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Where Paris-Roubaix 2021 will be decided, part 1: The Arenberg Forest

In-depth
27 Sep 2021
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Ahead of Paris-Roubaix this weekend, we remind ourselves of four key locations that will decide the outcome of the men's and women's race.

Words: Ellis Bacon Photography: Kevin Faingnaert

Also read:

Where Paris-Roubaix 2021 will be decided, part 2: Mons-en-Pévèle 
Where Paris-Roubaix 2021 will be decided, part 3: Carrefour de l'Arbre  
Where Paris-Roubaix 2021 will be decided, part 4: Roubaix Velodrome

'If this uncouth forest yaield anything savage, I will either be food for it or bring it for food to thee.’ – Orlando to Adam in As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 6. Just the name of the Forest of Arenberg has that Shakespearian ring to it, and, just like As You Like It’s Forest of Arden, it has the capacity to give with one hand and take away with the other.

‘You can’t win Roubaix there, but you can lose it,’ 2016 Roubaix winner Mat Hayman tells Cyclist.

We’d dismiss his assessment as just another sporting cliché were it not so true: the Arenberg section of cobbles has the capacity to ruin not just races, but careers.

‘It’s a nervous time for everyone; you just want to get through there unscathed,' Hayman adds. This long, straight section of cobbles, 2.4km in length, is also known as the Trouée d’Arenberg (the Arenberg Trench).

It makes its way through the forest, flanked on one side by a barrier to hold back the baying crowd and on the other by an often wet and muddy strip of grass that cruelly tempts riders to escape the rattle and danger of the cobbles, only for them to succumb to a different kind of fall, albeit onto a slightly more forgiving surface.

The peloton will tackle a newly-laid Arenberg Forest, no longer covered in the grass and mud of yesteryear but cobbles with concrete in between which Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix reckons is safer but tougher to ride.  

'Just ridiculous'

‘You ride through there and you think, “This is just ridiculous”,’ says Hayman, now sport director at Team BikeExchange.

‘Your bike feels as though it’s about to fall apart at any moment. You don’t know how carbon fibre can even take that kind of shock. Anybody who’s gone over there – including those who’ve done the sportive – will understand. It’s by far the worst section of cobbles in the race, and if there’s any kind of moisture in the air, you know it’s going to be slippery.’

It may make its appearance almost 100km from the finish in Roubaix, but the almighty scrap to get to the front before hitting that stretch of cobbles is, as Hayman points out, about ensuring as clear a path as possible for yourself.

If you crash here, not only might it put your race in jeopardy, but also your season, or even your career.

Two of the most infamous accidents happened here to Johan Museeuw and the late Philippe Gaumont, in 1998 and 2001 respectively. Gaumont’s horror crash broke his femur, while Museeuw shattered his kneecap, with the resulting gangrene infection almost costing him his leg.

But he would return to win a second Roubaix in 2000, to add to his 1996 victory, and then add a third in 2002.

‘It really is a nerve-wracking part of the race, and you’re pretty happy once you’re through,’ says Hayman. ‘But there really are no winners in the Arenberg.’