The elderly resident, leaning on her garden gate on the edge of Saint-Vaast-en-Cambrésis, wasn’t fussed about making the kilometre-long walk to the top of the pavé road to watch the bike race. If you’ve seen one edition of Paris Roubaix clatter past, she implied, you’ve seen them all. Less effort, and maybe more fun, to watch the clamour and confusion of British, Dutch and Belgian fans trying to negotiate the narrow road and park their cars and camper vans as courteously as possible.
From my point of view, the little exchange was a triumph. When I speak French to myself, I’m supremely confident, only a few weeks and a short application form from membership of L’Académie française. When I speak it with a native speaker, the sang-froid evaporates, and I’m only ever a jittering, misplaced sentence from Derek Trotter. This had manifested itself earlier the same day, when I had ended up with more baguettes and coffees than were strictly necessary due to the alarming similarity between the vocal sounds of “un” and “deux”. I managed to negotiate the thoroughly exasperated boulanger down from the original estimate, but still had enough spare food to delay the following week’s visit to Morrisons by a couple of days.
Yet here I was, asking politely if the lady was going to watch the race, understanding the answer, receiving the extra information that two of her neighbours were English, and making the appropriate appreciative noises. A more cynical traveller would suspect that a bakery trading at 8am on a Sunday had worked out a foolproof way of increasing revenue from slightly embarrassed tourists. Or maybe had the music turned up too loud.
This was my second visit to the Hell of the North. Last year, as I mentioned in a previous post, we had dashed into the velodrome after taking in a couple of the more northerly cobbled sections. This year I’d decided to make a weekend of it. I was pretty sure we could get from the start, via a section of pavé, to the finish in plenty of time, thanks to the excellent mechanism of running the race more or less alongside some fairly quiet motorways. And if we were going to be in Compiègne for silly o’clock on the Sunday morning, we might as well be there on the Saturday afternoon, when the riders are presented to the town and the press.
This turned into a three-day trip when I noticed that one of the larger Commonwealth war memorials was at Thiepval, just off the route from Calais. And so a quick blast down the toll motorway became a Friday afternoon trundle through surprisingly pleasant countryside, through fields, villages and small towns, across rivers, and past an unexpected proliferation of large banners in support of the Front National and Mme Le Pen.
If you’re on your way to a famous battlefield, it shouldn’t really surprise you to come across one. But we were expecting the Somme, and had no real notion of where in France we might find Agincourt. As it was, it found us, popping up on a road sign shortly after a fuel stop in Fruges. It’s called Azincourt now – maybe it always was – and the intervening 600 years have removed any trace of crying God for England and all that nonsense. Instead there’s a plaque, and a T-junction, and you need more imagination than if faced with hundreds of perfectly-placed headstones.
We arrived at Thiepval an hour or so before the museum was due to close. While the cemeteries in Flanders are notable for their horizontal scale, this memorial’s distinguishing feature is its sheer bulk, out of proportion to its surroundings in a way that isn’t as noticeable at the Menin Gate.
The only thing you can do in these places is to quietly contemplate the unimaginable, ludicrous scale of the conflict, and the excellent job the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has done in maintaining the remembrance. By the time we wandered away, the coaches had long gone and the museum was closing its doors.
We’d chosen to break our normal habit of chain hotels (which balance their blandness with a 24-hour uncomplaining reception desk, essential if your arrival time is less than predictable), and instead stayed at an auberge in a village a few miles outside Compiègne. As well as its rustic charm – which is probably an acquired taste – this provided another opportunity to practice panicked linguistics, something sadly lacking in the usual Ibis or Mercure, where the staff default to English as soon as you utter the first “bon soir”.
Saturday dawned foggy but promising. So promising, in fact, that the fog turned out to be the sort that stops abruptly after about half a mile, and leaves you wondering if it had been something in your eye. By the time we reached the town centre, it was a proper spring morning. The race infrastructure was beginning to set up around the imperial Château, and the gendarmes had begun a long day of turning cars around and sending them back in the opposite direction. After a quick stroll to get our bearings, we settled down for a coffee in La Brasserie Parisienne, one of those places that is constantly busy with streams of locals and tourists alike.
As we fought through the icing sugar to reach the crêpe beneath, the entire United Healthcare team pulled up at the end of their training ride and began ordering lavish cappuccinos and other assorted calorie-fests. Eating and drinking more or less whatever you like must be one of the benefits of cycling hundreds of kilometres every week. Passers-by stopped to photograph and chat to the team, none of whom would be recognisable to anyone outside their close circle but for the bright blue and white kit. Chris Jones, seated at the end of the group, seemed to display a bit of disdain for the interaction, but it might have been that the coffee was on the bitter side.
The closeness of the competitors to their public is one of the things that makes cycling attractive as a spectator sport. In general, Wayne Rooney, Jimmy Anderson and Lewis Hamilton will not sit down beside you at a random coffee house, or have a 200-metre walk through unfenced crowds from their car or bus to their team presentation, as happened with all the cyclists later in the afternoon.
Some take this in better humour than others. Czech champion Zdenek Stybar strode confidently through the square in his less-than-flattering team jogging suit, setting the pattern for most of his colleagues and rivals. French hero Sylvain Chavanel seemed less interested in getting to the stage then back to the bus, more than happy to stop to chat with people, and generally looked pleased to be there. Late in the proceedings, Team Sky arrived, and seemed to have perfected a completely blank look that said “I am here, but I am not here”. As on the road, Geraint Thomas and Bradley Wiggins led the way, the former managing to look utterly vacant while staring into the selfie-lens of a young fan.
Ian Stannard, winner of the Het Nieuwsblad race earlier in the year and fellow citizen of Milton Keynes, seemed slightly more engaged in the world, but he was also less molested by the crowd. Obviously the blankness is a mechanism for the bigger stars to cope with the demands of their fame, but it can leave them looking a little diva-ish. Writing in the Scotsman the same day, Richard Moore pointed out that as far as Wiggins goes, this isn’t limited to random fans, but can extend to pre-arranged meetings. At least he didn’t go as far as Lampre rider Filippo Pozzato, who donned a puffer jacket with hood tightly fastened over and around his baseball cap, yet still failed to evade the attentions of the autograph hunters.
I normally have a bit of a rule of not pestering people who are (a) at work and (b) don’t know me, but I made an exception for Lionel Birnie, because I’m such a fan of the Cycling Podcast, which he and Moore host, together with Daniel Friebe and an assortment of Friends. There are some broadcasts I always recommend to people even if they know nothing about the subject matter, like Kermode and Mayo’s film reviews and Alan Davies’ Arsenal shows, and the Cycling Podcast has joined the list in the last year or so. What all of these programmes share is a combination of deep knowledge, irrepressible enthusiasm, and most importantly an eager willingness to take the piss just a little bit where necessary. The episode recorded the following day captured the breathless excitement surrounding the race perfectly. Because I know next to nothing about cycling, at least compared to a professional writer, the conversation mainly stuck to football. At the time of writing, we’re no nearer knowing whether one, both or neither of our teams (Middlesbrough and Watford) makes it to the Premier League without having to suffer the play-offs.
Once the team buses have packed up and headed off, Compiègne is turned over to a local race for the evening. By the time we had finished dinner (in La Brasserie again), about twenty riders were ready to spend an hour or so hurtling round a 1km circuit in the centre of town. The excitement was limited – the winner lapped the entire field – but the shouts of supporters and local families mingled with the rattle of bike chains and the clatter of wheels on cobbles to echo round the closed streets.
Race day is altogether more frantic for all concerned. In the Château forecourt, team buses jostled with TV crews and fans. Watching the general commotion from a position close to the Team Sky bus, I suddenly realised it was past the official start time. As the Sky riders emerged from their cave on wheels, I was sprinting the half-kilometre to the town hall – or at least, I sprinted the first 200 metres, before remembering that the length of time since I’d run anywhere could probably be measured in decades.
I needn’t have bothered, because it was another ten minutes before the peloton followed the scarlet commissaires’ car lazily around the square and off towards the river. As we retreated to the car, it felt like I’d ridden over ten sectors of cobbles myself, and I didn’t really recover all my breath until we were well out onto the motorway.
The thrill of the chase soon takes over when you’re following a bike race. Some fans try to “hop” to as many sectors as possible, but I was keen to get a decent spot in the Roubaix velodrome this year, hence the plan to just stick to one sector. The one I’d chosen was the second in the race, coming after 110km. For us, this translated to getting out of town, charging up 100km of motorway, negotiating the outskirts of Cambrai complete with road closures and farmers’ markets, another 20km of ever-narrowing country roads, parking in the village, restoring my faith in my conversational French, and finally walking the 1km uphill to the point where the race would pass, all in the space of two hours.
A bit of pre-planning helps, and the satnav took most of the strain, although the street market threw it completely, causing a brief strop from the driver’s seat and a bit of impromptu navigation of the “let’s head east and see if there’s another road” type. Having an extra map on the screen built into the car helps greatly for this sort of thing – it’s one of those things you never know you need until you have it.
So we got where we needed to be, when we needed to be there, and it was nearly as packed as Arenberg. Cars, vans and motorhomes of all ages and sizes lined the approach road, squeezing alongside team cars as we got nearer to the course. By the time we arrived, the first vehicles were passing, blasting people out of the way with the type of horn only ever heard on bike races, preceding a never-ending parade of urgency. Gendarmes standing on their special Paris Roubaix motocross bikes led photographers trying to hold their cameras steady, and finally a breakaway of eight riders clattered past, their arrival heralded by a TV helicopter grazing the trees alongside the road. By the time their train of cars and motorbikes had subsided, the next chopper was visible across the fields, and within a few minutes the main group was on us, arms and helmets vibrating as they tried to concentrate on staying vertical while avoiding the clouds of dust which made us cough and rub our eyes.
There had clearly been some sort of incident which had separated the pack , because a third group followed maybe ten seconds behind the back of the peloton, and then the stragglers wobbled past, a Lotto Jumbo rider almost bouncing off the bank beneath our feet as he battled what looked like a mechanical failure.
And then they were all gone, and the exodus began. Fans and team staff streamed down the cobbled trench towards the village as if discharged from the factory by the end-of-day hooter. One driver had parked facing the race, and now, confronted by a wall of traffic and humanity on a single track, did the only sensible thing and reversed the whole way to the junction.
Heading towards the motorway for the dash to the finish, the convoy became the attraction. The traffic lights in Iwuy weren’t designed for quite such an influx, and locals came to their doors and windows to gaze at the queue extending the whole length of their main street. My slight irritation was instantly dissipated by the cheery, cheeky call of “Bon appetit!” from a watching resident, perfectly timed as I bit into one of the morning’s excess baguettes.
The velodrome itself probably isn’t much to look at on most days of the year. But on the second Sunday in April, en fête, it is cycling’s Wembley. It sits in a wider sports complex, and local families play on the adjacent football pitches as they no doubt do every weekend. Over their shoulders, a massive TV screen relays the ongoing race to the thousands of officials, journalists and spectators who fill the temporary boxes, concrete terracing, grass banks and grandstand. A pair of announcers in the centre of the stadium alternate between commentating on the action and – well, doing whatever announcers at big events do. By this time we could pick up the 5 Live commentary, and over the next hour managed to fill in most of the blanks of what had gone on while we were on the road.
The last 5km or so go much quicker than you expect. I think this is largely because you forget that most of the last kilometre is actually inside the velodrome and its grounds. So by the time you’ve thought “ooh, they’re nearly here”, the motorbikes are streaming past the entrance, and then the crowd roars as the riders appear. Last year, Niki Terpstra entered by himself, the final lap and a half a valedictory ride that he couldn’t let himself enjoy until the last 100 metres. This time, seven riders were together after the full six hours, but there was only ever one winner. Etixx QuickStep had the extra man to lead out Stybar, but John Degenkolb never looked like being beaten. Not that we could see it in the flesh – even in the grandstand, the crowding and sight lines mean the telly is a better option.
From the replay, the winner’s utter, exhausted delight was obvious, and I remembered what I’d noticed from the previous year’s photos. As Terpstra held the trophy cobble over his head, third-placed Fabian Cancellara, a three-time winner, gazed straight ahead. Degenkolb, finishing second, glanced up above Terpstra’s head as if taking it in, saving it, either for future reference or in case he never saw it again.
This time it was his turn to scream in triumph, his turn to lift the cobble. As he did so, battered riders continued to stream in and complete their lap and a half, eight or ten or fifteen minutes after the lead group. We felt a bit guilty about not staying to applaud them all in, but we did have a train to catch. The strange thing is, though, that after only two years it would feel quite odd to NOT be there. Unlike the lady at her garden gate, I rather suspect that we’ll be back. Tous les ans.