Our guide to the course of the Hell of the North, and the men who will ride through it on Sunday

Tom Boonen's towering performance at the Tour of Flanders last week has seen him installed as favourite to win Paris-Roubaix for a record-equalling fourth time on Sunday as Classics season, and with it our Fantasy Cycling game, heads across the border from Belgium into France. The Hell of the North, however, generally reckoned to be the toughest of cycling's five Monuments, is no respecter of reputations and plenty of pitfalls lie in wait. It's a race that some riders detest, but others thrive upon. Here's our guide.

In many ways, the race whose nicknames include ‘the Queen of the Classics’ is one of contradictions. To begin with, it hasn’t started in the French capital itself for nearly half a century; since 1968, it has started in Compiègne, some 70 kilometres further north.

Then there’s the infamous pavé that characterises much of the route from just before the 100 kilometre mark onwards; true, cobblestones have always featured, but prior to the Second World War, that was simply because that’s how many roads in Northern France were made.

In fact, in pre-World War II days, much of the route was raced along main roads. As those were resurfaced following the end of the conflict, there was a very real chance that the pavé would disappear altogether, in the name of progress, of course.

That it didn’t is due to the efforts of race organiser Albert Bouvet, who with Jean-Claude Vallaeys set up Les Amis de Paris Roubaix, an organisation which to this day battles to preserve the existing secteurs of pavé, as well as seeking out new ones.

What that means is that many of the stretches of the cobblestones emblematic of the race nowadays are on roads that are little more than farm tracks and which see more traffic during the week leading up to Paris-Roubaix and the day of the race itself than they do during the rest of the year put together.

These are not the same cobbles as you’ll find across the border in Belgium, by the way; the stones of the pavé at Paris-Roubaix in many secteurs are bigger, rougher, the gaps between them bigger and packed with moss, or small shards of stone that can cause a race-ending puncture more punishing on rider and bike alike.

Numbered in countdown order - Secteur 27 is the first to be encoutered - they are also graded according to difficulty, the rating changing from year to year, as volunteers repair some, while others miss out on the attention they need - this year, the Arenberg very nearly didn't feature for that reason.

If it rains on Saturday, as it’s predicted to, the roads where the pavé is on Sunday will be muddy, the cobbles slippery, causing an added hazard; if remains dry, as it did last year, then the riders have clouds of dust to contend with.

The race’s nickname, ‘The Hell of the North’ may have had its origins in the post-apocalyptic landscape of Northern France immediately after the Great War when organisers carried out a recce to decide whether the event could resume, but it’s since become a fitting description of the race itself.

Incredible as it seems, however, there’s no hard evidence that any of the 27 secteurs of pavé that will feature in this year’s race pre-dates 1968, when the Arenberg made its debut; the penultimate secteur at Hem also featured in that year’s race, but may have been included for the first time in the 1950s.

The remaining secteurs have been added gradually over the past four decades, several only being included in the parcours since the turn of the Millennium; Paris-Roubaix may have had more than a century’s head start on Italy’s Strade Bianche, but similar to the Tuscan race, it is now in some ways a means of preserving a bygone age.

Paris-Roubaix does have 116 years of history on its side, however, and it’s a rich one. First raced in 1896 to help promote the opening, the previous year, of the velodrome where it still ends – a new, covered one has just opened next door – whatever else a rider achieves in their career, a victory here seals their place in the pantheon of the sport.

Moreover, the bikes, kit, and fashions in hairstyle and moustaches apart, the faces of riders at the end of the race now are the same as they were a century ago; men caked in dust or mud, bruised and battered through falls, exhausted – and in some cases elated – and many with the 1,000 yard stare of someone who has pushed themselves beyond the limits of their endurance.

Paris-Roubaix is also race in which every placing is fought over and fully deserved; you’re as likely to see a sprint for 20th place as you are for first; selecting your team so that it balances potential winners with others with a record of top 20 finishes could be a particularly shrewd tactic here.

In picking your Fantasy Cycling team then, as well as looking to this year’s Classics results as a potential form guide – Pippo Pozzato, Juan Antonio Flecha, Sylvain Chavenal and Luca Paolini all seem to merit consideration, among others – it’s also well worth looking back over recent editions to see who has a history of placing fairly high up the order in this particular race.

Johan Vansummeren may have surprised many when he took that solo win last year, but he’d been in the top ten in each of the two previous editions, making him a good outside pick.

Paris-Roubaix is also a race that some riders thrive on, while others endure it. Roger Hammond in the current edition of Rouleur lays bare his love of the race, but it’s a bittersweet one; within him lies the regret that had he raced the final metres differently in 2004, he could have won instead of finishing third.

Last year, his final participation, ended with a crash at the entrance to the Arenberg. The previous year, though, he’d been fourth, proof that some less heralded riders positively thrive over the pavé.

Identifying who, among the current crop of riders, are the ones in whom Paris-Roubaix brings out the best can bring its rewards, as last year’s winner proves, but equally a punt on which of the younger riders might carve their name into the cobbles could also bring in the points; Sep Vanmaercke Garmin-Barracuda or John Degenkolb of Argos Oil-Shimano have both shown this season that they can be up there with the best.

This time last year, all the talk was about whether Fabian Cancellara, out of Sunday’s race of course after breaking his collarbone last week, could become the first man to do the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix double twice, after his victories in both races during 2010.

He came close – third in Flanders and second at Roubaix 12 months ago – but on Sunday, it’s Tom Boonen who will have the chance to achieve that double victory for the second time. He also has an opportunity to set another record that was beyond even Cancellara’s reach last year – to equal Roger De Vlaeminck’s record of four victories.

You’d need to be brave or perhaps even foolhardy to leave Tommeke out of your team, but you only have to think back 12 months to see how much fortune can turn against a rider in this race – suffering a mechanical as he passed through the Arenberg, he faced an interminable wait for the team car to come through, then crashed as he chased to get back onto the main group.

Thor Hushovd, whose challenge in the rainbow jersey last year was scuppered by the fact that then Garmin-Cervelo team mate Johan Van Summeren was off up the road on his way to victory, has made little secret of the fact that Paris-Roubaix is his big target for 2012.

He’s yet to score a victory since joining BMC Racing, however – although he insists that if he and Boonen arrive in the velodrome together at the head of the race, he’ll outsprint the Belgian. Team mate Alessandro Ballan may be a safer bet – third in Flanders, the Italian former world champion is in strong form, and finished sixth in this race 12 months ago.

Yet another BMC Racing rider would perhaps prove to be the most popular winner if he were to cross the line first, at least outside Belgium and France – George Hincapie, who finished second in 2005.

If he did win, Hincapie could be forgiven for retiring on the spot, but he wouldn’t – in July, he should move ahead of Joop Zoetemelk to stand alone as the rider with most Tour de France appearances to his name, should he start the race for what would be the 17th time.

This will also be Hincapie’s 17th participation in Paris-Roubaix, but there is one other rider who will also hit that number of appearances on Sunday, and what’s more it will certainly by the last race of that man’s career; Frédéric Guesdon of FDJ-BigMat, winner of Paris-Roubaix in 1997 and regularly the highest placed French finisher since then.

Some bookies have him at 250/1 to repeat that success on Sunday, and while the podium may be beyond him - a fractured hip at the Tour Down Under in January seemed to have brought his retirement forward - it's a safe bet he will go all out to leave the peloton on a high, and he’ll have the whole of France cheering him on.

All photographs © Simon MacMichael, route map source Letour.fr

Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.