Archive REVIEW: Paris-Roubaix

by Barry Gorman

Words and images by Adam Tranter

Few races demonstrate the beauty and difficulty of cycling than Paris-Roubaix. It's a race firmly engrained into the history of the sport, and through all conditions has consistently provided fans with entertainment of the highest order.

Visiting the race from Britain is more straightforward than one would imagine. It had always been an ambition of mine, and with a sportive, race and an interesting announcement from IG Markets all coming on the same weekend, I thought I'd better get on the Eurostar.

Being economical, I arrived into Paris on Friday (demand to arrive on a Saturday must have been quite high, judging by the prices). After a quick wander around, I jumped on a local train to Compigne, which would get me a stone's throw from the start on Sunday. But it wouldn't get me very close to my hotel, it materialised, which was 8km from the start village.

After pointing to a scruffily written address on a piece of paper, I jumped into the first taxi I've ever been in which had red leather seats, which was a bonus. "Paris-Roubaix?" he asked. "Oui," is responded. Our conversation ended there.

There isn't much to do in Compigne, except for visit a bike race. So, there aren't too many hotels, and the ones that are in the area are very basic. My chosen hotel was clean, and provided some sort of bedding, which was nice.

Being one of the earliest journalists to arrive to the area, I was pretty much alone in the hotel complex. In fact, I was probably one of the few inhabitants in a few square miles. That was, because, my hotel was in an industrial estate. It wasn't a bad industrial estate as such, but I had to do some pretty comprehensive research to find somewhere to eat.

But when that time came, armed with some directions, I headed out into rural France, went past the Lidl, turned right at the correct time, and proceeded to where I thought the rather raved-about restaurant was. I couldn't find it. I did see a rather elegantly decorated building with an enticing 'Pizzeria' sign on, however. It was next to a kebab shop, but that didn't bother me.

So with my bravest smile, I went through the front door. Instead of a packed restaurant I found five locals sipping beer and doing a lot of staring. I managed to negotiate a menu, and a beer, much to the amusement (and bemusement) of the room. Nothing on the whole menu looked like it would be edible, so I decided to cut my losses, settle up for the beer, hand the menu back and blame a lack of hunger before leaving.

I did, on the way back home, find the original restaurant. Which was packed, so I continued walking, past the closed Lidl back to my room, where I ate nothing and went to bed.

Saturday was destined to be a lot better. A last minute change to the sportive route meant that riders wouldn't be able to finish in the famous velodrome, and instead, they'd finish in a supermarket car park quite a bit earlier. Needless to say, the supermarket wasn't as impressive, in fact, it wasn't even open.

Even cycling legend Sean Kelly had a go, and according to sources, he and all participants were asked to fill in a safety information form before starting. It's rumored that Kelly, instead of filling in the form, wrote "I won this race twice," and handed it back, which must have been fairly amusing to witness.

From talking to Brits, it seemed that everyone still had a great time in good weather, but with the omission of chip timing from the event too, I think that the ASO might have made some mistakes here as the entries seemed quite scarce. When the route changed, people were offered their money back, and I think quite a lot took it.

Due to the event logistics, those that rode the sportive would have missed the team presentations in Compigne, which was great fun. Thousands descended to just outside the castle, where teams arrived one by one, signed autographs, and then were presented to the audience. I picked up my accreditation and had some lunch and a few coffees with friends and colleagues, before heading back to the hotel to get changed for a cycling media dinner, put on by Team Sky sponsor IG Markets.

It's not wholly uncommon for sponsors to ply journalists and media folk with champagne and a rather exquisite four-course meal, but this time, the said sponsor actually had something quite exciting to tell us.

IG Markets specialise in a product called 'Contracts For Difference'. As even when I try really hard to concentrate, I can't work out exactly what that is, I better summarise by explaining that they do a lot of derivative trading and have a range of applications to monitor this. They run the IG Index in finance, and now want to run the IG Pro Cycling Index in cycling.

They explained to the room of worldwide journalists, as well as Dave Brailsford, Paris-Roubaix legend Servais Knaven and some bloke called Laurent Jalabert, they wanted to reward moments of brilliance instead of months of consistency.

IG Markets will run the cycling index with the help from Opta, a company who have huge experience in running indexes and accumulating sports-related statistics. Combined with the stats, the index will use an expert panel of journalists and former riders to generate a rolling 12-month standing system. It's provided as an alternative to the UCI and CQ ranking systems, and the UCI don't know about IG's plan yet. But as it's likely to be more popular with fans than them, they shouldn't really be bothered.

I think this kind of system would be best utilised in line with an online fantasy league, but we'll have to see if that comes along in the next 12 months.

So, after the excitement of news, wine and cheese, it was time for bed, ready for an early start the next day. It was the big day I'd be waiting for.

I was met in the morning by the IG Markets lot, and Graham Jones. Graham was to be our driver, and as he's ridden the Tour and Giro d'Italia and knows his way around Europe's cycling events like the back of his hand, we thought this was probably a good thing.

With our press vehicle, we were able to take dedicated routes to see other parts of the course, and managed to see the race go past five times including in the velodrome. When we saw the race early on in Noyon, the group was still together and having an interesting take on negotiating a narrow roundabout. We managed to see the race gradually unfold up-close-and-personal on Pave sections 25 and 14.

No one in our group expected the eventual outcome. I'd put some money on Geraint Thomas, who crashed four times and looked worse for wear. I'd actually spent 20 minutes at the start stood next to Van Summeren, only mentioning how tall he was, and the fact that he can ride his bike backwards. Not once did I expect to see him lifting up the cobblestone trophy later in the day.

We saw riders cracking on the circuit and trying to get into team cars. We passed Cavendish in the car when he abandoned and saw herds of cyclists collapsing at the finishes. All in all, it was a spectacular combustion of pain, grit and pure emotion.

Despite Roubaix being one of the most drab placed I've ever been to, in a packed velodrome, there is no better venue to witness the euphoria of this great race. When Johan Van Summeren arrived in the velodrome to victory, he proposed to his girlfriend. She said yes. It was a nice finish to a great weekend.

It was a good result all round for the Garmin-Cervelo team, with Van Summeren taking the win and Thor Hushovd finishing in the Top 10 after a busy day marking Fabian Cancellara, who along with Hushovd, was one of the few race favourites to remain upright during the race.

If riding on the same cobbles as champions before watching them the very next day sounds appealing, get it in your diary for next year. It will be impossible to be disappointed.

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2nd June 2011 10:46pm Admin wrote:

Adam, you've mis-represented the Roubaix sportive on the Saturday. It finsished at a Sports Complex with a nicely laid out feed area, bikestore, changing rooms, toilets and showers. The organisers also gave cyclists the option of transporting bags to the finsh area for entrants. The coach and bike lorry back to the start was also well organised and packed with Brits.

From my perspective this was a superior event to any I have experienced in the UK in recent years. The start town of St Quentin had a small exhibition with the likes of Rapha and trek bikes in attendance. Each rider received a quality T-shirt and musette plus inner tube. Riders were started in waves by TDF legend B. Hinault. These were widely spaced which ensured relative small groups on the road and cobbled sections. Every road junction or cross-roads over the 86 miles was manned by marshalls who stopped any traffic for the riders and waived us through. The feedzones and mechanical stations were well stocked and fully staffed. Getting to ride the cobbbled sections was a fantastic and unique experience which put me in awe of the full distance and 27 sections ridden by the Pros. The wave start ensured that big groups had dissapiated by the time we reached and progressed through the cobbled sections, which made for a safer event for amatuer riders. You would certainly not want to be taken out on the Pave by another rider. As the ride progressed The cobbled sections seem to have been closed off and it made sense to have started entrants in waves to ensure there were no big groups on the cobbles.

Despite some last minute changes by the organisers and no timing chips this was an excellent, easily acessible event made even better by the fantastic weather and chance to see the pro race the following day. Any riders that decided to cancel after the annoucment of the last minute route changes really missed out on a fanatastic experience.


24th October 2011 2:42pm wrote:

Surprised that you only managed 5 stops.
For my first Roubaix in 1998 with a People carrier full with wife and kids we managed 6, in later years with just me and my wife we easily managed 8 locations, missing the start but seeing km0, Troisvilles Solesmes, Arenberg, Orchies, Mons, Cysoing/Carrefour de L'Arbre finishing at the stadium, sometimes just before the first rider, sometimes just after the winner finished. We just missed Magnus crossing the line in 2004 but saw the presentation.
That's without driving at too silly a speed and naturally without a press pass.
Parking at some locations, especially Orchies is now more difficult but with a lttle bit of planning is OK.
Stay at Chantilly or Beauvais as most sensible places including Novotel and Campanile in Compiegne are block booked each year by the organisers