PEZ Roadside: Chasing Roubaix!
Roadside Reload: On Sunday April 8th 2012, I got a second chance for a once in a lifetime experience of chasing the most feared Monument of the year – Paris-Roubaix. And just like my ride across these hellish roads a couple days prior, this day was nothing short of ‘epic’.
As I looked back through the photos of this day, I realized this was probably my best ever day shooting a bike race. Capturing interesting & revealing images of targets moving at 60kph across a constantly changing landscape is incredibly challenging. There’s a reason only a few photogs make it into the big leagues. And I never know how the photos turn out until hours later when I finally get them onto the computer and can look more closely to discover details, and scenes captured at 1/400th of a second.
This was the last day of Velo Classic Tour’s “Spring Classics I: The Cobbles” trip, and the second peak of what began with the Tour of Flanders a week previous. As usual Peter Easton had everything dialed, so guests could concentrate on simply witnessing the spectacle about to unfold.
As race viewing goes, chasing Roubaix is always a tough proposition. The point to point design of the course means that after every stop you have to leapfrog the pack to see it again. This becomes even trickier when you factor in the tiny meandering farm roads that make getting in and out of viewing spots a challenge. Thirdly the crowds that are doing the same thing we are make traffic jams in a remote pasture a real threat to making it to the next stop on time.
All of this makes for a great adventure though, and for race chasers the day has two speeds – first: whatever your speed is before you actually encounter the race for the first time, and second – the warp speed super drive that blasts off as soon as you see the back side of the bunch after your first check point.
The plan was to see 4 sectors of cobbles – #27, #22, #16, and finally #10 where Lisa would be waiting with a tent, hot food, cold beer, and the live race on the VCT big screen tv – all so we could watch the finale in comfort and style – without the post-race hassle of being trapped in a farmers field after the race. It was the perfect set up, and one learned from doing this nine times before.
The race was scheduled to hit sector 27 (they’re numbered in reverse order all the way to the velodrome) around 12:40, which gave us plenty of time to sleep a bit longer and get on course without a big hurry.
I took a few minutes to walk around Tournai this Easter Sunday and was pretty much the only one out, save for a couple of shop keepers putting out their café chairs, and the cats by the church. It was peaceful and calm – a stark contrast to the chaos and adrenalin that would make up the next few hours.
Pete Easton gave us the run down before each stop – basically hustle it back to the van as soon as the race passes – so we could exit stage left, beat the crowds, and make it to the next spot before the actual race. Depending on how close Pete could get the van to the course – going in too close could mean your exit strategy goes down the drain – we could count on running/ jogging in to and out of each point. But you gotta move it if you want to see the race, and no one wants to hold up the group. I was last into the van a couple of times, incurring the wrath of Pete: “Let’s GO, RICH!” as he slipped the van into gear before I had the side door closed.
The rythym of chasing Roubaix is like a roller coaster – a slow build as you chug up the long climb to that first peak – and then insane acceleration, the rush of wind and plenty of screaming as you plummet unstoppably into series of twists turns, crests and valleys. It doesn’t really stop until the whole thing is over – whether you make it to the velodrome or not.
The break hits Sector 27.
With no real lead car ahead of the bunch, the race sneaks up and appears so fast there’s no way to avoid the blast of adrenalin as that rider appears. Is my camera switched on? Get in position. Line of my shot through the view finder and pull the trigger. Snap. Snap. Snapsnapsnapsnapsnapittysnap.
You gotta choose whether you want to watch the race or shoot the race – they’re mutually exclusive since the view finder reveals nothing until after you go back and see what you captured. But having the record of events is a bonus – I always find things when studying my shots that I never would have noticed without the camera catching it all. I spotted Jered in a photo of the corner at Sector 17, but at the time I had no idea where he was on the course.
Everyone looked good in the break as they hit the first sector of cobbles.
Sector 27 at Troisvilles à Inchy is 2200 meters of cobbles that bears left off the roadway, runs a slight downhill that snakes across a field, and past a small and sort of cheesy, (considering the quality of memorials in the region) memorial to Jean Stablinksi. There were quite a few cars already there, but the crowds were relaxed and calm – too early for even the die hard drunks at this stage.
Unlike the grand tours, there’s no caravan, and the lead of the race is really marked by motos. The course is so rough that the cars are pushed well ahead of the race. You know the race is coming by the tv helicopters approaching in the distance, and then the stream of pre race vehicles roaring past.
Here’s comes the pack at Sector 27, Boonen (in 3rd wheel) would never be far from the front the rest of the day.
Without a clear signal, the break appears around a corner and it’s game on. Twenty or so riders looking comfortable. It’s the first sector of stones, so everyone is still fresh at the 100km in point. Bikes and riders are clean – something I only recalled later in the day as the dirt, dust, fatigue and pain layered itself on over the brutal miles still to come.
I’d heard about the cool sound the peloton makes on the cobbles – but this time I really noticed it. When the bunch came through some 4+ minutes later, the 180 bikes strung out took maybe 10- or 15- seconds to pass – and the sound was amazing…
It comes in a wave that hits almost instantly, then crests for as long as it takes to get the bunch past. At this point the group was still together, so without the mix of cars and motos, all you hear is pure cycling – 360 rubber tires mounted on carbon and aluminum drums beating time against unyielding stones connecting carbon bikes to the living breathing organism of the pro bunch, rolling pounding and bumping over thousands of cobblestones all at the same time.
And then it’s gone. Silence, and a moment of indecision as fans at once stand in awe of what just passed by, while needing to hustle back to the van for the next chase.
Hedges serve as naturally renewable fences in the region.
Sector 22 Capelle-sur-Écaillon à Ruesnes, 1700 meters
While we drove into Sector 27 on paved roads, our access to Sector 22 was only accessible via another sector of pave – maybe 2000 meters across – that took us into the middle of a field akin to nowhere. The crowds here were much bigger, and ensuring a quick getaway on the tiny cobbled access road meant parking about 700-800 meters from the parcours – which is a pretty good distance to cover on foot, in a hurry.
Our vantage point from the middle of the sector offered a good view of the approaching storm. The tv ‘copter came first and swung in low for a wide circling shot of us fans stationed and ready.
The dust was heavier here and the break seemed smaller by a few riders – but it’s impossible to count numbers through a view finder.
The toll of the early race was visible on the main pack, who were still filling the full width of the pave, but by now the tail had grown considerably as riders began to lose contact – there weren’t a lot, but you could start to see a few guys straggling.
This guy was well back of the bunch, trapped in the dust between cars, and looking at a long ride to get back on.
Sector 17 Haveluy à Wallers, 2500 meters
This part of sector 17 had a 90 degree right turn, which made for awesome viewing as we could see the race approach from one direction, charge through the turn and take off towards Sector 16 and Arenberg.
The wind was blowing strong all day, and the dust settled on everything – cameras, clothes, eyes, like a fine silt. It made choosing which side of the road to stand on pretty easy – for me anyway. Once the bunch arrived, one side of the road would be a giant dust bowl, while the other would be pretty clear – even with all the race traffic.
I see a nice little gap in the fans about 30 meters past the turn, and place myself standing beside a guy in one of the red, yellow and black Juliper cone hats. Assuming they were Belgian (based on their choice of head gear), I struck up a conversation in English. They explained that the hats are earned as reward for drinking something like 25 Juliper beers – one went on to clarify that they “didn’t drink them today”… then the other guy plops a hat on my head, and I was duly deputized as an honorary Belgian fan.
A minute later the dust cloud appears blowing across the horizon. It’s race time. With the day moving in fast forward, this approach offered just a bit longer to get set up. The fans start cheering as the lead moto powers through the turn and totally obscured my view of the riders.
Where’s Jered? Check out the red hat.
It’s only after I sort my almost 500 photos from the day that I see what kind of race action is revealed. While Terpstra checks that Boonen is right there, I notice Jered crouched on the ground in the corner shooting his own stuff. I had no idea he was there at the time.
It’s Quickstep in the driver’s seat again, but the race is notably more strung out now. The main bunch is smaller, and riders come through in 3’s, 4’s, 2’s and 1’s. Some will get back together, others are already fighting for survival.
I wait as long as I can – not wanting to hold up our transfer to our final sector, but not wanting to miss any of the riders either. The guys off the back look like shite – covered in dust and still over a hundred km to go.
Sector 10: Mons-en-Pévèle, 3000 meters
This is the second longest stretch of cobbles, and even though I’d ridden through here just 2 days before, I had trouble recalling the section. I chalked it up to the sheer volume of sectors – and maybe some built in mechanism to ‘block out’ the pain.
Velo Classic had arranged a tent, complete with barbeque, deep fryer (they made fresh frites for us), lots of beer on ice, and a bunch of their Belgian pals to party with as we watched the finale of the race on VCT’s big screen tv. A nice set up indeed.
Terpstra and Boonen were at the front of the field, but first there was the matter of seeing the race roadside for our 4th time. I walked about a hundred yards into the sector and stepped down into a roadside ditch to set up a nice low shot.
I glance up and see a lone Quickstep rider round the corner and blast onto the cobbles, accompanied only by the tv moto. This was the move – and this was Boonen at his finest.
He’s by and gone in a flash.
The seconds tick by – maybe half a minute before the next riders come through, led by Juan Antonio Flecha gapping the chase group in a list ditch bid to catch the uncatchable Tomeke.
Astana’s Jacopo Guarnieri would finish in 1 second under 6 hours, in 23rd place.
The gaps were now huge between bunches and riders, and the strain of the last few hours had distinctly transformed the best bike riders in the world before our eyes. The pack was notably smaller, and by the end only 86 of the 200 starters would finish.
For us it was a hustle back to the tent to enjoy the rest of race in relative comfort, eating and drinking, and laughing with the new friends we’d all become since logging a bunch of big days on the bike together.
The race disappears into the distance.
By now riders too far off the back wisely elected to stop the madness, and look for a smoother route to the team bus.
Once the race had passed our location, two of the local gendarmes assigned to watch the traffic at the Sector 10 entrance walked through our tent, thanking and shaking each of our hands. I learned that Velo Classic’s Lisa Easton had wisely befriended them with a plate of hot food earlier in the day. I’d guessed they were either happy their day telling people “Non!” was done, or were huge Boonen fans, or both. Whatever, everyone smiled as we soaked in the enormity of what an awesome day this was.
– Thanks for reading –
• And BIG thanks to Velo Classic Tours for hosting a week of fantastic riding and chasing the Classics.