Classics

‘It defeats you, but you want to come back to try and defeat it:’ Mitch Docker on the allure of Paris-Roubaix

Docker will retire after riding Roubaix one last time Sunday. The Aussie veteran knows that 'Hell' awaits him, but he wouldn't have it any other way.

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Paris-Roubaix is a race that fascinates and appalls riders with equal measure.

The unique chaos of the cobblestones and throwback appeal of racing on tracks that have stood for a century sees riders build a unique relationship with the race that sees them hating every moment, loving every memory, and always wanting more

One rider that epitomizes the contrasting attitude toward “The Hell of the North” is Mitch Docker, who has chosen to make it his very last race as a pro rider. With 10 rides on the pavé already on his palmarès, Docker is well aware of what he is letting himself in for Sunday.

“I love the battle of Paris-Roubaix. It’s an individual battle as much as it is a team battle. It’s also just a battle just to finish the race – it’s a challenge like no other,” Docker told VeloNews.

“There’s not many other races like this where you go in and you don’t know if you’re actually going to get to the finish, no matter how good a rider you are. There could be problems, punctures or crashes, but also physically you might not make it … I can’t think of any other way, any other race, to end my career.”

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Choosing Paris-Roubaix as a send-off shows just what Roubaix means to Docker, who has been gripped by the race’s stoney clutches since first riding the stones in 2009.

Like how IronMan triathlon and ultra-endurance races fascinate amateur athletes, Docker explained that for all but the riders at the very front of the race, Roubaix is a solo test of mental and physical strength, the kind of “Type 2 fun” that is only ever enjoyed when long in the memory.

“There’s a sense of achievement when you just make the finish, which is quite cool. And then if you’re lucky enough or have good enough legs, you might be in the race as well and be able to do something in the finish too,” Docker said on a call Friday.

“The thing I like about the race is that it can actually defeat you. It defeats you, and it makes you want to come back and try and defeat it, to conquer it. So there’s such an individual challenge to the race – everyone’s scared going into it.”

The fear factor for this weekend’s race has been turned up a notch. Recent rainfalls and forecasts for further gusting winds and heavy rain this weekend has seen riders – including Docker and his EF Education Nippo teammates – recon cobblestones slick with treacherous mud.

Docker didn’t want to hype any sense of warrior romance at retiring on what could be the first wet Roubaix since 2002. The 35-year-old only recently returned to fitness after breaking his elbow in the Benelux Tour early September and instead just wants to survive to see the final velodrome.

“I’m not exactly wishing on a wet race for some sort of added memory,” Docker said. “I don’t think it needs to be any harder or any more difficult or dangerous in any ways, it’s just a hard race as it is, even completely in the dry. I think everyone romanticizes the idea of a wet Roubaix, and though it’s probably going to be that, I’m not really wishing on it for my last one.”

A dream end at a nightmare race

Docker described it as a “blessing in disguise” that Paris-Roubaix had been moved back to autumn when he announced his retirement, explaining that it was “the perfect race to conclude my professional career.”

All that was nearly torpedoed when Docker fell and fractured his elbow just four months ago, leaving him unsure if he’d have the opportunity for one last hit out before hanging up his wheels. It was only in the past week that Docker decided he was ready to take on “Hell” one last time.

“I was always determined to get to Roubaix, but it was only around this time last week that I thought I might have a possibility to do it. When I was training outside on the road after the injury, I couldn’t even just do the normal things – sprinting out of the bars, climbing out of the seat. I was just thinking ‘how am I even going to get through the normal part before we even hit the cobbles?’”

Things clicked back into place just in time. Docker shook off the worst of the lingering pains in his elbow and was able to get a warmup race in his legs at the Tour de Metropole this week. Recons of the most feared cobblestone sectors in recent days sealed the deal.

“I really didn’t fully know if I was going to be able to race until I did the Arenberg yesterday [Trouée d’Arenberg, one of the gnarliest sectors of the race – ed]. Once I came out of Arenberg with no real issues I thought ‘wow, if I can do Arenberg, I can get around,’” he said.

“I wanted to be sure I was ready … it’s not worth doing it if it’s just going to be a shitshow because the race is way too hard to just try and grovel through.”

Docker reached a career-high when he finished 15th at Roubaix in 2011 and has been looking to go better ever since. He knows he’s unlikely to clock into the top-15 on Sunday and that this time, there won’t be another opportunity to race for a top slot on Roubaix’s ancient velodrome.

But at least Docker will have had the opportunity to go toe-to-toe with the most brutal but beguiling of races one last time.

“I finished 15th in 2011 and I’ve never finished better than that,” he said. “That set the bar for me and showed me I can actually ride this race. I’ve never gone much further than that, but the hope of doing better always kept me coming back. It’s all a part of that big battle with the race that makes Roubaix so great.”