The (lack of) serenity
Fans who watch Flanders and Roubaix haven't come to see a meandering peloton ride through a field of sunflowers as they sip champagne and eat cheese and crackers, all while Louis Armstrong's What a wonderful world or Coldplay's Yellow plays in the background. They've come to watch a veritable war on wheels: the 'heads of state' rampaging through the Forest of Arenberg, Mons-en-Pévèle and the Carrefour de l'Arbre; as if in a bombing raid, a bunch split to smithereens, then split further again; bikes bouncing on centuries-old stones like on pogo sticks, with those on board simply trying to hang on; and for those who make it to the Roubaix velodrome, the thousand-yard stares after enduring an unforgettable day in Hell.
It's over in a day
Just one sleepless night versus 21. No need to take a sickie or three (Funny how my flu always comes round in July, boss...), or at least apply for leave that would be better served with the missus in Bali or Barcelona or Berlin or Bangladesh (okay, maybe not the last one, according to the latest advice from DFAT). For the riders, no need to save themselves for the mountains ahead; there are no hills to speak of and as far as they're concerned there is no tomorrow.
"It's hard to call something your favourite race when it destroys you every single time, but that's cycling isn't it?"
Suspense comes in abbreviated form: from the end of Flanders to the following Sunday; on race day, from the start in Compiègne leading to the Arenberg Forest, then the period between the next 18 secteurs de pavé, numbered in reverse order; and if there's more than one, a he-with-whatever's-left-in-the-tank sprint in the Roubaix velodrome. For viewer and rider, when it's all over red rover you can't wait for next year; once the Tour's done and dusted you feel like you need a(nother) holiday.
One classification, one winner
There is no need for a points, mountains, teams or youth category at Roubaix, or prix de combativité. (If you're not the combative type, please don't come.) It's all in, winner-takes-all kind of stuff. The beauty lies in its simplicity: first across the line after 257 kilometres wins. Getting to that line is a slightly more difficult proposition.
It's something unpredictable
Except the weather, that is. As Jane Aubrey notes in her preview on Cycling Central, odds are that we'll get another hot and dry one for a sixteenth year running (Johan Museeuw was the last to win in the mud, in 2002). For the six to seven hours the race is held almost everything else is in a state of flux: nerves are heightened; punctures and crashes are a constant; favourites fall in and out of, er, well, favour; and more than any other race, luck - either in its presence or absence - can greatly affect the outcome. If you come to Compiègne without a contingency you come unprepared - which makes the Quick-Step 'Wolfpack', the team that has dominated this spring, so damn dangerous.
I'll remind you what their team manager Patrick Lefevre said before Flanders: "I don't think I need to repeat how strong we are. We have several riders capable of winning this race and we don't need to control the others; they have to control us."
The stones - their age, size, severity, and number. The trenches. The danger. The history. The finish inside a velodrome and the emotions it delivers to those who make it there. The love-hate relationship, best described by EF Education First-Drapac's Taylor Phinney: "It's the holy grail. I call it my favourite race. It's hard to call something your favourite race when it destroys you every single time, but that's cycling isn't it?" The weird and wonderful tech, from complete Roubaix-specific machines with all associated accoutrements to MacGyver-esque concoctions that look like they've been done the night before in old mate's workshop down the road.
#roubaixsnacks are better than #toursnacks
Abbey beer, chips (preferably hot, with a good dollop of whole-egg mayo) and waffles (accompanied by chocolate, strawberries and ice-cream) versus champagne, a ham and cheese baguette or saucisson and if you're lucky, tarte au citron... It's not that difficult, really. So long as you're not watching your weight.
Hot water is for wimps
No image sums up the Hell of the North better than that which confronts those who finish, specifically the iconic Roubaix showers. The granite stalls are almost one hundred years old and adorned with nameplates of former winners, the water as stone cold today as the day they were first installed. And just in case you weren't knackered enough, you have to keep pulling the chain every 30 seconds or so for it to flow. Understandably, many prefer to have a hot shower in their three-quarter-million Euro team bus. Diehards like sixteen-time Roubaix veteran and 2016 champion Mathew Hayman wouldn't even contemplate such a travesty.
Bedbugs staying at the Campanile motel at the Tour... Harden the hell up, will ya!