By Tom Pyle
Cycling fans are sadists. It’s the sport’s unspoken truth. We get a kick out of watching fellow human beings suffering. Typically, this sadism is measured out in small degrees. Perhaps a sniff at the end of a time trial as a rider drags themselves through their threshold to beat the clock. Or a slightly larger dose on an Alpine pass as whippet-thin climbers collapse under the gradient and are sent spinning back down the melting tarmac. It’s the confirmation that these supreme athletes are still human. Returning from pristine nutrient-fuelled machines back into broken and vulnerable individuals. For a few brief minutes, we can touch their pain.
Then there’s Paris-Roubaix. The hell of the North, the queen of the classics. Call it what you want, it’s a spectator’s paradise. A foaming bucket of suffering. For those unaware, here are the facts. 260 kilometres across North-East France, 55 kilometres of which are on the infamous pavé – essentially narrow farm tracks strewn with dangerously irregular rocks. Brutal enough in dry conditions. Just a hint of rain, however, and this race becomes a very different beast. Something not witnessed for nineteen years. The dry spell was long. The fans were restless. But storm clouds were brewing on the horizon.
Carnage is an overused word, but the 118th edition of Paris-Roubaix merited it. Heavy rain fell for much of the six hours and what began as a bike race soon became something closer to a blood sport. Baying crowds packed the muddy ditches of Hautes-de-France, screaming in delight as the bedraggled remains of the elite peloton passed by. Usually, unflappable riders emerged as hunched, staring phantoms across the rain-slicked fields. The longest cobbled secteur of the race is called the trench of Arenberg for a reason when the conditions are like this, the drifting smoke of flares only adding to the battlefield ambience. Crass comparisons to the region’s history would be forgiven for the day.
After 900 days and two Covid-19 cancellations, the race itself made up for lost time. Heroes, villains and vanquished all played their roles in the six hours of Sunday theatre. Former race champions Peter Sagan and Philippe Gilbert were left floundering in the mire early on. Bookies favourite Wout van Aert fought a tireless rodeo to stay aboard his bike and keep in contention. Mathieu Van der Poel, the MVP, cyclo-cross extraordinaire, rode like a man possessed. Chasing down breaks, plunging off on his own, the flying Dutchman lit up the race from the first cobbled secteur right up to the line.
For some time, it looked as if the day would belong to Gianni Moscon. The abrasive Italian rider built a hefty lead over the ‘Carrefour de l’Arbre’ cobbles before everything fell apart. A rear-wheel puncture and bike change were swiftly followed by a tumble that sent him sprawling into the crowd. From this point, the writing was on the wall and a manic desperation grew into his riding. This doomed fight against the chasing pack was both excruciating and magnetic to watch, with road-side spectators recoiling as the INEOS man skidded across the pavé like Bambi on ice.
Moscon was eventually swallowed up and the race came down to a shoot-out between three debutants. Van der Poel, Vermeersch and Colbrelli. They entered the iconic velodrome like creatures from another world, plastered in grit and slime, the only signs of life the raw pink of their hanging mouths. Such was the apocalyptic vision of this trio, the result itself seemed strangely irrelevant. Crossing the line first, European champion Sony Colbrelli collapsed in howling sobs, an animal outpouring of emotion from a man physically and emotionally wrecked.
The camera crew circled cautiously around him, mindful of the gulf between them and the writhing mud-caked champion. Van der Poel collapsed face down on the grass, unmoving. The young pretender Florian Vermeersch, inches from winning the greatest one-day race of them all, looked utterly shell-shocked. The realisation of just how close he had come to the history books slowly sinking in. As Colbrelli collected his trophy, the cameras picked out Vermeersch gazing up at the victor, his haunted eyes swollen by tears and grime. When just finishing this race goes down as an achievement, the second place of the Belgian rookie is a monumental result. He’ll be back.
Roubaix’s beauty lies in its barefaced disregard for 21st-century sport. Distracting from cycling’s commercial sportswashing, seen through fossil fuel companies and Middle Eastern states which cast dark shadows over the men’s peloton, splashing their influence in lurid colours across the Lycra kits, however, for a few hours, this was all forgotten. The logos of INEOS, Bahrain-McLaren, Israel Start-Up Nation and co. were all erased within minutes by the thick French mud and the only identifiable feature of the riders became their haggard faces in varying masks of discomfort. Multi-thousand-pound bikes were battered, bent and buckled like matchsticks. Camera motorbikes span helplessly in ditches as their drivers hopped about, cursing the weather gods.
There was something gloriously pure about the chaos, the comic disruption of decorum. Of course, Roubaix is ridiculous. Journalist Jacques Goddet once called the race “the last folly cycling offers it followers”. It feeds off nostalgia and a yearning for a golden era that probably never existed. But for just one Sunday each year, I think we can excuse it.
Image: dancingonthepedals.net via Flickr