Words by David Pearce and images by David Pearce and David Vant.
Sunday morning was the third time in 14 days I’d crossed the English channel to France. The first on a road trip back from Italy, the second to photograph the Tour of Flanders, and now for my first attempt to capture the magnificence of Paris-Roubaix. Like last week my wing man was again David Vant, specially selected for his navigational skills and ability as ‘camera #2’, usually coming up with some very useable images.
On the way to the ferry my van’s electric window stuck open. I had no time to fix it as we needed to motor directly to Wallers to catch the race. Luckily a good hard thump fixed the loose connection and our problem was solved. A good sign of things ahead perhaps?
Hungry and keen to celebrate, we circumnavigated the town in search of brunch but the only place open was a little patisserie that had almost sold out of its wares. We settled for some French pastries and a sweet brioche, and our discovery that much of France closes on Sundays.
A spectacle such as Paris-Roubaix brings out thousands of families with a vast array of costumes and somewhat bizarre items. They will pick their spot and wait literally for hours to catch a glimpse of the race go by. As we took our bikes we could ride the course in reverse to find the best vantage spot. I had to stop along this section of pave and photograph this family who had bought a trio of toy Tigers. I particularly liked the little girl patiently waiting in the footwell.
This was pretty unreal and a little unsettling to be honest. We were cycling down the narrow pave into the oncoming tour vehicles that precede the race by an hour or so. These guys drive their vehicles at break neck speed meaning we had to bunnyhop onto the side quite often. How spectators (many of whom have had a few drinks) are not hit I have no idea. It really was like watching a rally at times.
We noticed these two ladies on the way into Wallers and by the time we had reached them on our bikes they had not moved. I wondered if they had spoken a word to each other all morning?
We had chosen the town of Wallers as there was a pinch point and hoped that would enable us to see the race twice. With only basic French language skills at our disposal we asked the local police which direction to head in for the second point. He had no idea so instead used his initiative and asked the locals who simply said take the 2nd left down the road.
Having completed our reconnaissance of the course and picked our general spots we settled in. Dave positioned himself at a 90degree bend and I chose a less populated area by the rape seed. Here I would witness for the first time the amount of dust that the procession of vehicles makes. It was unreal. My cameras, my bag and my face were full of the stuff. It was going to be quite the spectacle when the race came through with its dozens of official vehicles.
The race arrives and the leaders escape the worst of the dust to have a clear road ahead. I know it is the archetypal shot but a piece without showing the yellow of this rape seed just seemed wrong.
It is amazing the minutae of things you consider when watching a race. While most of us consider the physical torture the riders’ feel riding over the cobbles, what was it like for this guy on a neutral service moto holding spare wheels in his hands for 250kms?
I noticed this mother and daughter standing atop a pile of earth for the best vantage point. I tried to get onto a hay bale adjacent but it was too rotten. Seeing this the kind pair moved over slightly allowing me to share their “spot”. I was really taken by this and wondered if the TV helicopter overhead flashed their enthusiastic waves around the world.
Just as I got down from the mound I spotted this incredibly dangerous looking situation. Shrouded in the thick dust, an Orica Greenedge rider waited by the verge for his team car to arrive with a spare wheel. All the other vehicles passed him at a fast pace, missing him by just inches as he became visible at just the last minute.
I could not help but wonder if the riders just cough up dust for hours after a race like this. The stuff gets everywhere. I had a real problem keeping my lens clean and this shot from Dave really shows the extent of what the riders pedal through.
As the rave had pretty much gone through Dave spotted and was drawn to this French flag which he likened to being waved in a war zone, the colours dominating the landscape in some sort of victorious battle.
As the dust settled Dave spotted all the spectators watching one of the last remaining riders with the exception of this one lady who seemed interested in something else.
After section 19 we got our mountain bikes and rode like mad to find the spot the locals had told us about. Taking the 2nd left we followed our noses and the helicopter. Pedalling like crazy we saw the flash of yellow that represented the Mavic neutral service bike and rode even harder. I was drawn into taking this shot for the semi dramatic sky and the electric lines which seemed placed here to give the rider extra watts to get him back the the peloton.
Ride your bike standing up and looking backwards?
Dave proudly waved the Union Flag as the support vehicles came through. Maybe it was our exuberance, or our English-ness, but the policeman seemed non-plused by it all even though we were the only people left apart from the family across the road.
Once the race had passed through we cycled up to the Arenberg Forest, a distance of just a few miles where we found a large community watching the race on a huge screen, protected by rows of motorhomes outside the grounds of the old mining shafts (the very reason the pave was laid down decades ago). I was quite envious as I had a 5 hour drive south to Stransburg en-route to Italy awaiting me. I could have easily found myself lost in Juliper beer and the race highlights for the rest of the evening.
We met a lot of people, some who had cycled and others regaled in fancy dress. I’ll let you interpret this one as you see fit.
We met this guy who just happened to be passing through the area and stumbled upon the race. Also from the UK he was planning on doing a tour of Australia next year and was currently on a little expedition to test things out, including his very nice Brooks saddle.
Flags abound at races in Europe which in a way defines cycling’s multi-national following. We decided to head back to Wallers and watch the finish there to make a hasty exit soon after. This presented the perfect opportunity to ride the Arenberg pave for ourselves.
At the far end two trucks – but only one course worker – were collecting all the barriers. It seems nothing about this race is easy.
Having returned to Wallers after our ride on the cobbles we hoped to catch the last few kms of the race on TV, but this being France, all the cafes had shut hours earlier. We hurriedly got into the car and went back to the Arenberg hoping to see the finale on the large outdoor screen. We made it with 4.4km of the race to go. The atmosphere was fantastic but not as tense as it might have been with a group sprint at the end. The applause was a little anti-climatic to be honest.
We had a great day and as with all events like these we learned a lot for next year’s planning. We really can’t wait.