ROUBAIX, France (VN) — Paris-Roubaix isn’t over until the dirt, grime, and dust of northern France’s farm country is washed out of hair, skin, nose, and eyes. Veterans say it can take just as long to feel clean after a rough Roubaix as it does for the aches and pains to fade away.
On Sunday, Philippe Gilbert leaned back in a concrete cubicle lost in his thoughts. The 35-year-old Belgian superstar had just completed only his second attempt at cycling’s hardest race. Where did he go after finishing? It wasn’t to Quick-Step Floors’s team bus. Gilbert made tracks directly for Roubaix’s historic communal showers.
“It’s part of the race. It’s tradition, so it’s important to be here, at least for me anyway,” Gilbert explained. “When you look back on the internet you can find some old movies and see the interviews being made here. It’s nice to come here.”
Paris-Roubaix is an oddity even by cycling standards. It’s a race held over 19th-century roads raced with 21st-century bikes. Just as cycling tip-toes toward modernization, it remains moored to its past. In a sport steeped in tradition, the showers in the annex building of Roubaix’s outdoor velodrome are a throwback to how cycling used to be.
On Sunday, Gilbert made a pilgrimage of sorts to the closing chapter of Roubaix mythos. There were but a handful of pros in there. Two riders from Sunweb walked in as Gilbert was rolling out. Most headed straight to their respective team buses. Mitchelton-Scott’s Mat Hayman pulled a few of his younger teammates by the ear.
“I’ve got a plaque in there with my name on it,” said 2016 Roubaix winner Hayman. “I am going to go find some teammates and take them in there. They were all keen this morning, but a lot of stuff happens in the last six hours, and they might have all gone to the team bus.”
Cycling is unique in sport that something as ordinary as communal showers can hold such mystique. In the early days of professional racing, riders slept in school houses, ate in cafeterias, and showered where they could. Team buses didn’t become routine until the 1990s.
The squat concrete building with a generic white exterior sits unassumingly at the entrance of the outdoor velodrome. Today it hosts a bar and a small museum. The cold cement and basic cubicles remain unchanged from when they were built in the 1940s. In the old days, the entire peloton would pile into the showers to spray off the layers of mud and dust. If journalists wanted a quote, they would head to the showers. Today, teams organize WhatsApp chat groups and riders are sometimes annoyed at being asked to step out of a bus for a quick comment after a shower.
“At least once in your career, you should have a shower in Roubaix. It’s old-school,” said Team Sky sport director Servais Knaven. “You’re there with all the other riders. Everyone is tired, and everyone has their story to tell. You come there all together. It’s something special.”
Knaven didn’t have time to shower in his iconic 2001 Roubaix victory, one of the last truly muddy editions of Roubaix. After the podium ceremony, post-race press conferences, and pandemonium, there was no time for a shower at the velodrome.
Last week, Knaven returned to the velodrome with a junior women’s team that he is supporting. The Dutchman brought his winning still-muddy Merckx bike back to the velodrome for the first since he won. Mechanics never washed Knaven’s bike, and it is now on display in a Rapha store in Amsterdam. He also revisited the showers to see his name plaque on one of the cubicles.
“My name is in there. I’ve seen it a few times. It’s a special place,” Knaven said. “That’s where the guys like Merckx were before you. It gives you a connection to the history of the sport.”
After local organizers started posting metal plaques of each winner in the cubicles, the showers have become a rather odd hall of fame for Roubaix.
Fully functioning with hot water, the showers also represent an endpoint to the cobblestoned classics. It’s both cleansing and purification after such a brutal baptism of pain. For the pros that endure the rigors of Roubaix, the showers are a rite of passage. It’s a place for the professionals to celebrate and commiserate their day’s misadventures.
For many of the older riders, the showers punctuated an official conclusion of the cobblestoned classics. After an unforgiving spring calendar, most of the pavé specialists end the first part of their season at Roubaix. The showers became a ritual of spring. Once they walked out of the showers, the spring campaign was officially over.
“I used to go in there every year because it was a place you associated the end of the season,” said Dimension Data sport director Roger Hammond. “Good or bad, you go in there, and it’s a bit like closure to the classics. It’s a special place. That’s part of the beauty of cycling. The sport is a real equalizer. I would be in there with Johan Museeuw and a rider like myself.”
There’s certainly nothing glamorous about the showers. They’re largely unchanged since they were built in the 1940s. There’s little or no privacy, especially with journalists, VIPs, and the occasional tourist strolling through.
“It’s not the nicest of place to take a shower, to be honest,” Hammond continued. “It’s freezing cold and not much privacy. That’s the beauty of it. It was so grim in there that it was a way to finish off a grim race. Why would you have a nice, comfy seat in a cubicle to have a shower after 260km of hell? It was a race from hell, so they were the showers from hell.”
Many feel like they’re walking in the footsteps of history when they step into the Roubaix showers. It was here were Eddy Merckx and Roger De Vlaeminck would clean up after their epic battles.
The arrival of team buses in the 1990s meant that it was no longer necessary to go into the showers. Tom Steels, today a Quick-Step sport director, said he never used the showers during his career in the 1990s and 2000s.
Today’s riders typically head straight to their bus. And why not? They have clean clothes, food, and warm drinks waiting, and much more privacy. And just as a generation of riders have never raced on wet cobblestones, almost no one today bothers to head to the Roubaix showers.
Gilbert recalled that the first time he raced Roubaix back in 2007, he was on Marc Madiot’s FDJ team. The French director forced all of his riders to head to the Roubaix showers just to have a chance to live a part of cycling history.
“I had no choice in my first Roubaix. Madiot made us come here,” Gilbert said as he prepared to return to the team bus. “I came here today to feel that history. Maybe more riders will come back. It’s part of history.”