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Why Paris-Roubaix Is the Toughest One-Day Bike Race in the World

While any cycling race on the professional World Tour calendar is a far cry from a leisurely day in the saddle, Paris-Roubaix is pure torture.

Sonny Colbrelli of Italy and Team Bahrain Victorious won the 2021 men's edition of Paris–Roubaix; (photo/Etienne Garnier/Getty Images)
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Pro road cyclists compete in various events, from multiday or multiweek stage races to single-day epics to stack up Union Cycliste International (UCI) team points. The UCI is the international governing body of cycling.

Some of the hardest and most famous cycling races come in the form of the grand European tours, including the Giro d’Italia, Vuelta a España, and the legendary Tour de France. These races take place over the course of about a month, and force racers to implement long-game tactics in hopes of seeing their top riders in position for stage wins or overall victories in the general classification, or points accumulation through sprints or climbing.

While these races are renowned for their length and difficulty, another subset of major races known as the five Monuments of cycling, or simply, “The Classics,” garner the same level of prestige with an entirely different kind of tribulation.

Paris–Roubaix is the toughest cycling monument
Paris-Roubaix’s cobblestone sections make it the toughest cycling Monument; (photo/Jasper Jacobs via Getty Images)

The Monuments each are held on a single day. They are extremely long and cover dizzyingly difficult terrain. Because riders don’t have additional stages in the preceding or following days, they tend to give everything they have in the hunt for a win, rather than sitting on a wheel to conserve energy. This leads to explosive riding that is equal parts high consequence and high reward.

The Monuments include Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Tour of Lombardy, and Paris-Roubaix.

While all of these races have carved out a space as the most difficult single-day races in the world, the final member of this exclusive list, Paris-Roubaix, is a cut above the rest regarding technical difficulty and the required grit to even reach the finish line. Here’s why.

Paris-Roubaix: Hell on 2 Wheels

Sonny Cobrelli and Mathieu van der Peol in the 2021 Paris–Roubaix
Italian Sonny Colbrelli and Dutch Mathieu van der Poel of Alpecin-Fenix duking it out in the 2021 men’s edition of the Paris-Roubaix; (photo/David Stockman/Getty Images)

One need look no further than the nickname of Paris-Roubaix to understand just how hard the race is, even for the best riders in the world. Widely referred to as “the Hell of the North,” Paris-Roubaix runs from the outskirts of Paris to the city of Roubaix in Northern France over a grueling course of around 160 miles.

This year’s men’s race is this weekend. The men race on Sunday, April 9, from Compiègne, about an hour’s drive northwest of Paris, before wrapping up at the Roubaix Velodrome.

The women do battle in Paris-Roubaix Femmes on April 8 and will begin their race to the velodrome in Denain. The femmes course has been lengthened by about 13 miles compared to 2022, setting the finish line just past the 90-mile mark.

Map for the 2023 Paris–Roubaix
Map of the 2023 Paris-Roubaix; (photo/Paris-Roubaix)

It is not the longest of the Monuments, nor does it include the most arduous climbs or risky descents. However, what Paris-Roubaix lacks in traditional road racing obstacles like elevation, it more than makes up for in its excruciating cobblestones.

Those looking for a smooth riding surface should avoid Paris-Roubaix at all costs. The course is littered with cobblestone sections rated on a scale of 1 to 5 stars, with 5 being the hardest. These always lead to punctures, crashes, injuries, and catastrophic mechanical issues, frequently ending the race for top contenders.

By the end of the race, athletes are covered in dirt or mud and are likely to have lungs full of debris as well.

Cobbles in the ‘Hell of the North’

typical cobblestone section in the Paris–Roubaix
The cobblestone sector of Arenberg Forest in Paris-Roubaix; (photo/Rini Kools via Shutterstock)

The cobblestone sections of Paris-Roubaix are legendary. Many of these sections are ancient and were initially intended only for travel by horseback or chariot, and many would not even consider them actual roads.

If you imagine a relatively smooth surface with stones connected by well-maintained concrete, think again. These stones are sharp, uneven, and, if even a slight amount of rain comes down, incredibly slick. Riders usually run wider tires for Paris-Roubaix compared to other races. But even with extremely wide 30mm rubber, the cobbles are notorious for their bite.

Cobble sectors for the Hell of the North
Cobblestone sections of Paris-Roubaix 2022; (photo/Paris-Roubaix)

Punctures are a huge problem at Paris-Roubaix, but the terrain is so rough that even more significant mechanical issues including broken chainrings and destroyed wheels often hit the peloton. These mechanical issues have a major impact on the race, even for the frontrunners. A bit of good or bad luck can make the difference between a win or dropping out.

The 2023 men’s race runs over 29 cobblestone sections across nearly 34 miles. With five sectors reaching the 5-star rating and six more considered 4-star sectors, the race packs a heap of difficult terrain from beginning to end.

The Paris-Roubaix Femmes includes 17 cobblestone sections totaling about 18 miles. These riders will face off against two 5-star cobble sectors and four 4-star sections.

Teams Competing in Paris-Roubaix 2023

Cyclists turn onto a cobblestone section of Paris-Roubaix.
Cyclists turn onto a cobblestone section of Paris-Roubaix; (photo/Paris-Roubaix)

Winning Paris-Roubaix is a massive accomplishment. Previous winners include Peter Sagan (2018), Philippe Gilbert (2019), Sonny Colbrelli (2021), and Dylan Van Baarle (2022).

Wout Van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel are among the favorites to win this year’s race. But they will have plenty of competition from the likes of World Championship winner Mads Pederson and other riders from the 25 teams competing in the race this year.

Here are the teams competing in 2023:

  • AG2R Citroën Team (FRA) 
  • Alpecin Deceuninck (BEL) 
  • Astana QazaQstan Team (KAZ) 
  • Bora-Hansgrohe (GER) 
  • EF Education-Easypost (USA) 
  • Groupama-FDJ (FRA) 
  • Ineos Grenadiers (GBR) 
  • Intermarché-Circus-Wanty (BEL) 
  • Jumbo-Visma (NED) 
  • Movistar Team (ESP) 
  • Soudal Quick-Step (BEl) 
  • Team Arkea-Samsic (FRA) 
  • Team Bahrain Victorious (BRN) 
  • Team Cofidis (FRA) 
  • Team DSM (NED) 
  • Team Jayco AlUla (AUS) 
  • Trek-Segafredo (USA) 
  • UAE Team Emirates (UAE)   
  • TotalEnergies (FRA) 
  • Lotto Dstny (BEL) 
  • Israel Premier Tech (ISR)  
  • Bingoal Pauwels Sauces WB (BEL) 
  • Q36.5 Pro Cycling Team (SUI) 
  • Team Flanders-Baloise (BEL) 
  • Uno-X Pro Cycling Team (NOR)

How to Watch Paris-Roubaix

U.S. viewers can watch the 2023 Paris-Roubaix via Flobikes. Go ahead and inhale sharply, because you’ll fork over $150 a year for it, and it’s a one-pay setup. The platform does make a big deal of the fact that’s “less than $3 a week,” so maybe that’s how you need to justify it to yourself, your accountant, your significant other, etc.

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