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Paris Roubaix – A Breakaway in Hell

Rider looks at camera

2000 photographs, 16 hours and 9 coffees’ later and we are done. That’s just the editing, but what about the trip?

For the Breakaway team consisting of GC hope Dan and me, his trusty domestique Horatio, hell came not on the cobbled roads of northern France but in the team car the night before.

1.5 degrees on the dash bid us good night at 3:30 am. The front seats in the car slid down whilst we hid in a murky field outside Compiègne. We knew it was going to be a cold one, but the fact we had made it to within touching distance of one of the world’s biggest bike races kept us warm. For about 5 minutes.

2 hours later, with every layer of clothing on or around us, we woke up. One freezing groan later and the engine was on, with it Dan’s beloved heated seats. In as much time as the engine took to fire up, we were back asleep.

Finally, at 7:30, covered in sweat in a car that’s pungency would have rivalled a pig farm, we rolled out. With the windows down and the sun rising on a day that wouldn’t disappoint, we went in search of a much needed croissant.

It wouldn’t be unfair to say that the level of planning that went into this trip was equal to the amount of time Romain Bardet spends on his TT bike. Virtually none. A date circled in the diary, a last minute Eurotunnel day trip ticket and a box of rice cakes freshly steamed the day before was all we had.

We left Brighton on the Saturday night, aiming for the 10 pm Eurotunnel train, our goal to be in Compiegne for the sound of the klaxon and grand depart 12 hours later. Neither of us had been to Paris-Roubaix before. As such the excitement was palpable.

Being a self-confessed tech nerd I was most excited about the prospect of getting up close and personal with plenty of chain catchers, double wrapped bar tape and the plumpest tyres the world tour would see all year. Dan on the other hand was in full photo mode. Guiding his lens between down jacketed French fans, team branded woolly hats and plenty of arm and knee warmers. Did I mention it was cold!

Because of our pretty last minute approach to the race we didn’t have any sort of press pass, so it was to our advantage that the main square in Compiegne is tiny. Only 4 or 5 teams could fit in it, meaning that the rest were outside the press area, lined up along a tree walled boulevard in the early morning sun.

We took full advantage of this. Working through the teams efficiently and quickly, snapping riders, bikes, team cars and personnel. Dan was in his element. Like Contador dancing up a col in the Pyrenees in the last week of the tour. His style is all about the candid, close up snap. He was flying along. Little did we know when we rolled up to the quickstep bus that a cheeky portrait taken by Dan would no doubt bless the eventual winner with all the luck he needed.

As the riders left for a brutal 257 km’s on those wretched skull sized cobbles, we began our own race. There are a number of obstacles in your way when following a world tour race in France. You have the other French spectators who, when the caravan screeches past, practically enter a boxing ring to collect their favourite sponsors tat. Fully grown adults will happily bat away children, sending them sprawling down the road like a steel ball in a game of pétanque. Then there is the sweet nature of the gendarmerie to contend with. I have fond memories of being yanked off my bike by a gendarme whilst descending the Col d’Aspin in the 2016 tour. You always feel that although they are doing their job and in most cases perform it admirably they have an uncanny knack of spotting a brit in the crowd and take immense pleasure in singling them out. The final and perhaps most French of all the obstacles in your way is their rampant enthusiasm for gastronomy. A farmers’ market closing one of the main roads out of Compiegne added an unhelpful 20 minutes to our dash to the cobbles.

However, with the garlic selling behind us and our first obstacle overcome we were free to chase the race. Darting out of Compiegne and onto the péage we blasted north for an hour or so until we reached our targeted sector. Our loose plan was to see the race at the start and finish and if possible watch them on one of the revered sectors of pavé. Miraculously we dodged the praying eyes of the gendarme and found ourselves parked right by the end of sector 15, Tilloy à Sars-et-Rosières. Success number 2. We then got our elbows out and held our ground whilst men, women and children around us leapt perilously close to the passing floats of the caravan who threw out pens, Haribo and most importantly Cofidis neck warmers, of which Dan and I managed to snaffle a couple. We needed them!

Before too long we saw a glimpse of the first riders, rounding a right hand bend in the pavé some 300 metres away. We watched as they rattled across the cobbles, dust flying in the air from every team car, motorbike and official’s car. Despite the rough roads they flew past us. Seemingly un-deterred by the treacherous surface they were on. The favourites were all in one group at the front of the race as they passed us. Somewhat cagey and unwilling to attack as they still had 71 km’s to go till the velodrome. Little did we know that the feed zone 1.5 km’s after sector 15 would prove the catalyst for Nils Politt’s race defining attack which saw a response from the eventual winner.

Baffled at the speed the riders were going and worried we wouldn’t make it, we dashed back to the car, it was time to make it count. We hadn’t driven all this way to miss the riders finish at the iconic Roubaix Velodrome. So, Breakaway Digital stepped on it, got a gap and went full gas to the line.

Faced with road closures at every junction Dan directed us through Roubaix like Viviani in a sprint. After a dizzying number of corners and roundabouts we found ourselves at the flamme rouge. No way could we find a parking space we thought. In a, dare I say it myself, triumphant gesture of parking prowess I squeezed the team car into what was surely the smallest parking space in Europe and we ran to the velodrome.

We made it to the gates just seconds before the legend that is Philipe Gilbert and new German sensation Politt flew round the final chicane. Just in time to watch the two duke it out for the monumental win. Spurred on by the dust, grime and fatigue evident on the faces of all the riders we made a beeline for the team buses.

Once again Dan got to work. Each rider who hoisted their weary leg over the saddle and plodded into the team bus looked more tired than the last. It really did look like they had been to hell. In front of us were riders who we had seen looking so fresh and hopeful at the start that morning, with 257 hard km’s in the legs and little to show for it other than a brain rattled around in their skull and a thick layer of French dust glued to their tanned, sticky skin.

As mechanics beavered away the finish started to resemble something more like a circus. With soap flying everywhere, people either shouting or crying, horns blaring and the constant buzz of helicopters above. That exact moment was why we went to France. Why we almost froze to death, didn’t sleep, helped fertilise a farmer’s crops, narrowly avoided several speed cameras and pulled off the most insane parking manoeuvre ever.

We were knackered. Obviously not as much as the riders, but after 24 hours of wearing two pairs of trousers, not enough coffee and sitting in a car rapidly resembling and smelling like a rubbish dump, we were ready to go home.

Having made the crossing back to Blighty, one thing stood in our path. The dreaded M25. Whilst employing all the known tactics to avoid falling asleep at the wheel, face slapping, loud music and the window wound down, it was a glance across at the passenger seat to see Dan’s face nestled snuggly into his jacket that really took its toll. Were it not for the unforgettable memories created that day and the buzz you get from being at the heart of a bike race spurring me on I am sure we would have found ourselves in a similar position to the victor of Roubaix himself, Philip Gilbert when he went for an unprompted explore over a wall during stage 16 of last year’s tour.

While the great man himself was in all likelihood dancing atop a table, with his cobble stone trophy in one arm and a well-earned glass of fizz or Belgian beer in the other we were ready to say goodnight. Oh no wait a minute, what am I talking about? It’s time to start editing!

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