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107th Paris - Roubaix - In the Roubaix Velodrome
 
By Staff
Date: 4/16/2009
107th Paris - Roubaix - In the Roubaix Velodrome
 

107th Paris - Roubaix - In the Roubaix Velodrome
The day in the life of a spectator winds up in Roubaix. An eventful race and popular winner produce a day full of positive memories. Here is Paris-Roubaix through the eyes of one of the many who witnessed the race first hand today...

By Tim Lee
Location: Roubaix, Northern France

Onward to our third and final stop of this wonderful week of racing, Paris-Roubaix. The Hell of the North, as it is endearingly known to some, is one of the most feared races in world cycling. Many have started but not finished it. It has reduced grown men to tears. It was even described as the hardest and most unpleasant race of all by Bernard Hinault, one of the hardest men in the history of cycling who could only bring himself to start (and subsequently win) this classic once in his distinguished career.


Inside Roubaix Velodrome, the jumbotron TV is across the field.
 Photo © 2009 - Tim Lee

Paris-Roubaix tests both man and machine to the absolute limit. Teams will often use 'one off' custom bikes for this race. Some bikes will have increased length and a more relaxed geometry for more comfort and stability in their ride. Some will be reinforced with extra carbon layers for added strength; or do as Lampre chose to do this year putting some riders on steel frames. Others have frames and brakes that offer increased tyre width clearance. And then there are those who use much heavier wheels and solder the spokes for further reinforcement against the punishment that cobbles offer. There are also the more common changes that include double thickness bar tape for additional shock absorption, and wider tyres of increased grip and control.

And what about the effect on the human body? Physiological tests have shown that each of the cobbled sections is approximately equivalent to a 4000 meter pursuit in terms of energy expenditure and power output. These are sprinkled out among the 260 km of the race, more heavily weighted towards the second half of the race. Not only do the riders have to produce huge physical efforts to endure this race but they also have to display a level of bike handling that is more closely associated with mountain biking and cyclocross than anything on the road cycling calendar. It truly is a race of attrition. This is evidenced by the fact that there are no major climbs but still it is very rare that any more than a handful of riders reach the finish together- this is because of all the other challenges that this course offers.


Stuey's commemorative cobble at the Roubaix velodrome.  Photo © 2009 - Tim Lee

Like our day in Gent-Wevelgem, we did not have a car so we strategically chose to see the 107th edition of Paris-Roubaix at the finish in the Roubaix Velodrome. We felt this would offer the best 'value' compared with any other one point along the course in terms of maximum ambiance, atmosphere, and overall sighting of riders. Whilst we have no basis for comparison, we are very happy with our choice.

My girlfriend and I stayed the previous night in Kortrijk, West Flanders close to the French border. We caught a train to Lille, which took about 20 minutes and then the metro (underground inter and intra-city train) for a further 20ish minutes to the Euroteleport station in Roubaix. From here we got the bus No. 29 to the Avenue du Parc des Sport which took no more than 15 minutes. This is where the Roubaix Velodrome is situated. The complex is quite well maintained (a strong contrast to the remainder of Roubaix from what we observed) but the velodrome itself was immaculate. Obviously it had been manicured to perfection that morning before the circus that is the media scrum was upon it.

Immediately we noticed all of the team buses and mechanics trucks strategically placed adjacent to the velodrome, next to the famous amenities block. Most were in the same enclosed compound with the exception of Katyusha, Liquigas, Lampre and Rabobank. It was also interesting to see the Euskatel Euskadi bus sequestered from the rest, perhaps a sign that they may be leaving early today???

So after finding the velodrome we had a look around and made some purchases at the stalls before finding a suitable vantage point 100 meters form the finish line. From here we could easily see riders entering the velodrome and also had a direct view of the big screen across the other side of the track. Initially there was quite a relaxed feel to the place as the brass band played some tunes on the grassed area in the middle of the velodrome while fans slowly trickled in and around the track. There was general chatter which mostly revolved around the “will he/won't he” banter with regards to Tom Boonen's chances at a third Cobbled trophy. We did not quite realise how popular 'Tomeke' is until this past week. Reverence is not a term to be used lightly but it is quite apt in this case.

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Boonen rides his first lap in the velodrome, Pozzato follows next.
 Photo © 2009 - Tim Lee

Meanwhile on the big screen the front group was slowly decanting as the pave resulted in a gradual selection process that would continue until the finish. Although there was the odd puddle from overnight rain, the course was essentially dry so as the kilometers ticked by, the faces of the riders grew darker and more encrusted with dirt.

These same faces became more twisted with each turn of the screw as Quickstep remained very active until a group of six formed with about 45 km to go. This consisted of Boonen (Quickstep), Leif Hoste and Johan Vansumeren (Both Silence-Lotto), Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank), Filippo Pozzato (Katyusha), and Thor Hushovd (Cervelo Test Team). This group worked well together for some time but Flecha began to look a little edgy that he was surrounded by some fast finishing pairs of legs, namely Hushovd, Boonen, and Pozzato.

However no sooner was the Spaniard back in the group after a surge when he lost control on a relatively gentle left hand bend. He bought down the Silence-Lotto duo of Vansumeren and Hoste, effectively ending their chance at playing their tactical card of having two riders in the final selection. This left Boonen and Hushovd out in front ahead of Pozzato but only a few kilometers later the Norwegian had a particularly mundane looking fall on another left hander. This must have been a sign that the physical exertions were also having a significant effect on the riders' ability to execute decisions and judge their handling skills.

We would now be denied the mouth watering prospect of two previous Tour de France green jersey winners battling it out on the velodrome for the win.

The scenario was now Boonen alone at head of the race with 18 kilometers remaining. A handful of seconds behind was the only other unscathed rider Pozzato followed a further minute back by a group containing Vansumeren, Hoste, and Hushovd. Flecha was on his own over a minute further back while Sylvain Chavanel (Quickstep) and Heinrich Haussler (Cervelo Test Team) had broken free from the chase group and were now in pursuit of the Rabobank leader.

With each report that Boonen was extracting a second or two out of Pozzato, a roar would erupt in the velodrome.

And with each kilometer that he got closer to the outskirts of town the chants of “Tomeke” were getting louder and louder. His familiar bobbing style was a contrast to the fluidity and smooth action of the Italian but on this occasion was proving to be more effective. It was becoming more obvious that Belgium's reformed and rehabilitated hero would add a third victory to his still burgeoning palmares with each pedal stroke. Apparently the hair samples that firmly suggested numerous encounters with cocaine last June were a world away and redemption would be his.


Tom Boonen celebrates his third Paris Roubaix victory as Pozzato follows on his first lap of the velodrome. Photo © 2009 Fotoreporter Sirotti  

Eventually Boonen had enough time to pump his fists and coast around the velodrome before raising three fingers on each hand to signal the number of Cobbled trophies he now has. A minute later Pozzato rolls over the line looking quite satisfied with his result.

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Van Summeren, Hushovd, and Hoste would sprint for third. - Juan Antonio Flecha arrives.  Photo © 2009 - Tim Lee

A little time elapses before a spent Vansumeren leads out a sprint duel between Hushovd and Hoste, with the Norwegian taking the final podium spot but the Belgian silencing some critics that said he was not capable of being a contender today.

A battered Flecha entered the velodrome a couple of minutes later rue-ing his lost chance because of a crash. Haussler smoked Chavanel in the final sprint to the line several minutes later. After being quite active throughout the race, Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank) was well down by the finish and promising Dutchman Martin Maaskant (Garmin) was also towards the tail end of the field.


Balloons are released as Tom Boonen receives his third cobble on the podium.
 Photo © 2009 - Tim Lee

After the finish, we head to the famed showers to get a sound bite or two from the riders. 2001 winner Servais Knaven is upbeat about his race today, despite coming up short when the big guns fired. Martin Maaskant typifies the mood of the whole Garmin team casually noting that today was not his day. Bradley Wiggins and David Millar (complete with right arm in sling) chat in the background.

Former hard man Sean Kelly wanders through the crowds virtually unnoticed whilst crazy Belgian fans wait outside the anti doping caravan until Boonen emerges from his post race urine test. Leife Hoste is still showing the strain of a hard day in the saddle as he leaves the venue in his own van while the remainder of Silence-Lotto take the team bus.

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Chavanel and Haussler start their first lap. - Matti Breschel, Wouter Weylandt and Frédéric Guesdon finish.  Photo © 2009 - Tim Lee

Overall it has been an extremely satisfying day as a spectator. It must be said that the atmosphere was a little more subdued than last Sunday on the Muur waiting for de Ronde but no less entertaining. Whilst being a French race there was still a distinctive Belgian flare to it, not least because of the winner. The natural selection that this race elicits means that the winner is always quality and today was no different. Unlike in Flanders and Gent-Wevelgem the outstanding favourite came up trumps but with the hazards of this course no one could be sure of victory until the very end. And that is what makes this week each year so fulfilling for all who witness it; enthusiasts and novices alike.

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