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Chasing Roubaix 2012: One Last Day On The Cobbles

Roadside: We’ve been chasing the cobbled classics since the Omloop in February. With Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix the cobbled classic season culminated in legendary fashion, and we were incredibly fortunate to chase the race with former Roubaix podium finisher, Roger Hammond and seen-everything-there-is-to-see soigneur, Bart Brackez.

Over the last week, we’ve been working with Joao Correia’s new cycling tour group, InGamba Tours, leading rides and showing a few guys our favorite roads in one of our favorite places in the world – the Vlaamse Ardennen/Pays des Collines. Small comment: if anyone ever wondered what my dream job is – that’s it.

Along for the ride on one of the days was none other than Roger Hammond. Riding with Roger brought a painfully honest fact to the fore – I can ride these roads forever and ever until I know every cobble, bump, bend, or blemish, but I will never, ever know them the way a guy like Roger Hammond knows them. It’s another level of knowledge, one carved out through racing in some of the world’s most difficult races each spring for many, many years. The stories that await at every turn, at every climb, at every even seemingly mundane section of road are bubbling just below the surface – all you have to do is ask.

Roger Hammond.

Say a word, any word related to these races, and there’s a story. (It was the same thing when I joined Peter and Lisa Easton’s VeloClassic Tours in 2009 – we had the chance to talk and ride with Scott Sunderland on two different occasions – it was, in a word, special.)

It wasn’t just Roger either – there was also Bart Brackez. Never heard of Bart? He’s long been the man just a bit behind the scene, but always there – always. The main question one should have for Bart is not who he has worked with, but who HASN’T he worked with as a soigneur over the last two decades.

Bart Brackez.

So when Joao asked me if we’d like to join the InGamba group for their chase of Roubaix on Sunday…I couldn’t say no. How could you turn that down?

I was nervous that we wouldn’t get that many sectors in, but again, with Roger and Bart at the helm, I just couldn’t imagine anything going wrong.

So of course it did. We were a bit late getting to Compiegne the morning of the start, and we missed the pick-up of our credentials by five minutes. We were left without a car pass. I had that overwhelming feeling that it might just be better to go home. We had had a horrendous time chasing the race last year WITH a car pass. How would it be possible to do it sans pass?

I needn’t have worried.

We got in the big red van, turned in the direction of Sector 26, and off we went. It took us a long while to get out of Compiegne, because Roger and Bart had to say hi to every person they knew, and considering the fact that they knew everyone, it was an amusing procession of hellos and how are yous. The hellos continued into the drive – they were chatting out the window with passing team cars. Eventually, we ended up behind two Katusha cars headed in the direction we were going. Two red Katusha vehicles, one big red van behind them – perhaps this could work? Could we just slip in unnoticed?

We came to the point where the Katusha cars entered the course proper, Bart got as close as he could to the bumper of the car in front, and just like that, to the chorus of a whole van – Don’t brake, Bart! – we were on the course.

Last year, we almost died when Bart Roesem’s father-in-law, Andy Deschuyffe told us the story of how he chased Roubaix without a car pass – he just forged one and spent the whole day within the barriers. This year, we one-upped even the untouchable Andy by doing it WITHOUT a pass. I feel that Andy would have been proud of us. He should have been there. He would have loved every rule breaking moment of it.

Parting the crowds on the parcours.

It all went down to balls. Big ones. If you drive with the authority that you belong there despite the unsinkable fact that you absolutely do not, somehow, it works. I don’t have those cojones, but Bart and Roger do. With Roger goading Bart on, there was nothing that wasn’t possible.

So we entered on to the race course, the sun shone, and from the depths of oh-my-god-we-are-so-screwed, I felt this lightness in my belly – the lightness of managing the impossible in a sea of police and other officials seemingly directed to do one thing and one thing only – say no to everyone they see.

We arrived to Sector 26, and while Ashley and I headed out to find somewhere to take a picture, Roger and Bart struck up conversations with the Garmin car parked in front of us. One should remember – it was only last year that Roger was a very important member of the Garmin Classics brigade, so there were numerous moments on Sunday where it felt that the only way in which Roger wasn’t a part of that team was the fact that he was in plain clothes.

The break!

Back to the race – the break had finally wrested itself free. We almost missed it though. We have grown so accustomed to the ubiquitous Ro-dah-nee-ya song of the lead car sponsored by watch-maker, Rodania, in all of the Flemish races, that we weren’t prepared for, well, not Rodania. We heard shouts – here they come! – so we scrambled as best we could and clicked off a few shots. The gap was only four minutes, so I had some running to do to get further down the sector just in time to endure a downpour of dust as the race and caravan roared by.

This Vacansoleil soigneur was smoking a cigarette. He hid it behind his back for the picture.

As we left, Roger told us of chasing back on to the field one year after a mechanical – he said he couldn’t see his hands on his handlebars, let alone the road or anything else. “You could only just make out the outlines of the fans. That’s how you rode – in between the two rows of fans…and hoped for the best. I had no idea where the road started and ended, just that I was riding between the fans.”

Oh look, nice and clear – you can see the field approaching.

Not so much at this point.

This is what dusty looks like.

Back into the car – heading for Querenaing. I had gone to this sector on my first two visits to Roubaix. We arrived to a dead end. There were barriers at a hard turn just off the cobbles with five police officers manning the turn. A Team Sky van had just been turned away, so I figured this would be where we watched. No problem!

Except, Bart was not satisfied with this location. He gets out of the car, walks up to the police, chats for a moment, and two seconds later, Ashley and I are being called back to the van to get in – we’re going through the barricades and back on to the course.

This was an entirely new level – we weren’t even breaking the rules anymore. Bart now had the consent of the ruling party.

It’s as if they knew they could not hold back this force of nature. It was better to allow him free rein than to incur his creativity, so off we went, back on to the course as law abiding citizens.

We stopped at Sector 18 to check out some more bike racing. I headed for the cobbled corner in the middle of the sector, while Ashley climbed on top of the very tall van.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the kind of luck with law enforcement that Bart does. I was pushed back out of the corner, so I moved over ten feet away from the police officer where I took up my crouching stance. The people that were there nodded in approval – no one ever seems to mind so long as you stay low. In fact, they so approved of my positioning that they chased off two others that came up and tried to obstruct my view. Bless them. It’s amazing the people you meet on race day – some of the nicest…and some of the meanest you’ll ever run into.

Ashley on top of the van.

And then Peter Easton saw me and joined in the picture taking extravaganza. He asked if he was in the way, if it was ok for him to be over my shoulder. Absolutely! If it wasn’t ok, I’d tackle him, to which the thick-blooded New Yorker nodded with approval. I love that.

Omega Pharma-QuickStep’s Van Keirsbulck leads the break.

Boonen leads the way through the more dirt than cobbles turn.

The break came, the field came, led by Boonen and his QuickStep juggernaut, and then there were the stragglers. Already, still with so much racing to go, the race was in bits and pieces, not even chunks – tiny little bits.

Here they come!

paris-roubaix 2012 svein tuft
Svein Tuft looks back into the dust.

Mad dash back to the car and off to Orchies courtesy some incredible driving by Bart. We pulled another parcours entrance with no problems and had the luxury of picking out our spot along the Orchies sector. Roger had attacked here last year, so as we were looking for a good parking place (read – just enough to get the wheels off the cobbles) he jokingly says – ‘this is where all the cool kids attack.’

Sebastian Turgot on the attack.

Boonen doing what all the cool kids do at Orchies – attack!

A few minutes later, his joke becomes real. Turgot is off the front with a tiny gap, and right behind is Tom Boonen with Filippo Pozzato glued to his wheel. This was it!

Vansummeren trying to get on terms with Boonen’s acceleration.

Pain was everywhere.

I’d find out later that that was in fact the move, but by the time I got to the Garmin car’s tv (parked conveniently next to our van), Terpstra and Boonen were off to the races…and then it was just Boonen. Oh dear – 56k?

Field gone? Run to your cars!

Back in the car and off to the Velodrome. I was less than excited about this proposition, because we had no passes. What pictures could I possibly get of the finish if I couldn’t get in to the infield?

At this point, traffic was getting really bad. Roads were closed and cars just kept piling in to the queue in hopes of getting to Roubaix.

This is where Team Baroger really outdid themselves. This is also where a number of people would probably call in and say that Baroger’s driving tactics were of the demolition derby variety. We straight up passed whole villages of cars in the left lane. When a car came in the opposite direction? We drove on the left-hand grass. I don’t recommend, endorse, or condone Baroger’s methods, but oh wow, were they effective (and hilariously fun). It was also extremely effective in incurring more than a dozen middle fingers and at least half a dozen rolled down window curses.

I will never forget that drive.

Upon arriving in Roubaix, we hopped out and headed for the velodrome. We walked down the final sector of cobbles, past all off the former winners, past a certain one that read: Magnus Backstedt 2004. Roger semi-playfully stomps hard on it and keeps walking – did it crack? – he asks.

Roger rightly rues that missed chance to this day. You might recall that four-up group of Backstedt, Hammond, Cancellara, and Flecha. Hammond was the fastest finisher in that group, but he was taken high on the banking in the sprint by a young Cancellara and lost all chance of victory, settling for a still fantastic third on the day.

Still reflecting on that telling moment, we enter into the Velodrome chaos. We’re trying to get to the grassy banking on the one side, but we can’t get through anywhere, but like everything on this day, it somehow works out.

Nope, can’t go this way.

Can’t go this way either.

Finally, we climb the steep dirt and from there, the final stage of the 2012 Paris-Roubaix is before us.

While looking for a place to shoot the finish, I run into Gregg Germer from The ChainStay. Funny how you can start the day chatting with a person, go your two VERY separate ways, and many hours later, you find yourself sitting right next to that same person.

Boonen comes moments later, the crowd goes crazy, history is made, and I have goosebumps all over my body. Special doesn’t begin to describe it.


Then the group of three comes, chased hard by Terpstra and Turgot. Turgot wins the sprint by a millimeter over Ballan, and then the groups just keep rolling in.

The fight for the final two podium spots begins as they enter the velodrome.

Both second and third place gasp in exhaustion after crossing the line.

At this point, I take a deep breath, look around, smile and realize how incredible the day has been. We’ve chased a lot of races this spring, but this one goes down as the one that will stand the test of time.

BMC’s Sean Weide escorts Thor Hushovd after a hard day on the cobbles.

This Cofidis rider could barely stay upright. He was destroyed.

2011 winner, Johan Vansummeren’s face says it all.

I often say that I think Roubaix is a bit of an overrated race next to the wonder that is de Ronde, but on Sunday, I realized that there’s a lot more to this race than I’ve given it credit for. It’s a fantastic race.

Thanks for reading!

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