Editor’s note: The 2020 Paris-Roubaix was scheduled to take place this weekend, until France’s COVID-19 spike caused its cancellation. Here is Dan Cavallari’s recollection from 2016 edition of The Hell of the North.
I almost didn’t take this shot. I almost wasn’t there, in the Roubaix velodrome, at all. I got lost on my way from the start in Compiègne to Roubaix. As it turns out, driving is made much more difficult when your rental car’s GPS speaks French, and you don’t.
More than once I found myself driving on the Paris-Roubaix racecourse, anxiously looking for a way to get off of it before the race came through. Chalk it up to nerves; it was my first time at the spring classics, and perhaps I should have known that the racers were still at least an hour behind me. Still, when French policemen are yelling at you, regardless of what they’re actually saying, all you hear is, “You’re in big trouble.”
Eventually, I found my way to the velodrome and parked my rental. I even found the press room with enough time to grab one of the last mayonnaise-soaked sandwiches we were ever-so privileged to call lunch that day. By the time I settled in, I saw how foolish I had been: I could have been lost for another hour, and still, I would have made it in time to see the race finish.
Still, the new-guy nerves got to me again and I headed outside to the infield of the Roubaix velodrome well before the first riders were bound to take that legendary right turn onto the concrete track. That was fortuitous; I secured a helluva spot to watch the finish, long before the throngs of journos and photogs crowded the space. Sure, I had to stare at an empty velodrome for a long time. But the massive, boisterous crowd watching the riders approach via the big screen to my right was enough to entertain.
I don’t remember who took the right-hander into the velodrome first — Tom Boonen or Mathew Hayman. Maybe it was Ian Stannard. I’m sure I could look it up on YouTube to find out, but I prefer to remember it this way. The confusion, and the adrenaline surge I felt as I got my camera ready to capture a finish that was bound to be legendary however it turned out: Either Boonen would once again be the man of the day, cementing his place as the king of Roubaix, or one of his challengers would snatch glory from him, etching their own name in cycling lore.
After the first lap around, Boonen led the challengers. He looked back over his shoulder at … some guy. I didn’t know who was the Orica man on his wheel. Boonen looked in control, so it hardly mattered. It seemed certain I would watch Boonen raise his arms in triumph as he had so many times before.
But as the second lap unfolded, Boonen found himself in a tough position. His challengers — Stannard and Hayman — had him boxed in. Hayman jumped just, and neither Boonen nor Stannard could counter. All of the attacks in the last few miles of the race had taken a toll, and only one rider still had the legs. Hayman bested Boonen, and no one seemed more shocked about it than Hayman himself.
To be honest, part of me was a bit sad not to see Boonen win. It would have been wonderful to watch Boonen nab his fifth Roubaix win — a historic moment in its own right, and one perhaps too many of us expected. The magnitude of Hayman’s victory hadn’t yet occurred to me, and because I had missed so much of the lead-up to that moment as I made the drive from Compiègne, I had little context for what had built to that finish.
Now that I’ve watched and re-watched the replay of the race, Hayman’s win is something magnificent. Something incredibly special. I was there to witness history. And it was Hayman’s story, his steady but quiet career, his broken arm right at the beginning of the season, that only lent itself to the growing legend.
The shot I took? It’s just okay, as photos go. The composition is a bit off, but from my position in the infield, it was the view I had. I’m glad I had it. Maybe it won’t hang on anyone’s wall, but it’s etched in my memory. It was, for me, the moment that bicycle racing came alive. The riders were real. The place was real. No blurry illegal feed on my computer, no pixelated Youtube replays.
I look at that photo and I can smell it. I can hear Hayman’s exhausted moan in the moments between winning and realizing he had won. Sure, it’s just an average photo. But it’s a legendary memory.