DIRT AND THE GANG
Rules are long gone, and the spring classics are now autumn delights with even more reason to watch. We've been riding more than ever, especially off-road, but not been able to enjoy the same casual Sundays watching our beloved races. But this weekend we did. And it was anything but casual.
Ever seen Roubaix in person? No? Well neither had we. Consider this a dummies guide to watching The Hell of the North.
Words - Ross Bernard & Jacqueline Hoffman
Photography - Vitor Manduchi
Is what we imagine a fair few riders, staff and spectators in Northern France were asking themselves Sunday evening, including us.
Us, in this case is I (Ross) and he (Vitor). It’s now late evening, we’ve returned from dinner in Lille where our mud splattered clothes and ruined Nike’s were drawing attention from the chic crowd at the trendy Mexican we’d decided to try (when in Rome, and all). Our Airbnb now smells ever so faintly of Flemish farms and our stares are growing to near a thousand yards. Though they are nothing compared to the ones we saw a few hours earlier at the end of Carrefour de L’Arbre, which today looked more Mad Max than World Tour.
“It’s one thing to love watching a race, it’s another to love doing it. Paris–Roubaix is an example of this: it’s easy to love as a fan, much harder as a racer, and that's when it's dry. When it's wet, well, forget about it - it truly is hell.”
David’s words to us early on Sunday morning in the newly minted “Roubaix” Whatsapp group rang true as we awoke to leaden skies and the sort of rain one might describe as “sideways”. We were relishing the day ahead. Our first ever Roubaix in person after such a long wait, our lives had changed so much since the previous running. By the time we had jumped in the car (call us soft, but we just didn’t fancy hypothermia) and driven to the sleepy village of Cysoing we were questioning how anyone could ride it, let alone enjoy it, god forbid love it as a rider.
“'The Hell of the North’, something people often mistake as being attributable to its renowned difficulty and the famous images of exhausted racers looking like they’ve been to hell and back. It actually originates from the 1919 edition, when it was held for the first time since the First World War had ended and travelled through a devastated northern France – the journalists and riders who took part could only describe what they saw as ‘hell’. Henri Pélissier, speaking of his 1919 victory, said, ‘This wasn’t a race. It was a pilgrimage.’”
Continued David, as we accidentally drove past a dozing Gendarme and straight under a large orange banner that said “*** Cysoing a Bourghelles Secteur 7”.
“Shit, Vitor, we’ve driven onto the course” I spluttered as the cobbled began to rattle and shake the bolts loose on a Seat Ibiza that was, frankly, not cut out for the job. Talk about a pilgrimage, we were essentially driving straight through the heart of a cobbled Canterbury Cathedral. Eventually, a more attentive member of the French fuzz noticed that the fishtailing hatchback approaching was not an accredited member of the race and ushered us safely off the course and back towards Cysoing, where we parked, found sustenance, and got a Jupiler.
As the peloton hit the first sector with 160km to go we were served the driest chicken we’d ever seen, a salad bowl of frites and two cereal bowls of sauce. We got chatting to the crowd of Belgian fans sat next to us who scoffed at our prediction of a Sonny Colbrelli win and laughed at the suggestion of Mathieu Van Der Poel or Wout Van Aert doing well. “Too skinny, no form” they assured us.
The latter secteurs of Roubaix are in a horseshoe type pattern near Cysoing, Camphin-en-Pevelle and Gruson. Perfect territory to catch multiple parts. We hatched our master plan. Park our car right behind sector 7, wait for the lead riders to pass, run through a field, get back in the car, drive like all hell across farmers tracks and park up just next to the end of Carrefour de L’Abre, always the sight of late attacks and drama. Easy. On paper.
I would argue that Paris Roubaix is the keeper of the off-road flame in the cycling world. If you call what riders race over this weekend roads, you need to come in person, get down on your haunches and look at them at ground level.
The lattice of lanes riders traverse here are older than the United States itself, the nation that hosts many of the world's biggest gravel races nowadays. The lanes may have existed for centuries, laid in the time of Napoleon, used by horse and cart, abused by artillery and tanks through two world wars, a handy shortcut for tractors and trucks, now traversed aboard carbon race bikes. It’s no wonder most riders spend the majority of time in the dirt, in the gutter here. It’s less treacherous than the stones themselves.
“Every cycling fan must go and watch Paris–Roubaix one day, and take their bike to have a go on some of the famous sectors. Only then can you feel what it’s really like. Only the actual reality of riding the pavé can do it justice. Roubaix specialists tend to have been good at it since their first attempt; they just got it immediately. In that sense it’s more of a feel, a natural ability rather than a learnt one.” - DPM
Personally, I’m glad I’ve brought one of our new Vielo V+1’s along with us for a quick stint on the rough stuff. The first release in our CHPT3 Dirt range, it represents what we see as the beauty of off-road riding. That sense of adventure, escapism and fun you get when you turn off the Tarmac and begin to lose yourself in nature. Paris Roubaix felt like an embodiment of all of that. Here we were cutting about the farm tracks of Flanders on a muddy joy-ride, surrounded by locals and tourists having a go on the cobbles themselves, everyone with a smile on their face. Everyone, except one particularly important group of people….
“As children we play in mud, there's something innately fun and rebellious about it, it feels mischievous, there's laughter and joy. Getting dirty is fun! That's not the case at Paris Roubaix, it is not fun. It is filthy, it is dangerous, it requires skill and strength and courage that very few riders possess let alone master, but if you are one of those masters then, "Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son, or, thankfully, since yesterday's first ever women's edition, a woman, my daughter!”
Having used a particularly treacherous cobbled shortcut, come face to face with some local hunters who seemed very confused, rifles in hand, when seeing our red car slide into view and snuck past some more Gendarme, we parked up behind sector 7, greeted by the caravane publicitie. Tour de France this was not. A keyring and novelty screwdriver was our haul.
Drama on the Arenburg was unfolding as we pitched up in front of a wall of corn on the other side of the road. Roubaix this year looks different. The normal emphatic punctuation of the spring classics campaign has been bumped back to the early throws of Autumn. The usual crisp and (sometimes) sunny April afternoons, with ploughed fields creating an agro-moonscape which riders’ traverse in clouds of Flandrien dust have been replaced. Heavy, grey skies, fields of head-high wheat and cobbles made all the more treacherous by one of the wettest summers on record.
The sun had begun to poke through spots of thick cloud to create a moody, half lit backdrop to the finale of the race. On our phone, we could see that the inevitable MvDP attack had come. Two helicopters approached over the horizon, one following Gianni Moscon and another, moving closer and closer at a rate of knots, hunched forward much like the rider it was following.
Moscon came first, looking strong and focused. Can they catch him? Vitor and I wondered as the seconds ticked past a minute before the chase group came through. MvDP, sonny Colbrelli and Florian Vermeersh slogged past us, faces utterly blank, just looking at the road ahead. We didn’t have much time to digest what we’d just seen as it was time to execute part 2 of our master plan.
We turned 180 degrees, gathered our belongings, and began to sprint across an empty field, freshly harvested, littered with dead potatoes. That is not a sentence I ever thought I’d type in this job. Mercifully, our first few steps were met with semi solid and dry ground, lulling into a false sense of security. Half way across a field that had begun to feel more like a marathon than a sprint, we were ankle deep in mud. Three quarters of the way across, our shoes were being pulled from our feet. A lady peered out from her living room window as we chucked our stuff in the boot, poured water over our feet and jumped in the car. What she must have thought, I’ll never know. Foot to the floor we sped across the dirt track linking us to Carrefour De L’Abre, we figured we had about 10 minutes to drive, park up, run, find a spot and see Gianni Moscon seal the deal on a strong solo victory…
After a stint of McCrae-esque driving up a path I can only describe as being fit for agricultural vehicles, we were greeted by an inland sea of a puddle. “What do you think?” I hurriedly asked, without much time to calculate a second option. “Your call, man” Vitor replied, in the blessed position of not being the owner of a car potentially about to get stuck in roof high water in the middle of a field.
The world’s fastest U-Turn was negotiated, and we went for option two, jumping onto the official race derivation, designed for team cars, photographers et al to cut between sections. We got there just in time to jump on the back of an FDJ team car and fang it up the road, hoping the bike on our roof would pass as enough of a disguise.Luckily, nobody seemed to mind and we parked up 500m from the end of Carrefour. Bannisterian running ensued and we managed to bag a prime spot at the very end of the cobbles, by the switchback that takes the riders straight onto the next sector.
The ground was an astonishing brick red. For every visible patch of cobbles there was a patch of sheet mud or a puddle with no visible depth. This, at the end of 245km of racing, was incomprehensibly tough. The race cars, team cars and police motorbikes began to rush through, splashing all and sundry, including one immaculately turned-out octogenarian struggling to work his smart phone. “Merde!” he shouted as every vehicle passed, without exception, seemingly unable to take a step back from the firing line. The leaders approached, having been unable to catch the action since we last saw the riders, we were astonished to see the trio of MvDP, Colbrelli and Vermeersh. The beauty of bike racing: all can change in 8km. I cannot explain in words what it was like to see them come through. The mud on the faces, the haunted expressions and the sheer lack of pace is nothing I’ve experienced at a bike race. I’ll let Vitor’s pictures illustrate…
The riders trickled past in groups of 3 or 4, with plenty finishing this gruelling feat of physical and mental endurance on their own, in the twilight, with the wind whipping up across the fields. There were still plenty of determined back markers making their way past as Vitor and I celebrated Sonny Colbrelli winning with extreme hubris. For what is watching bike racing if one cannot gloat at calling the winner? Luckily, our Belgian friend from earlier was there and we made sure to raise an eyebrow at his earlier predictions.
The sun was now making its final preparations to set. We marvelled at the peloton’s capacity to suffer and uphold the brutal traditions of this great race. We hatched plans to come back next year and, in the meantime, try to pay homage to this muddy marathon in our own way as CHPT3 DIRT grows.
Some would say that you can do so much more exploring on gravel. You can still conquer hills but with a gravel carpet. Go from long straight farm tracks to enclosed woods with jumps and corners. It’s about celebrating the variety of the unknown and feeling the summer madness transition into autumn colours.
It’s about challenging yourself, physically and mentally. Feeling and being it with the freedom of you, your bike and the trails. Enjoying the surroundings being so far away from what feels like reality. The noise of a busy life, traffic and the rage of drivers. This is our opportunity to meditate. To close out the noise of a busy life and just listen to the tyres touch the dirt, rocks, branches and the splash through water that travels up our legs. We get to travel through freedom, and no one can stop us.