The opening 50-kilometres of this weekend’s Paris-Roubaix Juniors, part of the UCI juniors Nations’ Cup, could be the most pivotal according to Great Britain coach Matt Winston.
Six British Cycling Olympic Development Programme (ODP) riders will tackle 16 cobbled sectors totalling 28.9-kilometres this Sunday – the vital component of the 128.4-kilometre course for the eleventh edition of the race.
Tao Geoghegan Hart and Oliver Wood have experience of the demanding terrain from 2012 – when Jon Dibben finished third – but for Matt Gibson, Jake Ragan, Chris Lawless and Scott Davies the route will bring a fresh challenge and also act as their Nations’ Cup debuts.
Included in the cobbled sections are the five-star – a rating given to the most difficult parts - Carrefour de l'Arbre (2.1km) and Mons-en-Pévèle (3km) to test the upcoming athletes.
But it is the opening uneven sector from Hornaing à Wandignies Hamage, rated three stars and which riders will confront 46-kilometres into the race that British Cycling Olympic Development Programme coach Winston believes will be crucial as riders vie for position at the front of the peloton.
“They’ve all raced at an international level before be it on the track or on the road but Paris-Roubaix is a different kind of event though,” Winston said.
"A podium is always a potential, it’s not the reason we go to the race. The reason is for experience and development."
Great Britain ODP coach Matt Winston
“Everyone has seen the pictures of Paris-Roubaix, racing on the cobbles so everything you’ve learnt before as a youth rider, nothing really prepares you for what it will be like on the day.
“It will be a massive step up for them but there will be a lot of learning, a lot of experience gained from it and that’s the main reason we go to the event.
“The key area of the race is the first 50-kilometres and that’s where last year there were five or six big, big crashes. Everybody wants to jockey for position at the front of the bunch, everyone wants to ride at the front before that first section of cobbles.
“No one will win that race on that first section of cobbles but a lot of people will lose it because there will be crashes that will happen. You are going from a two-lane road into stretch number 16 (Hornaing à Wandignies Hamage) of the cobbles which is quite a narrow entry and certainly there will crashes on entry.
“These are junior riders so everybody is in the same boat, everyone is fairly inexperienced at racing on cobbles and if you’re not in that front group when it splits on that first section of cobbles you’re technically going to lose the race.”
Past successes for Great Britain in the event, which was formed in 2003, have come in the shape of Geraint Thomas and Andy Fenn. Thomas, now of Team Sky, was victorious in 2004 whilst Fenn won the race in 2008 and now rides for Omega Pharma-Quick Step.
There have also been podium spots for Ian Stannard (second in 2004), Daniel McLay (second in 2010) and Jon Dibben (third in 2012).
Whilst Winston is adamant there is the prospect of another top three, it is the processes and learning outcomes which are the primary aims in developing the riders more so than results themselves.
“I think a podium is always possible, we’ve got a great group of bike riders at the moment in the UK right across the spectrum, from the six that are going to Roubaix there are plenty of guys who are pushing to be in that team underneath,” Winston commented.
“A podium is always a potential, it’s not the reason we go to the race. The reason is for experience and development. If we get a result then that’s great and if we don’t then we look at what the jobs were before the race, what the tactics were, did we tick those boxes? And if so that’s a result for us.
“On the flip side we might get a podium but we might look at it and say ‘did we meet these criteria along the way?' 'were we doing these development points?’ and if we didn’t ‘why didn’t that happen?’ and we’d look at that as well.
Past Great Britain Paris-Roubaix Juniors podiums
2012 – Jon Dibben (third)
2010 – Daniel McLay (second)
2008 – Andy Fenn (winner)
2004 – Geraint Thomas (winner)
Ian Stannard (second)
“All six of them, on their day, could get a result at Roubaix, that’s the kind of strength in depth we have at the moment.”
In a wider context the event is a significant marker in a season where the focal point lies in the UCI Juniors Track World Championships, which will be held at the Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome in Glasgow in August, providing a logistical benefit for the Great Britain Cycling Team.
There is also the task of qualifying spots for the men’s junior road race in September’s UCI Road World Championships. Places are awarded based on a nation’s ranking in the UCI juniors Nations’ Cup, giving extra significance to this weekend’s first outing in the series.
“The riders on the ODP train at home on a day-to-day basis, we had our last camp back in the February half-term school holidays and then a Development World Cup track meeting in March,” explained Winston.
“Since then the riders have been looking with the long-term aim of the junior track world champs in Glasgow in August and the whole season is based around that so we are looking to develop the riders for that event.
“Also the road is important as part of that development so we ride the Nations’ Cups – number one because it’s a great development opportunity for the athletes and number two because it qualifies us places for the world championships later in the year.”