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Eyewitness: Katusha and the Roubaix recce

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Photographs: James Startt

The setting for Paris-Roubaix is reported as many things, but is rarely described as beautiful. Let us not forget that the phrase l’Enfer du Nord was coined to describe the region, and not the race, although admittedly in the immediate aftermath of WWI.
But let the sun shine on a landscape almost unfailing portrayed as bleak, wind-whipped, industrial, and more often than not rain-lashed, and to be peering through a windscreen obscured by the dust clouds thrown up by Alexander Kristoff, Luca Paolini, Marco Haller et al on their Roubaix recce is jolting.
For the most part, natural beauty absorbs the sporadic disfurgement of ugly and occassionally bizarre industrial and agricultural architecture, but this remains an unusual setting for elite cyclists. Paris-Roubaix, however, has always defied accepted norms, and the juxtaposition of honed athlete and advanced machinery with cobbled track grows more apparent each season, as the gulf widens between an unchanging and timeless landscape and an ever-more sophisticated sport.
Kristoff has been a picture of relaxation all day, boarding the bus from the hotel in Kortrijk, where he bedded down hours after yet another Classic victory: this time at Scheldeprijs, just three days after winning the Ronde van Vlaanderen.
There is time too for the road captain Paolini to smile and chat as 1 photographer James Startt shoots the mechanics loading the cars. Paolini’s contribution to Katusha’s success has been impossible to ignore this season, and for any within the ranks of the Russian team tempted to do so, there is an unmissable reminder as you step aboard the Katusha team bus: Paolini’s Gent-Wevelgem winner’s trophy sits adjacent to the steering wheel. As dashboard ornaments go, this is impressive.
A drive of little more than half-an-hour ends in the car park of LIDL supermarket, such is the unending glamour of professional cycling, close to the French-Belgian border. Kristoff is the low-key star of this low-key show. This is a technical recce when all said and done, and the bike (one of three bronze models in Canyon/Kristoff’s ownership, 1 understands) is at the centre of his thoughts.
Kristoff asks for two changes: for his saddle height to raised by 1mm (he felt it was too low in recent engagements) and for Canyon’s Rake Shift adjustment – an insert in the dropout – to be positioned in its longer setting, to optimise stability.
He is ably assisted. Andreas Walzer, Canyon’s team liaison, an Olympic gold medalist, has arrived after leaving Koblenz at 5am and will ride much of the route with Katusha. The Russian team has also acquired the services of arguably the most experienced mechanic in the peloton in Chris Van Roosbroeck, freelancing for Katusha after leaving Lotto-Soudal. This will be his twenty-fifth Paris-Roubaix.
Tyre pressures are the day’s key consideration. Even before the team has left the car park of the Kortrijk hotel, Van Roosbroeck has flagged up the obvious potential for pressure loss over the 10-hour period that typically characterises a race day, from “gassing” the tyres at 7am to the rider crossing the finish line. Out on the recce, the pressures are checked after each secteur, and again when the riders arrive at the waiting team bus, parked outside the famous cafe at the Carrefour de l’Arbre (now a swanky restaurant).
The atmosphere has changed slightly from our supermarket départ: the team bus is surrounded by fans, and when a photographer (not Startt) attempts a close-up of the numbers on the pressure gauge, the mechanic returns a look of disappointment. It is enough. The snapper withdraws. (Later, Van Roosbroeck is asked for the same numbers by a journalist he clearly knows well. He bursts into laughter. “Our tyre pressures? In the newspaper?” he guffaws, with incredulity. “Ask a young dog, Hugo, not an old dog”).
The 27mm tyres are perhaps the only change from a typical race set-up for a race that once demanded wholesale changes and an array of bespoke solutions to the peculiar demands of the pavé that intrigued obsessives. Modern machinery has largely removed the necessity. Carbon wheels are de rigueur and there is barely an additional wrap of bar tape to be seen on Katusha’s bikes.
The team rides together for most of the recce, sporadically joined by Walzer. They pass the amateurs on the course as if engaging in a different sport and make light work too of the various espoir squads seizing a chance to ride with the teams whose rosters they hope to join. Katusha begin their day at the Trouée d’Arenberg and take in the various secteurs around Orchies and Pévèle, before finishing at the Carrefour de l’Arbre.
Towards the end of the ride, Paolini and two team-mates ride clear. The Italian, idiosyncratic to the last, bearded and dressed entirely in black, adopts a meerkat posture, peering over the shoulder of the team-mate ahead, riding tall in the saddle, a position afforded by his peculiar cockpit: a stem that plummets towards to the front wheel and levers positioned high on the drops. When he rides with Kristoff, their different cadences are abundantly clear: the powerhouse grinding against a heavy resistance, while the road captain spins lightly, ready to accelerate if demanded by the scenario unfolding ahead.
Kristoff will turn his hefty gear in earnest on Sunday, when he will leave Compiègne among the most heavily backed for victory at the 113th Queen of the Classics. As with the Ronde, the absence of Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara leaves the outcome wide open, but given his recent results, which of them would have been more favoured for victory than Kristoff? The Katusha camp exudes a quiet confidence right now that can only serve them well on race day (Kristoff comes whistling past the Carrefour de l’Arbre cafe – literally). It will take a mighty effort from their competitors to disrupt their recent run of form.

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