"The Racer" Extract Four: Farewell Roubaix
It's the day after the 2020 Paris-Roubaix that didn't happen, for now anyway - we've been treating CHPT3 followers to exclusive, full extracts from David Millar's book, "The Racer" (winner of Cycling Book of the Year in 2016) over the past few days, this is the final edition, and it's fittingly called "Farewell Roubaix". David writes from the perspective of a professional, preparing for the race and providing an enthralling look inside the crazy race with no details left out. Ensure you're signed up to our newsletter to be informed each time a new extract is released.
Published with consent and thanks to Yellow Jersey Press
The nerves I’d had in the build-up to the race dissipate the moment we roll out of Compiègne after the start. Immediately I’m feeling good. I surf the front of the bunch to make sure we don’t miss a serious move, and then settle into the peloton and switch to energy conservation mode, spinning small gears, staying out of the wind, eating and drinking and trying my best to relax.
The first ninety kilometres are on big rolling roads. They’re familiar to me as I lived in this region of France for a year back in 1996. We ride within two kilometres of where I lived – right past the supermarket I used to trawl of an afternoon in an attempt to fill the countless empty hours. It is bizarre to think of the nine- teen-year-old me living there, fresh from Hong Kong, naïve as hell and more ambitious than perhaps I’d ever be again, clueless about what awaits him in the years ahead. A part of me wishes I could stop and warn him, just speak to him at least. Tell him it won’t be anything like his dreams. Then it’s gone, already behind us, in the past again.
Ahead of the first sector, things begin to get nervous; this is our first red alarm. Being at the front into this is so important, because we are still a complete peloton – more than 200 riders, and many among that 200 don’t want to be here, and will be looking for a way out from the first sector onwards. Getting stuck behind a scared or unwilling racer is a bad place to be. These first sectors are very much where the culling takes place.
Something special happens when we hit the first sector. No matter how much you think you are prepared for the race, how ready you think you are, mentally, the moment you hit those first cobbles and you start to get thrown around, and the clattering and shouting begins, and the race stretches out, and the dust begins to cloud the air . . . you are hit by the fact you’re racing Paris–Roubaix and, even if you’re grimacing on the outside, you can’t help but smile on the inside. The only other time I’ve had this feeling is when arriving on the Champs- Elysées on the final day of the Tour de France. For me, the sight of a peloton stretched out in a cloud of dust along a narrow cobbled road surrounded by fields is as magisterial as that most iconic of Paris boulevards. I think it’s fair to say that the Tour de France and Paris–Roubaix are the two most iconic races in cycling.
For the first time in my career I am totally at ease on the pavé. I barely even notice those first sectors. I don’t think about the line I need to be taking; I just can’t help but be on the right line all the time. The sensation of floating is real, for a change I can’t help but select the right gear – something that’s not easy on the cobblestones as it’s hard to judge gradients and anticipate or feel changes in speed. My cadence is always smooth, and not once do I feel like I’m fighting my bike. Most surprisingly my hands and wrists don’t hurt in the slightest. I don’t need to hold on for dear life, I have the impression of caressing my handlebars, guiding my bike through sector after sector rather than wrestling with it.
That’s until the dark red alarm – the Arenberg Forest, where the floating is rudely interrupted for 2.4 kilometres. I’m caught up behind a crash a couple of kilometres before the entry to the sector, which means I’m going in badly placed – not that this makes any particular difference to me, it is going to suck hard even if I enter it in first position. I am prepared for it being bad, but it’s worse than bad; it’s horrible. At one point, where the pavé is at its worst, it feels like riding over logs; there is next to no sensation of momentum – if I were to stop pedalling I would come abruptly to a stop. I can see this happening to guys – either from puncturing, or other mechanical issues, or a crash, or simply having stopped pedalling and stalling on the spot. It is next to impossible to get going again; the only way I can describe it is to imagine emptying wheelbarrows full of bricks on to a road and then riding over them, on a road bike.
Coming out of Arenberg is a joy. In fact, from here on in, as the race gets faster and therefore harder, each of these transitions from cobblestones to tarmac elicits a moment of euphoria. Coming under the banner to signify the end of each sector we give ourselves a moment of respite, a drink from our bottles, a look over the shoulder to see how many have made it, then bottle back in the cage, head down and back into the race.
The crossing of the Arenberg is the first indication of who is strong. Without fail the best guys will be leading out of the forest – it’s rare to see a Paris–Roubaix winner exit the forest far from the front, even though it’s still 100 kilometres to the finish it’s pivotal. Everybody considers the race to begin here.
Surviving Arenberg and still being in the front part of the bunch is a first for me. I begin to feel confident that, at worst, I will make it to the finish; at best, I could be with the leaders in the final. The relief I feel makes me realise how worried I’ve been. I now begin to enjoy the ride even more, able to really appreciate it without the fear of failure that has been dogging me – without me knowing it – for so long.
Right up until twenty-five kilometres to go I’m feeling good. There’s only Sebastian and Johan left from our team, and both have told me to do my own race as they aren’t feeling strong enough to be counted upon. It is beyond strange for me to be up there with the specialists, holding my own. I’m having one of those days where I don’t understand why there are so few of us at the front when it appears to me we haven’t really gone hard yet. Then on the sixth sector I make the stupid mistake of riding the gutter instead of the central crown. My front tyre punctures halfway through the sector. In hindsight, I can see this was a clear indication of fatigue setting in, because it was the wrong line to take.
By the time neutral service get to me I’m out the back of the group. As often happens in these situations, the wheel change isn’t the smoothest, yet it is still quicker than waiting for my team car, because by the time I’m on my way again there is still no sign of it. I set off in pursuit, with team cars and motorbikes flying by me. Once I get up to speed I jump in behind the first vehicle that is nearby to get some respite in its slipstream. We are on a small country lane, weaving left and right. I’m trying to keep a cool head. I keep darting looks over the roof of the car or through the rear window in order to see what is coming up. This isn’t the safest of manoeuvres at the best of times. This is not the best of times.
I can see a ninety-degree left-hander coming up and know the team car I’m following will try to hold its speed in order not to hinder my chase. The directeur sportifs driving the cars in the convoy try to treat everybody the same – it would be considered incredibly bad form to compromise a rider’s chase because they’re from a different team. This is also the reason to try to keep friends among all the teams. Although none of the directeur sportifs will treat you badly behind the race, if you have friends you’ll see the benefits when you’re in trouble. I’ve been racing for so long that many of my peers have retired from racing and are now driving the team cars. Fortunately, I’m on good terms with all of them, some of them even being great friends, so this is never a bad thing when you’re in trouble, behind the race.
I come into the left-hander at full speed. I’m fairly confident of my ability to make it round, which is stupid as I don’t take into account I have a new front wheel, with a different tyre at a different pressure. I have no idea how I stay upright as the front tyre has no grip. My front wheel slides across the road, and I only just manage to avoid going down hard, but in the process, I lose all my speed and veer off the road.
My team car finally makes it up to me. The timing is good, yet also bad because if they hadn’t been here at this exact moment I would have had a few moments to regroup and would have forced myself to adapt to the front wheel. As it is I’m so shaken I tell them I want to change the front wheel back to a trusted one I’m familiar with. It is the wrong decision, as stopping for a second time effectively ruins my chances of making it back to the group I’d been in. It’s only six kilometres to the second most important sector in the race, Carrefour de l’Arbre, and the race is at full tilt up ahead.
I realise I’ve made a mistake quite quickly, and as soon as this hits me I become aware of the fatigue I’ve been hiding from myself up until that point. The moment my head goes my body follows suit. Knowing the front group is disappearing up the road I sit up and wait for the next group – all hopes of being in the final with the leaders gone, I go back to the best of the worst-case scenarios: simply finishing.
Then it all goes wrong. The next group catch me and I don’t even try to fight for position. I drift to the back and think, ‘I’ll just ride in.’ With my head disengaged from the race, I lose the focus and ability to float that I’ve had up to then. I find myself in last position going over Carrefour de l’Arbre, feeling like the fish out of water I’ve been so many times before at Paris–Roubaix. Coming round a nondescript right-hander at a pitiful speed the bike disappears from under me, I smack down on the floor, legs and arms everywhere. I lie there on my back for a moment and can’t help but smile. For a moment I’d thought I was a Roubaix hero – now I was back to zero. The tables had turned unbelievably quickly. I can’t even describe it as a crash, it’s more like the cycling equivalent of tripping up. I get back on the bike and receive a push from one of the spectators. It takes me a while to clip into my pedal – the cobbles are bouncing me around so much, by the time I lift my head I can see the group I’d been with has gone. I decide there and then that I’ll ride to the finish solo, I’m not interested in hanging on to any more groups that come up from behind – it feels more honourable to be riding in at my own pace, allowing myself the opportunity to appreciate my first and final arrival into Roubaix. Two more groups come by me, both of which I deliberately let go. I want to enter the velodrome on my own in order to give myself the chance to really soak it all up. It doesn’t matter how far back I am now. It isn’t just that it is my first Paris–Roubaix finish, it’s also the fact it’s my last ever Monument. I’m never going to race a northern Classic again. I won’t say this makes me sad, because they’re bastards of things, but it does make me nostalgic.
I enter the velodrome, and my vision of having a lap and a half to myself is just that: a vision. There’s a small group who’ve come by me with a couple of kilometres to go. I let them pass, not wanting to have to speak to anybody or share the moment. Unfortunately, I don’t let them get far enough ahead, because as I’m coming round to complete my first lap they are blocking the track, having just finished. I’m going to have to come to a near stop and ‘sorry, excuse me’ my way through them in order to continue the final half-lap to the finish line. I can’t bring myself to do this, and I’ve convinced myself that I’m so far back maybe I don’t have to do the full lap and a half because of this backmarker confusion. I don’t want to have the lasting memory of finishing Roubaix being me unclipping and politely asking some guys if I can squeeze through.
So I pull off the track. Nicole is in the centre waiting. This is possibly the only time that she has been right there, at the finish. Thank God she is – firstly because it is such an important moment for me, but, probably more crucially, because nobody else has the heart or courage to tell me I still have a lap to go.
After five minutes, and a couple of brief interviews, Nicole taps me on the shoulder and tells me I’d better put my helmet back on and get back on the track: ‘You’ll be DNF otherwise. Marya just told me.’ Marya Pongrace is the team’s press officer. I had noticed her being a little uneasy about me standing there.
Eventually I did it, all romance gone, nostalgia-free, just riding round that most famous of velodromes like a moron, wishing I could crawl under a rock. Farewell, Roubaix.