The fascination with this beast of a race began with an image on my screen saver – a 2010 picture of Fabian Cancellara in a shroud of dust, on the hunt to victory hammering out the merciless cobbles. My fascination with Paris-Roubaix, the race, was born.
The Queen of the Classics, Hell of the North, was our next stop after Ronde Van Vlaanderen (The Tour of Flanders).
April 10th, 2011: Roubaix train station and a small gaggle of English speaking pilgrims all in search of the same place, the Velodrome.
It was a quick cultural lesson. We are definitely not in South Dakota. There are no Wall Drug signs indicating distance and direction (200 miles away, 199 miles away, etc) and no arrows shamelessly promoting, ad nauseum, your desired location.
Here is how the American mind works; they have had 115 years to plan this thing, right? Anywhere in the states there would be signs, tour buses teaming with the likes of big haired loud overweight tourists, t-shirts galore, cheap souvenirs and memorabilia – you know the capitalist version. Commercialism at it’s finest, any opportunity to make some moohlah.
But this is France, not Texas. We walk a lot, we catch a bus and we walk some more. We make it to the Velodrome. We buy a couple of t-shirts and socks from a small, no fanfare sampling at Velo Club Roubaix. We get kicked out of the bleachers. We sneak behind the team buses into a seemingly forbidden back fence entrance of the Velodrome and make our way up the grassy knoll that sits above the track. We have made it but definitely with far less panache than the French would care to tolerate.
Meanwhile, the hours pass, the all-knowing seep from their homes onto the streets, not too early, not too late. It is at a pace that suits their being. All in good time, just like birth, you know it’s coming so why get worked up. Just bring a bottle of wine and some fantastic cheese and relax. Be French for a day.
Second piece of advice, besides being French for the day, is never book your flight home too soon after the race. Never.
We ended up watching the race from the last stretch before the cyclists head into the Velodrome.
Finally, the race is near. The hours of travel and waiting are all worth the flash of pain soaked weary gladiators fighting until the bitter end.
The build up starts slow, occasional team cars, swelling crowds. The best sounds in any race are the distinctly European police sirens and the clamourous helicopter that stalks the leaders. That means they are close. It gets louder, the excitement becomes palpable. We have no idea who is leading.
The long run in to the Velodrome becomes the last desperate chase for a taste of glory. This vicious desperation thickens the air and ignites the excitement.
Teeth covered in dirt and a flash of blue is all I see. Shortly thereafter, Fabian is chasing, knowingly hurling himself towards a cruel second place.
Third piece of advice, don’t try and video tape a chaotic blitz while screaming at the top of your lungs.
No addition to Fabian’s shower plaque today, but at second at least he won’t have to endure cold water to rinse off the disappointment. Johan Vansummeren has had his day in the sun. A Belgian has won Paris-Roubaix and for the French that is as welcome as a cheap screw top wine cooler and some Velveeta.
If you have always wanted to go, go.
The last piece of advice – savour every moment of your epic experience. As the saying goes “ when in Rome…”