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Photog’s View: A Chase Through Northern France

Photog’s View: Photographer Wei Yuet Wong was hard at work on the cobbled roads of Paris-Roubaix last Sunday and has sent in his first Classic ‘Photog’s View’ for the 2016 season. From his early start in Belgium to his dusty finish in the velodrome, via Compiègne he captures all the action from L’enfer du Nord.

– Photos and words by Wei Yuet Wong –

I started my day from Ghent, in the Flanders heartland of Belgium. The start of Paris Roubaix is not exactly in Paris, but in Compiègne, 222km away, or about 2.5 hours of driving like a madman. Usually for the Spring Classics, I stay in Brussels, in between the Northern Classics and the Ardennes Classics. For many reasons, this year, I find myself in Ghent.

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The weather in the morning was a chilly 3ºC, and foggy. Even till the outskirts of Compiègne. I wondered if it would have any impact on the race. We have not had a wet Paris Roubaix since 2005?

I try to time my arrival at the start – be too early, and there’s a lot of waiting, and urge to look for coffee. Too late, and it’s difficult to get in and out, and rushing too much is no good. Compiègne is a historical city, most of the streets are quiet on a Sunday morning, with people just going about their usual things – buying pastries at the boulangerie.

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I arrive at the départ about 1.5 hours to the official start. Even that was still too early. Other media muttered, ‘Nothing’s happening.’ It’s going to be the usual – all the teams rushing out the last minute to sign on and go to the startline. Perhaps the chilly morning?

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I take sometime to look around at the fans, and some of them do start young!

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Slowly the riders appear, and the crowds get excited. However, I go and see how the riders choose to tape up their fingers for the rattling. Sylvain Chavanel, is getting good attention from the French crowd, and I notice that he is wearing a lace-up DMT shoe. Another rider that caught my attention, the Panzerwagen, Tony Martin, making his début at Paris Roubaix.

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When I see the helicopter overhead, I know the race is about to go, and it’s time to leave. The plan for the day is conservative – two pavé sectors (Secteur 27, Troisvilles à Inchy, and Secteur 18, Trouée d’ Arenberg), and then to the Roubaix Vélodrome. Every year, there are new restrictions, and for 2016, once the riders reach 15km to go, the infield of the vélodrome would be closed to media.

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As soon at the peloton rolled off, I started driving. It would take a bit over an hour by car to Secteur 27. And also time for a quick dash for fuel, and toilet break. I usually do not drive a diesel, and I’m surprised how fast the tank emptied!

Chasing Paris Roubaix by car, alone, I expect many things to go wrong – unexpected road closures, getting lost on the small farmroads, getting stuck behind traffic, being caught behind the race, getting a flat tire… But, I just follow my plan.

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I got to Secteur 27 about 20 minutes before the riders are due. Enough time to park, and dash to the pavé. Weather was good, many people were out, there were plenty of cars causing a jam. I was not expecting any major action in the first secteur, and wanted to see the fans, and the riders roll through the northern French farmlands. Paris Roubaix is dusty when dry because of the farmland dirt.

After the relative ‘no drama’ of my first pavé stop, the next one will be more nervous. I have another hour to get to the Trouee d’Arenberg. This secteur, in the shade of the forest, and sometimes called the ‘Arenberg trench’, or the ‘Arenberg forest’, is too far out from the finish to be decisive, however, this secteur usually splits the peloton, and when the riders emerge from the forest, we will know who is not going to feature in the winning move, and it’s every man for himself.

I decided to drive to the Arenberg using a new small road that seems to be quicker, but one I have never used before. I spent some time getting caught behind people, traffic, and road closures. Thought I could not make it, and I had to run a bit to make it there 10 minutes before the race came through.

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I like the Trouée d’Arenberg because it’s lined with fans, and trees, like a tunnel. It was a surprise to see Tom Boonen up front. Perhaps he was allowed to go because of his poor performance at Flanders? No one was expecting him to do much. But, Tommeke’s still got it, and looks smooth over the pavé. Another rider whom I thought looked smooth and strong was Sep Vanmarcke. And the rider that almost everyone was waiting for, Fabian Cancellara, was leading most of the favourites, including Peter Sagan.

With the Arenberg done, I could risk another pavé secteur, but will be faced with the real possibility that I might not be able to get into the vélodrome. I’d rather be in the vélodrome to make pictures of the post race than be stuck out, and maybe get a good picture of the winning move, so to the vélodrome it is.

Secteur 13 of the pavé is next to a highway, and sometimes fans just stop on the highway, park there, and go watch the race. This year, I saw the Gendarmerie were enforcing, and noting the license numbers of such fans.

Without further incident, I got to vélodrome, and went infield to wait. All this while we were watching on the big screen the race unfolding.

The anticipation of the crowd, and the media was rising, as many of the media, although we are at work, we also have our riders whom we support. Ian Stannard seemed to be the least popular rider to take the win. The crowd favourite was Tommeke, and even if there was going to be an Aussie winner, I would have guessed Heinrich Haussler, not Mathew Hayman. But, he’s a super underrated rider, who has massively paid his dues at Paris Roubaix, and what a ride for him. Don’t think many people will begrudge him for stopping Boonen attempting to win a 5th Paris Roubaix. Think the cycling gods are fair. . .

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I love the post race rider pictures at Paris Roubaix. Rather than abandon, I think many riders will try to finish, and within the time limit, because this marks the end of the cobbled classics, and a transition to the Ardennes.

And of course, there was also a send off for Spartacus. I don’t think he needed to win one more just to prove anything to us. . .

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I finish off the day visiting the stone showers. Many riders prefer the comfort of a modern shower, but I am happy to see that most of the Team Giant-Alpecin riders still use the shower as a homage to the race. They were clowning around the 2015 plate of John Degenkolb!

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So, there concludes another edition of Paris Roubaix for me. A Sunday in Hell. One of the most difficult races to chase, and to make pictures of. But, when the plan works, yeah, there’s still many contingencies. . . Maybe motorcycle next time! (Thanks PEZ for this collaboration!)

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