When the Diggers of WWI heard they were heading to Northern France they probably thought they were off to somewhere nice. The seven Australians competing in tonight’s Paris-Roubaix know better.
Now, any normal man winding his way through France towards the Belgian border would be doing it for one reason only: to reach Bruges and sample the best beer in the world.
But we’re talking about professional cyclists here; men who in the summer ride a three-week 3500 km race, that includes several tortuous stints in the French Alps and Pyrenees, called the Tour de France.
In the spring some of them contest this 116 year-old Classic that takes nearly seven hours to complete and instead of mountains has 27 sections of cobblestones totalling 50 kilometres and a ride through the famed forest of Arenberg, a good place to dump a body.
Despite the name, the race doesn’t start in Paris but in the city of Compiègne 60 kilometres to the north. It’s an appropriate starting point for this race as history has marked it down as a place of glory – and surrender. The forest of Compiègne was the site of the Armistice with Germany following WWI and the 1940 Armistice between Nazi Germany and France.
Some racing purists regard this peculiar, chaotic and masochistic race that concludes in an old provincial velodrome and has a lump of rock as a trophy, as a bit of joke.
But not the locals – the only ones to use the pavés for the odd cattle run or tractor trip. They gather beside the cobbles in their thousands to ogle the suffering and hope for some mayhem to occur right in front of them.
Also it is the only race, apart from some stages of the Tour de France and the world championships, to have a live television broadcast greater than four hours.
The first 100 kilometres will be like any other road race until the riders pass through the village of Troisvilles and encounter the first of the cobblestone sections. It’s on these pavés of purgatory, these paths of “deformed surfaces” that the horror and fun begin.
At racing speeds the severity of the vibrations shooting upwards through the riders’ bodies would be unimaginable.
It must be remembered that these are road bikes. Coming upon the rocky paths on a sleek speed machine is a bit like going off-road in a Formula One car. Every sort of modification is made within the strict UCI regulations to dampen vibration and make the ride as bearable as possible.
It seems the best way to reduce vibration is to have a big body. The event tends to favour the bigger stronger riders such as previous winners Magnus Backstedt, a huge man for a road cyclist, Tom Boonen, and Fabian Cancellara.
Many try riding on the dirt either side of the cobbles but risk taking out a farmer, or stray dog.
But the vibrations are only the first obstacle. If your bike holds together – a puncture is very likely and having something snap is not uncommon either – there is still the weather.
The race is renowned for appallingly wet conditions, and the mud that flies in your face and makes the cobbles a slippery nightmare. But a fine sunny day brings the dust to blind and choke anyone in the slipstream.
Seeing that only a madman could win this race it is appropriate that Belgians (who the mad French believe are bonkers) have won it more than any other nationality, including seven of the last twelve editions.
My favourite is last year’s victor Johan Vansummeren, an ex teammate of Cadel Evans, who I encountered one year after the Tour Down Under rolling around on a pub floor after not many beers – and he calls himself a Belgian.
Before Cadel Evans became the first Australian to win the Tour de France, Stuart O’Grady was already the sole Aussie victor of this mad Spring Classic. O’Grady is competing this year apparently as a support rider for Baden Cooke, who is best known for his sprint up the cobbled Champs Elysees in the 2003 Tour to pip Robbie McEwen for the green jersey.
Australians are thought of fondly in this part of the world. In 1916 near the small village of Fromelles we suffered 5533 casualties in 24 hours when German machine guns mowed down our forces “like great rows of teeth knocked from a comb”.
The Australian War Memorial in France is located in nearby Villers-Bretonneux whose mayor in 1919 proclaimed: “Soldiers of Australia, whose brothers lie here in French soil, be assured that your memory will always be kept alive”.
So if a Frenchman can’t win I’m sure the locals will prefer one of us over another Belgian.