Paris Roubaix – Pro Cycling’s Breath of Fresh Air

Less and less am I finding myself engaged in stories around pro cycling. The drugs, the cheating, the robotic tactics and the lies. It gets crazy tiresome, and for the largest part I just can’t be bothered anymore. I find it harder and harder to trust race results, and the romance has gone. There are only brief glimmers of hope that shine through:

  1. Whenever Peter Sagan does anything. Anything at all. He could tie his shoes and I would happily live stream that shit.
  2. Whenever Esteban Chavez wins anything. I just want to cuddle that kid – sweetest guy in all of cycling.
  3. Paris Roubaix.

Paris Roubaix is the race I always stay up late to watch. A few mates around with a few beers, and it rules. All of the problems that are normally associated with cycling fade into the background, and a beautiful afternoon, steeped in rich history, takes place, and I watch transfixed to the action. So what makes this race different?

THE SETTING

Farm tracks, forest trails and country lanes. Paris Roubaix is a back roads tour of northern France. Even the towns the race pass through look goddam gorgeous on the screen. But the cobbled secteurs… They get rated according to how rough they are. There are groups dedicated to ensuring that they are in good condition, but not improved, they need to stay as rough as they always have been. And just to make sure that this race does suck for the riders, they plough the sides of the road, so that riders must stay on the stones. Failing this, the fans will be standing right on the side. The ride on the rocks is so bad that you will see riders riding through thick grass, muddy puddles and jumping ditches. Rough, ancient roads in a beautiful rural setting – perfect.

Cycling: 115th Paris - Roubaix 2017

THE TACTICS

This isn’t a flat sprinter’s race, where nothing happens until sprint trains wind up in the last kilometre, and we see 200 metres of action. This isn’t a long, grinding mountain stage, with teams setting tempo, so that no-one can attack, and everyone watching yawns to death. Sagan put in his first attack with over 100km to go in Roubaix this year, when he put the hammer down in the forest of Arenberg.  Last year the final 15km saw attack after attack after attack. It is old-fashioned, go-hard-when-you-feel-good racing, which makes it very exciting to watch. Teams play a lot less of a role than in other events, and the cunning and strength of the rider is what brings the reward.

THE RIDERS

I find the guys who race these events to be the most relatable. Climbers and GC riders are crazy lean, body shapes that are so far away from the norm, they are practically a different species. But the men bulldozing across the pave are much more likely to have a height and weight that you’d find on regular people, just walking down the street. Sure, they put out enough wattage to power a sports stadium, but they are a lot more ‘normal’. It makes me feel a lot closer to the action, to see people who look like regular guys.

THE SPIRIT

Last year Matt Hayman apologised for beating Tom Boonen, the sentimental favourite… Tom just smiled and said how happy he was for Matt. Then there’s the most likeable man to have ever ridden a bike – His Lordship Peter Sagan. These guys smile, they present well to the press, they often talk each other up. In other words, they just act like normal blokes, riding bikes for fun. They respect the race too. For many it is the highlight of their year. Even former pros, who still work for teams, will be heard discussing that they don’t miss having to suit up at any race, other than Roubaix. I heard Robbie McEwin talking once about how on his first race he missed the cut-off, but evaded the Marshall so he could still do a lap of the Roubaix velodrome to finish. The next year, he did all he could to make the line within time. A world class sprinter, with no hope of winning, he just wanted to respect the race and finish. That’s not even mentioning that the winners get their own shower for life, and the trophy is a cobblestone.

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THE FINISH

In an open-air concrete velodrome… It is so goddam majestic. Maybe a rider enters solo, and gets a stunning victory lap. Some years it comes down to a two-up sprint, complete with cagey track-stands as the riders eyeball each other. Other times it’s a sprint from a reduced bunch, where the final surges are more akin to the wild swings of a heavyweight bought pushing into round 15. The best 15km of racing ever are the last 15km of the 2016 race, with 5 riders trading one attack after another. The cobbles have roughened up the riders so badly, that by the time they reach the velodrome, a slow wind up is the best they can offer.

Paris Roubaix 2013

All of this adds up to something beautiful. It is not perfect, the race is imperfect, and that’s what makes it great. Riders with a semi-normal physique, riding rough back roads, attacking when it seems stupid to do so, and reaching the finish shattered, filthy and broken. The same could be said of a weekend rides with mates, or a gran fondo finish, and it’s that similarity to regular people that makes it great. The attention turns away from scandal for one weekend, and we all get to enjoy something great.

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