L'Homme dur d'Ardennes

Race Day
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Race-chasing in Europe is a favorite pastime of cyclists and armchair sports fans alike, and on the second Sunday in April the granddaddy of all one-day races gives fans the ultimate opportunity to witness bicycle racing that pits modern technology and fitness against 800-year old cobbled roads (sectors du pave) dotting the race route. It's a pitched battle, and, more often than not, the roads win.

For the fans, Paris-Roubaix is perhaps the most interesting race in the world to watch live. In famous cobbled arenas like the Wallers-Arenberg forest, thousands of fans line the race route to cheer their favorites. The morning of the race, we piled into the rented Fiat van that was to be our mobile home-base for the next week. As the van cranked to life the stereo began blasting U2's rebel-rock anthem "Sunday Bloody Sunday," a fairly appropriate theme song for the war of attrition that is Paris-Roubaix.

Our first stop: the famed Arenberg forest. A World War I memorial (it's where the armistice was signed), the road through the forest is open only one day a year—for Paris-Roubaix. At that time it's transformed from a solemn remembrance of the war to end all wars into a festive party ground for thousands of fans.

Vendors hawked everything from sausage and "pommes frites" (we call 'em french fries) to race programs and souvenirs (I plunk down 100 francs for a copy of Rene Duruyk's "Les Dessous du Pave"). There were bands, cheerleaders, even a small parade. A tented beer garden turns into an impromptu viewing site when a television is hooked up to a portable generator; dozens of portly Belgians cluster around and talk loudly between generous swigs of Leffe brune beer. When the helicopter or motorcycle cameramen would zoom in on the breakaway, fingers greasy from fries jabbed at the screen and point out Belgians Marc Wauters and Frank Vandenbroucke, both members of the early move.

Down in the forest fans clustered on either side of the high-crowned road, which isn't so much cobbled as it is a mud path sprinkled with stones. Fans of former World Champion Johan Museeuw traded jibes and insults with Andrei Tchmil's supporters. As the race drew near the crowd became ever more boisterous. Suddenly the television helicopters were overhead, and motorcycle-mounted gendarmes came speeding with almost reckless velocity down the quarter-mile run into the forest's heart.

With a deafening roar from the crowd the riders were upon us. Skidding sideways to stay upright on the rain-slick and muddy stones, they don't even acknowledge the fans' presence, for all the clamor and din they create. Museeuw fell heavily not 50 meters from my vantage point and was immediately surrounded by dozens of screaming fans as race officials desperately tried to break through to the fallen rider. He struggled to stand, but his left knee poured blood where he had shattered his patella on the hard, unforgiving cobbles. Supported by race officials, he limped into his Mapei-Bricobi team car and sped off; his race, and season, we later learn, are over.

When the rolling envelope of the race finally passed us by, marked by a small red Fiat with a large triangle and the words "Fin de Course!", we made our way back to the van and moved on to the next vantage point, the Camphin sector of cobbles. As we walked I reflected on the remarkable bit of circumstance that had me sitting here watching one of the world's greatest bicycle races.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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