In the fall, everyone sets goals for the big races.
“I want to get on the Tour of California team,” say all the Americans.
“I hope I get a spot for the Tour,” thinks just about everyone.
“I’m dreaming of Paris-Roubaix,” say the big guys.
Then the season starts, and reality sets in. Reality this year for Cannondale (and the WorldTour in general) took the form of illness, spreading fast among teammates at hotels and stage races, no matter how much hand sanitizer you use. Many of the guys who’d been training for Paris-Roubaix spent last week in bed, and I got an email on Wednesday saying I was flying to Roubaix Friday, followed by teasing from Vaughters, my teammates, and lots of you jerks on social media. Funny or not, it would be a disservice to the race and our healthy riders to start seven guys, and I’d be able to contribute something. Right? Shit, I hoped so.
I’d done one small race on cobbles before, but not a one-day race, and certainly not the biggest one-day race in the world. I got a new Cannondale Synapse that I rode once, but there wasn’t time to recon any of the cobble sectors, and let’s not pretend that riding two hours on a training ride would make me any more prepared to race them with the best in the world, who’ve been doing it for years. For this, recon would only spoil the surprise. I went in expecting adventure and pain, hoping for a chance to enjoy the spectacle, and like every other delusional bike racer, secretly dreaming of winning.
Our team leader was Dylan Van Baarle, a young Dutch guy fresh off a great finish at the Tour of Flanders, who spent the hour before the Roubaix start singing along to Dutch pop music in the bus, not nervous at all.
Most of the guys had a very simple job, except it’s also hard as hell: “Stay behind Dylan. Anything he wants, you give him,” said Andreas Klier, our director.
People ask why teams ride together in the group, forgetting that this is a team sport. It’s not like the president and vice president never taking the same plane. If it gets windy, we form a mini-echelon, with one guy riding out in the wind to protect the others. More importantly, a team like Etixx could go to the front at any moment and rip a climb or a crosswind and blow the race to smithereens. Your team can undo that damage, or if Dylan has a mishap, the back of the field is your finish line. Maybe that means you crash together, but you’ll never win apart.
My job was to go for the early break, which wouldn’t be easy, either. Just to get to the front, you’re jumping sidewalks, shooting up gutters, following moves that get welded back. It’s a crapshoot mixed with a chess game at 400 watts. Wouter Wippert and I took turns. I’d let his sprinter legs cover more of the attacks on flat roads, and I’d jump on anything resembling a hill. Sure enough, something went on a hill. I was with four guys, then it was 10, then it was 22, but I didn’t look back. I looked straight ahead, and still ran over something that pounded my crotch and caused my seat to angle down. Still, I felt good when we had 40 seconds. That should have been the time the pack called a pee break and gave us 10 minutes, but then I saw Cavendish had snuck in the break, which meant it was doomed. Etixx was going crazy on the front, unwilling to give him a leash.
So the breakaway was short-lived, caught after an hour or so. I did the “stay with Dylan” thing for few minutes, but then there was an open stretch, so I stopped to get my saddle fixed. On one hand, stopping in Paris-Roubaix is dumb. On the other hand, riding with the saddle wrong is a good way to get injured.
When I caught back up, the group was stretched out and splitting in a crosswind, and Jack Bauer flatted. I hung out at the back to help him after his wheel change, and then we hit the cobbles. Things got different there.
I just followed the guy in front of me. Sometimes it was the dirt on the side, sometimes it was the center, and then every few minutes you come across a guy who picked the wrong line. He’s sitting there in pain, so you slam your brakes along with 50 other guys and then catch back up on the next paved section. Multiply that by 10 crashes and chases, and I’d say that’s the Paris-Roubaix experience for about one-third of the group.
Halfway through the “race” (which is in quotes because I wouldn’t say I was racing anymore), I was in a group chasing a group chasing a group (okay, maybe I was racing). I didn’t have much hope of seeing Dylan again, but I was expecting to finish, and we came ripping into a town between cobble sectors. This is where recon or experience or cyclocross or prayers might have helped, as I don’t know how to rip a turn (paved or pavé) on those wide tires with super-low pressure in them, and now I’m trying to do it with the best in the world on roads that I’ve never seen before. I took a slide and got a little bruise on my hip, but I got up right away and joined a group with slightly less hope of finishing. They all stopped in the feed zone, and I kept riding, hoping to taste a few more cobbles (not literally).
There’s another race behind the bike race, of team mechanics and soigneurs jumping from one sector to the next, cutting the course to leapfrog the pack, over and over. Our staff passed me and told me I’d better hop in the car, because I’d been directed off-course. I was bummed, but it’s not like I was in the race any more, and if they hadn’t seen me, I’d probably still be out there.
So I ripped the rest of the cobble sectors in a Skoda with “Disco” Jonny and Pat O’Donnell, and watched the finish from the team bus after a shower. I felt bad about the crash and the DNF until I saw the results — very few have the Paris-Roubaix they wanted, and I did my job. Asking a bike racer how he did at Roubaix is kind of like asking a gambling addict if he’s up or down over his lifetime: Maybe you get lucky sometimes, but nobody’s up.
Dylan finished 16th. Next year he’ll be in the top 10. Then top five or podium. Someday, he’ll win it. That’s how you’re supposed to do it, and it’s a good thing, because his singing career isn’t nearly as promising. (But Dylan, if you read this, don’t stop the singing.)