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Behind the Barriers - A Fan's-eye View of Paris Roubaix
By Staff
Date: 4/15/2003
Behind the Barriers - A Fan's-eye View of Paris Roubaix

By Julie Warren

Here's a question for you: Italian Opera, 'Yellow Submarine' and 'Roll Out The Barrel' - what do they have in common? ... Do you give up? ... I'll tell you then. They are all tunes to which Belgian cycling fans can sing the words 'Johan Museeuw' along to!

I discovered this interesting fact when I joined the Keightley family on their annual trip to watch Paris-Roubaix. Visiting the race for an eighth consecutive year, Ian, Helen and their daughter Lauren are what might be called 'seasoned pros'.

We arrived at the Ibis hotel in Compiegne on the Friday before the race and tried to find a place in the car park which wasn't already taken by a team Domina Vacanze-Elitron vehicle. If you're planning to make a trip to watch Paris-Roubaix it's important to book hotel accommodations early. We had secured our rooms months previously and even that far in advance of the race, many of the hotels were already fully booked.

On Saturday morning we had the pleasure of being able to eat our breakfast while watching the Domina team eat their breakfast. They looked as if their pre-race preparation had involved having their hair highlighted and lounging around in solariums. As Team Leader, Daniele Bennati was able to claim the free CD which was attached to their packet of Coco-Pops. This was probably a rare treat for him - I'm sure that when Cipollini is in town, all breakfast cereal freebies automatically head his way!

Daniele Bennati - Domina Vacanze

On Saturday afternoon between 2 and 5 o'clock, the team presentation took place in Compiegne's Place du Palais. The square was tranformed into a mini cycling village with stalls selling all sorts of paraphernalia which included clothing, encyclopedias, bicycles and photographs of the riders. There was also a vast stage and a marquee - the espace partenaires - which was given over to sponsors of the race.

While waiting for the teams to arrive, the crowd was kept entertained. A French-speaking, live band performed truly unique versions of popular songs, the most notable of which was 'Slax Mashare' by James Bra ('Sex Machine' by James Brown for the English speakers amongst you!).

As the excitement of watching the band became too much for me, I decided to wander into the espace partenaires and see what was on offer. It was possible to gauge the quality of the promotional giveaways handed out by each sponsor by the number of people swarming around their stalls. Armfuls of goodies were available to be gathered - posters, backpacks from Credit Lyonnais, stickers, packets of sweets from Haribo, information booklets about the race, shoulder bags from La Redoute and keyrings.

Back outside in the square the teams began to arrive. They were led onto the stage and introduced by 'the voice of the Tour', Daniel Mangeas, before being led back off the stage and into the espace partenaires to collect a goodie bag each and be exposed to members of the public. The Keightleys and I managed to speak to several of the riders and ask them how they were feeling about participating in 'the Hell of the North' the following day.

I asked Lampre rider Rubens Bertogliati if he thought he was going to win. He laughed and told me that he hoped so but he didn't think it was very likely. Max Sciandri was more positive. His reply was "yeah sure" and was backed up by a winning smile! New pro Mark Scanlon wasn't looking forward to riding his first Paris-Roubaix. He told me that he wasn't at all confident about it and that he was just the second reserve.

Rubens Bertogliati - Lampre

The prize for most approachable and chatty rider goes to Palmans-Collstrop's Roger Hammond. He told us that he would be happy to finish in the top 15 and promised that it wouldn't change him if he won. Second prize goes to the young Australian, Allan Davis, who was kind enough to let us inspect the contents of his goodie bag (a towel from La Redoute and a boxed pen from Credit Lyonnais) and confided that he hadn't volunteered to ride - he was being forced to!

Roger Hammand - Palmans Collstrop

On the morning of the race we joined the Domina team for breakfast again. Their Coco-Pops had been replaced with platefuls of spaghetti, parmesan cheese and olive oil. We left them to their carbohydrate feast and headed back to the Place du Palais so that we could secure a good spot behind the barriers to watch the riders arrive and the start of the race.

At 11 o'clock, the 101st edition of Paris-Roubaix began under a cloudless sky and warm sunshine. We watched the riders roll over the start line and then dashed back to our car. We followed a convoy of fellow-spectators, speeding along the motorway towards the next possible sighting point of Saint-Quentin. The favourable weather conditions had led to fast racing and the riders covered 46 kilometres in the first hour. This meant we didn't have long to wait before the peloton snaked its way past us.

Our next stop was the Forest of Arenberg. We parked as close as we could get and made sure the car was facing the right way for a quick getaway once the race had passed.

There is a real party atmosphere in and around the forest. There are stalls selling popcorn and candy floss, a thumping background of disco music and plenty of beer on offer to help fuel the singing of the Johan Museeuw songs! One essential stop is the van selling chips with mayonnaise. The queuing system is non-existent though and so people are served on the basis of who can shout out their order the loudest and most aggressively in French!

Arenberg Forest

Fed and watered, it was time for us to head into the forest itself. We found a spot behind the barriers and passed the time waiting for the race to arrive by watching drunken Belgians trying to walk in a straight line while carrying crates of beer and singing. It was also fun trying to spot each group's designated driver - they were usually to be found clutching a bottle of water and looking embarrassed. I have never seen such a tidy nation as the Belgians though. No matter how much they had to drink, they made sure they took their empty bottles away with them so that the forest was left looking spotless.

The sound of helicopters overhead announced the impending arrival of the race. We were covered in clouds of dust as the photographers and race officials sped through the forest on their motorbikes and in their cars. The roar of the crowd swept along the barriers like a Mexican Wave as the first of the riders entered the forest. They rode past at what seemed like an impossible speed and this, combined with the dust hanging in the air, made it difficult to pick out who was who.

Once the main bunch had passed us, we ran through the forest and back to the car and headed down the motorway to Orchies. The turn-off point for Orchies became an impromptu car park and we joined countless other fans in abandoning our car in the middle of the road, leaping over crash barriers and running down a grass verge to snatch our next sight of the race.

Trying to leave Orchies proved to be something of a nightmare. The impromptu car park had now become a traffic jam of hellish proportions. The temperature was rising and tempers were fraying. Team cars were trapped in the mass of vehicles along with the fans and people leant on their hooters in desperation.

It took a long time for the traffic to start moving and we only just managed to reach the last section of cobbles outside the velodrome in Roubaix in time to see Van Petegem, Pieri and Ekimov arrive. There was an explosion of cheering as they entered the velodrome and although we didn't get to see the finish of the race, we were able to walk to the velodrome in time to see the presentation.

So if you're planning to go and see Paris-Roubaix for yourself next year, here are my top tips: book your accommodation well in advance, learn the French for 'chips with mayonnaise', give Orchies a miss and practise singing 'Johan Museeuw' to every tune you can possibly think of!

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