something that not many people will do in their lifetime. It’s a personal achievement to get to the Roubaix Velodrome and race for the win. In my first Paris-Roubaix, I was just happy to get to the velodrome. Any rider who finishes, whether he is inside the time cut or not, has accomplished something. It’s an achievement just to get there.

ORICA-GreenEDGE for Paris-Roubaix:

Baden Cooke
Fumy Beppu
Jens Keukeleire
Jens Mouris
Luke Durbridge
Mitch Docker
Sebastian Langeveld
Stuart O’Grady