chasing Paris-Roubaix: a day on the cobbles

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this article originally appeared in PezCycling News

all images by Lee Rodgers

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Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
“Charge for the guns!” he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

The Charge of the Light Brigade, Alfred Lord Tennyson 1870

Sky were hungry early on

Sky were hungry early on

When the heaving, dusted peloton arrived we felt the rush of displaced air sweep over us, frosting everyone and everything in its path with a fine covering of earth.

180-odd cyclists riding knuckle-to-arse along a 3-meter wide stretch of cobblestones on a bone-dry day in a bone-dry week will have that effect. The dust stays in your ears and along the rim of your eyelids for hours seeping no doubt in miniscule portions into your blood as too does the clatter and clamor of those bikes and the rattling bones encased in the shaken flesh of the men who force them ever onwards.

Roubaix, with you forever.

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The grime gets everywhere

Tangible too is the brooding intent of this thing they call a race. The summation of the violence inherent in Paris-Roubaix, in its pave sections and in its masculine brutality, in its destruction of man and machine, hope and dreams alike, you feel it everywhere.

There are no friendly words exchanged here in the pack, no talk of deals, no kindness extended or favors repaid. Not here.

Not at Paris-Roubaix.

This is not a bike race. This is much more important than that.

They say the sport closest to cycling in the demands it makes of its participants is boxing, and if that is true then Paris-Roubaix is the heavyweight championship of the world.

It can at times be a chess match of jabs and forays designed to probe and expose weakness but more generally it resembles a one-stop house of pain where a single punch drops the pretenders to the throne like stones in an ocean.

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Standing by the roadside at Sector 18 as the breakaway came through was thrilling. Frenzied butterflies in the gut, hair up on the neck, grown adults dancing about like little kids needing to pee but having too much fun to do anything about it.

There was such a menace to the whole affair that you got the immediate impression that the men up the road weren’t merely racing towards a line on a track in a velodrome in rundown Roubaix but that they were escaping the embodiment of their deepest fears.

The peloton frothed and snarled with the scent of blood in its nostrils, the plume of dust sent up behind it signaling to anyone ahead that something wicked this way comes.

Cancellara’s face was a picture of composed and malicious intent. Wiggins could not have been concentrating more had he been performing open heart surgery. The front men rode as best as they could manage in their color-coded units, safer by bare degrees to be riding with those they trust over those miserable, beautiful rocks.

Bernie huffin and a-puffin'

Bernie huffin and a-puffin’

Those further down the line took their chances and trusted to fate, God, or both, half shutting their eyes to the dangers that lay below. The errant cobbles lie deep below like lions in the grasslands, waiting to pick off the lame or the old, the unfocused or just the plain unlucky.

One soldier fell by my feet though he was up and at ‘em in lightning time and chasing back to the fray to offer his body and soul once again up to the cycling gods and their minions, we, the frenzied public. It’s as if they practise falling off and getting up again, just for this day. They go down and bounce back up in a heartbeat.

And how the crowd cheered, they opened their lips and out from hungry bellies came guttural roars, from which the discerning ear could note a heady mix of fear, love and a lust for power, glory and suffering.

Are we any different than the citizens who bayed for blood in the ancient coliseums of the Roman Empire? No, we most certainly are not. Thank whoever you want for Paris-Roubaix because it allows us to reconnect to those sensations. It takes us out of ourselves, we who love this crazy, individualized and often lonely sport.

There are other races of course, and some are incredible, steeped in history and tales of great courage but Paris-Roubaix is all that and then some. Hibernating for some 364 days a year, on this Sunday in April it comes to life with a vengeance.

With the race gone on its way to the Arenberg, we ran back to the cars, weaving through hundreds of other spectators to speed away to Sector 10. One hair-raising zip through the incongruously sun-bathed farmland all around us (and God help you if you are on the roads at that time and not a cycling enthusiast and a slow driver, because 100 horns will descend upon you along with curses that would shame a sailor), we arrived to our beer-filled VIP tent, replete with widescreen TV and a cast of Boonen loving Flandrians for good measure.

Being as watching bike races is thirsty work, beer was liberated as the kilometers counted down. Watching the action on television and knowing that in just 2km the leaders would be outside the tent itself was a surreal feeling.

Movistar’s Alex Dowsett also happened to be outside our tent, out of the race but sent by his team to stand by the roadside with spare wheels. He did not look too thrilled at that, has to be said.

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Cheer up Alex, could be worse, you could be riding…

“They’re coming! They’re coming!” went the shout through the crowd as the helicopter and the convoy of cars signaled the imminent arrival of the two-wheeled warriors.

Bang on the front was Thor Hushovd still resplendent if mucky in his Norwegian national champion jersey, with Boonen quick behind, about to put in an attack that would, along with several other lung-bursting efforts, ultimately cost him the race.

Thor grits his teeth

Thor grits his teeth

Thor at the front, Boonen lurking

Amongst those who can win Paris-Roubaix there is a very similar look on their faces. They look so calm, as if this is what they’ve been waiting for all their lives. It’s one day a year, it is the greatest bike race in the world, and they are as close to mastering the unmasterable as they may well ever be.

And even if they are not, they have to believe, until the last possible moment, that they are.

Hushovd, Sagan, Boonen, Cancellara and yes, Niki Terpstra, I saw that look on each of their faces. The other thing to note is how big these guys are, something that doesn’t come across on screen.

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To be small and to win Paris-Roubaix you need indefatigable will and uncommon strength, but invariably the winner is not petite. Those cobbles sap every reserve of power from the unprepared and leave nowhere to hide once their cumulative effect begins to expose weakness.

Drafting has a greatly reduced effect on the pave sections which is just one more reason why this race is so hard.

Back in the tent the Flandrians downed ever more beer and began to sing songs in praise of Boonen but it was having little effect. Old Tommeke was tired by the end for having done too much work, and whilst the non-Belgian amongst us desperately wanted to see that amazingly elite group enter the velodrome together, Terpstra had other plans altogether.

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“Still,” one guy said, “at least he is on a Belgian team.”

It rang hollow. We’ll have to wait at least one more year to see Roger de Vlaeminck outdone.

We packed up the food and empty bottles, clambered into the van and headed back to Gent for our last night on the Velo Classic Tour. Tired, dirty and more alive than any man rightfully deserves to be, the previous 12 days ran through my mind like a film.

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I’ve been to the mountain, and I’ve seen the promised land. If you ever need directions, just let me know…

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how Boonen & Sagan lost Paris-Roubaix

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Crikey, what an edition of Paris-Roubaix that was. If you weren’t up out of your seat several times over the last 60km, you’re either terminally bed-ridden or already devoid of breath. It was that thrilling.

We, the weatherbeaten scandal-weary cycling fans, finally got just what we’d been begging for like gooey-eyed puppies for so long – a Roubaix in which Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara were at something very close to equal strength. Make no mistake, Belgium’s No. 1 son was stronger than Cancellara, if not by much.

“I’ve won twice over here with much worse legs than today”, Boonen said to the throng of hungry journalists that follows him just about everywhere. Stronger or not, ‘Tomeke’ was left to chew over a bitter loss that was ever-so-slightly tempered by his teammate Niki Teprtsra’s win.

Boonen bides his time

Boonen bides his time

The problem with Boonen’s ride on Sunday was that he and Peter Sagan frittered away their superiority over the course of the race, like men losing water from a hole in a bucket. In doing so, they gave the advantage to men not as strong, but who rode smarter and more conservative races.

Was it brilliant to watch? Seriously, is there a greater sight in professional cycling than Tom Boonen heading off solo up the cobbles? Sagan too drew hollers and whoops as he launched his courageous, ridiculous attack with too many kilometres to go. Even the Flandrians present gave the Slovakian a cheer.

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Make no mistake, they are all Boonen folk in these parts, but they know a bike rider when they see one, and Sagan’s verve is highly respected in the heartland of the Classics.

Boonen was visibly irritated to be asked if he had the legs to win the race. “I don’t think I have to say that. That was obvious,” he retorted.

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Yet the fact is he is not as strong as when he won solo in 2012, and it remains to be seen if he has it in him to better Roger De Vlaeminck’s four wins, which Boonen equaled two years ago. De Vlaeminck, it should be noted, claims Boonen is not worthy to be ranked as highly as himself, claiming modern bike racing is too soft.

Part of Boonen’s motivation is to make the retired pro eat his words, but De Vlaeminck will have at least one more year to wait before he gets out the recipe books.

On Sunday, Boonen rode like it was 2012, taking off in an unplanned attack to bridge up to the leaders on section 14 of the pavé. Once he’d bridged and learnt very few riders were willing to work with him, fearful of taking him to the finish, he attempted several solo attacks but could not make any stick.

Two things are happening here. Firstly, Boonen and Cancellara are not as strong as they have been in the past. Secondly, several of the younger generation of riders have raised their game.

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Sep Vanmarcke, Greg Van Avermaet, John Degenkolb and several others are emerging or consolidating their reputations as serious contenders for the Monuments that once seemed to be Boonen and Cancellara’s to lose. Witness Van Avermaet at Flanders, where his poor tactical choices allowed Cancellara to win in the sprint.

Vanmarcke too may well have already won one Roubaix, in 2013, had he not led out Cancellara. Degenkolb rode the race of his life yesterday and, on the evidence of his second, will be a serious threat next year. Stybar too looked strong and might have jumped to Terpstra had he not been on the same team.

An exciting collection of riders indeed.

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Peter Sagan, of course, is the cream of that crop but he too overestimated his power and made poor tactical choices. He is like Boonen in some ways, the most obvious being not his natural ability but the honesty of his riding. Like Boonen, he never shirks a turn at the front and will drive a break just to confound the chasers, even if it means fatiguing himself.

His attack was fantastic to see but so obviously doomed that it brought a twinge of consternation. He could have won, I do not doubt that, but he needs to ride more with his head than his heart.

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Cancellara was tired, that was easy to see. He had difficulty reeling in surges by what would be considered lesser riders and seemed off his game. A mention must go to Bradley Wiggins, whose ride will have surprised many.

And so to Terpstra. A popular winner, he’s deserved a victory like this for some time. It was a cracking attack into a slight headwind and you could see the pain he put himself through to realise his greatest ambition in the race he loves most.

It was a brilliant win on a mad, crazy day, in the most open Paris-Roubaix for almost two decades.

Just magnificent. Just Paris-Roubaix.

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all images by Lee Rodgers

Pascale Honore: paraplegic surfer

just because.

 …Come, my friends,
’Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Tennyson, Ulyssees

 

 

crankpunk on the Paris-Roubaix favorites

yes. it is almost here. hot diggity damn.

this article originally appeared on The Roar.

 

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“How can somebody be in love with Hell?  It’s a contradiction. Makes no sense. Most would call it madness…

 “In a religious context, Hell is a place of punishment in the afterlife, an endless realm of suffering for the transgressors, the evil. But not in cycling. In cycling Hell is a place for the brave and the heroes. Survive a day in the Hell of the North and you are a hero.

“Win or lose.

“For me this is the biggest, most prestigious race on the calendar. It’s made for heroes and only won by heroes. This is the race you have to have a passion for just to be able to finish, and to win it – well, you have to truly love it.

 Amidst so much suffering, such beauty. This is Hell. This is Paris – Roubaix.”

Leon Van Bon, two-time winner of stages in the Tour de France and two-time 4th place at Paris-Roubaix.

 

Of all the Monuments, none quite seems to get hardened one-day riders like Leon and fans like me so misty-eyed. There’s just nothing like Roubaix. The cobbles of Flanders are a world apart from those that define the race that comes a week later in the calendar, smaller, smoother and far easier to navigate.

Paris-Roubaix’s pave sections look like they’ve been dropped from a great height with the intention of bringing great pain to anyone mad enough to ride over them.

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It’s difficult to explain fully just how jagged and huge these things are to anyone who hasn’t ridden over them. You get up on the crest thinking that is the best place to be but after having your brain just about shaken from your skull you start looking for alternative routes. Yet once you leave the crown the cobbles that have been pounded by decades of tractors and trucks rear up like the sharp, jagged teeth of a subterranean monster hell-bent on consuming riders.

Each hundred meters or so brings a fresh burst of lactic acid and, slowly but surely, your speed begins to fall even though it’s completely flat. Once traversed, your respect for them professionals who win or even just rider here goes up tenfold.

The combination of elements that make a winner here are complex. They need a bike rider’s DNA, first of all, as well as power in spades, strength, courage, flat line speed, immense handling skills and, as if all that were not enough, the final and most important factor is that they actually have to enjoy riding over the cobbles.

The courage factor should also not be underestimated. These guys don’t just accept that they may well come clattering down over the stones but embrace that fact.

Which brings us to the potential winners of this year’s race. Chatting to three-time winner Johan Museeuw on Wednesday at Scheldeprijs, he said that it was hard to choose a winner but that “it will be one of the usual names,” by which he meant, basically, Fabian Cancellara or Tom Boonen.

Can these two win again this year? Of course they can, but can they win in as spectacular a fashion as they have in the past?

Probably not.

Tom Boonen was under form at the Tour of Flanders though he did a nice chunk of work at Scheldeprijs on Wednesday, which was good training for Roubaix.

Boonen spoke before the star at Scheldeprijs about his form and he sounded optimistic.

“I was very happy afterwards [after Flanders]. I have very good sensations until the last 30 or 40 minutes,” he said.

“This week will give me maybe that little bit extra. Plus, Roubaix is a different race. Flanders was really hard this year. It’ll be easier to save more energy for the final in Roubaix.”

Can he break Cancellara if the Swiss rider gets away with him? I very much doubt it. Cancellara’s win at Flanders was truly one for the memory banks and I think that he is a notch and a half above the Belgian at the moment.

Of the other contenders it comes as no surprise to see Peter Sagan’s name up there in most people’s list.

“I don’t know, I’m not thinking about Sunday right now,” he said on Wednesaday. “If I find myself in front it will be the same – everybody will know that I’m there. We’ll see.”

And that might be just why Sagan didn’t figure in the finale at Flanders, and why he’s had a string of nearly-there’s in the classics in the past two seasons. He seems to do too much work at crucial points in these races, and whilst no one would deny the immense talent he has, others will point to the tactical naivety that informs his riding.

He is brilliant though, and he can win in Roubaix -one day.

One other rider in great form is Sep Vanmarcke. The Belkin rider was 2nd last season to Cancellara and is a very serious threat to the two big men. He love the cobbles too, but he’ll have to stop leading stronger men out in the sprints if wants to get the win his talent deserves.

Greg Van Avermaet of BMC is another nearly man as he proved last week at Flanders where he was 2nd, and though also very talented I cannot see him winning this Sunday. Roubaix is fundamentally different to Flanders and much better suited to the tall, muscular rider than the smaller man. Van Avermaet is 5’11, not exactly tiny, but he has a slightness about him that means hs is not ideally suited to Paris-Roubaix’s much tougher cobbles.

How about Marcel Kittel, the Giant-Shimano rider who won on Wednesday at Scheldeprijs? Some may scoff at the suggestion that he could ever do well here but I believe he can, though admittedly not this year. Like Hushovd was, he’s a big guy with a great sprint but as he loses some of that power in his later 20s he might just become a great cobbles rider.

One other mention before my prediction for the winner: Bradley Wiggins.

He says now that he is ready to take more risks on these roads as he is no longer focused on the Tour de France, but can he actually be there at the end?

I doubt it. Too frail, too flighty, too liable to get irritated by the whole shebang that is Paris-Roubaix.

So, who’s going to win on Sunday?

Tough call. I’m going to go for Taylor Phinney of BMC. I can’t quite say why. I just get ‘that feeling’ that it’s his time. We shall see.

Leon Van Bon, by the way, is going for Cancellara.

Predictable, Leon, predictable!