Paris Roubaix 2019

This my third Roubaix outing having my 2015 experience weighing heavily on my mind having spent the aftermath scratching and itching like I’ve never known - covered from top to toe in hundreds of bites - my only explanation being that my hotelier had let a tramp’s dog sleep in my bed before me! My trauma pales into insignificance compared to the what riders have to endure over 257km of gnarly northern French country roads. Aptly named ‘Hell of the North’ jarring on the limbs and crossing 29 relentless sections of Pavé - you throw in the inclement spring climate mixed with dust and howling wind, the race is a beast that very few have managed to tame. One of the oldest bicycle races started in 1896 and has gained cult status amongst the cycling fraternity, like a movie classic it’s a rough around the edges and a race some choose to avoid with many riders using it as a right of passage.

With 175 Riders from 25 teams all vying for the cobblestone monument's trophy - a single solid lump of cobblestone is the unusual but most sought after prize. This year the relentless terrain became too much for one favourite Alexander Kristoff, admitting to a poor decision on equipment choice according to blaming the the combination tubeless tyres and wheels for his 56th placed standing and over 14 minutes behind the lead. Luke Rowe also found himself at the mercy of the bike’s mechanics for the second time in as many weeks having problems with his chain this time In the final stages after a commendable performance amongst the chasing bunch. The inexperienced and sometimes just the damn unlucky are chewed up and spat out by Roubaix’s fury - and in some cases the fury of their fellow riders, as Australia’s Robert Stannard found out when he took down veteran rider Dimension Data’s Bernhard Eisel, who in no uncertain terms explained to him how unhappy he was.

As they approached the iconic Velodrome in Roubaix the rider left sparring with Germany’s Nils Politt on the finish line was Belgium’s Phillippe Gilbert for Deceuninck Quick Step, leaving race favourite Peter Sagan back in 4th behind Yves Lampaert. It was 36 year old Gilbert’s day however, sprinting to victory in the final metres adding one more monument victory to his belt now taking him to 5 wins (4 different monuments) - fast approaching legendary status Just Milan San Remo to clinch to stand alongside cycling’s royalty - Fellow Belgian riders Rik van Looy, Eddy Merckx and Roger de Vlaeminck.

The mystique surrounding this race is becoming all the more alluring because of its utter brutality, the discarded bodies of riders strewn across the floor of the velodrome lie dazed and confused on the finish line, staring through the hoards of journalists and photographers who pounce on them in their delirium. The race customs have historically seen riders use the Velodrome’s adjacent shower room, with concrete cubicles and contorted wooden benches providing a appropriate ’no frills’ ending to the day’s inhospitable race - in fact, these showers wouldn’t look out of place in a world war two prison camp with rudimentary chrome pipes hanging above the small cells that the rider’s nervously stand under. One Katusha Alpecin rider curiously inspects the shower head, half expecting acrid brown sludge to emerge - tentatively tugging on the chains hanging beneath them. Even before the water begins to touch his dirt caked face - it’s relief that initially washes over his face as a clear jet of tepid water cascades on the tiles in front of him.

The institution which has now grown from a small independent film into this blockbuster has become a right of passage for many riders making their mark in the Classic one day race. The celebrity status of the shower enclosure has become all the more apparent with shiny brass plaques adorning the booths giving a knod to the cycling greats of the past who’ve cleansed themselves of the blood sweat and tears that ‘Hell’ has thrown at them here. Now, photographers and journalists along with team sponsors flood into the chambers, who drag their reluctant riders into the shower rooms to feature their products and branding in this iconic setting - with the obligatory poignant stares and furlorn poses providing the perfect setting for the finale to this gritty one day race. Sadly, few riders come here now, having become more of a marketing gimmick for the sponsors and press. One exception to this being EF Education First’s Mitch Docker there to soak up the atmosphere and tradition who found himself subjected to the media melee - initially surprised by the lack of interest by his fellow riders in this cultural institution (Maybe not so surprised after this encounter!) But, as with any niche production as popularity ensues the sequels appear and authenticity begins to fade as the media machine attempts to reconstruct the iconography of past.
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