One of my favorite quotes related to bike racing comes from Paris-Roubaix. I apologize if you’ve read this a hundred times before - I know I have, but it still leaves me in awe when I read it, so forgive my indulgence, please.
Following his abandonment from the 1985 edition of Roubaix, Dutchman Theo De Rooy had this to say about the race often referred to as the Hell of the North:
‘It’s a pile of shit, this race. It’s a whole pile of shit. You race through mud like this. You haven’t the time to piss. You ride, and you piss in your pants. It’s a whole pile of shit.’
The interviewer followed with the logical question: ‘Will you race here again?’
Without hesitation, De Rooy answered:
‘Of course; it’s the most beautiful race in the world!’
Ashley and I split up on Sunday. She was on a motorbike with our friend, Michael Ossieur, while I was in a large van with our man, Yoeri. We had an easy first part - neither of us saw the race until at least 100k in - so we took aim at the side of the road. I like starting our day like that: no bike racing shots, just a constant flow of towns and people and walls and fields.
When we saw the race for the first time on Sector 26, the race had already fallen to pieces. The front group consisted of what appeared to be less than half the field (it’s hard to count while shooting though), and they weren’t waiting around to find out what happened to everyone else either. A large regroupment followed a little while later, but the dial had already been turned to 11, and there were still over three hours of racing to go.
I feel like we just finished final exams. I don‘t know how well I did, but I do know I completed the test, and I finished on time (sort of), but I really do hope that the teacher (you) feels positively about my work and gives me a good grade. Either way, the semester is over, and I‘m relieved. Sure, the Ardennes Classics are next, but nothing compares to the intensity of the Cobbled Classics. They‘re a class apart, and each one seems to amplify the crazy: Dwars door Vlaanderen, E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem, the Ronde van Vlaanderen, and finally, the mother of all wild race chases, the mother of all wild races: Paris-Roubaix.
Comparatively speaking in terms of chasing races, the Flemish classics aren‘t too tough. The routes loop in on themselves in a very small area. If you just pick a direction, you‘re bound to hit the race. You can‘t miss it. Roubaix though, Roubaix is hard. The race does not mess around (much). It starts in Compiegne (definitely not Paris) and makes a beeline for Roubaix, with a concerted effort to rattle every cobble in northern France. That makes the chase a lot harder. You have to shoot the race, catch the race, pass it, and kind of get ready - all without touching the race course for the most part - remember, we’re never IN the race.
I don’t know if I’m exaggerating here, but excuse me if I do: I get the feeling that for a dedicated chunk of the Belgian populace, race chasing is considered a national birthright. If there were heroes in this culture of race chasing - whose footsteps you dreamed of following in, whose faces would grace your kid’s wall on a giant, colorful poster - Yoeri would be up there. He‘d be signing autographs at the race starts next to Degenkolb and Kristoff. Yoeri is so good, I think he feels like a normal race chase in his small car just isn‘t entertaining anymore, so each year, he agrees to lead a dragon (that’s how I imagine it) - two nine-person vans with Yoeri at the helm in the first van, and a second van acting as the wild and unruly tail. Navigating Roubaix on a motorbike is tough - imagine using a giant van - now, imagine tending to a SECOND giant van - and then seeing the race nine times. It‘s his handicap - otherwise, I guess it wouldn‘t be fun. Who needs a stress-free Roubaix?
Or, it’s probably just because Yoeri can’t say no when his friends ask him to take them on a wild Sunday joy ride through northern France.
The weather was perfect for a great day out on Sunday. Fans showed up by the thousands. So did the photographers. Us included.
On a sidenote: Ashley and Michael ran into an interesting crossing en route to their second spot on Sunday. The dirt road they were bouncing down, descended into a tunnel, which isn’t generally an issue, but it can be when there’s knee high standing water in it. Thankfully, the motorbike got through without stalling, and the only things they took with them from that surprise were some wet feet and a funny story.
IAM Cycling’s Aleksejs Saramotins quickly dispatched his breakaway companions on the terrible cobbles of the Arenberg Forest. They’d later rejoin him, but he got the chance to look like a legend smashing the Arenberg’s vaunted cobbles solo, at the head of the race. The Latvian rode an amazing Roubaix to ultimately finish 13th after spending nearly the entire race off the front. Non-winning ride of the day? Maybe? I’d give it to either Saramotins or Etixx’s Yves Lampaert who finished in the lead group at only 24 after riding the front for most of the day for his Etixx team - so it was kind of like riding the break all day, right?
Need wheels? There were wheels aplenty in the first few meters following the exit from Arenberg. Apparently people have a habit of flatting in the Forest. Who knew?
There are only three five-star sectors along the road to Roubaix - Sector 18: Arenberg, Sector 10: Mons-en-Pevele, and Sector 4: Carrefour. The cobbles of Sector 10 are (insert superlative here). It’s a dastardly section with a fantastic turn that transforms into a big party in the middle of a normally lonely field.
On a sidenote: I heard at least a dozen cars bottom out on these cobbles. Thankfully, no oil pans were destroyed.
On a second sidenote: a spare wheel flew off the back of the MTN car when they came roaring through. They had no idea they lost it. They made one fan very happy - talk about a nice Roubaix present to take home.
Full gas here. Really full gas. But no real separation.
Jürgen Roelandts put in an impressive show of force on the Carrefour. It was ultimately for naught, but there’s still something to be said for soloing the Carrefour. In years past, that was more than good enough for the win. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case for the last few years.
Seven riders entered the Roubaix Velodrome together for a final one and a half lap battle on the track. Lampaert did his best to give Stybar a great leadout, but there was nothing to be done against the force of John Degenkolb. When the German opened up his sprint, the race was over.
Luke Rowe snuck away late with Belgian champion, Jens Debusschere. Rowe got the better of JDB for 8th, and they were followed moments later by Alexander Kristoff and the rest of the 14-rider ‘peloton’. After that, riders continued to trickle in for the next thirty minutes - many of them sprinting - because it’s Roubaix, and it’s the velodrome, and if you make it there, you owe it to yourself, right? French champion, Arnaud Demare, sprinted for THIRTY-EIGHTH place - and he put a fist up as he crossed the line - and it was great. So many of the riders clearly respect the race, clearly love the race - it’s special.
Is there any other trophy in cycling that inspires such awe?
The former winner of Paris-Roubaix appeared to be close to tears on the infield - his day was nothing like he dreamed it would be. So much goes into one race, ONE day, and so many things can go wrong - and did go wrong - for the 2011 champion. It’s a wonder anyone makes it to the velodrome in one piece when you think about all the things that can go awry on the 27 sectors of pavé. It was a rough, forgettable Roubaix for the AG2R rider, but I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Summie.
There’s joy and exhaustion and disappointment on the infield, but at the same time, there’s always an eye toward next year. Hope springs eternal on the fresh spring grass.
For the second straight Monument, I’ll finish with a post-race shot of salt-caked Dylan van Baarle.
Jered and Ashley Gruber spend ten months of the year on the road, photographing pro cyclists and discovering Europe by bicycle. We’re proud to share their immersive look at the European racing experience, from the nastiest cobbled climbs to their favorite bike-friendly bakeries and coffee stops.
All words and photos by Jered and Ashley Gruber of www.gruberimages.pro