Last But Not Least
"That section is a complete slap in the face… two hundred riders going towards one stretch straight for two kilometres. It’s like that scene from Braveheart where they just run towards each other." Paris-Roubaix lanterne rouge Chris Juul Jensen on the Arenberg
As fans begin to filter away from Roubaix Velodrome, a shrill whistle peep from a gendarme turns heads again. A race motorcycle buzzes past and one final group begins its laps. I return to the arena to see these dusty stragglers circle the bowl – the concrete must feel like velvet after the vicious cobbles – in the warm afternoon sunshine.
Back of the pack, last man of the 2013 Paris-Roubaix, is Danish rider Chris Juul Jensen (Saxo Tinkoff), in 118th position, some 26 minutes behind Fabian Cancellara, the results later tell us.
But results hardly mean a thing in Roubaix. After first place, finishing is enough to be feted. The collective suffering of the many far exceeds one man’s winning relief. The foot soldier’s tale is far more relatable than that of Cancellara the conqueror.
Not many other riders have suffered like Jensen this spring either. In a bizarre coincidence, this result completes a spring set: he was also lanterne rouge at the Scheldeprijs and the GP E3-Harelbeke. You might expect the man bringing up the rear to call the race shit, be disheartened, swear off it for life.
After he emerges from the velodrome’s faded shower rooms and we ask for his battle stories, he replies: “It certainly was battle, it was incredible.” Jensen was dropped after the Arenberg Forest. “That section is a complete slap in the face… two hundred riders going towards one stretch straight for two kilometres. It’s like that scene from Braveheart where they just run towards each other.
“Then when you look at your clock and you still have 70 kilometres to go and you’re up shit creek without a paddle, it’s pretty demoralising.”
Keep going, just keep going. That’s what Jensen told himself. So he found a group and counted off the cobbled sections, one by one. “I don’t think there’s any rider here who would voluntarily like to step off the bike, especially with the finish in this prestigious velodrome. It was the same for me. No matter how fucked I was and how far there was to the finish.” He emphasises the profanity in his strong Irish accent: bear in mind, Jensen lived in County Wicklow till the age of 16.
Rouleur, climber, middle mountain man? A second-year professional, Jensen doesn’t know what suits him best yet. So when he was named in Saxo-Tinkoff’s cobbled Classics line-ups, the young professional didn’t just turn up, race and go home. Consciously or otherwise, he began to educate himself.
After Ghent-Wevelgem, Jensen accompanied friend and team captain Matti Breschel to “some tiny village in Flanders” to visit the Dane’s fan club. “I saw how they ate, slept and breathed the Classics – Matti was a god to them. And when they realised that I was doing Paris-Roubaix too…” The significance of the Classics began to sink in, along with his own place in history.
The night before Paris-Roubaix, Jensen watched A Sunday in Hell, Jørgen Leth’s seminal film based on the 1976 edition of the race, again. “I’d seen it a million times, but I saw it three times last week, to get it knocked into me what it is I’m a part of,” he says. When the going got gruelling, he felt his responsibility to a colossal one-day race and the stubborn need to make his rendezvous with history in Roubaix.
“This isn’t just small races in France or Belgium: this is the bee’s knees of one-day races. There’s nothing that compares. All this combined is what eventually gets you to the finish line,” Jensen says.
“You’ve just seen me coming out of the showers, that’s part of the whole experience. I was sat on the team bus, completely cross-eyed, I hardly knew my own name. But I’d leave here with a sense of regret if I didn’t take a wash in these historic showers. That was the same with the bike. You can pull out of many races where you just don’t really give a fuck. But here you’d have such an enormous sense of regret.
"These races have been so demanding, physically and psychologically. As a second-year pro, you just get knocked back down to reality really quickly and hard. I nearly pulled out of more of these Classics than I finished.”
Was it the hardest race of his life? “Yes. It was beyond… I couldn’t predict how tough and frightening it would be, physically demanding and whatnot. There’s no forgiveness really. Although it may have been the hardest race, it was also the most fascinating.”