ONEMORELAP: Discovering the Hell of the North, 17 years late.
It’s not just a cycling thing, but that’s where I was best at it. Learning to count kilometres down based on peloton behaviour, average speeds, profiles, and wind direction was the only reason I managed to keep any semblance of a mathematical mind during 18 years of professional racing.
Stay with this.
Hours of introspection and self doubt can be alleviated by one’s ability to calculate when it would be over. I wasn’t the best at this. Others are better, and some would spend most of their career just surviving. Mine was a fault of indulgence. Here’s an example: In a 200km race we never go, “That’s amazing, already 50km done!” No. We think, “Fuck, there’s 150km to go.” It’s one of those things we do. It’s never about how far we’ve gone, it’s about how much further we have to go, and Paris-Roubaix is the Queen of that type of behaviour: Where everything is a countdown.
My last Roubaix was exactly how it had always been. South to north. Generally not the right direction, and a total distance of 260km with 60km of cobbled tracks. Not your centre-of-town high street cobbles. No, this is akin to rutted farm tracks "improved" by haphazardly-placed random cobbles in the mud.
When I think about it: Brutal, just.
While nicknamed “The Hell of the North”, the moniker has nothing to do with the famed cobblestones. No. It comes from the first edition of the race following World War I. Like all of the Monument races of cycling it was born over one-hundred years ago, traversing two World Wars in the process. Roubaix saw the worst of the first conflict. In 1919, the cyclists racing from Paris to Roubaix experienced firsthand the horrifying aftermath of the Great War. Journalists afterwards reportedly heard racers saying, “They’d been through hell.” Again, nothing to do with cobblestones.
Most of the Monuments bear little resemblance to what they once were. None of them would have ever taken place on tarmac (invented in 1902). Dirt roads and cobbles were de rigueur. Now, there’s only one Monument left that keeps its origins, and that’s the “Queen of the Classics” - Paris-Roubaix.
Strange juxtaposition. The race is called “The Hell of the North” and also “Queen of the Classics.” I suppose that sums up bicycle racing.
We’re all scared of it. Is it those grandiose titles, its monumental history, or simply the stories we hear from our peers? That last wet edition, when it was the End of Days and finishing was the greatest feat. Or is it the next morning, when we’d wake up feeling like we’d been run over by a train, not letting our own children touch us. Or perhaps it’s the fact that our bikes cannot handle it. We need special equipment. Stronger wheels. Bigger and better tyres. Softer pressures. Larger gears. More handlebar tape. All this does something to a bike rider - it messes with their head. If our bikes can’t handle it, doesn’t that mean our bodies need more protection? No. Our bodies never get protection. We just get a better bike.
Cyclists love bigging up. Their endurance, their ability to suffer. It comes with the job. Another juxtaposition. In order to be a great cyclist, one must also be a wonderful stoic. Let yourself wallow in pity during the ride, and you’ll never make it to the finish. Our carapaces rely on our heads to keep going. The body will give up, the mind cannot.
There’s another truth about Roubaix: Luck. The race is arguably one of the last great sporting events where anything truly can happen. Controlling variables is a unique ability, something innate, and only a few have had that ability. It can’t be trained, I don’t care what the self-help books say. I’ve seen it. This is not a statement. It’s just an observation. Those special ones are born to ride the stones. Tom Boonen. He wouldn’t even wear gloves, for fuck’s sake!
Cyrille Guimard, my first professional Directeur Sportif, took me there when I was a fresh and young 20 year-old, circa 1997. I refused to race it. I thought it was a folly, a “connerie”, to paraphrase Bernard Hinault. Instead, I hung with a recovering Lance Armstrong, who was on the same team (Cofidis) and assigned to PR duty. The following year, the team took me to the race again. It was our home race, with HQ only a few kilometres from Roubaix. Looking back, I suppose it was an honour to be on that team riding that race. I saw it as a burden. Youth is wasted on the young.
In 2014, my final year racing, I had a handful of objectives. Finishing Paris Roubaix was one of them. No illusions of grandeur. This was about achieving the ability to say I’d done it. Sometimes, you’ve just got to finish things off.
Here comes the Sunday. We are in April. It’s time. I was a grown man, and I was scared. Would I be able to do it? I wanted my wife, Nicole, to be in the velodrome. The only other race in the world where I’d want her to be at the finish is the Tour de France. Her presence announced how much I cared, because her being there meant I was no longer doing it just for me. This had higher reasons.
Cyrille Guimard, 18 years before, had taken me to Paris-Roubaix because he was convinced I had it in me. In that, my final day in Roubaix, I accepted that he’d been right. I floated over the cobbles. Nothing was hard about it, nothing hurt. There was a wonderful serenity to it all, and I knew I would make it to the finish. I made the conscious decision to enjoy it. Of course, it turned quickly, and with four sectors to go, I punctured. It was a bad wheel change. The wheel rubbed, and I waited for my team car. The other riders disappeared in the dust. I was standing there. Do we notice the public? No. Not when we’re still in the race, with the front within grasp. We’re in the bubble. It doesn’t take much to pierce the thin film, though. We changed the wheel again. By then I’d realised making it back to the front was impossible, and the imaginary membrane that separated me from the real world collapsed. I heard and saw everyone at the side of the road. I made a new decision: I was going to wallow in the peace of accomplishment and roll at my own pace to the finish. Yes. Then I crashed! I actually smiled as I hit the floor.
Groups were passing me constantly now. I wasn’t trying to latch on. I wanted to be left alone. This was about me and Roubaix, 18 years of fear and hate silenced.
Eventually, I made it to the legendary velodrome. Next to the Champs Elysees, the most iconic finish in cycling. I entered it, if not in glory, then at least with pride. This is true. I rode around the velodrome, and rolled to the infield, where my team had based camp. Nicole was waiting. I saw her. “I’d done it,” I thought. I’d finished Paris-Roubaix. I kissed my wife. I removed my helmet. I took a can of Fanta and drank it like it was the nectar of the Gods. Photographs were being taken, and interviews began to take place. I accepted I’d been wrong about Roubaix. It is truly a beautiful race, and Guimard had been right to take me as a neo-pro, and I had been wrong. Doubly.
Then Nicole tapped me on the shoulder, “You better put your helmet back on and get back on the track.” I smiled and nodded, thinking it was a clever metaphor, not that I could think clearly in my post-race haze. “No, no,” she said, “you have to put your helmet back on. You’ve got one more lap to do, David.”
Nicole said: “You haven’t finished. You’ll be DNF otherwise, I was just told.”
260 kilometres. 60 of them on cobblestones, counted down from 28 to the final symbolic sector outside the velodrome. Then two laps of the velodrome. That’s the race. That’s Paris-Roubaix for any rider. After 18 years I’d done it.
I thought I’d conquered Roubaix, but in truth, none of us ever do. It’s what makes us better, I guess. There’s always one more lap.