Theo de Rooy: “It’s a bollocks this race! You’re working like an animal, you don’t have time to piss, you wet your pants. You’re riding in mud like this, you’re slipping, it’s a piece of shit…”
John Tesh: “Will you ever ride it again?”
de Rooy, not hesitating for a second: “Sure, it’s the most beautiful race in the world!”
That quote, from Dutchman Theo de Roy after abandoning the 1985 edition of Paris-Roubaix was the moment I fell in love with “the Hell of the North”.
That year’s race was a particularly tough edition. The cold, the wind, the rain and the mud took it’s toll on the field and de Rooy in particular. Seeing a physically and morally devastated Theo de Rooy at once both curse the race and profess his admiration for it hooked me.
And so, every year since that myself and who knows how many other cyclists watch the calendar and the weather forecast with anticipation as each edition of Paris-Roubaix approaches.
This being the day before the Queen of the Classics, can be thought of as Christmas Eve for cyclists. Except we won’t wake up to see presents wrapped in shiny paper. Our presents will be wrapped in mud, dust and cobblestones.
Paris-Roubaix is a race from another time. Would a race organiser pitch the idea of a 256km race that included over 50km of sectors traversing cobblestone paths built to carry Napoleon’s army I think they’d be told that they are out of their minds.
Yet Paris-Roubaix stands to this day and invites the hardmen of the peleton to try their luck on her harsh roads. What makes Paris-Roubaix a unique spectacle is that despite the advancements in traning and technology since it’s inception in 1897 one thing has remained constant. The men will do battle over the same roads that have challenged their predecessors for over a hundred years. The riders get faster, the bikes get better and the stones have stayed the same.
It used to be said that a cyclist cannot lay claim to greatness without winning Paris-Roubaix. That was in a time when cyclists raced everything. Grand Tour winners would try their luck at Paris Roubaix. Eddy Merckx won on the cobbles as well as in le Tour. Today cyclists have branched out into specialties and you wouldn’t see a Grand Tour contender like Andy Schleck try his luck on this dastardly course. So a special breed comes to this race ready to suffer and battle.
This year’s race is going to be an interesting one. With Fabian Cancellara out with the broken collarbone he suffered in the Tour of Flanders the race is going to be a bit more open but no less difficult.
Tom Boonen has been looking both strong and confident in the days leading up to Paris-Roubaix. Winning last week at the Tour of Flanders he may be on form to tie fellow Belgian Roger de Vlamminck into the record books with a 4th win at Paris-Roubaix and he has a tide of Belgian support.
Boonen may be the marked man on the day and his victory isn’t guaranteed. He’s had bad luck on the cobbles in previous editions. Italy’s Phillipo Pozzato is looking particularly strong as is Spaniard Juan Antonia Flecha. I’m expecting tomorrow’s race to be one for the ages.
With showers in the forecast for northern France, the cobbles may play an even larger role than in previous dust filled years. The rain brings the mud and manure up from between the cobblestones raising the risk of the brutal crashes that have made this race so famous.
Back in the 1980’s I remember waiting for weeks for CBS sports to bring a packaged report on the race. Those early programs introduced us to Phil Liggett (yay) and John Tesh and his cheesy synthesisor music (boo) and reporting on cycling has changed vastly since then.
Now with the rise of the internet there’s no more waiting and we can watch live from France as the race unfolds. I suggest the excellent http://www.cyclingfans.com for the latest on links to live streams in several languages. Following the conversation on Twitter allows us to share the experience with like minded cyclists across the globe (we’re not alone in our oddball passion).