We’re motoring. The lead Mavic car has a puncture (ironic, no?). We’re needed at the sharp end. Move on up.
The punters at the roadside are utterly oblivious to the speed of the convoy, and our car in particular. Get back! Please!
FUCK! How did we miss that rider/team car/spectator? Tonio Pacheco is either the best driver in the world or a madman. What’s that? He’s driven more than 30 editions of Roubaix? Kelly’s mechanic for both his victories here? Okay. Relief. No. Wait. FUCK!
I want to get out. I want to go home. I want to get as far as possible from this MADNESS.
This is the most exhilarating experience of my entire life. I can never watch Roubaix on television again. I want to stay in this race FOREVER. I’m going to push my feet straight through the footwell and tear off the door handle if I don’t relax.
The Cofidis rider pushed by his mechanic nearly comes to grief in the rapidly slowing convoy. Somehow he slows the bike in time: arse hung over the back wheel, knees locked out, weaving left and right. Everything happens in a split second.
Policeman ahead. We’re travelling at 140kph through a village. The car was sideways a moment ago as we tried to straightline a roundabout. The gendarme must have seen it. He’s flagging us down. No. Wait. He’s waving us through. This is Roubaix. Normal rules do not apply.
Cobbles. Relax. Tonio can’t overtake here. Shit. Forget that. He’s put two wheels on the verge. Now he’s accelerating. The spectators are mesmerised by the yellow car. Get back! Get back!
Dust. Now we can’t see. An inch from the end of the bonnet are racing cyclists and massive crowds. Tonio doesn’t lift for a second.
Rider ahead. Arm raised. Slowing down. So are we. Who is it? Doesn’t matter. Superstar or domestique, it’s the same deal: he needs a wheel. Our man Jerome Terrienne sends him on his way while I’m still trying to work out who he is. Neutral service, they call it. Apt.
Rider lying in the road ahead. Foetal position. Don’t look, don’t look. Horrible. Someone help him. Please.
Barriers on the Arenberg. Thank fuck for that. No one will be killed.
The convoy is a race within a race, but no racing driver in the world would accept these conditions. “Lampposts, you say? Pedestrians? No run off areas? And hundreds of cyclists on the circuit? Forget it.”
A rival team offers a Giant-Alpecin rider a bidon as he slides between team cars. Nice gesture, but akin to offering an ice cream cone to a man searching for the exit to a burning building. He has other things on his mind.
Whooooaaaa! Tonio decelerates from mach five to bring the car to a halt one inch from the door of a team car as the convoy queues for a secteur. The driver doesn’t even turn to look at us. Silence in the Mavic car. Then an laughter explodes. That was close.
If you drove like this on an open road, you’d be jailed or banned for life. Or jailed for life.
Watch the helicopter to gauge the distance to the leaders. Very close. It’s low and staring right at us. Menacing.
Seb Piquet on Radio Tour. Class.
Stragglers ahead. A Trek rider handslings his Topsport partner through as they fight their way back to the peloton. Team loyalties count for nothing among the foot soldiers at Roubaix.
The hand written “Vive Wallers” sign held up by a local at the entrance to 17 is way more impressive than the ready-made “Wiggo” boards that many of the travelling punters are carrying. Biro beats manufactured support every time.
John Gadret is a fucking WARRIOR. Nothing but skin, bone and tattoos. He seems actually to be enjoying this.
Tonio is coaching the young driver of the other remaining Mavic car, a former Drapac rider, over the radio. He’s just driven his first Pais Basque, but Roubaix is another magnitude. My French is shitty, but even I can understand “Maxime. Klaxon. Avancer.” Translation: get on the horn, Max, and fight your way through.
Almost every secteur ends with a 90-degree bend. As if this wasn’t already hard enough.
Daniel Oss dismounts and removes his front wheel in a single movement. Pro-ness involves a lot more than pedalling.
Sheesh! Astana’s Ruslan Tleubayev makes the most amazing save: braking, locking up, his back wheel at 45 degrees to his front as the Movistar car brakes heavily in front of him. He even finds time to raise a hand in disgust.
Roubaix is the world’s longest criterium for riders dropped from the peloton. Sprint into secteurs, sprint from corners, sprint up the hilly village roads. Recover on the cobbles.
The punters do not see us if we’re following a rider. The car is bright yellow and we’re an inch behind the guy they’re cheering, but they only have eyes for the man on the bike. Cool, but dangerous.
Carrefour de l’Arbre. Crowds as large as the Arenberg, but no barriers. Careful, people.
If you put a “civilian” driver in the Paris-Roubaix convoy, someone would be killed. The Mavic drivers have all worked in cycling for years, or been pro riders; even the youngest of them. Impressive.
Yikes! Closing in on Gediminas Bagdonas at 140kph. He’s glued to the bumper of the Ag2r team car, but his DS has seen us in the mirror, and moves a fraction to the right, pulling Bagodonas with him, as if on a string, granting us the two inches we need to pass them on the inside without slowing down.
Race radio. Degenkolb has won. It feels like news from another country.
The velodrome. Drained, exhilarated, and still alive. I’M ALIVE! Let’s do it again.