BRUSSELS (VN) — It’s only when I step out onto the concrete track that I realize what a different world I’ve stumbled into.
Four months ago, I stood in almost in this very spot, watching Kevin Pauwels lead Sven Nys, Niels Albert, and Julien Taramarcaz into the final lap of the fourth round of the UCI Cyclocross World Cup. What at the time registered as one of the bigger thrills of my reporting career, planting my feet on one of the most storied pieces of cycling geography, is suddenly little more than a blip. Instead, it’s this day, perhaps the first day of classics season that could rightly be called spring, awaiting Fabian Cancellara’s and Sep Vanmarcke’s arrival in the legendary Roubaix velodrome, that feels like the landmark moment.
This is saying something. In a half-decade chasing European cyclocross, I’ve seen my share of big moments. I’ve seen a world championship race, in Koksijde, Belgium, in 2012, attended by so many people that the host city’s population temporarily quadrupled. I’ve stood on the finish line to watch Marianne Vos — perhaps the best all-around cyclist in history — win five separate cyclocross world championships. In Louisville, Kentucky, this winter, I witnessed the single biggest outpouring of love for the sport of cycling that I have ever seen. But this year, VeloNews decided to send me to the spring classics, and there is no denying that being on the infield for the finish of Paris-Roubaix is a moment as big as any of those.
I stand, packed into a throng of journalists and photographers and soigneurs, surrounded, outside the track, by a crowd that must number in the tens of thousands and whose cheers with every attack are deafening. And these represent just a handful of those who lined the 250-kilometer course to watch the race earlier in the day. The cyclocross races I usually cover can unfold in a single farm field; road racing, it is clear, is sport on an enormously larger scale.
Living in Belgium, of course, it is impossible not to know this, but knowing it and experiencing it firsthand are not the same. Covering cyclocross races, with their attendant beer tents and VIP events, feels a little like watching a huge and very muddy party that is occasionally interrupted by people on bikes. Watching a WorldTour race roll off the line with its caravan of police vehicles, press cars, TV motos, and team buses is like watching an army deploying. A big Belgian cyclocross race might feature 40 riders who remain largely in the same location; the classics feature hundreds, and sufficient mobile infrastructure to move the massive race support system from start to finish.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the emotion of the race’s final moments seem to be played through an amplifier with volume set to 11. I’m so tense as Cancellara and Vanmarcke crawl around the track, contesting a 750-meter match sprint that will determine the outcome of this 250km race, that my heart seems to rise out of my chest and into the back of my throat, tying itself into a tight little knot around my trachea. I realize, as I watch them roll into the final turn, I am holding my breath.
Truth be told, I rarely get all that excited about bike races anymore. Not like this, anyway. Normally, working alone at a cyclocross race, I’m simply too busy: setting up photos and testing the light, making notes about the unfolding race, trying to move through the crowds that line the courses, trying not to fall on the steep, slippery hillsides. There’s little time to think very hard about winners and losers and tactical battles, and so I rarely get caught up in the race itself. I am a dispassionate observer, watching each race unfold from the outside, documenting it, but apart from it.
Today I am deep inside the race. Literally so — I am standing inside of the track where Cancellara and Vanmarcke are now making the rounds — but, more fundamentally, I have allowed myself to get caught up in the drama of the day.
This, I now realize, is the real reason I wanted to go to the classics in the first place. I wanted to see how this massive logistical problem called a bike race gets worked out, and I wanted to see what the job is like for my colleagues who do the bulk of their work during the spring and summer months. But mostly I wanted to get close enough to a bike race to once again feel the electricity that pulses inside of it.
And they are indeed electric, these final meters. I can almost hear the lightning crackle underneath the cheering crowd. And then, a couple of quick turns of the pedals later, it’s over.
A few hours later, walking to my car, something along the hillside that surrounds the velodrome catches my eye: a deep, arcing gouge in the greening grass. It’s a leftover from December’s World Cup cyclocross race, not yet patched by the grounds crew. Cyclocross, I think, has left its indelible mark on Roubaix.
On the street, however, the jumbled web of support cars and team buses has already been disentangled. The race’s final stretch of cobbles, just outside the velodrome complex, is already an ordinary city street again, albeit a largely deserted one. The velodrome remains, of course, but it betrays no sign of the drama that unfolded there earlier today, nor any of the similar dramas that unfolded before today. Just like the 110 editions before it, today’s race has already vanished, existing now only as a series of disjointed impressions in our collective memory.
And it is that impermanence, I have decided in my five years covering cyclocross in Belgium, that makes the sport so beautiful. It’s something that separates road cycling even from its cyclocross cousin. There is no scoreboard and no playing field, there’s nothing but the road. Return to the site of even the most iconic moments and all that’s left to bear witness is the pavement, long since returned to its intended purpose. All that remains are the stories we tell. Once upon a time, we say, something incredible happened right here.