There aren’t many in professional cycling’s close knit family who know more about Paris-Roubaix than mechanic Chris Van Roosbroeck, who today will roll out for his twenty-sixth l’Enfer du Nord, this time with Katusha. There are likely to be fewer still who have refused King Kelly a wheel.
The Irishman had only recently exited the Trouée d'Arenberg when he spotted the then-teenaged Van Roosbroeck stood on the next corner, a wheel in each hand. Kelly had won the race twice. Van Roosbroeck was working his first Roubaix. Kelly knew every inch of the savage parcours. Van Roosbroeck, possessed of a driving licence for three months, had somehow found his way to the most important location of a three-secteur beat, issued by boss Jan Raas to be of aid to Jelle Nijdam and team-mates.
“Kelly was the big guy, then - like Kristoff now. He comes out of the Forest and brakes from full gas and comes straight to me and says, ‘Give me a wheel!’ I decided: no. The people around me were yelling and saying, ‘Oh, give him a wheel.’ And I said: ‘No. I have seven guys to come!’
“You have a split second to decide. Kelly got a wheel from a cycle tourist who was standing two places in front of me. He took his front wheel out and Kelly continued.”
In telling the story, Van Roosbroeck's expression is one of mingled amusement and incredulity. Even now, more than a quarter of a century later, he seems barely able to believe his action: courage and loyalty, mixed with a strong dose of temerity. Refuse a wheel to the world number one? In a race he had already won twice? He laughs. That night he had a story to share with the team. When the riders had debriefed and the senior staff had shared their own experiences, the spotlight fell on the teenager. What had he learned from his first Roubaix? His colleagues were surprised.
“Jan Raas was my boss and he was a tough guy. He said to me, ‘Well done. I put you there, and the Spanish teams can also put people there.’ Half of the team was like, ‘Aww, come on man. You could have given him a wheel.’ I was like, ‘And then what about you?’”
If Kelly was nonplussed by the display of teenage stubbornness, he gave no sign of it at the time, and years later, seemingly holds no grudge. “Three years ago I saw Kelly and asked him, ‘Do you remember this Roubaix? You came out of the forest flat, and somebody didn’t give you a wheel.’ He said, ‘Yeah, I remember something. The tourist gave me a wheel.’ I said, ‘Right. But I wasn’t the tourist - I was the guy from the team!’ He laughed. It felt strange to tell him, but I wanted to tell him.”
Today, Van Roosbroeck will support another Classics king. He checks himself, as if, like the rest of the cycling world, still adjusting to Alexander Kristoff’s new found status. The Katusha leader must be regarded as such, as champion at Sanremo and De Ronde, he says, as if reminding himself. “It seems strange – he is from Norway – to be king of the Classics of the North. But he has the characteristics.”
Van Roosbroeck knows a little about the characteristics of champions: he was Armstrong’s mechanic for seven years. More pertinently, he was in the car at Roubaix for Servais Knaven and Johan Museeuw in 2001 and 2002. He remembers changing a flat on the pavé for the Lion of Flanders.
“The top guys in those races, in any circumstance they stay calm. I had a wheel change with Museeuw and he’s just holding the saddle saying, ‘Take it easy. I’ll come back.’ They’re so confident because they know they have the skills. They don’t get nervous. They know there are still possibilities to come back. If you have good legs, [Roubaix] is a race you can go far, even if you have bad luck…” he pauses, “but it depends, of course, on the moment when the bad luck occurs.”
Katusha will have the first car in the convoy – a big advantage, in Van Roosbroeck’s estimation, at least to start with. The chaos of Roubaix means that once a position in the race convoy is lost, it can be hard to regain. Support riders are likely to receive no more service than a wheel passed from the door of the moving car, if the driver believes he can still be of service to the leader.
“It’s a strange feeling, to open a door and give a wheel; to take the bad wheel and say, ‘Good luck, see you later,’ but this happens, because you need the car. It’s crucial to stay as close as possible towards your main guy.”
‘Main guy’ Kristoff and his team-mates will be the beneficiaries today of Van Roosbroeck’s experience. Tyre pressures have occupied the Katusha team’s thoughts since a recce on Thursday. Like all teams, they will be required to balance the greater demands of the cobbles against the greater volume of tarmac.
“That’s the funny thing about this race: you can do everything for the cobbles, or consider the other 75 per cent of the race, which is on roads - not bad roads. That’s why I always laugh: ‘It’s only 50km on cobbles.’ The riders don’t like this comment, but every year I say it. 'It’s only 50km guys, come on!'”
He makes a serious point, too. In the chaos of the race, best laid plans - and pressures – are soon abandoned. Kristoff may be forced to take a wheel from a team-mate – or even, like Kelly, from a spectator. There isn't much Van Roosbroeck hasn’t seen at Roubaix. The team of the favourite may be glad of his presence at Paris-Roubaix.