“I HAVE A SCORE TO SETTLE WITH YOU”
Alan’s writing post 2014 Paris Roubaix.
The sky over Compiegne is grey this morning. I go to the sign-in and find crowds of smiling enthusiasts. They are truly happy to be here and have the chance to watch this legendary race. I envy them just a little; I’d like to be so calm and carefree myself. Instead, my mind is already on the coming battle. We’re off, and the fresh air combined with the rush of excitement gives me chills. I can’t wait for things to really get under way so I can get this feeling behind me.
After 40 km there is a breakaway of eight riders, but the group lets them go. For around half an hour we proceed at walking speed, which is truly unusual for this race. It is usually a war with no holds barred. Today a headwind changes that. I see that some of the guys are laughing and horsing around, but that won’t last long. We will soon be giving it all we’ve got without a glance at anyone else.
The breakaway builds up about a ten-minute lead and Omega Pharma – QuickStep starts to pick up the pace up front. As the first cobblestone stretch approaches, the group starts to bunch up: of course, everybody wants to be up front and it gets hard even to hold your position in the middle of the group.
At km 97 the Paris-Roubaix starts, and from here on out we’ll be dealing with the cobblestone. Right from the first stretches the problems start: water bottles break free, frame tubes bust, and riders swerve back and forth.
I can already taste the acid dust. I drink a sip of water for get over it, but it doesn’t do much good. That crud is stuck to my lips and I can’t do anything about it. “Take it easy, Alan,” I tell myself. “In a couple of hours that’ll be the last of your worries.”
We hit the first feed at km 142. I grab my sack, but before I can get what I need, a few positions in front of me one of the Lampre riders goes head over heels into the ditch. Quite an impressive flight. I really don’t know exactly what happened, not do I care to. I close in on Peter Sagan; I have to stay as close as possible to him today, because my bike is about the same size as his and he may need it in an emergency.
The race bustles forward. Passing through a narrow stretch, there is the first mass fall of the day. Just behind me I hear the clash of carbon and aluminium crashing to the ground. I look back right away to see if Peter was involved. Fortunately, he’s still up and running, on the back wheel of King. I get myself untangled and wait for them, then I help them catch up. No sooner do I think that this time we got off easy than I hear Peter’s unmistakable voice on the radio: “Stefano (Zanatta, ed. note), I gotta change bikes.” His gear change is nearly destroyed and his chain comes off at each turn of the pedal. We wait for the team car to come, stop, and change bikes. The group is moving fast and it takes us a little while to catch back up. Problem is, once we catch them, a cobblestone stretch starts, which of course we come to in the last positions. Some of the guys up front are pushing hard and gaps start to form. As if that wasn’t enough, Sabatini’s water bottle comes loose and winds up in the spokes, breaking the back wheel. This is the worst possible time to have problems, because there is now no way of catching up. This costs us an important rider. Coming out of this stretch, the group is split into a number of sections. I’m with Peter and Krizek with about thirty other guys in the second chase group. We step on the gas to close the gap: a huge effort that pays off.
Unfortunately, we catch up just before the dreaded forest of Arenberg (which some refer to as the “bonecrusher”). You can tell right away that the cobblestone here is nasty because there is a lot of space between the stones. Every metre is a punch to the legs and back. There is no open space on the outside. The part of earth which years ago was packed has been ploughed, so you get to take every single rock as hard as it comes; there’s no easy way out.
At any rate, I’m feeing alright and I even manage to pick up a few positions. I can see riders stopping for various problems or dropping back; the forest is the first place in the race that separates the men from the boys. It can either knock you back on your heels or make you hopeful for a decent result. Today I feel the latter.
I come out of there alive and kicking. The group is riding all in line, but I’m with them and doing more. I look to pick up a few more positions, then comes more cobblestone and more dust. Suddenly there is another mass fall, right alongside me. Somehow I manage to stay up. We enter the Hornaing sector and a French rider from Europcar goes down in front of me, taking with him Longo Borghini, who gets right back up. I’m still in the saddle, and I’m starting to think that somebody up there is rooting for me today. I’ve been able to avoid all the falls and had no incidents myself, which I find hardly believable.
And that’s when the unexpected happens. Peter punctures right in the middle of the cobblestone, while the guys up front are forcing the pace. I stop, and without a moment’s hesitation give him my bike. I wait for the team car, which shows up a little while later, and grab my backup bike. I get back on and pick up the chase. I soon realize that my hopes of running a good race have just gone to hell in a handbasket. I’m all alone, with lines of team cars that flash past me only to come to a screeching halt because the run into traffic.
More mouthfuls of dust, only this time more bitter. The levers of my “new” bike have been covered with duct tape to keep dust out of the gears. With great difficulty, I manage to get it off. I put my head down and decide to see if I can’t rope in some small group. I catch up to Fisher of the FDJ team. I know him well and we often talk to each other in the group. He’s a really likeable Brazilian who, from a cycling point of view, grew up in Italy. Finding a friendly face makes it a little easier to get through this shitty moment. We start relaying back and forth, and I start to think that it might be tough to get to the finish line in two. But I also guess we’ll find company along the way. And that’s just what happens. Moving along at a pretty good clip, we slowly start to overtake those who were stopped at the gates of Hell. Some punctured, some fell, and some just plain ran out of gas.
Some manage to fall in behind, others are left alone along the road. After about thirty kilometres there are around ten of us. Not too shabby, considering how things had been going. At a certain point, I realize that one of the Bretagne riders in our group has a bleeding left hand. His face shows suffering and it seems he may be crying. I ask him what happened. When he shows me his fingers I nearly puke. The tips are butchered as if they’d been through a blender. The kilometres pass, and we are pushing as if we were leading the race. Only now do I notice how many people are along the road, really an impressive crowd. I ask myself how much passion it takes to stand in the middle of country all day, covered in dust, just to a see a very quick fly-by. My mind stops wandering abruptly when I lose the only water bottle I had left. Damned cobblestone! Hell, I was supposed to make it to the finish line with that one, and now I’m running dry. There are no more roadside feeds, and the team car is out ahead of me. I turn around to the guy with the damaged fingers, who is the only one with two bottles left. He doesn’t even think about it: he takes one and shakes it to show me that it won’t do much to quench my thirst. I take it anyways, figuring it’s better than nothing. A few minutes later, the unimaginable happens: he pulls up alongside me with a full water bottle! His team car had caught up from behind, and he remembered to pick up a bottle for me. There is so much I would like to tell him, that after all he’s been through he is really the greatest to have thought of me and my thirst, seeing as how we don’t even know each other. But I’m so worn out that I can’t put together a decent sentence in English, so I just smile and mutter a short and simple “thanks”. And he smiles back at me. When you’re going through Hell, you’ll meet human kindness you would never have imagined.
Moving into the various sectors starts to get more hazardous now, since it’s been a while since the leaders passed and the spectators are no longer standing in an orderly manner along the sides of the road. We start running into nothing short of crowds of fans in the middle of the road, all of whom move aside when we pass. I expect to crash into one of them from one moment to the next, but luckily this doesn’t happen. On the contrary, I find a group of kids who form a sort of tunnel and raise a cheer as I go by!
It’s not far now. We’re just a short way from the start of the Carrefour de l’Arbre. If the forest is a bonecrusher, this one is a muscle-ripper. It is a real son of a bitch, the road is full of bumps and the cobblestones seem to have been laid at random. And if things weren’t bad enough already, there are no smooth sides, you have to hit every rock. Plus, it’s so long it seems endless. Damned Carrefour! I’m the first to come off that hellish stretch and for a minute it seems like every muscle in my body has been ground to bits. Some have fallen back, but we go on. The finish line is near, and we want to get this torture over with as soon as possible.
We finally enter the legendary velodrome, and only the slightest scatterings of applause remain. I ride the last kilometre in front, as if to use up all the energy left in my body. After all, I had promised myself that no matter what happened I would give it all I’ve got. And in the end, that’s how it was. I cross the finish line exhausted but at peace with myself.
True, I’m at peace with myself, but I’m still a little bitter. Sure, I knew I wouldn’t be one of the stars of the day, but today I didn’t manage to discover what my true limits were. But in the end I did what had to be done. Champions have to have absolute priority, because cycling needs them, and so do the fans.
Teammates like me have to sacrifice themselves for the captains, and perhaps tell people about the unforgettable experience they’ve been through.
Because at the end of this amazing race, anybody who took part has an intense story to tell, a story where you can find blood and tears, guts and suffering, and even glory if you are among the chosen few.
Roubaix my friend, I hope to see you next year. I have a score to settle with you.
Words: Alan Marangoni @Alanmarangoni