ROUBAIX, France (VN) — As if Paris-Roubaix isn’t dangerous enough as it is.
The Hell of the North is among cycling’s most perilous of races. It appears those perils are being exacerbated by over-zealous fans trying to capture the Instagram-perfect moment.
Bernhard Eisel, who completed a record-tying 16th edition of Paris-Roubaix, grumbled as he rode into the velodrome infield Sunday. Not only was exasperated at the difficulty of this year’s edition, but also by the number of fans squeezing in on the pavé sectors trying to take photos.
“At least 10 riders got taken out by somebody with a big lens taking pictures,” Eisel said. “Just hobby photographers, for the home gallery.”
Other riders complained of the same thing: fans leaning in too close and pinching off the action. Pros grumbled that it only increases the tension of a race already packed with nerves and dangers.
Roubaix fans are among the most passionate of the year. They pour in from across northern Europe to make a day of it along the sectors of cobblestones. Some sectors are sparsely lined with fans, giving riders plenty of room to maneuver and manage the challenges of bouncing across the rough stones. Other sectors, however, are packed tight with fans.
Many squeeze in close, reaching with their cameras and smartphones to try to capture images of the iconic race.
Most riders say the dangers come not from the professional photographers, but mostly from over-zealous would-be Graham Watsons. Smartphones have made photography easier and more accessible to anyone who can slip them into their pockets.
“With so many fans trying to take pictures, it squeezes everyone into the middle of the road,” said Heinrich Haussler (Bahrain-Merida). “That just makes the sectors even tighter.”
Roubaix is one of the most-photographed races of the year, and for good reason. No other race on the calendar is as raw and intense of Roubaix, and with its infamous pavé, Roubaix is the most famous one-day race in the world.
Dozens of professional photographers ply the Roubaix course, some following on motorcycles and others leap-frogging ahead of the race to key sectors driving in cars. All are required to wear vests and attend a pre-race meeting to review rules and protocol on where and how to position themselves for images.
Many of the incidents, however, involve fans and amateur photographers who aren’t always aware of the dangers.
There was one scene Sunday captured on TV of a fan who was squatting right in the middle of a sector of pavé, with a wall of riders barreling directly toward him.
“It was shocking to watch when every sector you enter, you just see somebody in pain, in agony on the ground,” Eisel described. “And some guy with a camera lying next to him.”
Roubaix always has its fair share of horrific crashes, and most of them do them do not involve conflicts with fans. Two of this year’s worst crashes involved Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal) slamming into the back of a team car while chasing back, and another involving Iljo Keisse (Deceuninck-Quick-Step), who struck a traffic sign.
There have been a few high-profile incidents, however, involving photographers that have changed the outcome of the race. The most famous occurred in 2013, when Zdenek Stybar collided with a roadside photographer late in that year’s edition. Stybar didn’t crash and managed to stay upright, but he lost the wheel and likely a chance to podium. Riding into the decisive final hour of racing, Stijn Vandenbergh also struck a fan that year, costing him a possible podium spot as well.
This weekend’s incidents at Roubaix seem to underscore a larger trend across cycling events that are seeing rowdier almost hooligan-like atmosphere at races. Since races are held on open roads, it’s difficult to monitor every inch of pavement, and race organizers and riders must count on the respect and good behavior of fans.
Recently, however, it appears fan decorum and attitudes have changed. Fans seem more disorderly and more willing to insert themselves into the action, be it running alongside riders on steep mountain climbs or leaning in too close to capture an image.
Last year, citing security concerns, Tour de France officials largely shut down the infamous “Dutch Corner” on Alpe d’Huez after things seemed to be getting out of hand. Fan access is always a fine balance for race organizers, who do not want to limit the closeness to the action too much but also strive to provide safe racing conditions for fans and athletes alike.
Eisel said this year’s Roubaix already had an eerie, otherworldly feel to it even at the start. With the bracing headwinds and cool temperatures, he described it as one of the odder editions of Roubaix that he’s raced.
“Sometimes it felt like the world’s end or something,” the Austrian veteran said. “The atmosphere was weird. It felt like everyone is missing Boonen or Cancellara. And the weather had something to do with it.”
Eisel avoided scrapes with fans but struggled throughout the race that he entered hoping for more. He was caught behind crashes early in the race and found himself in a chasing group including podium contender Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates).
“It’s just frustrating when you have the legs,” he said. “You think top-10 is easily possible, then you end up there without the cars or anything — it’s game-over there.”
Eisel crossed the line 66th at 15:47 behind winner Philippe Gilbert. By arriving to the finish line in Roubaix, he joined Mat Hayman, Servais Knaven and Raymond Impanis as riders who started and completed 16 editions of the Hell of the North. Those other three won Roubaix at least once. Eisel, however, isn’t sure he’ll be back for another try.
“To be honest, I don’t know,” he said. “I got away 16 times lucky. I don’t know if I am going to keep rolling the dice.”
Or riding the gauntlet of fans reaching in with their smartphones.