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Behind the scenes at Paris-Roubaix: To a grinding halt

When the Crédit Agricole team’s Jérome Neuville crashed on the cobblestones at Quievy, 110km into the Hell of the North, he could not have known how close he was to becoming a human pancake. But as the bright yellow Mavic neutral service car slid toward the Frenchman’s prostrate body, the fear in his eyes registered the danger. That was the last we saw of him from inside the car, as driver Antonio Pacheco swerved to the right to avoid Neuville’s legs sprawled across the road. We hit something, and hard, but we could not tell if it was only his bike or if we had hit him as well. We jumped

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By Lennard Zinn

Remember, this is a closed course with professional drivers. Don't try this at home.

Remember, this is a closed course with professional drivers. Don’t try this at home.

Photo: Lennard Zinn

When the Crédit Agricole team’s Jérome Neuville crashed on the cobblestones at Quievy, 110km into the Hell of the North, he could not have known how close he was to becoming a human pancake. But as the bright yellow Mavic neutral service car slid toward the Frenchman’s prostrate body, the fear in his eyes registered the danger.

That was the last we saw of him from inside the car, as driver Antonio Pacheco swerved to the right to avoid Neuville’s legs sprawled across the road. We hit something, and hard, but we could not tell if it was only his bike or if we had hit him as well.

We jumped out of the car and were happy to see that the shaken-up and bruised rider was not under the car. But his bike was. And the first thing that crossed the mud-covered Neuville’s mind was getting back on that bike and continuing. Not!

The bike was stuck, but so was the car, which had slid off into a muddy field. Amid a spray of flying mud from the front tire, we pushed the yellow station wagon back onto the cobbles, but the grinding sound as we tries to continue suggested that the bike had not been dislodged. Indeed, the pedal of the flattened bike was jammed under the engine on the low-slung Fiat.

Attempts at lifting the car with a scissors jack in the muddy ditch proved fruitless, as did the attempt by a dozen spectators to lift it. Finally, a broom van supplied a rolling bumper jack that hoisted the car and freed the bike. In the meantime, the green-and-white (but now mostly brown) clothed rider had ridden off on a spare bike from the Crédit Agricole team car, one of many stuck in the line behind us. The driving that ensued for us to get back up to where we were supposed to be, right behind the Chief of Course’s car and the race contenders, was hair-raising. We slid all four tires around corners lined by spectators diving out of the way, and we passed white-knuckled between cars and riders like they were standing still on the narrow roads.

Can't you hear the warranty claim now: 'I was just riding along...'

Can’t you hear the warranty claim now: ‘I was just riding along…’

Photo: Lennard Zinn

Within 20 minutes or so, we succeeded in getting back in one piece to where we could continue to supply wheels to riders and the fleet of Mavic motorcycles ahead. Paris-Roubaix is often compared to war. The intensity of being bombarded in muddy French trenches continues to happen each April — and still with risk to life and limb.

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