It happened so quickly. Then the blood started dripping onto the cobblestones. A concerned-looking bystander rushed over and offered a tissue to staunch the flow. It’s not just the cyclists who get injured at Roubaix.
How did two photographers and a clumsy editor clutching a step ladder get here? The short answer is because we love Paris-Roubaix.
Last year, we went to the Monument mobhanded to produce this very special edition. Around our appointments and interviews, we recced the sectors; by the end of the week, we knew their quirks better than the local farmers. That’s my specialist subject on Mastermind sorted:
[A photo of generic cobblestones flashes up on screen]
“Ah yes, the one with the Maginot Line bunker at the start going four per cent downhill. Sector 26, Fontaine-au-Tertre”. Honestly, why I don’t receive more invitations to dinner parties is a mystery to me.
Anyway, after doing our work – essentially standing with Stuart O’Grady in the Roubaix showers (not like that) and asking Edvald Boasson Hagen why he isn’t quite as good as he used to be (exactly like that) – it was time for the main event.
You only get one shot at Roubaix. Unless you have the bright idea of trying to see the race six times. I don’t recommend that given a parcours which travels south to north with few of the Ronde van Vlaanderen-esque twists that makes its route map resemble the path of an English cycling fan in Oudenaarde after one too many beers.
Nevertheless, we diligently plotted and planned, the dining room table soon covered with roadbooks, maps and laptops. We worked out everything from pessimistic timings and back-up sectors to which direction the car would need to be parked for a quick getaway.
On Sunday morning, we ducked into a DIY store and bought a step ladder, a trick that would give Michael a better perspective. Then, it was off to the first sector at Troisvilles, our only chance to take in the atmosphere over a few hours: the billowing flags, the building crowd, the simmering anticipation.
After the riders passed, it’s a blur of screeching team cars throwing up dust, three-point turns aplenty and rapidly-eaten baguettes. Following Roubaix is like trying to stay ahead of a tornado.
Then at Hornaing – the sector with the cooling towers where one half-expects Montgomery Burns to be furiously honking at the bicycle race blocking the entrance to his nuclear power plant – I opened the step ladder for Michael with too much haste and the hinge cut the middle bit of my index finger. Ouch.
We sprinted back to the car; running with my metal assaulter by my side like a fireman heading to an invisible blaze must have been quite a sight. For completion, the scene just needed some background Benny Hill music. “Bloody English,” one local may well have muttered (rather literal, in my case).
There was one final obstacle: I told Michael I had planned the back way to Roubaix velodrome when I was really just making it up with Google Maps as I went along. No matter: we bolted into the famous stadium, adrenaline pumping, minutes before the finish, high-fiving. The joy of six.
Never again: that is the absolute maximum. But at least I can say that the making of this edition – hopefully the method in all that madness – really did see blood, sweat and teamwork.
And as I write this and look at my finger, there’s a little crescent-shaped scar to remind me of that day. Paris-Roubaix: it leaves a mark on you.