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A day at Paris - Roubaix ~ Chasing the Peloton
By Bart Hazen
Date: 4/16/2008
A day at Paris - Roubaix ~ Chasing the Peloton

A day at Paris - Roubaix ~ Chasing the Peloton
A photo journal - Chasing the peloton across France to follow the epic race as they battle across the cobbles to the Roubaix Velodrome.

A day at Paris Roubaix. It’s a dream of every cycling fan to go to this historical and heroic bike race in Northern France. For me this dream came true last Sunday as I visited this race for the first time; and hopefully not for the last time.

We left at home around 9.30 in the morning, a bit later than we might have, but we didn’t plan being at the start in Compiegne. You say Compiegne, that looks familiar to me? Of course, last year the Tour de France visited Compiegne and it isn’t a coincidence that Fabian Cancellara won that stage in July. A few months earlier “Cancy” was also the best in Paris-Roubaix. Compiegne has been the traditional host for the start of this race since 1977.

Because we didn’t go to the start, we planned to go to one of the first cobblestone sections (in French it’s called “Pavé”) named - Quiévy à St Python. For us it was a 2 hour and 30 minute drive to reach our first destination. We used the car navigation system, but we forgot to put the map of France in it. After leaving Belgium we had to use our “how to read a detailed map of Northern France” skills to get there; we succeeded of course.

Locals await the race, surrounded by carnival decorations.
Photo © 2008 Bart Hazen

After Valenciennes we took the exit to SOLESMES (18 km further on). From Solesmes it was about 7 km to the pavé section of Quiévy à St Python. When we reached Solesmes the police stopped everyone as the riders were due in Solesmes within the hour. It is normal in France, especially in the bigger races, to keep the roads free to avoid traffic problems.

I asked in my best French, which is actually quite poor, how we could reach the cobblestone section; but he said that it wasn’t possible at the moment. Due to that, we were forced to watch the riders as they came through Solesmes; a nice detail was, the town was the riders first feed zone (or in French “Ravitaillement”).

Ag2r Soigneur prepares the mussettes in anticipation of the riders arrival.
Photo © 2008 Bart Hazen

We walked through Solesmes and we saw that bike racing is really popular in this part of France. The locals gathered outside talking with each other, some were having fun with home-made carnival creations. While waiting for the riders in the feed zone I saw some unusual spectators alongside the road. In an opened window of one of the homes there were three dogs watching the events below while the soigneurs were preparing the bags to pass to the riders when they came through.

Unusual spectators... or part of the "Barking Tifosi" watch the events below.
Photo © 2008 Bart Hazen

Matthé Pronk, Jan Kuyckx and Alexander Serov were the first to arrive, the trio rode in with a few minutes on the bunch. After the rest of riders passed through Solesmes, the locals went home and the rest of us returned to our cars or moto's to move on to another location to see the race. Some carried the mussettes and bidons in their hands that the riders had discarded, to add to their souvenir collections. A detail: the motorcycles in the race are not normal moto's but cross-country ("Dirt bikes") motorcycles, to be sure it will not get broken during the race from bouncing over the cobbles.

The cross-country moto's arrive in the feed zone escorting the front of the race.
Photo © 2008 Bart Hazen

We stepped in the car and planned to go towards Denain. In Denain we saw the riders for the second time near the tramway (or tram station). Here the three riders were still in front but the gap on the bunch was down with Slipstream and Quick Step near the front setting the pace.

Just before the riders arrived in Denain, the police stopped a vehicle. It was a soigneur from Ag2r with some wheels for the riders who flatted on the pavé. He was trying to convince the police that he was working for the team; but despite phone calls and his best efforts, he had to wait until the riders passed.

After Denain we planned to go to Roubaix to see the finish, but on our way to find the highway to Roubaix we stopped with other fellow race chasers as the race was passing on the cobbles near the road we were on. We jumped out of the car, ran to the road where the riders passed, and we just missed the bunch. I took a look to my right and I saw a road sign with the name "Arenberg". Off in the distance we could see the beginning of the famous cobbled path of the Forest of Arenberg.

In the distance we could see the beginning of the Arenberg forest pavé.
Photo © 2008 Bart Hazen

After the riders passed we moved; I checked if it was possible to see the riders for the fourth time in Wallers after the riders came out of the forest and the first battle would be made in the bunch. In Wallers Pronk, Serov and Kuyckx were still in front, their gap was shorter at this point.

As the bunch flew by with the favorites Steven de Jongh (Quick Step) was setting the pace. In this group we missed two other favorites Juan-Antonio Flecha and Filippo Pozzato we were watching for. Just before the Arenberg Forest both had crashed and had to chase to get back in the bunch, they did succeed eventually. But the bunch was broken into lots of small groups and lots of riders were visibly suffering, some more than the others.

After the police opened the roads again, we were free to continue our chase - finally we reached the highway on the way to Roubaix to see the finish. But while driving on the highway, on both sides of the road you could see the course and many of the cobblestone sections. You could even follow some riders and team cars on the course, which is an amazing view.

At a certain point we saw that lots of cars had stopped alongside the (highway) as the riders still had to pass the cobblestone section that paralleled the highway. We did the same, parked the car, jumped out and ran to the pavé section called Beuvry à Orchies (section 13).

The Peloton passes leaving a cloud of dust. Photo © 2008 Bart Hazen

In Beuvry à Orchies we finally could taste what Paris-Roubaix is really about; riding on the pave, biting the dust and suffering on the cobbles. As it was dry, not only were the riders biting the dust, but also us fans alongside the road. When the riders entered the section it was Quick Step leading the pace of the bunch  with Boonen; Fabian Cancellara was riding very easy and looking smooth waiting to launch his attack later in the race. (The break of three had been caught by then.)

A dust covered Kevin de Weert of Cofidis passes us. Photo © 2008 Bart Hazen

The crowd also had to pay close attention, the riders were looking for the best sections to ride on, but these sections were where the crowd had chosen to stand. So instead of the riders moving for us, we had to move for the riders...  otherwise if the riders crashed we would be blamed; and we of course didn't want to cause a crash right?

After the first and second bunch passed us at the Beuvry à Orchies section we saw some police cars at the highway stopping next to our parked cars, which wasn’t a good sign. (It’s forbidden to stop alongside the road of the highway, unless you have a car problem.) So we ran to our car and moved on again before the police decided to write tickets and give us fines.

Back into the car, again and we decided not to stop again to watch the race. We could have seen them a few more times; but decided to head for Roubaix to be sure to get a parking space and a good location to see the riders entering the cycling track (velodrome in French) battling for the heroic victory.

The amassed media and some soigneurs await the riders in Roubaix.
Another view of the velodrome.
VIP Section at the velodrome.
Photo © 2008 Bart Hazen

We entered the open air track in Roubaix one hour before the riders entered the velodrome. It was a real thrill for us to see this historic track which we only knew from television and the pictures of the famous cycling photographers of the finishes in the last century. The Paris - Roubaix  was organized by the owners of the Roubaix track as a way to promote their new velodrome.

Big screen in the velodrome shows Ballan racing.
Photo © 2008 Bart Hazen

After we found a good place to watch the race, we settled in our seats located just before the 300 meters to go banner. We watched the final part of the race on the big screen. At that moment Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara and Alessandro Ballan were riding at the front battling each other on the Carrefour de L’Arbre. But neither of them could drop the other two.

A view of Roubaix velodrome from above as we await the riders, on the screen we can see Ballan, Boonen and Cancellara on the road. Photo © 2008 Bart Hazen

Time flew by and soon we heard the helicopters and then saw the helicopters; we knew that the riders were coming soon. Alessandro Ballan entered the track in Roubaix first with Cancellara and Boonen on his wheel. Photo © 2008 Bart Hazen

The fans were cheering and chanting the riders names, which gave us a real goose-bumps moment. Alessandro Ballan started the sprint but Tom Boonen won the race very easy for the second time in his career.

All the Belgians in the stadium were going wild celebrating the win of their hero, riders and staff of the teams congratulating each other and the massive contingent of press gathered around the top three to take photos and to get comments from the riders.

Each of the other riders got applause as they arrived in the velodrome from the fans, who appreciated what a really big achievement it was to finish the race.

But the biggest surprise for us as Dutch fans was of course, the great performance of our young Slipstream rider and neo professional Martijn Maaskant. In his first ever Paris-Roubaix he finished fourth between the big guns. Really wow!!! Martijn showed he has a big future!

Riders totally empty and tired after a long day in the saddle relax after finishing.
Photo © 2008 Bart Hazen

From our location we also had a good view of the infield where the riders were greeted and received care from the team soigneurs. Most riders were sitting down after a long day in the saddle and were really tired; other riders were smiling and enjoying the spectacle, because for them it’s a huge success to finish the historic and tough race and hear the applause and cheers of all the fans.

After all the riders finished, at least we thought they were, we went to the team busses to take some photos. But while walking to the busses we heard a whistle from one of the policemen. We saw a race motorcycle and behind him a Saunier Duval rider... and then the final vehicle of the race, the sag wagon (the car that is symbolic for riding behind the last rider in the race).

The Saunier Duval rider was French sprinter Denis Flahaut. He finished the race but didn’t show up in the results as he finished outside the time-limit. I especially want to mention him in my report as I have tremendous respect for Flahaut for not to giving up and fighting to reach the finish. People who only see the results think he didn’t finish, but actually that isn’t true as he finished - but just outside the time limit.

Tom Boonen and escorts.
Photo © 2008 Bart Hazen

We walked through the zone with all the team busses as the mechanics cleaned the bikes. We luckily talked with some well-known people from the teams as they were discussing the race. On our way back to our car we passed the entrance of the velodrome, and to our surprise we saw a mass of media people leaving the track; in the middle a guy in a blue and white cycling shirt. It was Tom Boonen who was heading likely to the doping control or a press conference. Boonen wasn’t surrounded by only media but also by lots of security. It reminded me of a famous movie or rock star leaving the stage with his personal security.

On our way back to the car there were also lots of people gathered around the blue & fuscia Lampre bus. There Alessandro Ballan was doing an interview with an Italian journalist. At the same time he was also signing autographs and posing for photos with young fans. He took the time to satisfy all of them; before the team bus was left to go back to the hotel.

After most of the busses left Roubaix we hopped in the car again and drove back through Valenciennes, Mons, Charleroi and Liege to Maastricht (The Netherlands). At around 10 pm that evening we arrived home after almost 12 hours of chasing the riders at Paris - Roubaix.

It was a day I and my friends won’t quickly forget, and a great experience. Seeing the riders six times during the race in a country on roads we were not familiar with, without a map of France for the cars navigation system, and using our own “how to read a map” skills was a memorable adventure.

I hope to go back to this race again next year!! I really love it!!

More Photos: Paris - Roubaix Gallery

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