What's Cool In Road Cycling

Roadside PEZ: Chasing Roubaix, The Finale

Part Two: When we left off yesterday, the dust storming field had just rolled through Sector 27 in Troisvilles. 26 more sectors lay ahead of them, and we were off to get hold of as many cobbled views as we could before a winner was crowned in the velodrome on a heavenly Sunday afternoon in Hell.

By Jered and Ashley Gruber

– If you want the pure photographic view, head on over to Flickr! –

Our original goal was to intercept the race at Sector 27, then make a mad dash for 23 in Saint-Martin-sur-Ecaillon. Our Euskaltel friend put paid to that goal, so we reassessed and steered our Volkswagen Polo in the direction of Sector 18, Monchaux-sur-Ecaillon.

The break on Sector 18.

The rally-esque driving employed by all involved in the racing caravan is something to behold. Traffic laws do not exist, open roads become race tracks, knuckles whiten, driver grins widen, concern for your car cannot exist.

There they go.

Actually, scratch that, we were very concerned about our car. Our car is our lifeblood in Europe. We bought it for 1600 euros in Heidelberg last fall, and it makes everything we do possible. Considering that the car is 13 years old and was sold as scrap before we got hold of a rejuvenated version of it, it has a few, er, problems. A non-working passenger side window is somewhat of a problem, a battered front end might also be considered an issue, but when you’re driving (not riding) the cobbles, your suspension gets a good workout, and in the case of our suspension, or rather lack of, the typical bounces, became thuds, particularly in the rear left sector of our auto. I’ll say the noises coming from that end were wince inducing.

The chase group.

This lucky fan received a gift from the Mavic support motorbike when it jumped off the back of the bike and started bouncing down the road. With the field only moments away, he grabbed the wheel, chuckled, and went back to his viewing spot – one wheel richer.

But hey, it’s all part of the game. As long as our little red hot rod keeps on rolling, all is well…so far, so good.

We arrived to Sector 18 in plenty of time. Apparently, we weren’t the only ones with the idea to watch there. We ran into both the Beyond the Peloton guys and Markus Neuert of CycleFilm. Once again, we stationed ourselves in separate areas, this time Ashley was low, and I climbed the nettle ridden grassy bank to the field overlooking the cobbled artery through an otherwise bucolic setting.

Then the dust billowed in by way of the pre-race caravan. There was quiet. Then the race radio car bellowed race information, ‘deux minutes!’ was the gap from the break to the peloton. It took over an hour and nearly 50 kilometers before the break finally got loose, and once it did, the field was in no mood to give it anything more than the shortest of leashes. There would be no errors in judgement en route to Roubaix, there would be no piano sessions – it was full on.

After being laughed at by a trio of obnoxious twelve year old girls when I stumbled on the grassy bank and after turning sunburn red in the moments that followed, I finally realized that it never gets any easier to be laughed at. It only took me 28 years to arrive to that lightbulb moment.

That’s completely unrelated to the actual race, but those are the kind of things that seem to always happen while waiting for the race to come. It’s either a lot of fun with fans asking for their pictures or handing you beers, or…not. If it’s a really packed section, the drama usually unfolds around an angry person, who had been waiting in that exact spot for 27 days, and before them, their forefathers had stood there for centuries. How dare you step in front of me! It’s true, it isn’t the best, and I apologize for anyone that I might have irritated, but I promise, I stay low for a reason, and well, I’m more important than you.

Even on a dry day, after a dry week, there’s still mud on the cobbles in a few small places.

No, I’m not; I’m not at all, I just wanted to take on the persona for a half a second, because that is the common accusation – do you think you’re more important than us?

Back to the car.

Then the field comes, and any bickering or happy conversation is forgotten and all attention is on the spectacle before you. To feel the wave of speed and power come wash over is truly goosebump inducing. It’s a moment when I sometimes feel regretful that I have my face smashed up against a camera, frantically trying to find a good picture in the mayhem. I admit, sometimes I stop clicking and just put it down. It looks so different with nothing between my eyes and the charging riders but dust.

Alex Rasmussen was unlucky in Sector 18. He flatted and spent a large chunk of the section trying to keep control of his bike while still making forward progress.

And then they’re gone again. The dropped or chasing riders follow the now familiar pattern – the first chasers are frantic, faces contorted in a suffering howl, while the latter riders have accepted their fate and trudge wearily to the end of the sector, weaving back and forth across the cobbles in search of the smoothest line, which is almost always nestled between agriculture and ancient stone.

Looking for a ride.

Resigned to a lonely ride.

As the final riders roll by, the run to the car begins. We had ventured a bit far from the car, but we got back quickly enough. We drove up to the still barricaded road, pointed to our credentials on the windshield, and for once, it worked beautifully. The crowd parted, the barriers were moved, and we were back on the road, chasing the race.

On to Sectors 17, 16, 15…

With each passing sector, the race security slackened considerably. We drove by a number of weary riders looking for a place to call it a day. Unfortunately for them, a place to call it a day was not right there, so they continued to ride, continued to trudge through the cobbles, in search of either the broom wagon, which was quite a long ways behind, or a team car with a vacant seat.

We’d be seeing a couple more of these flags on the Carrefour de l’Arbre.

Ashley and I had swapped seats in the car at this point. Her preference is to drive and be told where to go, rather than figure out where to go. It’s a fair pick, as navigating on the day of a classic is a bit stressful, hell, navigating any day through those roads is less than calming.

We settled on Sector 12 in Orchies as our next stopping point, but it was in this period where our luck ran out completely. We missed an important turn on the highway, came back around with just enough time to see the race, made the exit, and as we were looking for a place to pull over, we went a couple feet too far, and the police nearly pushed us onward, as were informed with loud shouts and angry faces that we had to get back on the highway. That’s not usually the end of the world, but when you have just a few minutes before the race comes and the next exit is 15 kilometers down the highway, it’s time to forget it.

Waiting for the race right before the start of Sector 4.

New plan: head to Sector Four: the Carrefour de l’Arbre.

Seemed simple enough, and it should have been, but this year, to cut down on hooligans and the like, the police cracked down hard on the Carrefour. They closed not only the race route, but roads leading up to the race route – not just for fans, but for all vehicles. Yes, the angry policeman cried, that meant us too.

We eventually found our way around, parked in Camphin-en-Pevele at the end of Sector 5 and started the walk on to the famed cobbles of the Carrefour. We were at the beginning of the five star, 2.1 kilometer long section, so while the crowds were still very much present, they weren’t nearly as insane as they are at the end, in the shadow of the restaurant that marks the end of the cobbled monster and the beginning of the next cobbles to Gruson. It’s a wicked, nasty, despicable section, and for that, because it’s Roubaix, everything is flipped around and instead of horrible and every other negative word you can conjure up, it’s glorious, beautiful, wonderful. It’s Roubaix’s Muur.

From here on out, I’ll let the pictures do most of the talking, as there’s not entirely all that much for me to add. I think they do a good job keeping my words to a minimum.

Why wait and press your head against a radio in hopes of discerning some muffled shouts, when you can relax on a lawn chair and watch the race from your car?

It makes good sense. We’d be back to this same spot in a few minutes.

These people enjoyed their flags and the large man behind them.

There wasn’t much to celebrate for Stijn Devolder fans this spring. They look like they already know what the day’s outcome will be like for the Deerlijk native.

Dog and man relax in the sun.

This little kid saw me taking pictures and asked to have his picture taken. I wish I had a business card or something to give to them, so they could get the picture… Note to self: business cards are good.

Here comes Johan!!!

Lars Bak was hanging on, but only just, at the back of the select group.

The leaders head toward the decisive part of the Carrefour de l’Arbre.

A second group followed, still without any of the big names in it – riders like Baden Cooke, Manuel Quinziato, and Jurgen Roelandts aren’t exactly crap though either.

Here come the favorites.

After the group of Cancellara/Flecha/Boom/Ballan group passed, the rest were more or less fighting for the smaller positions. Unfortunately, that didn’t mean any less suffering.

Gerald Ciolek.

A solo Skil-Shimano rider gets the relative comfort of the dirt next to the cobbles. The fans only really crowd the path when the favorites roll by, after that, the riders are mostly allowed the smoother dirt if they choose.

US National Champion, Ben King, only a few kilometers from finishing his first ever Paris-Roubaix.

After most of the riders had passed, it was time to find a viewing spot. I walked over to a small crowd collected around a car and realized Ashley had beaten me to it.

While one of the sport’s heroes wouldn’t win in Roubaix on Sunday, a new one was crowned.

It was like they had been told they had won a million euros. If you ever get the chance at a major spring classic – find yourself a huge group watching a tiny tv and drinking Jupilers faster than you can count them – you won’t ever forget the experience.

It’s never a bad thing to be around happiness like that.

Belgium won. Of course, it was a good day.

Thanks for reading!

Want to see lots more pictures? Head to Flickr!

Questions? Comments? Email me! Want to enjoy the play by play here in Belgium? Try Twitter. If you’re looking for a bit more, there’s always the tried and true, JeredGruber.com

Like PEZ? Why not subscribe to our weekly newsletter to receive updates and reminders on what's cool in road cycling?

Comments are closed.