Emotion on the infield: Roubaix hides nothing, reveals all

Sunday’s epic Paris–Roubaix battle was one of the best in years, fueled by pure power and raw emotion in cycling’s most honest race.

ROUBAIX, France (VN) — Paris–Roubaix is cycling’s most honest race. There’s no hiding. Apart from one rider each year, the cobbles always win. Even the strongest of men can be reduced to tears, sometimes of joy, but usually of anguish.

Sunday’s epic battle was one of the best in years, fueled by pure power and raw emotion. Team politics didn’t ruin the race. No one was sitting in. It was full-gas from the gun in Compiègne, rider against rider, and the suspense held until the five-up sprint on the velodrome at Roubaix. It was one-day racing at its absolute best.

The infield lawn of the Roubaix velodrome is like a cycling theater-in-the-round. Its large expanse at the center of the 750-meter oval is where riders regroup, reflect, and recover after a Sunday in hell. Sacred ground for a sacred race.

Each rider pedals onto the velodrome’s lawn with a mix of relief and disappointment, a few with smiles, and nearly all collapse in exhaustion. Arriving to the finish line and the green warmth of the oval is victory enough.

Each brings tales laden with dread and joy, and exalt and exasperation. From cagey veterans, like Movistar’s Emanol Irviti, who rode into the top-10 after 12 career starts, to Paris-Roubaix rookies. First-timer Wouter Wippert of Cannondale rode into the velodrome dusty and tired, long after Mathew Hayman collected his pavé trophy, but ready with a joke — “Why can’t we just race on normal roads?”

Roubaix is a cold and ruthless arbiter, and the superstars are not immune to disappointment. World champion Peter Sagan, who electrified the public with his acrobatic save, bunny-hopping over a crash, rode in a small circles on the lawn after crossing the line 11th, lost in his thoughts, demonized by what might have happened had he not been caught behind the race-breaking crash that split the bunch before the Arenberg Forest.

BMC’s Taylor Phinney ended a long, painful journey back to Roubaix’s oval in quiet repose. Nearly two years after a horrific crash almost ended his career, he sat alone on the infield grass after kicking to second in his bunch sprint, soaking in the enormity of his achievement: “I have more of an appreciation of how hard it is to finish this race now. I’m happy that I was able to make it here.”

In the post-race protocol, which is so familiar to Tom Boonen (Etixx – Quick-Step), he proudly bowed to the cheering crowd, but from the wrong step on the podium. One bike-length short of a record fifth Roubaix trophy, which will haunt him for a long time, and just might keep him in the peloton for another year.

Moments later, Fabian Cancellara bounded into the velodrome, bruised and dusty, but not beaten despite three crashes that knocked him out of contention. He collapsed into the arms of his parents, wife, and children waiting for him as fans from Switzerland applauded their hero from the grandstands. Even an awkward fall on the velodrome while brandishing a large Swiss flag couldn’t ruin his Roubaix farewell. Journalists mobbed “Spartacus” for his reflections on his final stampede, but almost no one noticed Yaroslav Popovych quietly celebrating with Trek soigneurs in what was his final race after a 15-year career.

Despite what appears to be an intrinsic cruelty, Roubaix gives much more than it takes away. More dreams are shattered than realized over the impartiality of the stones, but nearly everyone keeps coming back for more. The pain triggers an addiction that can span a career. Hayman raced 15 Roubaixs before winning Sunday.

“All the guys who are here, they love it,” Hayman said. “This has always been my favorite race. The crowds encourage every single rider, from the front to the back. It’s a special race for me, and always has been, and always will be.”

Of the 198 starters, only 119 finished. Seven were transported to local hospitals, including Sky’s Elia Viviani, who was lucky to avoid more serious injury when struck by a motorcycle in the treacherous Arenberg sector, posting on Twitter: “Today I was unlucky, but also the most lucky of the world!”

Four made it to the velodrome — Matthias Brandle (IAM), Sam Bennett (Bora – Argon 18), Marco Coledan (Trek – Segafredo), and Ryan Anderson (Direct Energie — only to be cruelly eliminated by the time cut. Surely the “hors délai” rule can be softened for a race as grueling and painful as Roubaix? Riders race Roubaix out of love and respect, and no one should be denied a chance to earn an official result because they were a few minutes short of some arbitrary time percentage. At Roubaix, there is no tomorrow.

Just one minute behind his compatriot’s fairytale victory, IAM’s Heinrich Haussler lay strewn on the grass, a lush green bed so much more inviting than the harsh pavé. Sixth place was his best since his breakout 2009 season, the year he was second at both Milano-Sanremo and the Tour of Flanders, a time when everything seemed possible. That seems so long ago, but Haussler keeps fighting for something that may never come true: “I’m really, really happy. To pull out a top-10, with sixth place, is un-f—king-believable.”

Groups of riders still trickled in long after the podium ceremony was completed. Fans cheered each one to the last.