Like most people, and certainly the three readers of this blog, I have a certain affinity for Paris-Roubaix. At this point in the year you can’t move on social media without being distracted by a series of gratuitous images of men on bikes amongst monstrous boulders. It’s by some distance the best bike race there is. I’ve written about it before, and it also happens to be one of the few continental bike races I’ve made the trek to see, back in 2008. It helps that the the definitive film about cycling is “A Sunday in Hell”, by Jørgen Leth, a visionary and experimental film-maker. Joyously, the film is available in its entirety on the youtube.
It features lots of saucy shots of Merckx wrestling with saddle height, of Moser etching out a cadence of perfect circles across the crown of the cobbles, of Marc DeMeyer and Freddy Maertens, and of Roger De Vlaeminck, a Flandrian monster. It’s rich and evocative and it captures the attritional nature of the race; “one by one… they falter…” (1hr 18 onwards). They push huge gears over the cobbles, with the heavy surface favouring a big cadence.
The weather is either scorchingly dry or horrible filthy, a lethal quagmire. It’s been sunny and warm for a long time, but there are some indications it might be a bit damp this weekend, which is exciting for the spectator but not the rider.
In 2009 I was watching at Cysoing. It was a golden year for Boonen; he whittled the bunch down with unrelenting pressure and speed. It’s indisputably a race for the hardmen. The other riders buckled under the pressure, with both Flecha and Hushovd crashing in the final few miles. There is no hiding place; riders wilt. It is a completely compelling spectacle. Skip to 14 minutes in: “OOH LA LA, CHUTE A LA DERRIERE!”.
At 16 minutes in, Hushovd, he of the ridiculously good bike handling, of super fast descents (69mph on the Aubisque in the 2011 TdF), bunch sprints and world champion bands, drifts out of the corner and crashes, almost apologetically, as though resigned to the overwhelming difficulty and forcing pace of Boonen.
There’s a tonne of material on the youtube; a vortex of time and space to drift through in silent romanticism.