Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Hell of the North - A Day at Paris Roubaix

I'm posting my descriptions of the two Monuments of cycling that I attended in April 2014, but I'm doing it in reverse chronological order. Just to annoy any OCD readers I might have. Tour of Flanders musings to follow. 

Spartacus on the first secteur
(4/14/14): Gliding from Lille to St. Pancras on the Eurostar with Monday-morning business persons, I’m still trying to process the experience of Paris-Roubaix, what made it so exceptionally cool, and why it was so important to me to see this race and the Tour of Flanders. Part of it is the history – thinking of the textile magnates in Roubaix who wanted to promote their unglamorous city in the 1890s, of the first scout sent to ride the proposed route who reported that it was too dangerous for humans to ride, of the race organizers trying to discern the route of the first race after WWI, when the whole landscape of Northern France was torn to shreds, of the miners who felt that 280 km of suffering on a bike on your day off was worth it for the chance to win a year’s pay. Any race nicknamed “The Hell of the North” has to be worth watching.

Part of it is the peculiar devotion of the cultists of cycling, way more mainstream in Europe than in the US, but nowhere near as popular as football. I doubt there was a huge crowd for Paris-Roubaix at the sports bar on the Rue Saint-Dominique, where Eric and I couldn’t get in the door last week for the Champions’ League quarterfinal. But along the French-Belgian border yesterday, a horde of semi-secret pilgrims made their way by car, bus, motorcycle, bike, and scooter from one stretch of ancient cobbled road to another. Led by helicopters, clouds of dust, and GPS, and the arcane knowledge of tour director Didier Durin, we would drive along anonymous freeways and backroads, calm and Sunday quiet, and all of a sudden we’d see a huge cluster of parked cars and people streaming down the road to some distant intersection. License plates from Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Britain, Switzerland. Rainbows of team cars packed with spare wheels, bikes, food, drinks, jackets, radios. Rowdy young men, families, teenagers on all kinds of bikes, sedate middle-aged French cycling nuts, tourists like me, all converging in this magical spot.

Our first intro to the cobbles was the same place the riders meet them for the first time, at Troisvilles, after 95km of gently rolling pastoral landscapes, brick houses, rapeseed fields and poplars. We trekked across a ploughed field and clambered up a nettle-infested bank commanding a sweeping view of the first “secteur” of pavĂ©, the cobbles. Half a mile from the village, surrounded by fields, we lined the narrow lane, taking pictures of ourselves, each other, the cobbles, and swapping bits of race news in multiple languages as Norwegians, Australians, and Frenchpersons around us checked their mobiles. “There’s an 8-man break. No big names. 5-minute lead on the peloton,” then out to 10 minutes then back to 8. The first few race vehicles cruised by at about 30 mph, and the fine, fine dust that settles between the cobbles flew up and blew into our faces, over our phones, into the creases of our jackets and inside our eyelids. Fortunately our four Norwegian group members had brought multiple collections of aquavit miniatures, which they swore would ward off sore throats. The aquavit had a fine woody taste with an overtone of petroleum, cutting the dust nicely. Those of us with the best view on the high bank side of the road were also downwind of the dust. But we didn’t cross the road because cycling is about suffering, and so is cycling spectatorship. More race vehicles – team cars, press, photographers’ motorcycles, ambulances, more dust. I put my jacket over my face and closed my eyes.
The dust cloud remains but the peloton is gone

After about 40 minutes we saw helicopters to the southwest, hovering over the break and the main field. The whop-whop-whop of their rotors built the anticipation, and spectators rechecked their lenses and viewing angles. Finally we saw the race referee’s car, the lead motorcycle, and a small dust cloud. “Allez-allez-allez!” rang out on all sides and eight riders, sped by, their lycra iridescent in the morning sun, their bikes visibly bouncing on the cobbled surface. I had ridden a few cobbles in Ghent the week before on a cushy-seated heavy-framed rental, and my butt tensed in sympathy as I watched the riders on their slivers of leather saddle.

A few minutes to check pics, delete the many failures, sip some aquavit, and blink, and then another convoy of cars and the main field, 191 riders strung out in a long bright necklace, having jockeyed for front position before the pave started. The road is humpbacked, and everyone wants to ride in the middle, where it’s safest. On the sloped sides, you can more easily catch a wheel or pinch a tube in the gap between stones. I put my phone on multishot and tried to scream, watch, and shoot pictures at the same time. A couple of stragglers even at this early stage, the last car, and then the pilgrims on the side of the road turned to go, home or on to lunch or off to their next section.

Our Sports Pulsions tour group (yes, I said Sports Pulsions) was heading for the notorious Trench of Arenberg, 2.4 km of disorderly cobbles, rocks, really, running through a forest. Nobody ever drives on it now, so it’s just rocks and grass, with deep muddy ditches on either side of the road. Fortunately for the riders, these days there are barriers on either side of the road so that they won’t go into the ditch. However the barriers also block their access to the narrow dirt shoulders of the lane, where many people used to prefer to ride rather than clatter along the cobbles. The crossroads at the Arenberg were far, far more crowded. This is a critical point in the race – there are always crashes as the nervous riders fight for position, get caught in the cobbles, get flats – and people were lined up three or four deep at the exit from the Trench. I jumped two ditches and up a bank to get to the guts of the trench, up the road from the VIP stand, the sausage and beer vendors, and the cops.

In the Forest of Arenberg

The helicopters circled us a couple of times and the crowd hollered and waved. Some people had brought chairs and were surrounded by piles of Jupiter cans, or, in some classier encampments, empty bottles of Chimay. The eight man break was splitting up and the gap was down to four minutes and change by this point, about 100 km to go. The riders were bouncing more visibly this time, going a lot slower, and clearly starting to feel fatigue. A few had cuts and road rash, everyone’s skin was dark brown from sweat and caked dust. The peloton was spread far and wide now; the domestiques whose job it was just to get their teammates to the entrance of the Trench were falling behind and struggling just to ride over the cobbles. As we moved back toward the bus, one rider from Lampre-Merida, far behind the rest, got to the smooth tarmac and coasted to the railings. I couldn’t tell if he was sick, injured or just feeling generally awful, but he climbed into the team car and abandoned the race right there, with spectators snapping away on their phones. Some riders had gotten multiple flats in the Trench, I found out later, grabbing a bike or a wheel from a teammate to carry on racing, only to flat again on the sharp cobbles. Trek rider Gregory Rast hurled his bike in frustration. I hurried back to the bus so we could hit the next stop in plenty of time, even eschewing the opportunity to pee in the storied Forest of Arenberg in the interests of time. Team cars battled the crowds to head to the next danger zone with spare wheels and first aid. On our bus, Didier passed out cold fruit juices, which we all chugged with deep gratitude. Morten and Thor passed out more aquavit, which nobody chugged except the Norwegians. The bus kept heading northeast, generally towards Roubaix. A couple of times we saw a distant cloud of dust as the peloton hit another secteur out among the farms. The pave hits thick and fast between Arenberg and Hem. Graham and the Norwegians, who had ridden the course the day before, were remembering how their hands were numb and their forearms aching by this point.

As we entered Roubaix, Didier’s mysterious connections with race organizers ASO started to manifest. Our bus had a sticker on it saying “Paris-Roubaix 2014: Technique,” which apparently translates to “Magic Bus – Let This Vehicle Go Wherever It Wants.” We watched in awe as police opened barriers for us and let us rumble to the very corner of the sports complex which houses the historic velodrome. We hurried to the public entrance, which was, rather amazingly, free if you wanted to stand on the back straight or along the banked turns. But Didier directed us further along, to the VIP stands, where our “Sports Pulsions” badges opened the gates again. We bounded up the stairs, pockets stuffed with aquavit, and clambered among the concrete stands to arrive in – well, frankly, Paradise. About 30 feet from the finish line in the most famous velodrome for the most famous one-day race in cycling. I was hyperventilating. It’s an old concrete building (the Googles wouldn’t easily divulge its exact age) with a concrete track and concrete stands, not fancy. The only thing VIP about the VIP stands was the proximity to the finish, but that was enough.

The giant outdoor screen showing the race, which was by now in its final 30 kilometers, was just far enough away that we couldn’t really tell what was going on, so we depended on a variety of smartphones and international data gouging plans to keep up to date. “Hushovd is leading the front group!” Cheers from the Norwegians. “Boonen is going off the front!” (we didn’t need the smartphone updates for that because all the Belgians in the velodrome went nuts). Roubaix is practically in Belgium so there were lots of Lions of Flanders in the crowd. “Thomas is pulling Boonen back!” Small cheer from the Welsh-American woman in the concrete bleachers. “Sagan attacking again!” No cheers. 
Terpstra starts his bell lap, in serious pain

The helicopters eventually started to circle the town and the tension built. The smartphones and the big screen informed us that dark horse Niki Terpstra from the Netherlands had gone off the front of the race on his own with six kilometers to go. We all thought that Cancellara, Bradley Wiggins, et al would chase him down, but the big screen showed Terpstra coming into Roubaix and down the final boulevard all by himself.

Terpstra came through the tunnel on the far side of the stadium followed by a wave of cheering. As he crossed the finish line for the first time and headed into his final lap, his face was twisted in pain, his mouth wide open trying to take in more air. The bell ringer for the final lap worked the rope with all his might – what a great job that would be! – and the chase group with Wiggins, Cancellara, Thomas, Boonen, Van Marcke, Degenkolb came storming in. But it was too late; Terpstra had the win, one of the Monuments of cycling; the chasers had to sprint for second. Degenkolb took it out, with Cancellara in third. Groups of tired, dusty, battered riders came limping into the velodrome for a long time after, but the racing was over. The media swarmed Terpstra and the other top finishers; most of the rest of the peloton came in anonymously and headed for the legendary showers. I’m not sure what makes them legendary, other than the fact that the hot water was unpredictable for decades and that riders always really needed showers after a day of racing in the mud or dust.

One minor flaw in our otherwise amazing setup is that they held the podium ceremony in the infield and didn’t give the public access to it. It would have been super cool to get up close to the exhausted but exultant winner and to Degenkolb, and especially to Fabian Cancellara, the most gorgeous bike racer in the sport.

After the podiums, Graham and I walked around to the side street where the buses and mechanics’ trucks were lined up, but all the riders were already safely ensconced in their vehicles, or maybe in the legendary showers, so we headed back to the bar. I love that the velodrome has a bar. It’s a cramped, utilitarian place, but it’s steeped in cycling history. Signed jerseys from Eddy Merckx and Roger de Vlaeminck, a cobble from the roads and the list of every winner of Paris-Roubaix from 1896 to 2013, hand painted above the bar. It smelled of old cigarettes and beer and it was beautiful.

Niki Terpstra starts the bell lap Roubaix velodrome 2014
The historic velodrome

As we wandered out of the bar towards the bus, Graham pointed to a lone rider pedaling slowly out of the velodrome access road, almost unnoticed. “It’s Cancellara,” he said. And it was. One of the greatest classics riders and time trialists ever: last year’s Roubaix winner, this year’s Tour of Flanders winner, three Roubaix wins, three Flanders wins, four time trial world championships, alone and exhausted in the late sunshine.

The riders did 257 km, some 50 km of it over cobbles so rough that American rider Chris Horner compared it to rocks dropped out of a helicopter into a ploughed field. Paris-Roubaix requires enormous outputs of power, plus endurance, plus bike handling, plus the ability to just plain suffer for six to seven hours. Cancellara had every right to be exhausted. But we spectators were pretty knackered as well. I got dropped off at a hotel in Lille and had to rest for an hour before I could muster the energy for a (great, hot) shower. Setting off in search of dinner, I made it exactly three doors down the street before ducking into a Chinese restaurant and feasting on surprisingly good pork shu mai and fried rice. The Hell of the North recedes into history for another year.

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