The legendary bike race where fans pray for rain
PARIS — François Doulcier tended the cobblestones of northern France for most of his adult life, all one day a year when a platoon tore them up at 35 miles an hour. He understands how the stones have evolved over the years, how they behave in different conditions and where they make the Paris-Roubaix cycling race even more dangerous.
But in recent weeks, Doulcier has been rooting chaos, along with almost all other cycling fans. That’s because Paris-Roubaix will be taking place in the rain this weekend for the first time since 2002. And while it may seem odd for supporters of an outdoor sport to pray for gloomy weather – to Unless you lived in Green Bay during the playoffs – cycling fans see something epic about the added danger of cycling over cobblestones in mud.
They know that the race known as the Hell of the North becomes even more hellish when Hell gets wet.
“It’s been too long without rain,” says Doulcier, whose voluntary organization, Friends of Paris-Roubaix, takes care of paved areas. “We have been waiting for it for 20 years.
The wait now appears to be over. Weather forecasts indicate that pouring rain is heading towards the north of France, near the border with Belgium, and should arrive in time to shower the riders of the very first women’s race on Saturday and the 118th edition of the men’s event on Sunday.
What is already brutal exercise that takes endurance, good control of the bike and a taste for splashed mud turns into a test of a cyclist’s nerve and appetite for misery. It’s cold. There are a lot of people. The surface of the paving stones resembles an ice rink. And the potholes, called in French “chicken nests”, fill with water and mud, which makes them impossible to judge. Your front wheel can jump over them, or you can jump over your own handlebars.
“You have a 50% chance of falling,” Deceuninck-Quickstep team coach Tom Steels told Belgian broadcaster Sporza. “Paris-Roubaix in the rain is life threatening… So it will certainly be an incredibly hectic and dangerous race. Because of the rain, it will also be an edition that will be remembered for a long time.
The only people who hate the rain as much as the fans love it are the poor souls who have to spend six hours through the flood. Narrow roads, used mostly by tractors the rest of the year, are becoming more suited to cyclists with a cyclocross background than to traditional road racers.
“The course is difficult enough as it is,” said Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig of Denmark, who will compete in the women’s race on Saturday. “I want to see a battle in which the best riders go head to head, not a battle in which the winner is just the one who manages to stay on his bike.”
The possibility of Roubaix in the rain only arose because it will be the first modern edition of the race held in October, due to the pandemic. The race, which has not taken place since 2019, takes place normally in early April. The only problem with keeping tradition is that this century has seen a clear trend towards milder springs in this corner of Europe. Botanists from neighboring Flanders have even used decades of bicycle racing footage to show that plant life is blooming earlier in the year.
The long dry spell, meanwhile, only made the last wet Roubaix all the more legendary.
In 2001, so much rain fell on the course in the days leading up to the race that water had to be pumped from the paved area through the Arenberg forest so that the bikes could cross it. But 2002 was the year the sky really turned against the peloton.
“It was just more spectacular,” said Andreas Klier, sporting director of the EF Education-Nippo team, which raced at Roubaix that year.
Spectacular, in terms of cycling, doesn’t necessarily mean good. There were accidents all over the road. The race to each paved section was even more hectic than usual, as the only safe spot was right in front. And the runners were so covered in spray and mud that halfway through the race they looked like extras in a WWI movie.
The saving grace for Klier in 2002 was the rookie who slipped into the breakaway with him and then proceeded to tow the group for much of the afternoon. “Fortunately we have this (first year pro) here pulling the wind in the face,” he recalls thinking. It turned out to be Tom Boonen. The Belgian will then win Paris-Roubaix four times, a record.
One hundred and eighty runners set out that morning from the city of Compiègne, northeast of Paris, for 162.2 miles of damp, dull pain. Two-thirds of them have resigned. The results show only 41 official finishers, led by Belgian cobblestone specialist Johan Museeuw, but another 16 were crazy enough to go all the way even though they were well outside the race time limit. By the time they reached the line, the drenched fans were already dispersing. The stragglers had spent nearly eight hours on the bike.
Klier was not among them. Although he feels strong enough to ride in the breakaway, he has only become another victim of a course that was never designed for bikes, let alone bikes in the rain.
“There’s not much you can do if someone crashes in front of you,” he said. “You really don’t have to be unlucky on this day.”
Write to Joshua Robinson at [email protected]
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