Roadside Roubaix’18: Dan Does L’enfer du Nord!
Roadside PEZ: On Sunday, the 2018 Tour de France hits the famous cobbles of Paris-Roubaix for stage 9 and as PEZ-man Daniel Thevenon will be writing the race report we look back at ‘Dan’s Day in Hell’. Keep it PEZ for all the Tour action.
The 2018 edition of Paris-Roubaix is only hours away but onlookers in the small northern town of Templeuve-en-Plévèle could be forgiven for thinking that they have stepped back in time to 1896. A curious cyclist who looks like he might have been roommates with Maurice Garin pedals down the street. Bushy moustache, woollen jersey, goggles à la Bottecchia, wooden wheel rims… The man also relies on a single gear, the only choice worthy of a man according to Tour de France founder Henri Desgrange.
Not far behind is another fin de siècle wheelman, aluminium bidon complete with cork at the ready.
But time has not been turned on its head. These are in fact tifosi, men in love with the history and lore of cycling. They have not forgotten that il Campionissimo Fausto Coppi won Paris-Roubaix in 1950. They travelled all the way from Italy to ride over the hallowed cobbles ahead of today’s champions.
The inhabitants of a hamlet outside the nearby town of Bersée remind passers-by that only the hard-headed are cut out for L’Enfer du Nord.
Somewhere amidst the bleak landscape of beet fields, old farms, ugly water towers and wretched woods, at the entrance of a path, a signpost. To most people, the mention of “five stars” brings to mind all the luxury that money can buy. Plush hotels, spacious bedrooms, heavenly beds with shiny, silky sheets, obsequious attendants scrambling to satisfy one’s every need and whim, delicious eleven-course meals… Oysters à la Russe, perhaps, or filets mignon with Château potatoes, and some Chablis to wash it down.
Anyone among the 175 riders taking part in this year’s Paris-Roubaix expecting such service is in for a quite walloping disappointment, however. Mons-en-Pévèle, also known as secteur pave no. 11, promises only an archaic, irregular, bulging road, cruel cobbles, raw rock, perilous potholes, grievous gravel and doom-spelling ditches… All of this to be dealt with while jostling for position at speeds approaching 50 kilometers per hour. Her up north, five stars is as close to Hell as it gets.
The barons of the bitumen have no place here. “Smoothers”, some cobble specialists deridingly call them. Here only hard men can survive. Men who can take a few knocks. Men who have no time for gloves or other such indulgences. Real men.
Amateurs barrel down the opening straight, wheels and limbs trembling convulsively. The road is theirs to play with for now, but make no mistake: Sagan, Terpstra, Gilbert and the other cats of the peloton are expected here shortly.
These riders in red shirts shoot through the sector at full tilt. Though it rained overnight, the weather has since improved and the cobbles are dry. This year’s Queen of Classics should reward strength ahead of skill and good fortune. But who stands to benefit?
The profits for the time being will go to the race’s patrons, whose publicity vehicles make an unexpected appearance on the cobbles, their undercarriages knocking noisily against the crown of the road.
A truck honouring eternal housewives’ favorite Sylvain Chavanel rattles past. All credit to the man at the wheel for driving this down the Trench of Arenberg.
The motorbikes of the Gendarmerie arrive next. The professionals cannot be far now…
Photographers squabble amongst themselves as the moment everyone has been waiting for draws nearer. Who will capture the perfect picture?
The first riders to come into sight are three survivors of the échappée matinale. Belgium’s Jelle Wallays opens the road ahead of Norway’s Sven Erik Bystrøm and the champion of Switzerland Sylvain Dillier. Their tired muscles force crank and chain over the ghastly cobbles.
And a few seconds later it is Peter Sagan in person. The World champion has accelerated to rid himself of the other favorites and is now breathing down the neck of the break-away. His narrow tires slicing across the paves, the Super Slovakian is laying the foundations for his future triumph on the wooden banks of Roubaix’s velodrome.
Sagan’s fiercest rivals are in hot pursuit but the man in the rainbow jersey holds a significant lead over them already. Greg Van Avermaet, ‘the Golden Lion’, and Alexander Kristoff, the European champion, have missed the decisive break. Their grimace says it all.
At this point in the race, there is no such thing as a peloton any more. Riders zip past by themselves or in small groups, sheer suffering blanked out by intense concentration.
French national champion Démare is struggling far behind the leaders. ‘The Bull from Beauvais’ had stated his lofty ambitions for this race in the weeks leading up to the Départ in Compiègnes, yet this looks every bit like Agincourt for Marc Madiot’s protégé. True, he has succeeded in holding Sagan’s wheel as planned, but sadly for him it is Juraj’s, not Peter’s.
Riding onto the cobbles long minutes after the stars of cycling have vanished up the road can prove a very lonely experience, as this Delko rider found out. There is no-one left out here in the wilderness to help out with punctures or mechanical problems and no point either in counting on the generosity of spectators: they have deserted the scene too! It will be difficult, in these circumstances, to make it to Roubaix within the time limit. No wonder less than half the participants finish the Classic.
However, it could be worse. Wait too long to turn up and instead of rubbing shoulders with Stybar and Vanmarcke you may find yourself humiliatingly vying for supremacy with Sunday strollers, wholly unaware of the race’s existence.
In a matter of minutes, the fast-paced show is over. The athletes still have ten sectors to survive before Paris-Roubaix is done and dusted for another year… After that, six months of recovery await, to be followed by another six months of preparation for next year’s race.