‘It’s not going to end well’ - A divided peloton over chicane saga at Paris-Roubaix

Van der Poel argues that the course modification will make the chaos of the Arenberg worse than ever, while others believe it’s a positive step towards safer racing

All talk ahead of this year’s men’s edition of Paris-Roubaix has been about three rows of metal fences that sit at the entry to the Arenberg Forest. The two makeshift corners in the race route that these barriers create are only around 200 metres of the 259.7km total distance, but their placement has the potential to be crucial in Sunday’s race.

The aim of adding a chicane before the brutal Arenberg sector is simple: riders will hit the cobbles at a slower speed and the peloton will be more strung out, which could, in theory, lead to fewer crashes. It's a course modification that Paris-Roubaix organisers agreed to after a request from the CPA (Cyclistes Professionnels Associés) rider union, after previous editions of the race have seen some serious injuries on the notoriously severe Arenberg cobbles.

While the CPA president Adam Hansen has confirmed that the majority of riders he spoke to agreed with the course change, a few days ahead of the race, key members of the peloton have shared their concern over whether the chicane will make a difference to safety at all. 

Defending Paris-Roubaix champion, Mathieu van der Poel, told journalists on Friday that a “chicane is not the way to go” in order to make crashes less likely. He argued that riders will instead be forced to brake “at 60kph on a railway, do a 180 degree turn” which “is not going to end well for 150 guys.” The world champion acknowledged that change needs to happen in order to make the Arenberg less treacherous, but was clear in his view that the modifications for the 2024 edition would not make a significant impact when it comes to reducing the chance of incident.

“It is good to try something different. For sure, it is one of the most dangerous sections we do in the entire year, I’m also not really comfortable there in a bunch, so it is good they try think about something, but just to change something [for the sake of it] is not always the way to work,” Van der Poel said. 

When asked what he would suggest in order to make the race safer, the Dutch rider explained that approaching the Arenberg from the road to the right, rather than the long straight road as has been the case in previous years, would already make a difference. He added that he’d spoken to Hansen about other options for the Roubaix route in upcoming editions.

Image: ASO/Pauline Ballet

“Adam Hansen texted me and I have seen some options for the coming years which look quite good, but chicanes, in my opinion, are more dangerous. If you go to Arenberg in 20th position, it will be quite ok, but after position five or 10, people are standing still and they lose half a minute,” Van der Poel said. “I don’t think it is the way to go, but if the majority of riders and sports directors think it’s better, I’ll follow. The riders are the main problem but I also join the party. If you want to win, you have to be there.”

Other key favourites for Sunday’s race, such as Lidl-Trek’s Mads Pedersen, aimed to remain more open-minded about the chicane, but the Danish rider admitted that he didn’t feel as if the entire peloton had been properly consulted about the change.

“It is what it is. They took the decision by only asking a few riders, not everyone. Now it’s there, you have got to deal with it - you can’t change it anyway,” Pedersen said. “I have no idea [if it will make the race safer]. It’s just a corner like every other corner in the race and we have brakes on the bike. We all want to be first. Maybe we crash there, maybe we don’t. We’ll see how dangerous it is after the race and if it makes it better or worse. We all want to have ideas and pictures from all riders, but in the end we’re all guessing.”

While Pedersen lamented a lack of conversation with the entire peloton surrounding the course change, others said that riders were properly consulted and appreciated the initiative of the CPA.

“I think sometimes people think that corners are dangerous, but I think sometimes the more technical sections are, the safer they are. Take Basque Country, there were some crashes on the huge wide road when there’s more space,” British national champion, Fred Wright, commented. “Anyway I won’t be crashing at 60kph Sunday on cobbles like last year so I’m happy enough. I agree that the solution they’ve come up with isn’t the best, but all the teams were asked if they would like the approach to Arenberg to be slower and we agreed. It’s a good thing that we now have more power to make races safer.”

It seems that the majority of riders accept that the chicanes certainly don’t guarantee that there won’t be crashes during the fight for positioning on the approach to the Arenberg. However, the general consensus is that crashing on tarmac will always be favourable to the sharp cobblestones which have caused serious injuries in previous editions of Roubaix. The ability that riders have to influence change is also a noteworthy development in the wider context of professional cycling and something that could make a difference in other future safety-related matters.

“I think it’s nice that they took initiative to do something. In the last few years the entry to Arenberg has become faster and faster, every year something happens in the first few hundred metres, so something had to be done. Is it the perfect solution? I don’t know, but at least it’s a step to doing something,” Kasper Asgreen of Soudal–Quick-Step said. “We will see on Sunday how well it works, or if we need to look for ways to improve on it. Either way the speed is going to be slower. I hope we get through without any crashes.”

Cover image: Alex Whitehead/SWpix

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