Rough riders: Sitting shotgun in the Mavic neutral service car at Roubaix
Story and photos by Caley Fretz
Early Sunday morning, Compiegne, France.
Paris-Roubaix stands isolated, singular even among those races that purport to be part of its cobbled family. It is loved and feared in equal measure, impossible to start without talent, impossible to finish without luck, impossible to win without both.
The race has just begun, rolling slowly out of Compiègne. I’m in a bright, yellow, Mavic-branded Skoda, topped with racks of yellow Canyon bikes with toe clips — bikes of last resort — and at least a dozen Mavic wheels. In the driver’s seat is Maxime Ruphy, a full-time Service Course staffer. He’s relaxed through the early kilometers, rolling behind a long line of team cars. He won’t be relaxed for long.
The first sectors see just a few flats, all of which are easily handled by team cars. Despite rain on Saturday, the dust is heavy in spots, and the wind is still light, so it hangs over the road for minutes after the peloton and cars pass through.
It does not take long for the pavé to strike. The first hour of the race is fast, a series of relentless attacks until the day’s long breakaway is finally formed. It is the most difficult breakaway to make in all of pro cycling, some say. Riders charged with placing themselves in the move can burn all their matches before the first cobble sector, Troisvilles, is ever reached. They fall off the back quickly once off smooth tarmac.
Punching tickets. It’s a phrase used in American crit racing for a sort of bike racer’s grim reaper, sitting on the tail end of the field, riding around tired riders as they pop off the peloton’s whipping tail. He’s punching tickets, they say, to Nowheresville. Or Offthebackistan.
At Roubaix, the Mavic cars punch tickets all day. We sit behind the long line of team cars, just ahead of a race commissaire. Any rider who drifts behind us can say goodbye to the front of the race for good, with no more caravan to draft or sticky bottles to hang onto.
Barely 130 kilometers into this 253-kilometer day and one of Mavic’s motos is already in need of fresh wheels. Each carries three mounted to the back, and the mechanic holds one in each hand.
A French voice crackles over the radio used by Mavic crew. “A wheel for moto two,” it says. “Arrière.” Rear.
“Once the pavé start, we don’t stop,” says Ruphy. He rolls down the left rear window as Clement Le Calvez, a moonlighting mechanic here at Roubaix, far from his usual duties in Mavic’s marketing department, sorts through the wheels piled on the back seat. The yellow moto pulls alongside, handing one of Etixx-Quick-Step’s Roval wheels through the front window to Ruphy and grabbing a fresh Mavic from Le Calvez out the back.
Raison d’etre: Wheel swaps
“How long does it take you to change a wheel?” I ask Le Calvez. He doesn’t know, they didn’t time him. “About 10 seconds is normal,” says Ruphy.
Time to test that. An Ag2r rider has a flat on the Quievy sector. He’s off the back, his team car has passed him by, more focused on Johan Vansummeren than this rider, whose number shows he wasn’t even supposed to ride today. It ends in zero; he was first alternate. Something happened to a teammate, and now he’s here.
Ruphy spots him first, arm up in the short grass next to the pavé. “Avant,” he says to Le Calvez, who is out the door before the wheels stop turning.
Twelve seconds. The front forks have lawyer tabs now, doubling the time required to make the change compared to a few years ago. The rider, Quentin Jauregui, is calm. He pulls a bar out of his pocket, takes a few quick bites, and waits for Le Calvez to finish his work.
Again in Arenberg. Nine seconds from the time Le Calvez reaches the rider to the moment he’s able to remount.
Roubaix is a race of attrition. It spits riders off the back rather than launching them off the front. Flats, crashes, bad legs, bad luck; by the final quarter, it seems half the men still riding are chasing. They form small groups, working in tandem, as if teammates, working not against each other but against the race, willing themselves on even when victory has long since ridden up the road.
Back here, every bottle is a sticky bottle. Every car is a motorpacer. Many of those driving have been on the other side of the window; they know what it is to fight the pavé, tooth and nail, for nothing more than a finish within the time cut. Even the commissaires look the other way as teams hand-sling and draft and physically drag riders a few hundred meters closer to the velodrome.
More than 20 wheels swapped. A pile of them sits in the back of each car. Ruphy sets off to the team busses with as many as he can hold. He’ll trade these, with broken spokes and destroyed tires, for the wheels he and his colleagues handed out throughout the day.
The moto drivers clean up, chowing down on a box of pizza. They begin to pack, stashing the dirt bikes used only for Roubaix back into trailers, destined for Service Course headquarters in Annecy. Le Calvez says his job is done. He’ll go back to Annecy, too, and resume his office work. Ruphy will hit the road again tomorrow, bound for Cote Picard, the next race on his season-long calendar.
“Roubaix is always crazy,” he says. “But that’s why it’s the best.”