Every year the Classics season comes round and every one of those weekends turns out to be a fabulous battle. All the teams are fired up to be in the front of the race, to influence proceedings, to have a say in what happens. That’s what makes them extra special. They are a mix of planning, desperation, concentration and quite often luck, and they all have their own character.
Each has epic moments where if you aren’t in the right place at the right time then you’re lost. Or at best in for a long period of trying to restore some order to your chances. None more so than the mighty Paris-Roubaix.
It is the only race of the year which I watch live, religiously, which is strange as I manage to get through all the preceding Classics not really bothered if I miss the final hour or not – more so now the finale will be available on a media outlet when it’s convenient and not interrupting something identifiable as normal weekend activity. Like driving to the seaside and taking a short stroll in the sunshine to an establishment that purveys tea and fine cake.
Every time I think I could possibly go without my fix of as-it’s-happening cobbled mayhem and every year I crack and sit down to devour all race information prior to images appearing on the telebox. Then all thought of briefly going cycling for an hour or so goes out the window and I settle down to enjoy the excitement.
Of course, what nobody admits in polite cycling circles is they await the crashes and falls of the minor skin-removing kind just as much as the displays of bike handling and power. So I won’t either. Though I expect to see them, that never removes the wince of knowing just how much pain is caused by a front wheel washing out in a bend or a somersault into a ditch.
All the other Classics hurt in their own way. Flanders is an exercise in nervous energy and fighting for position, Sanremo a long, drawn-out process of concentration and then desperation, but Paris-Roubaix contains every kind of pain possible. Everything gets a thrashing, every part of you hurts and you ache for the following week.
I was lucky enough to ride the amateur version and was even more fortunate that it was dry. I even saw the front up until the last half an hour, then I ran out of the required energy needed to return to the battle. I wasn’t heavy enough to stay with the best on the pavé so I got dropped by a few hundred metres on each sector and then had to make a desperate chase to get back once on the normal road.
Of course, that takes its toll and predictably after one of the very long sectors, I never came back. I was in good company though, as I had two of the Belgian national team with me, though they did what any decent flahute would do in those circumstances and refused to do any work until we came to the velodrome, at which point they sprinted past. Still I finished seventh which was okay in a kind of slightly unsatisfying way.
With that experience in mind, I wasn’t in the least disappointed not to have to race the proper, full on version when I entered the professional ranks. I had learned my place in the pecking order and it wasn’t on the start line in Compiègne with all the animals who were willing to ride over me on the way into each cobbled sector, drop me on them and then keep riding once they came out the other side. Nope, the dream of being at the pointy end of a Paris-Roubaix was well and truly faded and I knew to keep well away from the most epic of the Classics.
I still enjoyed seeing the tension building in the various teams I rode for when a Sunday in Roubaix was approaching. The management fretted, the riders who might be in the front became super concentrated, and the mechanics were working 20-hour days building wheels, bikes and gluing on 23mm tubs that had been specially maturing in someone’s shed for a couple of years.
If things went well in the race, the atmosphere afterwards was more relaxed for the rest of the spring campaign, but if there were problems, crashes, mechanicals or just general disaster, then the post-mortem was dreadful. Paris-Roubaix is the only Classic were the winner really does take it all and the losers mull over their fate for a depressingly long time.
But if there’s one thing every cyclist ought to do, it’s to go to Northern France and ride parts of the course, just a few sectors or, even better, do the sportive. Then you’ll understand how epically crazy it is. Even on modern tyres, with or without suspension and riding on a compliant frame, you’ll still get battered. You’ll either love it or hate it.
When I lived in the region occasionally I’d leave my brain at home and go ride a few of the pavé sections, just to remind myself what it was like to bounce along, slightly out of control on a track through some godforsaken fields that the local farmers avoided.
Usually things got broken but no matter. It was great. Still is, even from the safety of the sofa.