Every April the cycling world anxiously awaits Paris-Roubaix and this year is no different as we look forward to Sunday’s 117th edition of the “Hell of the North”. Team KATUSHA ALPECIN are fortunate to have past winner and sports director Dirk Demol (1988) leading the squad as they head for the pavé.
Demol: “Of course it’s a special race for me. I can even say it changed my life for me as a rider. As a young rider I could not say I really liked riding on the cobbles - your body is shaking all over the place. But somehow, I knew I could be quite smooth over the cobbles. I knew that if there were a race I could possibly win, it was Roubaix. And then the day came.” Demol was part of a 13-man breakaway that went early in the race. Although working for his team leader Eddy Planckaert and just performing his job of covering the breaks, the gaps to the break were big and by 30k to go it was clear the peloton would not be catching them. Demol seized his chance to win the race.
Video Paris-Roubaix 1988 & 2019 Team KATUSHA ALPECIN
Team osteopath Hansi Friedl, Dirk Demol, General Manager José Azevedo and Erik Zabel (photo Benedict Campbell)
This season Demol is coaching Nils Politt for his return to Roubaix after finishing seventh last year in his debut appearance of the iconic race.
Politt: “I was watching Roubaix when I was a kid, during the time of Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen. It was always a special race with so much action. You never knew how the end would play out. There were always lots of crashes and it was a big mess everywhere. Of course, it was a dream for a kid who grew up doing small races as a junior to finally ride in this race. The dream came true. It’s a nice feeling and one I will never forget.”
Often times strategy goes out the window and sheer fight and strong will determine the winner in Roubaix. With some 54k of cobbles and people constantly fighting for position, the winner is usually revealed quite late in the race.
Nils Politt in the 2018 Paris-Roubaix edition (Photo Jojo Harper)
Demol: “Not every rider is capable of winning Roubaix. In the past I used to say every rider at the start line has a chance to win. Now we see the field of riders at the top is much larger. There are maybe 20 riders who can legitimately win the race, where in the past it might have only been 5. There is only maybe 1 chance in 100 for a rider to go in a break and win from there. I look back at myself and I hold the record for the longest breakaway to ever succeed to the finish in Roubaix. I had 222k in the front, so I have the record! But the breaks rarely succeed. They are always coming back. The race is so hard that when they catch you it’s over.”
While some riders might not use the same description for Roubaix as Nils Politt, make no mistake that he enjoys everything about it. Politt: “It is fun riding Roubaix. I like riding on the cobbles. I don’t like the climbs in the Alps; I am too heavy. But now it’s my turn and at 80kg I think I’m a good weight. I like to fight for position with everybody. It’s all about the legs and full gas racing. I like it. I don’t like races that start easy and we only really race in the last hour. I like it hard the entire time. This is a nice thing in Paris-Roubaix - you are constantly fighting to come onto the pavé in a good position.”
Nils Politt sprinted to 7th place (photo Jojo Harper)
Dirk Demol agrees: “The cobbles in Roubaix make this race so special. We have other races with cobbles but truthfully no cobblestones anywhere else compare with those in Roubaix. Riders who have never seen these cobbles in person are always surprised, always saying ‘What is this?!’ Special cobbles and also the parcours does not change. It’s the same course basically every time. It isn’t a secret, but to go over the cobblestones you have to go smooth, you have to give your bike a little bit of freedom. You have to handle your handlebars well, but leave some freedom. Once you learn this technique, you go smoother. You love it or you hate it, it’s that simple.”
Team KATUSHA ALPECIN have another ‘secret weapon’ to use in Paris-Roubaix, and that comes in the form of team press officer Philippe Maertens. Maertens loves logistics and studying the course with his well-worn map of the area, he comes up with plans A, B and yes, C, for how to locate bottles, food and spare wheels on Sunday. Maertens:“It’s not so easy to figure out because we have 29 cobbled sections so it’s like a puzzle where to put the six support teams and how to use them most effectively. I’ve even looked at some dirt roads to see if it is possible to use them, but I’m solving the puzzle. Paris-Roubaix is my favorite race.”
The famous map of Philippe Maertens (photo Benedict Campbell)
Philippe Maertens with rider Jenthe Biermans during Ronde van Vlaanderen 2019 (photo Benedict Campbell)
Politt assesses his form ahead of the race: “My legs are good. I look forward to Roubaix and I think I can do a good result there but you never know. You can have bad luck with a flat tire. Or one time not in the right position and there is a split, or you crash out. It’s like war. My goal is to be again in the top 10. Dirk already won so he has good advice and information on how to race it. He won from a breakaway but still he was a good rider and if you win Roubaix, it’s something special. I think he’s a good coach.”
With Politt’s first participation resulting in a seventh-place finish, Dirk Demol likes what he sees in the young German rider: “This is a race for riders who never give up, and Nils Politt is such a rider. Already for 4 years I have known about him. He’s a fighter, he works hard and every year he shows progression. If you ask me if he can win the race, I will answer you immediately yes. I don’t know if his time is now, but I believe he can win for sure.”
Fighting against the cobbles (photo Jojo Harper)
Nils harbors hopes for another strong finish on Sunday: “I have to be clear in my own head. In the end if you aren’t 100% in your head, you will lose positions. For six-and-a-half hours in Roubaix, you must concentrate. You don’t know what’s coming at Roubaix; that’s the scariest thing. You don’t know how things will end for you. And sometimes it’s hard to know what’s going on. In the end the best thing is don’t think - just ride your bike. Look at the wheels next to you and keep going until you win it all.”
Everyone finishes in the velodrome at Roubaix with loud, cheering fans celebrating a historic day of racing. It’s exciting for both riders and enthusiasts to see the end of this historic race.
Politt:“The crowds are always nice. A lot of spectators come out and it’s nice to see. Its something special for everyone. Coming into the velodrome you are thinking at last it’s done. It doesn’t even matter if you’ve been dropped. And if you happen to be racing for position and get to sprint on the track, that’s fun, too.”
Text by Cathy Mehl
Nils Politt exhausted in the finish 2018 (photo Jojo Harper)