Paris-Roubaix. Hell of the north. The Queen of the Classics… Roubaix, Baixby! There is a great deal of hype out there about the latest and greatest event taking place. When it comes to Roubaix, the expectation and the event itself meet. This is a brilliant bike race!
A quick rundown — the riders originally rode from Paris all the way to the velodrome in Roubaix, which is a town just outside of Lille.
They now start a little way up the road, but still travel 260km. Part of the course was (and is) over virtually unused farmers’ tracks made out of cobblestones. There are 27 such sectors today, and the cobbles are so difficult and dangerous to ride on, that despite it being a virtually flat race, it never ends in a mass sprint — I’m not sure if more than ten blokes have hit the velodrome together before.
The cobbled sectors are known as Pavé and to explain them is to inevitably fall short and fail to show how very harsh they are. Despite this, I’ll have a crack!
The roads are the width of a car as a maximum. They are made of cobblestones that are about the size of a fist. The variability in fist sizes between people is paralleled in the stone size variation too.
The stones are not set together tightly, but instead have gaps of the width of one to three fingers, depending. Add this very harsh road surface to the fact that they are very rarely kept up, and so there are potholes, upthrust stones here and there, and a road camber that is at times so harsh that cars bottom out on the middle of the road, and so must drive with one wheel on the centre of the road, and the other off the side in the grass and mud. It is ridiculous!
The fastest we managed in the car was 50kph, on one of the early “easy” sectors. There were times when the car felt like it was going to be shaken apart and we were doing 25kph maximum. It’s not even comfortable to walk quickly on it — you feel like you’re on the brink of spraining your ankle at every step.
Suffice to say, it is dead hard to ride a bike over, and dead cool to watch professionals ride their bikes over! Thus there are thousands and thousands of fans lining the cobbled sectors — particularly the final fifteen or so, with many of them being described as “disaster tourists” as they congregate at points on the road where there is a better chance of a crash happening (at sharp corners, really bad potholes, dips in the road, etc).
Anyhoo, my job on this day (after doing standard physio prep stuff the days prior, as well as strapping the boys in the morning before they got going) was to be at various sectors with spare wheels and spare drink bottles for the boys.
The roads are so crappy that inevitably people will puncture and break wheels, and the only way to keep them in the race is to get a change to them as quickly as possible. As the pavé sections are so tight, the following cars have no chance of making it to the riders quickly enough to allow them to change wheels and remain in the race, so the riders have to try and limp to where someone from the team is waiting with spare wheels.
Atop this, the road is so bumpy that water bottles get jounced out of their cages, and so the riders need to be able to replace their drinks quickly and easily for the same reasons.
My partner for the day was Joachim, aka J-Quan, one of the team soigneurs, and we were accompanied by a couple of VIPs in the back seat. We were to cover five different sectors, all with between 35 and 55min between scheduled time for riders to pass. J-Quan drove, and I navigated (with a super detailed map and the Garmin).
The difficulty was that the race coursed all over the place to find the pavé, and the course was closed when the riders were nearby, so we had to be quite flexible with our directions… This entailed me yelling out town names to keep an eye out for, and yelling “LEFT NOW NOW NOW!!!” and stuff. Great fun!
As the day progressed, and the riders started to fall off the back, our time between sectors got tighter and tighter, as we were waiting for some of our boys who had dropped off, but needed to make it to the next sector in time to get wheels and bottles to our boys in the front group. Very hectic juggling act, and great fun.
At the first sector we were at (number 25) it was funny seeing the boys bouncing along, giving us a wry smile and nod as they rolled by;whilst by our third sector (number 16 — they count down from 27 to 1) there was no deviation of the head or bike as they grimly rode on.
For the team, we had pretty much as bad a set of things happen to us as is possible — firstly we had three of our riders hit the road after a rider in front of them crashed, and then we had another, separate crash involving one of our stars, as well as a broken wheel, and a futile attempt to chase back to the front group.
And all of this carnage occured in the space of 5 of the 7km where the race started to blow apart as the big hitters made their moves. Some genuinely bad luck for the boys, making it impossible for them to be contenders, but thankfully it seems that everyone came out of the race not too badly beaten up, and in the context of the full Spring campaign, we performed superbly — two TT wins, an individual stage win, a general classification win, and a top five in Flanders. Very niiiiice!