Last year, I got the amazing opportunity to follow a race forged in the blast furnace of Hephaestus, Paris-Roubaix. The day following the race was a special one, but it really began to take shape after we hopped beyond the melee of Arenberg to take in two more sectors of pave. Let’s take a look around, shall we?
***Watch Paris Roubaix LIVE on CYCLING.TV***
As I mentioned before, quickness of movement is not only key to bike racing, but key to watching it as well. Maybe I didn’t say that, but I feel like I should have. We all ran our varying speeds back to the van in time to see Peter turning on the tv to watch it en route to our next stop: Sector 15, Brillon. It seems like such a novelty to be able to watch a bike race whilst driving to see it live just a few minutes later. It’s pretty simple really, and it’s just another one of the little things Peter and Lisa do so well – it all adds up to one outstanding experience. The only thing they can’t control? Building placement. Satellite doesn’t seem to like building interference much. We were treated to a nice slideshow of a Tom Boonen drubbing in the Forest until it became just a Tom Boonen screenshot that never changed. Oh the drama.
Sector 15: The Aftermath Of Arenberg
We pulled up to the Brillon section, and scurried off in our varying directions. I was taking it easy this time around after my nearly two miles of running after the first two sectors. My slowness paid off when a Garmin car pulled up with a BMC bike on top. Say what?
Jeff Louder pulled himself out of the car looking less than happy. Louder had been one of BMC’s hopefuls heading into Roubaix. He is one of the riders on the team with the most European experience not to mention the fact that he just won one of America’s hardest bike races – Redlands. I asked Louder what happened, trying not to sound too coarse, but most likely failing miserably. As he handed a couple of bottles to some kids around the car, he told me that a teammate had needed a bike in one of the last sections. He dutifully gave him his bike, and was left wondering what could have been. Paris-Roubaix isn’t too into that whole mercy or fairness thing. It’s a mean, unfair race. More of that to come.
I started to head off towards the rocks when I glanced over and saw David Millar. I kept on walking for a second as the realization hadn’t quite kicked in. Oh wait, that was David Millar. I turned around and walked up to the arm still mending Scotsman – what’s up David? He told me his arm was healing well, he could ride a bit on the trainer back home, and he should be back on the road soon. Cool, well, I gotta go, there’s this race going on you see…I don’t think he much cared that I left. He must not have know who I was.
Sector 15 from Warlaing to Brillon was a lovely 2.4k. It generously chops a solid kilometer off Sector 16 and it’s most definitely not Arenberg, so comparatively, at this moment, the riders were probably almost happy to run into this sector – it was the shortest they’d had in a little while, and they weren’t being threatened with the possibility of being eaten by te ancient pathways. There were even horses on this sector. Nothing sets the mood like fields, horses, and kids.
It never ceases to amaze me just how family oriented these races can be. Little kids are brought along to hang out and not only enjoy the race as it passes, but to enjoy everything that else that goes along with race day – the people, atmosphere, fun. That’s just good stuff if you ask me. It’s no wonder you see kids riding around on mini racing bikes with their ages still not even to the double digit mark yet.
Note to self and others…when taking pictres of cobbles, it is best to do it before the caravan starts to come by. It really would be a shame to be run over by a car whilst sprawled out on the rocks. In fact, it seems like it might be smart to keep a decent amount of space between oneself and the caravan. I don’t think there’s too much to be worried about when it comes to the riders, but it appears that the motorbikes and cars can be giant steel people bashing machines. I really hope all of those that were hit by the runaway motorbike on Sunday are ok. I don’t have words for it. It’s just awful.
This duo of father and son seem to have known something would go awry later in the day, so they took to the high ground. The only thing they had to be worried about was a skewering from a branch.
Once again, the ritual of the race was enjoyed, and the countdown to race passage began – pre-race caravan, many motorbikes, the Velo car spouting news in French, helicopter in the distance, helicopter oh wait, right over my head, oh dear those horses are looking a little crazy in the eyes. Please do stay on your side of the fence. Thanks. After the horses stopped scaring me with the thought of a hoof to the head and ran off, the break sped by, blissfully unaware that a couple of horses had been contemplating that rock paved path as their exit strategy a few moments ago.
The massacred field bellowed by not long after. Tom Boonen duelling pistons of power had done some damage in Arenberg, but then again, so had that big wreck. The two together did wonders for jettisoning rotten and fresh fruit alike. QuickStep were up front and eager to do more meanness to the mortals clinging to their wake, whilst a little ways off the back…
George Hincapie had been bitten by the cruel bitch Roubaix again. He flatted early in the sector, and with his loss in tire pressure he lost another year of opportunity. I wonder if there is ever a point where a rider has suffered enough woe to have earned a little bit of good fortune. I think Herr Hincapie is getting on toward that point…if it exists. I kinda doubt that it exists though.
Sector 6: It’s Party Time
One last time we piled into le van and made way for Cysoing. Cysoing has a special place in my heart. It’s the only sector that I have ridden twice (albeit unintentionally), it’s the only sector I’ve seen Tom Boonen ride, and it’s the only one I’ve ridden on the wheel of a past champion (one of today’s early break – Servais Knaven). Cysoing looked a bit different than it did a few days ago when it was jus me and Servais…this time it was me, a couple thousand people, innumerable cars and motorbikes, and bike racers spread all over creation.
Peter had been keeping his professional composure for most of the day, but like myself, he’s a fan through and through, and this is a true fan’s section. Out came the Flandrian flag, and the gloves were officially off. There were some Belgians that needed cheering…one in particular.
What better way to cheer your favorite racer than with a big drum and 4 liters of beer too many? If he can’t hear you through the cacophony that is a cobbled passage, maybe he’ll feel it when you vomit on him. That might be a little bit too far, but I’d classify the inebriation levels as a bit, um, well over too far at this point in the race. My favorite rider is going to be delirious when he passs…I should be too!
At least you didn’t have to worry about anyone peeing on your shoes. There were acres and acres of fresh green fields just ready for a good watering of Belgium’s Budweiser: Jupiler.
Up ahead was an oasis of sorts – the big party was up ahead. Complete with big screen profector viewing, chicken grilling, beer flowing, and as many Boonen fans as you could ever hope to house under one tent.
These two weren’t too terribly thrilled with the goings on. Maybe they were passed out. Either way, they were a drag. I needed some true spirit to go along with my special day.
Ah there it is. What better way to appreciate Paris-Roubaix than in an unsafe manner? Like any true fan, you have to risk certain paralysis to get that extra special moment. I joined a number of other crazies atop the motorhome that formed one of the tent walls. No matter that the roof was less than happy to support us, no matter that the canvas that covered it was soaked in sweet Jupiler, no matter that I was surrounded by the wild movements of drunken Belgians. It’s all good! I’ve got rubber bones and I’m still young enough to be invincible.
The view from atop the motorhome was excellent. The Jupiler tossed up to me was just as excellent. Hearing a Flemish song at the top of the group’s collective lungs to the tune of Battle Hymn of the Republic? Well, you know the rest. It was another moment for me to use that oft-used boring terminology (but I don’t know what else to say!) – special.
It was one of those moments where you look to your left and right and realize that this is the stuff you see on tv. There I was, standing on top of a shaky at best motorhome with a giant flag of Flanders with crazed Tommeke fans, and lo and behold there came the man himself.
I couldn’t really see much of the leaders’ passage through Cysoing, but who really needs to see Boonen, Flecha, or Hushovd’s face at that moment? Give me the overall gander of the scene any day. I can buy the dvd later and see what his face looked like. You just can’t capture atmosphere on television. It’s like the steepness of a climb or the insanity of the cobbles – it just doesn’t translate.
After the leaders passed, I figured I had been treading the fine line of fan living out his fantasy and idiocy, so I carefully edged my way down the ladder, waved to my friends, and had a look at the view from the ground.
It wasn’t terribly pretty. The remnants of what must have been a bright and lovely looking peloton that left Compiegne in the morning looked like it had been taken out and summarily beaten for the past five or so hours. I don’t feel quite so bad now about the faces I made when I rode across these sectors a couple of days ago. The worst part? They still had five to go, one of which is a tear jerker, one doesn’t count because it’s the Roubaix sector, and three that just hurt.
Once a few of the stragglers had eased on down the rock path, I headed to the tent to see what was going on. I got there just in time to watch everyone fall down. The first one was shocking enough, but the second? I can still hear the roar of the, to put it nicely, pro-Boonen crowd in my ear when Hushovd ran into the barriers.
Part of that roar came from Mr. Easton himself. There was no one in that place that wasn’t cheering for Boonen. It was impossible not to pull for him. It’s that whole mob mentality thing, but in a more benign way.
Staf Scheirlinckx’s fans were out in full force. They had no qualms in throwing their limitless energy at Boonen though.
The fervor of the fans reminds me of a question Peter asked me a few days ago as a journalist – what’s the big deal with the nicknames? Why is Cancellara, Spartacus? Why is Boonen, Tommeke? I wasn’t sure why I when he asked me. Really, I always think of it as a synonym to add to my quiver when talking about a certain rider over and over again: Boonen, Tom Boonen, Mr. Boonen, Tommeke. At that moment though I realized why it was there to begin with – the greats need a name that transcends their cycling personality. In these moments, you’re not cheering for a person anymore, you’re cheering for a caricature, someone larger than life, a Greek god come down to earth to labor and toil with the underlings. You are cheering much more than a bike racer. This different persona demands a new name. Some are better than others, but the chant of Tommeke echoed perfectly on this fantastic Sunday afternoon.
Needless to say, each time check that saw Boonen’s gap over Pippo grow drew a louder roar than the last…and the final exhalation of adoration as he crossed the line sovereign in Roubaix? It gave me goosebumps. After that, once again, special moment, it was back to nutty normalcy.
To say this guy loves Tom Boonen is like me saying that I love eating hamburgers, chicken nuggets, Little Debbie snack cakes, chocolate milk, and sugary cereal. He has a passion for the man that borders on essential to life, which all of the above foods are – essential to my happy existence. He wore not one, but two Boonen shirts, a Flandrian flag around his waist, a Boonen hat, a QuickStep jacket, Boonen glasses from a few years back, and oh yeah, that stone. He spent a lot of time kissing that rock after Boonen’s win.
The Cysoing sector is more than just a fun place to check out the race for Peter and Lisa though. They’ve been coming to this sector for a few years running now, and they’ve made some good friends in Gio and Elfie. Being introduced to them was like coming to visit a good friend. It was along the lines of, great to see you, why haven’t you visited us sooner? We’ve been waiting for you all this time. It was a wonderful welcome. It’s good to know that there really are people like that. It’s not a myth.
When I stepped back a bit from the party and looked around. I had a long moment to myself. After all the partyers, fans, kids, and aficionados head for home, these cobbled stretches of road will remain. They’ll remain, solidly in place as they have for hundreds of years. They’ll lie in wait, utterly forgotten until this time next year. These are not like the roads of Flanders, which are used everyday by the people even today. The roads of Paris-Roubaix are used only by farmers and a few lost souls throughout the year. They are a relic, made holy by a sport, which clings to their cruelty.
I am a changed man. I understand the magic now. I’ve seen it. I can’t quite touch the moment where they went from awful rocks laid willy nilly by drunken soldiers long ago to awful rocks with a gigantic dose of history, pain, success, suffering, and greatness. This race is so difficult, so special, so hard, because of each and every one of these cobbles. These cobbles are virtually the same as they were back in 1896 (ok, yes, there have been some changes, don’t get nitpicky here, I’m feeling epic) – the first running of the race. Everything but the suffering of the riders and the cobbles themselves has changed. The two most important factors have remained constant.
You have to see it, feel it, experience it to really understand. Following the race on tv, through pictures, reading about it, it’s all a great start, but it’s just that – a start. I left Paris-Roubaix’s course on Friday not too terribly impressed. I didn’t understand what all the fuss was. They were cobbles, they sucked. Don’t get me wrong, they still do, but the suffering makes more sense in this greater context.
You really do retrace the proverbial footsteps of the greats and forgottens alike when you pedal these pieces of history. It’s not just another race. Paris-Roubaix is truly a spectacle, moreso than any other race. De Ronde and Paris-Roubaix could not be any more different from each other. De Ronde is the race that defines the cycling mad people of Flanders – it runs the gamut of everything Flanders, all of their roads, all of its greatness. Paris-Roubaix exists because of its severity, because of its cruelty, because of the spectacle. The people in this area do not identify with the race. The area itself is barely worth the visit on its own. You won’t see people just merrily riding up and down the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix for fun. You will see little kids on mountain bikes riding the Koppenberg though. Paris-Roubaix is a stern, ominous test, it’s the most extreme test of them all.
I remember Peter and Walter after we finished riding the course on Friday. They said that you have to love the cobbles to do well here. You can’t just take to them mechanically and say that you’re good at them, you have to look forward to them, to want them, you have to love them. With every love, there’s that fateful moment where you fall in. Sunday was my day. Standing there on the cobbles of Cysoing, a few meters adrift from the party, I fell in love with the cobbles.
Now don’t get mad at me for getting all dramatic. It was a special moment, so don’t make fun of me. That’s all.
Questions? Comments? Happy? Sad? Send me an email, or head on over to JeredGruber.com.
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