Finding my inner fan at Roubaix with Tom Boonen
I’m too busy to be a fan. At races like the Tour de France, it’s 16-hour days of mad-dash photos and scribbles interspersed with highway traffic fights between starting line and finish, bad gas station sandwiches, and far too many Doritos. Dinner happens late if it happens at all, usually with one or two (or three) beers, followed by a hard crash into bed at hotels without wifi, air conditioning, or beds that accommodate full-size humans. Like the racers themselves, each day is a test of my physical and mental limits. It’s a fantastic job, and I’m lucky as hell to have it.
But watching the race? Not really an option. Autograph-seeking? No way. I got into this business because I love bikes and racing, and like you, I’m a fan of these titans on two wheels who defy physical limits and test the boundaries of speed. But come race time, it’s all business: Get the shot, write the article, move on. When Peter Sagan rolls by on his way to check in for the day’s stage, my goal isn’t to get a selfie, it’s to get a shot for the magazine. I don’t get to ask Chris Froome for an autograph; I have to ask him for a quote on VO2 max and power data.
All of that is intrinsically cool, but you don’t have the bandwidth to realize it at the time. It’s something to reflect on after the fact in my post-Tour hangover.
In June, I got to take off the journalist hat — the homburg with the press card in the brim, of course — and throw on my fan helmet. I was in Belgium, riding with a crew of journalists from around the world at a [REDACTED] event, testing my mettle yet again on the Flanders cobbles on a [REDACTED] bike. (You’ll find out what “redacted” means soon enough.)
We wandered into France and gave the Roubaix cobbles a go. It was my first taste of the Hell of the North, and we started in grand fashion: ripping as hard as we could over the Carrefour. Geometric impacts against carbon rims, third-world dirt shoulders and puddles shin-deep, fillings rattled out of molars and jettisoned like flotsam into the early summer humidity. Glorious.
It was my turn to roll up to Tom and chat, but wouldn’t you know it, here came that hard right turn into the Roubaix velodrome.
At the end of that famous sector stood Tom Boonen, kitted up in Etixx colors, greeting us with a smile. It was all set up in advance for us, a special treat after an especially brutal effort. My first thought: Get a photo for the website. My second thought: Screw that. Get a photo for you.
We rolled through the streets of Roubaix, Boonen leading the way toward the velodrome. The journalists took turns riding next to Tom, asking casual questions — do you know so-and-so? What’s your least-favorite cobbled sector? (the Carrefour, if you’re curious) — and mugging for photos. For a few minutes I got to let go of the work, to just ride next to one of the sport’s great heroes, to enjoy myself and let my brain revert back to the kid that watched riders in the pre-Armstrong era crush up climbs and float over pavé in faraway lands I never thought I’d see. It was a rare moment of pure fandom, moments that have, sadly, become few and far between for me.
It was my turn to roll up to Tom and chat, but wouldn’t you know it, here came that hard right turn into the Roubaix velodrome. No time for chatting at all; I took the right-hander, handlebar to handlebar with the man who had, only weeks earlier, taken that same turn in the same dramatic arc next to Mathew Hayman. I grinned. How could I not? I was living the dream of countless cycling fans.
But I’d never ridden in a velodrome before. If you’re going to ride in the velodrome for the first time, it is perhaps not advisable to do it riding next to a cycling superstar, especially one who still has races coming on the calendar. I had a brief nightmare about losing my wheels and falling into Boonen, the headlines across the globe shouting about a dumb journalist who couldn’t handle his bike, ending the season — or worse, the career — of one of cycling’s giants.
But one of the fortunate things about riding next to one of the greats is benefitting from his experience.
“Got any advice for me? I’ve never ridden in a velodrome,” I asked.
Tom wasted no time giving me a lesson, a gracious test of patience from someone who has undoubtedly been asked that question, and many others, in tedious quantities from eager fans. I make no apologies; I was a fan that day.
“I like to get as high as I can,” he said, pointing toward turn three. “Then I shoot down, gaining speed.” He showed me. I braved my way up the wall only slightly, then watched him shoot ahead. I chased, him at quarter speed and me at half speed, pretending like I had pretended as a boy in my driveway.
That moment, shooting down the wall, that’s one I’ll be able to tell my daughter about when she grows up. I’ll tell the story like a kid who just met Mickey Mantle, and I’ll embellish it a little here and there, making it a bit different every time I tell the story, like my grandfather did when he told of home runs from ages ago.
By the time she’s a 20-something and sick of my stories, the tale will include the redline sprint, me and Boonen, neck and neck through two laps on the Roubaix velodrome, the seasoned hero sweating, surprised at my skills and power, pushing me to go faster, and me encouraging him to do the same, until I’m pipping him at the line like Hayman did, strategy and skill and guts all rolled into one afternoon in June.
Now she’s 19 months old, my little girl wearing the souvenir Roubaix velodrome hat I bought her, sitting on my lap and not understanding a word of the story. I stick to the facts, anyway: I rode in the Roubaix velodrome handlebar to handlebar with Tom Boonen. I got to be a fan again.