Broken bikes and bruised bodies cannot shake love-hate allure of Paris-Roubaix
Tour de Hoody: The extremes are exaggerated to almost grotesque limits, but the 'Hell of the North' grips the peloton unlike any race on the calendar.
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For every exultation, there are dozens of screams of exasperation heard across the unforgiving pavé of northern France at Paris-Roubaix and Paris-Roubaix Femmes.
The “Hell of the North” is unlike any bike race on earth, and most pros are thankful for that.
The pain and pleasure is dished out in wholly unequal portions. For each smile, there are rivers of tears. For every winner, there’s a peloton filled of crushed ambitions and broken hearts (and bikes) in their wake.
And sometimes even worse.
This weekend’s women’s and men’s editions of the “Hell of the North” served up over-sized portions of raw emotion, pure agony, and unmatched jubilation.
Look no further than Fenix-Deceuninck. The team hit its first podium with Marthe Truyen finishing third out of the winning breakaway in Paris-Roubaix Femmes, while Sanne Cant suffered a gruesome injury with a deep cut to her face.
“She also immediately realized that her race was over, because in her first reaction she asked for an ambulance,” team manager Michel Cornelisse told Sporza. “Then you know it’s not easy, Sanne usually always gets up after a fall.”
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In any other race, the unrelenting sectors of cobblestones and rough-hewn roads would be called out as too dangerous, and riders would likely protest.
Yet once a year, the pain and suffering is fully embraced and duly celebrated.
When racing is a badge of honor
Racing Roubaix is a badge of honor among the elite of the men’s and women’s peloton.
“I usually hate this race, but I love it today,” said Mathieu van der Poel after soloing home in Paris-Roubaix. “We just raced like juniors from start to finish.”
The extremes of the pain-and-pleasure scale are exaggerated at Roubaix to almost grotesque limits, and nearly every team endures a wide gambit of emotional and physical highs and lows all packed into one brutal afternoon.
Not even the “super-teams” can avoid the stoic justice of the French laid-stone roads.
Jumbo-Visma saw more than its fair share of disappointment, with pre-race favorite Marianne Vos crashing and puncturing early, and never figuring in the final to finish 10th, while Wout van Aert suffered a morale-crushing puncture on the Carrefour de l’Arbre in what’s the latest chapter in his never-ending string of heartbreak at Roubaix.
“I’ve never had such strong legs when turning up the Carrefour de l’Arbre as I did today,” Van Aert said. “It’s hard to accept because I really wanted to win this race. We will never know what the result would have been in the end without my bad luck, but it probably would have been higher than third place.”
Broken bikes and bodies, but not spirits
The race leaves no one untouched. From the biggest pre-race favorites to unsung debutantes, disaster can strike at any time.
The official post-race medical communiqué only skims the surface of the depths of suffering, and it doesn’t come close to revealing the true extent of the pain, injuries, and damage across the peloton.
Peter Sagan crashed out of his final Paris-Roubaix with a head injury, and it’s unknown how long he’ll be sidelined in his farewell season. Piet Allegaert (Cofidis) and Sébastian Grignard (Lotto-Dstny) also suffered concussions with heavy falls, and all three were evacuated to a hospital in Cambrai.
Lorena Wiebes (SD Worx) and Megan Jastrab (Team DSM) were battered and bruised in various crashes, often categorized in the post-stage report with the catch-all phrase, “traumatismes multiples.”
Knee wounds, head injuries, dislocated shoulders, cuts, scrapes, gouges, blisters, and broken arms, clavicles, and fingers — no wonder Tadej Pogačar didn’t start.
Not even defending champions are immune. Dylan Van Baarle (Jumbo-Visma) crashed heavily in the Arenberg with scores of others, putting an end to his crash-laden spring classics campaign.
“Dylan suffered a broken hand, shoulder and battered face in today’s crash. He will not participate in the Amstel Gold Race,” team officials confirmed.
The post-race update from Soudal Quick-Step summed up the team’s collective misery:
“Following the crashes in which they were involved, several Soudal Quick-Step riders had to abandon Paris-Roubaix,” a press release from the Belgian team said. “Bert Van Lerberghe has a muscle injury which will require a few days of recovery, Davide Ballerini will take a couple of days off for his knee injury to heal, while Kasper Asgreen needed some stiches on his chin and will undergo X-rays investigations on his wrist.”
Lotte Kopecky and her favored SD Worx teammates crashed, punctured, and chased in vain, only to be denied a chance at the spoils.
“It was a very, how to put it, animated Paris-Roubaix,” Kopecky told reporters in the velodrome. “[My crash] was the worst timing in the race, and I really hurt myself there. I just stayed down and thought I couldn’t go anymore.”
Fighting to the finish
Many pros have a love-hate relationship with the race. It’s harder, more dangerous, and unforgiving than anything in modern cycling.
It’s that throwback to cycling’s past and the rich history of the race that creates a mystical allure for the Roubaix.
A few vow never to return, but year after year, pros put Roubaix at the center of their ambitions. It’s the one race where luck, drive, and dogged determination can tilt in a rider’s favor, the one day where miracles can happen.
Everyone starting this weekend had in the back of their mind the image of Mathew Hayman training in his garage with a broken arm only to win Paris-Roubaix a month later. Roubaix is that kind of race.
On the other end of the spectrum Sunday was Canadian rookie Derek Gee, who rode first onto the feared Arenberg forest only to blow out his front tire. He was forced to stand there for five minutes until the entire peloton blazed past before a support car could pull up with a spare bike.
The 25-year-old Gee pushed on, and ended up as the last official finisher in the men’s race.
“There was no way I wasn’t finishing,” Gee said. “It was an amazing experience for sure. I had this surreal moment of knowing ‘oh I’m in the breakaway at Roubaix, that’s really, really cool.’ … I knew I was going to make it, even not knowing if I would be in the time limit or not.”
Made it to Roubaix, took a shower, what a day 😍
📸 @jeredgruber (thanks for this one!) pic.twitter.com/upTgRdbo8e
— Ruben Apers (@Ruben_Apers) April 10, 2023
Gee’s insistence to push on reveals the magnetic attraction and sometimes perverse desire to race and finish Roubaix at all costs.
In the women’s race, there were 104 official finishers, with 16 DNF’s, most of them victims to crashes or mechanicals, or both. And 20 finished OTL, hors delais, the equally brutish imposition of a time limit.
The men’s race saw 36 riders not finishing, and three over the time limit. Gee finished 25 minutes, 44 seconds behind Van der Poel, the last rider to make it inside the 26:18 time cut.
Is the time cut too callous for a race as mean and nasty as Roubaix?
It’s a bike race, and the rules say that a rider must finish within a certain percentage of the winner. There’s no exception or extension of those rules at Roubaix despite the hazards of the race.
It’s in the infield of the velodrome where the emotions come pouring out.
Everything that’s been tapped down in concentration and conviction to arrive to Roubaix is released at the line. Riders collapse into tears, fits of anger and frustration, or more typically, in a stupor of pure physical and mental exhaustion.
Alison Jackson danced, cried, celebrated, and cheered in pure delirium. A team press note summed it nicely: The queen of Tik-Tok became the queen of Roubaix.
“It’s a dream come true,” Canada’s first Roubaix winner said. “A lot of times all those dreams have stayed dreams. It’s unreal to make it happen in real life. I have few words.”
John Degenkolb was reduced to a fetal position after crashing out of the lead group on the Carrefour in perhaps his best performance since he won in 2015.
“It’s not easy to describe the disappointment,” Degenkolb mustered between tears.
Sometimes those emotions are unfiltered. Nathan Van Hooydonck of Jumbo-Visma angrily chastised a reporter after a relatively benign inquiry about the team’s misfortune.
“Fantastic obviously, what did you think?” Van Hooydonck shot back. After a second question from the same journalist about what went wrong he realized he wouldn’t have nicer answers up his sleeve and decided to stop right there, “I really don’t feel like talking about this, I really don’t.”
And despite the pain, suffering, setbacks, crashes, and disappointments — and perhaps of bit of because of that — nearly everyone vowed to return.
“I am pretty empty now. I hoped to race into the final, and I did that today,” said Mads Pedersen, fourth in the men’s race. “This is a step in the right direction. Hopefully next year we can take a step up.”
Paris-Roubaix is a day in hell, everyone agrees.
Nothing comes easy in bike racing, and no race is harder to finish and harder to win than the “Hell of the North.”
Perhaps that’s why everyone is already plotting a return to next year’s races. Not tomorrow, next week, or any time soon.
But in a year’s time, the peloton will be queuing up with a mix of glee and trepidation for a return to Hell.