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Muddy Hell: Paris-Roubaix 2002, the last wet Hell of the North

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“In the rain, an already famous race becomes even more famous.” The story of the last wet Paris-Roubaix, in the words of eight who survived

Photographs: Offside / L'Equipe
Paris-Roubaix 2002

It’s been 16 years since the last muddy edition of Paris-Roubaix. Sixteen years without heavy rainfall in northern France in mid-April, which seems some kind of meteorological miracle. Sixteen years of unheeded rain dances by fans in the week before the race.

 

You can hardly blame them. Paris-Roubaix has sadism at its very core, from the intrinsic challenge it presents to riders, to the awe and pleasure it gives spectators. We enjoy witnessing the height of temporary suffering, the sight of riders at the height of their abilities, conquering the cobblestones.

 

While bikes, technology and the weather change over time, the route barely alters. Give or take a few years here and there, the key calling points of the closing 100 kilometres have been the same since 1987, like being stuck on an infernal one-way train: the entry to hell at Troisvilles, the Trouée d’Arenberg, Mons-en-Pévèle, Carrefour de l’Arbre and the terminus, Vélodrome André-Pétrieux.

 

The 2002 race is memorable for more than wicked weather. It was the hundredth running of the historic Monument and one of its most attritional editions, which saw the final roar of Johan Museeuw and a career-transforming attack from the lion cub of Flanders, Tom Boonen.

 

The talk in the lead-up to the year’s race was of a battle between Museeuw, Andrea Tafi, Peter Van Petegem and the in-form George Hincapie.

Paris-Roubaix 2002

 

Deceptive rays of sunshine greeted 190 riders at the start in Compiègne. They didn’t last long. Only 41 made it to Roubaix inside the time limit seven hours later, their hearts lightened and faces blackened.

 

Everyone has a story to tell from Paris-Roubaix. We selected eight key protagonists to recount a classic edition of the race.

 

Johan Museeuw: I was disappointed about the Tour of Flanders. It’s so important to win a big race every year. Finishing second or third, that’s nothing. But you have a new chance in Roubaix.

 

George Hincapie: Whenever I’d race Roubaix, I’d get a little nervous. Because it’s such a big race, with so much history behind it and so many people watch it. That would definitely give me some butterflies in the stomach.

 

But I was very confident before the race. I had a strong two weeks of racing before that. We always watched the forecast pretty closely, we knew there’d be a chance of a muddy and wet Roubaix. I didn’t enjoy racing in that, but I would say I was better than most. Basically, a lot of guys can’t handle that. They wake up, see the weather and mentally, they’re done. You’re racing against half the peloton instead of the whole one.
Paris-Roubaix 2002

Max Sciandri: Franco Ballerini was there at the start. He had retired the year before. I remember him talking about how slippery it was. I remember him saying ‘wow, you can’t even stand up on those cobbles.’ And here’s a guy that won it two times.

 

Lars Michaelsen: I was getting married on April 27. And so my friends and younger brother were looking at possibilities for my stag do. They said: “Why don’t we make it Paris-Roubaix?”

 

So, six guys were there, following the race, with accreditation on their car. They were part of the whole day. They were away on a mission too.

 

* *

 

A motley group of 33 riders cleaved off the bunch after the first hour. Among their number were Museeuw henchmen Max Van Heeswijk and Enrico Cassani, Cofidis captain Nico Mattan, Jacky Durand, a young Thomas Voeckler, Lotto domestique Hans De Clercq and Mapei’s Robbie Hunter, a long way from his native South Africa. And there was a fresh-faced US Postal rider in the mix too, only four months into his professional career. His name? Tom Boonen.

 

Tom Boonen: I did the race as an amateur a couple of times. And I knew that at the beginning of a windy race, it’s always possible that an echelon will go. So I paid attention and got in the front group.

Paris-Roubaix 2002

Robbie Hunter: The headwind makes it more open. Of course, it’s not fun riding into it, but you can hide more. It makes things more interesting. With a tailwind, it’s every man for himself. The rider with the most horsepower, a Cancellara-type, can end up riding away.

 

Hincapie: The first 100 kilometres is all about trying to save energy and staying with your team-mates. But at the same time, you can’t let 30 guys get away.

 

Boonen was given a free hand. Nobody knew who he was, so he probably didn’t have to work hard because he was saying that he was there for me. There’s no real battle for position because you’re in the breakaway. So he had it sort of perfect.

 

Then you get closer to the first cobbles at Troisvilles [after 100 kilometres] and the stress starts building up. All the teams are yelling at their riders to be among the first ten guys – especially if it’s muddy. Because you know there’s going to be crashes and splits there. If you enter in fiftieth position, there’s a good chance you’ll never see the front again.

 

Sciandri: Troisvilles was the only part of Roubaix that really scared me. The worst crashes were around there, fighting for position before it, going up and down the sidewalks at 60 kilometres an hour.

Paris-Roubaix 2002

Michaelsen: It’s a mental thing too, you can’t be a nice fellow in these races. If you can fight your way into a sector in the top five, of course you are better off. Sometimes it’s like Formula 1, you have to be the one braking the latest and not worrying about pushing between other riders.

 

Hans De Clercq: It was all going well until it started raining. It was about two hours in, just before the first cobblestones.

 

Sciandri: I was towards the front entering Troisvilles and hit the brakes because of a little pile-up or something. I found myself sliding with my front wheel. I didn’t go down: my handlebars were on the left and I was drifting straight, with my back wheel parallel [on the right]. At that exact, incredible moment, I thought to myself ‘okay, this is going to be a totally different ball game.’

 

De Clercq: The problem was we were racing on completely new tyres [from Michelin]. We tested them on the Thursday when it was completely dry. They were perfect, you almost flew over the cobbles. So we had the mechanics fit them on all our wheels.

 

The first section was tough. Once we hit the mud, it was impossible, I couldn’t grip at all. The second section was better. But on the third one, my back wheel was slipping from left to right again.

Paris-Roubaix 2002

Hunter: We rode those Michelin tyres too, they were really shit.

 

Everybody’s done a cobbled section with a bit of water here or there, but that really doesn’t compare to riding a full Paris-Roubaix on sectors of wet cobbles that are covered in mud and scattered with oil from vehicles that have bust their sumps. Unless you’ve done a Roubaix like that, you can’t fathom how bad it really can be.

 

Boonen: Muddy cobblestones are something else. You’re riding on a cobblestone with a layer of soap on it, almost. I’ve always been someone who rides a lot of cyclo-cross in a muddy Belgian winter, so I was kind of used to it. Not being afraid makes it a bit easier.
On those sectors in the rain, you don’t just depend on your skills, but on the 50 guys in front of you as well. That’s the most dangerous part.

 

Hunter: What’s going through your mind? Try not to crash. Try not to slam on your brakes. Try not to make any distinct turns. Because the minute you do, your wheel just slides out from under you. You’re giving the guy in front of you a bit more room: if he crashes, you just hope that he slides out of the way.

 

Hincapie: Even with so much stress and pressure around, I felt great on the pavé. I remember Floyd [Landis], Tony Cruz and those guys keeping me in front.

 

If you don’t eat as much as you’re supposed to in the first 150 kilometres, especially in that race and those conditions, you end up paying for it. And I did.

 

Michaelsen: I was playing the waiting game, even up to the Arenberg Forest. Then it was elimination.

 

Hayman: Sprinting into Arenberg in the wet has got to be one of the most terrifying things you can possibly do. I’ve seen guys lying there with broken legs … you don’t slide much on cobbles, but you can do a lot of damage. When you hit, you hit pretty hard.

 

You have to be prepared to fall in a wet Roubaix. Maybe not once, not twice, a fair few times. It’s super dangerous, slippery and it all happens pretty quickly.

 

Read: Who are the friends of Paris-Roubaix?

 

Museeuw: You must enter Arenberg in the first ten. But it’s still a long way to Roubaix, you don’t have to go full over there. It’s the worst sector, but not the most important one. The main thing is to get out of Arenberg well, without puncturing or crashing, then you see how many are left.

 

Hincapie: We came out of there with ten riders at the most. Then we were gone.

 

De Clercq: You don’t have many Classics anymore that are open, where the racing starts with 100 kilometres still to go. The riders will wait and wait until the last climb or last sector. If you are a real Flandrian and you like your racing, that is what you want: a true battle with three hours still to go.

 

Hunter: That day, you could be in a perfect position on the front of the group and then boom, you’d end up off the road.

 

I had three punctures and fell twice. Peter Van Petegem crashed in front of me and took me out of what ended up being the small group of riders that went to the line. I remember riding almost directly over him. That was a bummer.

Paris-Roubaix 2002

Michaelsen: In 1998, two sectors after Arenberg, my stem broke on a sector. I rode with the bar in my hands and steered by leaning backwards, trying to take the pressure off the pedals to reduce the speed.

 

Then I’m analysing the spectators by the side of the road, saying ‘there’s a woman, a child, he’s old, no.’ Then I find a good-sized, big man. I throw myself into his arms – and he catches me! So I avoided the crash.

 

That’s also the charm of Paris-Roubaix. Only a few people experienced and witnessed that. But if you take each and every rider who comes to the start, seven hours later, they have a story to tell.

 

**

* *

 

US Postal’s domestiques had spent the first few hours chasing, despite the presence of Boonen in front. It was a foolhardy decision. The big break got a lead of five minutes and shed riders on practically every slippery cobbled sector.

 

The famous Forest of Arenberg sector divided the pursuing favourites. Johan Museeuw led through with Hincapie, Michaelsen, Sciandri and Telekom’s Steffen Wesemann. They ended up in a group of a dozen chasers, regularly bolstered by riders falling back from the front group, including French veteran Thierry Gouvenou, who was on the ride of his life.

 

It was a disastrous day for Mapei: in the breakaway, their young Hungarian Laszlo Bodrogi had a meltdown, coming to a total stop. His leader, Andrea Tafi, weakened by a 39-degree fever earlier that week, spent all day chasing in vain.

 

Into the final 60 kilometres, the combination of treacherous cobbles and fatigue saw the breakaway group dwindle to just seven riders: Boonen, De Clercq, Mattan, Michaelsen’s team-mate Raphael Schweda, Tristan Hoffman and Domo duo Cassani and Van Heeswijk.

 

The front men and the favourites merged on the five-star sector of Mons-en-Pévèle. They didn’t stay together for long.

Paris-Roubaix 2002

Hincapie: Usually, you come out of the Arenberg and there’s still at least 50 guys left. Everybody’s got at least one team-mate that can do the work. Whereas I think everyone was virtually on their own. We had to make a big effort; by the time we caught up to Boonen’s group, we were pretty much destroyed. It was a race of attrition by then.

 

Museeuw: My attack was at Merignies [sector 10], 45 kilometres from the finish. I know it’s a long way to go alone, but that’s tactics. I didn’t know the day before I’d go from so far out. If you don’t feel okay, you wait till the finale. But I felt great that day. I was 100 per cent sure I was the best.

 

Hincapie: I went to react, and my legs were just rubber.

 

Michaelsen: It’s a very short sector where he went away, 700 metres long, it’s hard to respond. I can remember Museeuw going away and the frustration that Hincapie and me were not able to close the gap. I don’t know if Museeuw was aware of the damage he did. He was the strongest rider that day.

 

De Clercq: As Museeuw attacked, I crashed and broke my wrist. If you look at the photo, you can see that the rider behind me is falling too, because there was some oil on the road.

 

I did the last 45 kilometres of Paris-Roubaix with a broken wrist. At first, you just ride on adrenaline. But you become tired and it is so slippery. On the last pavé section, I could only hold the bars with my right-hand.

Michaelsen: With 30 kilometres to go, I crashed through a right-hand corner [behind him, Gouvenou and Van Heeswijk fell too]. The bike just slipped away from under me on the wet tarmac. That was not part of the plan, of course.

 

Luckily, my team car was right behind me so we could do a fast bike swap. But you still lose momentum and 30 seconds – the people up front aren’t waiting.

 

The friends on my stag do told me later: ‘Oh Lars, when you had that crash, the atmosphere went from 100 to zero.’ Because they saw me losing the race.

 

Museeuw: In front, I was at my limit, going full for an hour and a half: that’s quite hard. I didn’t think about anything. I just wanted to reach Roubaix as soon as possible. I was alone, in a focus, in a trance.

 

You can lose a lot of seconds in the corners. That’s also experience in Roubaix, I knew to go fast through them with a specific way, pushing my left or right knee out. Even now when I ride the cobbles there, I use the same technique. I don’t know why, I don’t do that on a tarmac road.

 

I fought maybe 20 kilometres for just a minute’s lead on Boonen and Hincapie. Then one minute becomes one and a half and then two.

Hincapie: Tom still had a ton left in the tank and he was trying to do more work for me to get back to Museeuw. I was like ‘dude, I’m done.’

 

Boonen: It was one of the most fun days I’ve ever had on my bike, because I was only 21, nobody knew who I was. Nobody. Even the Belgian fans next to the road thought I was American. I was getting beer thrown over me because Museeuw was in front and I was pulling behind him. That’s how famous I was at that point.

 

Hincapie: I wasn’t annoyed at Boonen [for riding away]. I just couldn’t keep up, basically. Then I ended up falling in a ditch [on sector 5, Camphin-en-Pévèle].

 

In my whole career, I was probably never so bonked, so extremely empty, as then. I remember lying in that ditch not wanting to get up because I was so dead. But there was a helicopter hovering above me and I thought ‘better get out of this ditch because I’m on TV, I can’t just lie here.’

 

I got back up and crawled to the finish. Wesemann caught me, then Hoffman and Michaelsen did too. It was one of the hardest days of my career.

Paris-Roubaix 2002

It wasn’t just a hell of flat tyres and heavy falls for the riders. Neutral service and television motorbikes came to grief too; an organisation Lancia got stuck in the mud at Camphin-en-Pévèle, seconds before Hincapie’s crash.

 

Having crashed before the day’s first cobbled sector and changed his shoes and bike, a resurgent Steffen Wesemann joined up with Boonen and pushed the pace. The Telekom captain later outsprinted the youngster for second place.

 

Entering the Carrefour de l’Arbre, the race’s third and final five-star rated cobbled sector, Museeuw pushed on, flying past Flanders flag-waving fans. His face was a mudpack of concentration; the only colour on his filthy torso came from his red lips.

 

By the time he reached the finish line, he led by three minutes. There hasn’t been a bigger winning margin since. With 50 metres to go, Museeuw sat up, kissed his wedding ring and showed his hands, signifying a tenth World Cup victory. It was a memorable final Monument in the twilight of his career.

 

Museeuw: The winner takes it all. Afterwards, you don’t have time to think about what you did, there’s the podium, the press conference, the medical control. [In fact, there were no doping tests after the 2002 Paris-Roubaix, due to the absence of a doctor.]

Boonen: I got to the finish line and I wasn’t really aware what I had just done. After that, everything changed.

 

I’m still proud I finished that day. A Monument with 190 guys at the start and only 41 finished? Those are not really numbers you come across anymore. I had the most fun of my life that day.

 

Museeuw: I knew he was a big talent, I followed him when he was an amateur. But it’s not always that a big talent can come over and win something. I saw immediately that he could follow me.

 

I told him on the podium that he would be the new king of the Classics.

 

Read: A country for old men: John Degenkolb on Paris-Roubaix

 

********

 

Michaelsen: I didn’t realise how bad I looked afterwards. I had my shower then went out in northern France for a nice dinner and a lot of Belgian beers with my stag do friends. Sure, I was tired, but it’s a good way to feel tired.

 

Hincapie: I couldn’t even move to take my clothes off in the shower block for 20 minutes. I was sitting there, shaking, really cold. I was super destroyed, mentally and physically. The funny thing is, nobody uses those Roubaix showers anymore. That’s part of the race, how iconic they were.

 

Sciandri (16th): I got off the bike and I couldn’t see. My eyes were on fire, there was sand in them. The soigneur gave me a drink, grabbed my hand and took me to the showers. It took me a few hours to get full vision back.

Paris-Roubaix 2002

Hunter (40th): Everybody who finishes Roubaix walks away with such a massive feeling of accomplishment. On a day like that, even more so. Everything is against you.

 

Museeuw: That day, you know you have mud around, but you aren’t aware how bad it is. You see the photos afterwards, then you realise how muddy and mad it was.

 

Each year, I hope it will be muddy again. It’s more elimination. It’s stupid to say, but people love it when it’s muddy and slippery. They love crashes and having some spectacle on the roads of Roubaix.

 

Read: Why is there no women’s Paris-Roubaix?

 

Hincapie: Now when I watch races and think of the risks taken, I don’t miss those days at all. But that’s part of being a pro cyclist: you don’t think about it during the race.

 

Hayman: Paris-Roubaix is the race I live for. I would love to do it in the rain, however it gets thrown at me.

 

But I can only imagine the days of anxiety before it, looking at weather predictions and the rain radar. It would be a big mental test in the week leading up to it, just trying to switch the brain off and remind yourself that it is what it is.

 

We take controlled risks every year and they are just exacerbated in the wet. Yet, it’s part of it. The images are just amazing and it would be heroic. In the rain, an already famous race becomes even more famous.

 

Additional interviews by Jack Enright and Timothy John.

 

Edited extract from Rouleur 17.1. Subscribe to Rouleur

 

 

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