2 stage wins at the Tour de France, one in the Vuelta. 3rd in the ’97 Worlds on the road. 2nd at Gent-Wevelgem, 4th at Flanders, and several close finishes at Paris-Roubaix, that Race of Races, finishing as high as 4th in ’98.
we became friends, partly due to the bike but also thanks to journalism, in which i was working in and he getting into.
Leon’s journalism career went from strength to strength and he now has his own studio and works as a foto-journalist, offering images and text on all the major Euro races: check it here:
as editor of a cycling website i asked him if he would write something about his favorite race.
and it was wonderful. and here it is, below, in full. [apologies for spacing, wordpress is being difficult…]
In Love With Hell
by Leon Van Bon
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.
It’s the only race that the bike manufacturers produce special bikes for. And that’s not all that’s customized – the race cars are specially fortified with steel supports to protect the engine. On the bikes, double handlebar tape is standard, though it only creates the illusion that it’ll protect your wrists, elbows and shoulders from the impact of every single cobble on your body a little less, because nothing can. Special tires are used, just for this one day, thicker, wider, more resistant to punctures.
Every year, there’s the same discussion about tire pressure. A little less to be more comfortable on the cobbles? Or a little more to reduce the chance of a flat tire? Bikes with suspension and froglegs on the handlebars [brakes that sit on top of the handlebars]. And then the wheels. Carbon? Most would say no, as carbon fibre wheels are not best friends with the cobbles. But then Fabian Cancellara did win on them last year…
This race is the most unique race of the year.
The Hell of the North leads you through World War 1 battlefields, creating an atmosphere which is humbling. It is countryside and farmland, nestling amidst the cruelest history. No time for fancy stuff or high heels. It’s time for rough men with bodies of steel willing to suffer like they never did before.
The roads are bad. Real bad. Sometimes I wonder if they threw those cobbles out of a helicopter, letting them lie where they fell. Even farmers complain that their tractors are not able to ride over the roads. Imagine that. But the riders don’t complain because it is Paris Roubaix.
It’s been a long time since we had a rainy one. 2001? So it could well be wet this year . But good or bad weather, come what may you need luck to win it. Or should I say, you need to be free of bad luck. Flat tires, crashes or even broken front forks – like George Hincapie had – all can end your ambition to win that day in a split second. One big reason for that is that at certain points in the race the team cars can be minutes behind the first riders, unable to reach them in time if there is a problem.
In my opinion the race has three break points: the first cobbles, the Forest of Wallers and Carrefour de l’Abre.
At the first cobbles you weigh up the situation. Is there an early break? If I am in it, ok. If not, how far ahead are they? You feel your legs on the cobbles the first time that day and you know if they’re good or not. Now the race is ready to start.
The Forest of Wallers is where the finale begins, the business end of the race. Still 80 km to go. But the Forest starts far before the cobbles. Even on the section before it the riders find their position, waiting for it, preparing, fighting for even just one place in the bunch. And the last straight to it is just a madhouse. It’s like a bunch sprint to the beginning of the section. And it’s downhill. It’s the scariest part of the race. But very very important. First five is ideal. If you’re outside of the first ten, things aren’t great.
The section starts with a bit of a downhill and you hit the first cobbles with a speed of 60k an hour. Imagine coming off a 20 meter wide road on to a 3 meter wide path, sprinting downhill. Over cobbles. The first 200m you go too fast on the slippery stones but if you brake you know bad things will happen. So you’re hoping nobody else makes a mistake.
But all this has a logic.
The cobbles of the Forest are so bad and almost always wet and slippery. In front, the chances of a crash are minimal. You can choose your path and that makes the chance of a flat tire less. When it’s really wet you feel like a tightrope walker, 100 feet above the ground, swaying in the wind with the thin, taught rope beneath your tires. Millimeters from disaster. When you crash, getting up on your bike is hard. It’s that slippery.
The last part is slightly uphill. The speed is lower but the legs are by now getting filled up with lactic acid. When you come off the cobbles you look around and see where you are and what’s left of the big group. 20 people max I would guess. Decimated.
So full gas to the next section.
The Carrefour de l’Abre is the final, decisive point. After that it is only 15km left to the line and the coming sections are like highways in comparison with this one. It’s a no-nonsense section. Long, with corners, people line the route five, ten deep, going crazy. Frenzied. This is the place to show you are still strong. Then you can fly over the cobbles . Pure adrenaline takes over. Show them your strength. But if you have one bit of weakness in you, you’re done, your speed will drop so fast that it becomes the greatest struggle just to get to the end.
Leon’s results at Paris-Roubaix
‘94 last -10 min after time limit
’98 4 (behind 3 Mapei)
if you’d like to get in touch with Leon with regards to his photo-journalism work, please contact either me or Leon directly via his website: http://www.sportimpressie.nl/home/.
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