The legendary bike race where fans pray for rain
PARIS — François Doulcier tended the cobblestones of northern France for most of his adult life, all one day a year when a platoon tore them up at 35 miles an hour. He understands how the stones have evolved over the years, how they behave in different conditions and where they make the Paris-Roubaix cycling race even more dangerous.
But over the past few weeks, Doulcier was rooting chaos, along with nearly every other cycling fan. This is because Paris-Roubaix took place in the rain this weekend for the first time since 2002. And while it may seem strange for supporters of an outdoor sport to pray for abject weather – unless you live in Green Bay during the playoffs – cycling fans see something epic about the added peril of riding a bike on cobblestones in mud.
They know that the race dubbed the Hell of the North becomes even more hellish when Hell gets wet.
“It’s been too long without rain,” says Doulcier, whose voluntary organization, Friends of Paris-Roubaix, takes care of paved areas. “We have been waiting for it for 20 years.
The wait ended this weekend. Rain washed down the very first women’s race on Saturday and the 118th edition of the men’s event on Sunday. It also made them instant classics. British rider Lizzie Deignan became the first female champion after a solo attack over 50 miles. By the time she crossed the line, she had bounced off the cobbles so much that her handlebars were covered in blood.
“The plan was: there is no rule book today,” Deignan said.
The men’s race ended with a sprint at the Roubaix velodrome as Italian Sonny Colbrelli held up against Belgian Florian Vermeersch and Dutch Mathieu van der Poel, although they are barely recognizable under a layer of dirt.
What is already brutal exercise that takes endurance, good control of the bike and a taste for splashed mud turns into a test of a cyclist’s nerve and appetite for misery. It was cold. It was packed. The surface of the cobblestones looked like an ice rink. And the potholes, called in French “chicken nests”, filled with water, making them impossible to judge. Your front wheel can skip them or you can shift on your own handlebars.
“You have a 50% chance of falling,” Deceuninck-Quickstep team coach Tom Steels told Belgian broadcaster Sporza. “Paris-Roubaix in the rain puts life in danger… Because of the rain it will also be an edition that will be remembered for a long time.
The only people who hate the rain as much as the fans love it are the poor souls who have to spend six hours through the flood. Narrow roads, frequented mostly by tractors the rest of the year, are becoming more suited to cyclists with a cyclocross background than to traditional road racers.
Dutchman Dylan van Baarle was more direct. “A wet Roubaix… It’s not something I look forward to,” Dutch driver Dylan van Baarle said ahead of the race. “It’s one of my biggest nightmares.”
Van Baarle did not reach Roubaix. His teammate Ineos Gianni Moscon fared much better, at least for most of the day. Moscon attacked with nearly 50 miles to go, much like Deignan, and eventually found himself alone in the lead with a one-minute cushion. All he had to do was stand.
That’s when the price fell. Moscon punctured a tire and then crashed onto the cobbles in two separate incidents which saw the chasing group swallow up their advantage. He finally settled for fourth place. And yet, the painful and mud-covered Moscon called Paris-Roubaix “the most beautiful race in the world”.
The possibility of Roubaix in the rain only arose because it will be the first modern edition of the race held in October, due to the pandemic. The race, which has not taken place since 2019, takes place normally in early April. The only problem with keeping tradition is that this century has seen a clear trend towards milder springs in this corner of Europe. Botanists from neighboring Flanders have even used decades of bicycle racing footage to show that plant life is blooming earlier in the year.
The long period of drought, meanwhile, only made the last wet Roubaix all the more legendary.
In 2001, so much rain fell on the course in the days leading up to the race that water had to be pumped from the paved area through the Arenberg forest so that the bikes could cross it. But 2002 was the year the sky really turned against the peloton.
“It was just more spectacular,” said Andreas Klier, sporting director of the EF Education-Nippo team, which raced at Roubaix that year.
Spectacular, in terms of cycling, doesn’t necessarily mean good. There were accidents all over the road, just like this weekend. The race to each paved section was even more hectic than usual, as the only safe spot was right in front. And the runners were so covered in spray and mud that halfway through the race they looked like extras in a WWI movie.
The saving grace for Klier in 2002 was the rookie who slipped into the breakaway with him and then proceeded to tow the group for much of the afternoon. “Fortunately we have this (first year pro) here pulling the wind in the face,” he recalls thinking. It turned out to be Tom Boonen. The Belgian will then win Paris-Roubaix four times, a record.
One hundred and eighty runners set off that morning from the city of Compiègne, northeast of Paris for 162.2 miles of damp, dull pain. Two-thirds of them have resigned. The results list just 41 official finishers, led by Belgian cobblestone specialist Johan Museeuw, but another 16 were crazy enough to go all the way even though they were way out of time for the race. By the time they reached the line, the drenched fans were already dispersing. The latecomers had spent nearly eight hours on the bike.
Klier was not among them. While he feels strong enough to ride in the breakaway, he’s become just another victim of a course that was never designed for bikes, let alone bikes in the rain.
“There’s not much you can do if someone crashes in front of you,” he said. “You really don’t have to be unlucky on this day.”
Write to Joshua Robinson at [email protected]
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