Last Updated on April 29, 2023
Photos by Author
So what is it about this patch of northern Europe that leads young men to pain, bloodshed, suffering and toil? Fatuous, obviously, but one cannot quite dispel the neat rows of white headstones from the mind when mentally approaching the famous “Hell of the North.”
Let’s remember it is not the famous cobbles, fearsome though they are, that gave the race that tag, but the devastation brought on by the hideous slaughter of the youth of Europe that was crammed into this unassuming landscape a hundred years ago.
A hundred years. Paris Roubaix was already an established race. Its glory faded as the top riders rejected it and the cobbles became a civic embarrassment. Now it is back. Like an Islay malt, strong stuff, and not for everyone. Thanks to the efforts of a dogged band of enthusiasts the race is reborn. It is part of the soul of cycling, and homage is due to the Queen of the Classics, as well as to Sir Bradley Wiggins whose last ride in Sky colours this is to be.
Wiggo is not everyone’s cup of Stella, to be sure, but this episode of the soap opera had to be witnessed. Wife’s birthday present. “I’m taking you to see Paris Roubaix.” I’m a lucky man, I know: she was thrilled. We are fans. We cheered him to Tour de France victory and shared his pain as the time-trial World Championship eluded him in Florence.
This was to be a standard coach trip package with the chance to see the start and some stages on the way to Roubaix.
But first, is an overnight in Senlis.
The excitement builds. A team car at a petrol station; Haribo promotional vehicles on the motorway: a team bus at our hotel! Green and black. Garmin Cannondale? No, Bretagne Seché. AG2R are next door. We feel involved: close to the action.
An early start is needed next morning, to get the most out of the day, which is cold and crisp first thing. Compiègne is spacious, stylish and elegant. Teams and riders assemble in the square and down the road by the park. No surprise that Wiggins is the centre of attention. More surprisingly, he is said to be favourite, and though we would love to see him win, there are so many younger and faster sets of legs in this race.
A group of noisily enthusiastic Dutch Wiggo fans have a banner with the World Champion stripes on it. Sky are handing out Wiggo posters, but of the man himself there is no sign. Sky photographer, Scott Mitchell signs a book for my wife.
“You might get Brad to sign it,” he says, “but there again…”
Famously temperamental is our Brad. You have to tread round him a bit. People divide into Wiggo fans and Froome dogs. The dichotomy reminds me of the two main male characters in Hardy’s classic, tragic novel The Mayor of Casterbridge. Wiggo is Henchard: the Mayor himself, dark, passionate and brooding, but a man who lives with an intensity that leads him to greatness as well as into disastrous errors. Froome is Farfrae: younger, attractive, easy to like and with a ready charm that wins him admirers, but always something of an outsider and lacking the depth that makes Henchard, for all his faults, the greater man.
And Wiggins is a great man.
Just look at what he has achieved: Olympic gold on the track and on the road; World Champion Time Trialist, and, oh yes, the little matter of the Tour de France. If he can win today, then it would be the stuff of dreams.
But this is Hardy’s universe, and the backdrop would suit the old novelist to perfection. This land of hard-bitten farmers, mines and always, always the silent witness of the cemeteries will not accede to happy endings. They are not called tragic novels for nothing, and suffering and futility, pain and loss are inevitable for all but one of the 200 riders who roll out on the roads to the North.
We leapfrog the peloton by road and claim a place on a bank by the side of the first “cobbled” section near Inchy. Correction, or pedantry, if you like, as these are not really cobbles at all. The parcours at this point, like many of the sections to come, is actually made of stone setts called pavé.
Cobbles are the stones of the beach which can be used to provide a hard surface for horse-drawn traffic, but what we have here are cut stone blocks let into the ground creating a reasonably even surface. Honey coloured, and with a light coating of yellowish dust, these seem quite benign in the spring sunshine.
Worn by the passage of time and agricultural vehicles, they are smoothest in the raised centre of the road, which is no more than three metres wide. There are cracks and missing sections, and variety is provided by soft mud just off the ridge of the edge, which is always waiting to deflect a wheel and cause a crash. Dung heaps intrude from the side, and offer some sort of cushioned landing.
You could ride on this for a couple of hundred metres, no problem, but the racers are faced with fifty kilometres of it and not all of it is as good as this. The famous sections later in the race, the formidable Arenburg Trench for instance, are made of much larger blocks with sharp-hewn edges. This is just a gentle intro.
Flags wave as the mise-en-scène is completed. Team cars decant helpers with bottles and wheels. A huge Welsh dragon flag in support of Geraint Thomas reminds us there is more to Team Sky than Wiggins. A bunch of Belgians recall past glories in retro Merckx jerseys. Français de Jeux banners, though plentiful, seem a little sad given the lack of a real contender for the popular French team, though AG2R have a man in the breakaway.
The breakaway! It flashes past at what seems astonishing speed on the rutted cart-track. Whoomph goes the red race director’s car, kicking up dust as it fills the narrow track. The breakaway riders already seem like hunted men, grimed, red and sweaty as the day warms rapidly in the strong sun.
The crowd cranes to look for the main bunch, heralded by the whop-whop-whop of the bobbing, skidding helicopters above.
Here they come!
Eisel leads with Wiggins and Stannard tucked nicely behind. The usual Sky tactics of controlling the bunch are in play. Riders pour past in a spinning, juddering procession of colour and noise. “They’re mad,” says wife. “Or are we madder for watching it?” Even more excited now, we pick our way back over the heavy ploughed soil ready to ride on to our next rendezvous.
It is never easy to pursue a race like this. The speed of the race is not much less than that of a coach hindered by road closures and traffic. We get an unexpected pavé experience ourselves when taking a detour to avoid barriers and solemn gendarmes. The coach vibrates and rattles as we are given a tiny, secure taste of what the riders are experiencing. We have negotiated one section of pavé, the riders have had to deal with thirteen more, including the often decisive Arenburg, before we get ahead and stand waiting by the roadside for a view of the latest situation. We choose a spot on the bend as the race leaves Sars-et-Rosières.
It is clear that Arenburg has done its job, as the race is fragmented. Confusion, as a couple of MTN-Qhubeka riders come touring through. It looks as if they have cut out some of the punishing cobble sections and are riding home in the sun. They get a cheer all the same.
Survivors of the breakaway are next, fewer in number and clearly doomed. We wait. Are Sky still in control? The question is emphatically answered as a powerful pack of Ettix Quickstep riders hammer round the turn. They are dusty but clearly there in numbers and setting a fierce pace. Was that last year’s winner Terpstra? Where is Wiggins? He appears, well down the pack, but clearly in a hurry. He hasn’t given up, for sure, as he cuts tight on the inside of the turn and uses the space he has gained to power, out of the saddle, down the smooth, wide road away from us.
No time to linger, as we have hopes of dashing through the traffic to get to the velodrome in Roubaix to see the finale. I return to the bus in triumph, having “won” a race direction sign as a souvenir. We have our own race, running parallel to the real one, which we can see over to our right on yet another stretch of pavé.
On the main road, our race is with team cars and support vehicles. Our chances of getting to Roubaix in time are slim, but we will catch the race again at a critical point. It is a busy spring Sunday and the traffic is fast approaching gridlock in the vicinity of the finish. Four km from the finish is as close as we are going to get, but luckily, we are perfectly placed to see the final drama unfold.
A group of three leads. “Degenkolb,” the crowd murmurs. It is obvious the winner will come from this group, that has almost a minute on the chasers, and Degenkolb has the finishing sprint. Van Avermaet grimaces as he pounds the pedals, Degenkolb on his wheel, with a relaxed-looking Yves Lampaert tucked in behind.
Next is Stybar, on his own, out of the saddle as he strains to catch the leaders. Where is Wiggins? There he is, but on the front of a chasing group that has too much to do to have any hope of success. A slight tinge of disappointment then, but not as marked as that of a group of Norwegian fans wearing Kristoff t-shirts opposite. They know that his remarkable string of victories is over, as he is well behind the leaders.
The final glory takes place away to our left as Degenkolb sprints to a popular victory. He seems a good guy: a well-grounded family man with a nice touch of self-deprecating humour and respect for the winners of the past. We are left to watch the wounded warriors limping home, like the sad remnants of a defeated army. Some are muddy; some bandaged; all dirty and tired. All gave all on the rutted roads to Roubaix. Just to finish this race is a triumph.
Goodbye Wiggo then. And maybe goodbye too to those other giants of the Spring Classics: Cancellara and Boonen. Not here this year, but if and when they come back, they will find a new generation in charge. It is still the one they want to win, and after seeing it in the flesh I can see why. You have to have it all to win this one, and a hungry pack of Sagan, Kristoff, Lampaert, Vanmarcke et al will be here again. The Queen of the Classics sits serene on her throne, and only the most worthy can approach.