After the Paris-Roubaix Challenge on Saturday, we took our tired bodies back to the course for the pro race on Sunday, and we were lucky enough to get inside the start area, to walk among the bikes and riders as they prepared for the mayhem to come. It was fascinating to see all the tweaks, to tire pressure, saddle height, etc. that the racers insisted on making right up to the moments before the starter’s pistol sounded. The nervousness in the air was palpable. Paris-Roubaix has a controlled start, which means the entire peloton gets rolling parade-style before anyone is allowed to go full tilt.
Unlike the morning of our own date with the cobbles, the sun shone brightly. Support cars with a dozen bikes on top rolled out in an endless procession. Many of them would reach the finish with just one, if any at all.
From the start, we went directly to the Arenberg Forest where a sort of carnival was underway. There were so many cycling fans there it was hard to get a good sight line to the race, and when the peloton arrived it was more by the rumbling of the ground that we knew it. The cobble bed is raised there, and you can feel the passing of more than a hundred charging bodies in your feet. The whole mass of them was still moving very fast at that point.
Next we went to the Carrefour de l’Arbre, 242km into the race, where the winning move tends to take place. Here we were right up at cobbleside, and the flatness of the area let us see the riders coming from something like a mile away. There was a dust cloud and a wave of cheering.
The first through were coated in dust, and having been out on the punishing course all day, most of them looked exhausted and angry, like disgruntled ghosts of the group we had seen at the start in the morning. Dirt caked at their noses and mouths, and there was ample evidence of crashes, blood, torn clothing and mud caked across their bodies.
After the leaders came through we expected the peloton, but Paris-Roubaix abhors a peloton, and the race was completely strung out, riders coming past in twos and threes.
We listened to the finish huddled around a radio perched on a card, and though we don’t speak Flemish, the emotion in the voices, and in all the other fans cluttered by the roadside told the whole story. When the German, John Degenkolb, won, a few incomprehensible curses were muttered, and the locals trudged away disappointed.
We didn’t have a horse in this race, as the saying goes, and the whole day was thrilling from our perspective. It really is a thing you can’t imagine until you see it, even if you’ve raced bikes before, even if you’ve watched on TV, even if you rode the same cobbles the day before.