Roughly 18 minutes after the finish of Paris-Roubaix, camera flashes popped in the velodrome and the crowd in the tribunes roared their excitement anew. What was happening? Who were they cheering for?
Not for Gabriel Rasch, that’s for sure. The spectators didn’t notice as he circled the last lap in a group of stragglers, or know that it was the final race of his career. Instead, all eyes were on Niki Terpstra taking the top step of the podium.
It was only fitting that Rasch finished his professional career in the same manner he has spent it, hidden on the results sheet (117th at Roubaix) and invisible in races to all but the most eagle-eyed observers, but respected by his peers as a diligent and well-liked domestique.
After crossing the line, “Gabba”, as everyone calls him, had the energy to smile for Team Sky photographer Scott Mitchell. It was hard to know where the dust stopped and his beard started.
A rider like Rasch doesn’t often get a photographer’s lens or journalist’s dictaphone in his face. He was below the rung of super domestique, a worker’s worker who ferried bidons and protected leaders, rarely fresh or free to pursue his own results.
Rasch never won a professional race during his six and a half years in the WorldTour – although he was Norwegian road race champion back in 2003. In that respect, he is the perfect domestique: a Wegelius or Fornaciari, or a professional cycling version of footballer Tony Hibbert – a reliable, loyal defender, much loved by Everton fans, yet to score a competitive goal in his long career. That is not his job.
Privately, Rasch may occasionally lament his absence of success, but it’s a result of his selfless slaving. There’s something perversely beautiful in having a round zero next to his win tally.
Besides, Rasch was a late bloomer. His best physiological years were likely behind him when he joined the top tier with Thor Hushovd’s Crédit Agricole as a 31-year-old in 2008. He moved on to Cervélo TestTeam, Garmin-Cervélo, FDJ-BigMat and finally, Sky.
There were no tears or backwards glances as he left the Roubaix velodrome: he’d had time to prepare for this. The simple reason for ending his career here was because it’s the race he loves the most.
When asked for reflections on his last race, the laconic Scandinavian replied: “I’m happy to have not crashed and finished in an okay way.”
The decision to stop, made in September, was borne out of reality. “I’m 38 years old now, it wouldn’t make a lot of difference if I continued one or two more years. Also, I kind of felt it’s more and more difficult to take risks and chances in races. I’m getting old.”
Rasch was stuck for a best memory from his career. “There’s a lot to choose from, both races and training camps, a lot of good friends.”
So what’s next for him? “Enjoy [life with] my daughter and my girlfriend, spend a little bit more time with them. I don’t have to have stress every day, every race, all the training.”
The demands will change, as Rasch becomes a directeur sportif for Team Sky, starting at the Tour de Romandie.
“I would say a little bit of the reason I wanted to be a DS in this team was the environment. We’re a good group of guys, especially Servais Knaven and [Kurt-Asle] Arvesen, and I feel I can be a part of that group easily,” he says.
Rasch could make a very handy DS. Sometimes it’s the footsoldiers of the bunch who make superior tacticians and man managers, who understand the vicissitudes of the sport far better than champions.
Plus, he possesses a wealth of Classics experience, gleaned from years of pounding the cobbles and knowledgeable past team-mates like Thor Hushovd and Andreas Klier.
Rasch can tell an approaching north-westerly from kilometres away. As a Norwegian journalist told me: “He loves winds. Headwinds, sidewinds, tailwinds: I talked to him about them for 30 minutes one time in Qatar.”
After his wash in the famous Roubaix showers (“for good photographs and good memories”), Rasch headed back to the Team Sky bus where there was a bottle of champagne waiting on his seat and balloons, ahead of a farewell party in Kortrijk.
The hangovers from that night will fade and the sport marches on, to the Ardennes Classics, Romandie and the Giro. Rasch won’t be remembered long for his palmares.
But his name may yet be in the bunch for years to come, as the man who came up with the idea for Castelli’s Gabba jersey, the aerodynamic, stretchy-yet-waterproof garment that got outings galore in last year’s sodden spring races.
It seems fitting that Gabba should become eponymous with the Classics. That would be legacy enough for Rasch, the perfect domestique who adored Roubaix.