AN APPRECIATION OF PARIS-ROUBAIX
WORDS AND PHOTOS BY KLAUS BELLON
“In the head of the interrogated prisoner, a haze begins to form. His spirit is wearied to death, his legs are unsteady, and he has one sole desire: to sleep… Anyone who has experienced this desire knows that not even hunger and thirst are comparable with it.”
— Menachem Begin, Israeli Prime Minister (1977–1983) describing his experience with sleep depravation as torture at the hands of the Soviet Union’s People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs.
For most journalists, covering a race like Paris-Roubaix is a highly memorable affair. After all, it’s the one event in the calendar that takes the beauty of the sport and drags it through tiny cobbled roads in northern France that are intended for heavy farm equipment and livestock for the remainder of the year. But for me, races like this are mostly memorable because of what they mean to me personally. Namely sleep depravation, long days and severe exhaustion, all in the name of covering unusually small men ride their bikes as fast as possible.
The most significant defining factor of these trips is my small budget, and all that goes into keeping expenses low in order to remain profitable. First, I must pick the cheapest (read: longest) set of flights that will get me close to the race start. Not once have I been able to sleep for a single minute in any of those (or any) flights, which usually take the most circuitous route possible in the name of monetary savings.
When in Roam
Then there are the trains, buses and other forms of transportation, which eventually bring me into whatever pseudo-hotel I’m able to afford near the race. For this year’s Paris-Roubaix, I flew into Paris, and had no time to eat. A rider was already waiting for me in the lobby of his team hotel so I could do an interview with him. He’d told me the team was staying at the Ibis hotel in Compiègne (where the race starts). Unable to find the hotel by using my limited French, I did the unthinkable: I turned on ‘data roaming’ on my phone, instantly negating the hundreds of dollars I’d saved by taking the least direct route possible to Europe – all in order to help me find the hotel. I was horrified to find there are several Ibis hotels in town, which meant I had to call said rider, putting another small dent into my finances. From my experience, it’s not huge expenses that mean the difference between making these trips profitable or not. In my case, I usually perish (in financial terms) by a thousand paper cuts. Using my phone’s data and voice capabilities at the exorbitant international rates that my carrier charges was merely the beginning of the world’s slowest blood let.
At any rate, the hotel in question was not at a walkable distance. Unfortunately I was unable to find a taxi; there was no public transportation to speak of… so I began the walk of shame. Forty-five minutes walking through factory parking lots and grassy medians, all with my luggage still in tow. Afterwards, as I tried to find the hotel I’d be staying in, it started to rain. Of course it did.
No Sleep ’Til the Start
Exhausted, I wanted to go to sleep as early as possible atop the stinky mattress in my hotel room, which sagged like the back of a horse that’s about to be turned into glue. I finally fell asleep at 1am and, wouldn’t you know it, I woke only four hours later. Unable to go back to sleep, I decided to walk to the race start. In retrospect, this made no sense whatsoever. But I stood there in the dark, watching workers unload barriers, and build the sign-in stage as a drunken man rode a bike in circles, screaming something in French at the top of his lungs.
And that, more or less, is how these events always transpire for me. As such, my experience is vastly different from that of a proper journalist. That means that I seldom leave races with coherent and organized notes about the day. Rather, I’m left with random memories and cloudy recollections that are further impaired by the realities of sleep depravation. With that in mind, I will now share the following observations with you, in no particular order.
Race Roubaix, Get a T-shirt
I’ve heard about actors receiving ‘goodie bags’ at awards shows like the Oscars. I had no idea, however, that riders also received such bags at a race like Paris-Roubaix. But they do. The day before the race, at the team presentation in Compiègne’s town square, riders walk onto a makeshift stage and wave to the large crowd as their names and past accomplishments are called out through the PA. On their way back to the team buses, each rider receives a canvas tote bag containing two small waffles, a cheaply made promotional backpack, and a T-shirt. Yes, you read that right. Your reward for competing in what is perhaps the toughest race in road cycling is an ill-fitting promotional T-shirt. Amazingly, the cheap cotton monstrosity is not emblazoned with the words, ‘I raced Paris-Roubaix and all I got was this lousy T-shirt’. But it should be.
The disparity in the quality of hotels that teams stay in before Paris-Roubaix is staggering. Four teams stayed in a picturesque chateau some 30 minutes away from town. The place sits among polo fields and beautifully manicured gardens. A coffee in the lobby cost €8.
Nearby, at a low-end chain hotel, riders from teams with smaller budgets gathered in the dining room as team staff talked in cramped hallways that smelled of death. The carpet was threadbare, and as I looked around I could swear that the hotel had been used as a filming location for a horror movie. It was almost as bad as the one I was staying in, and that’s saying a lot.
What do you use?
At the start, riders discuss the weather forecast that they had looked up on their phones earlier. “I normally use weather.com,” said one American rider, “but my dad uses something else, and he was texting me screenshots of the forecast he saw, saying it was going to rain today midway through the race.” There was a shockingly quotidian tone to the conversations they were having. Likewise, a couple of years ago at the Grand Prix Montreal, I heard riders talking during one of the climbs early on in the race. They were discussing the difficulties of making a warranty claim on a faulty washing machine in Spain. Pros, they are indeed just like us…
Five Times As Much
At the start, two journalists discussed how the Masters Golf Tournament was happening the same weekend as Paris-Roubaix. One of them laughed as he pointed out that the caddy of the winning golfer would earn around five times as much as the winner of Paris-Roubaix. To be honest, I couldn’t believe it, but later looked it up. Yes, it’s absolutely true. Not only that, but the winning golfer actually wins more than 50 times what the Paris-Roubaix winner gets. I suddenly felt bad for any rider who may have heard these facts and had them rattling around their head for the duration of the race.
Paris-Roubaix is not a quiet affair. Sure, fans are screaming in excitement, and the expected rattle of chains against bike frames is ever-present. But more impressive is the amount of grunting and monosyllabic sounds coming out of riders as they race through cobbled sections. Are they trying to communicate with one another, or are they expressing discomfort and pain? Probably both, but I may never know.
After the race ended, I walked out of the Velodrome with a massive crowd of people, and instantly realized what happens when every team car, bus and truck tries to leave one place at the same time. A comically huge traffic jam formed, with drivers screaming at each other in every language imaginable. In the midst of this, a local man was trying to put a sofa onto his small hatchback Peugeot. Why on earth he’d decided to move on what is likely the busiest day for the city of Roubaix is simply beyond me. But there he was, screaming at fans and team vehicles for getting in the way of his move. Suddenly a couple of fans offered to help him. I joined in, and we lifted the sofa onto the top rack of the Peugeot.
I suddenly realized that I had been up since 4am in the morning. I had barely eaten all day, I was exhausted, jetlagged, yet found myself helping a stranger with his heavy sofa. But that, it turns out, is Paris-Roubaix. And now that I think about it, I can’t wait to do it all over again next year.