Good intentions, bad drivers and lots of coffee
By Sal Ruibal
Sunday, muddy, Sunday. It just turns out that way. Paris-Roubaix is probably the toughest one-day race on the UCI road calendar, with the possible exceptions of the super-sized, full-length seasonal classics of Milan-San Remo and Giro di Lombardia.
This season's MSR was shortened mid-race because of snow and freezing rain on the course, but I doubt that Paris-Roubaix would ever let horrible weather get in the way of a bicycle masochist's favorite wet dream.
I've been to the race several times and I have to rank it as one of the most-difficult to follow because of the cloud of chaos that surrounds the peloton as it chugs its way over 27 sectors of cobblestones, only 31 miles out of 161.5 total.
In a regular road race, a select number of reporters and photographers are allowed to follow the race by car and motorcycle. They zip and zap from one point of the race to another, passing the peloton when possible and taking shortcuts to get a good photo position at a spot down the road.
Regular civilians are not allowed on the course, of course. But they are free to negotiate around the course and intercept it a various viewing points.
There is a Flemish word for what happens at these viewing points: "Klusterfhuk."
The course itself is mostly flat, but because much of the race goes through agricultural lands, the terrain is quite muddy on rainy days and a sea of huge dirt clods the rest of the time. Thus the anti-farmer epithet, "Clodhopper."
The only other place I've seen such big dirt clods is in the fall in northern Colorado after sugar beet fields have been harvested. When too many clodhoppers, reporters and exhausted racers populate a certain spot near a cobblestone section or a muddy bog, Klusterfhuck has reached critical mass.
George Hincapie is the King of Klusterfhuck. Despite the best performance-enhancing drugs money could buy, George could not win at Roubaix. Something would always go terribly wrong for George or wonderfully right for another rider who would part the cobblestone seas like he was waterskiing.
This is probably for the best and since he had to give up all of his wins for doping, no runnerup got to be King of Roubaix as a result of George's Klusterfhucks.
Following the race in a media car is a strategic exercise that eventually ends in the frantic driver screaming at the other journos in the car while they unfold maps in his face at 120 kpm, ask to stop for coffee every 10 miles and then ask to pee 10 miles later.
With the exception of the truly fanatical European cycling journalists and photographers, most writers go off the grid in the last 50k or so and head for the velodrome in Roubaix and comforts of the media center. That's where a sumptuous spread of quality lunchmeats, stale bread and celery await, along with cold beer, soda and all the statistics you'll never need in your story.
The Roubaix Velodrome itself is about as impressive as a junior college outdoor running track but with steeper angles. There are lots of VIPs in the infield and if you aren't an anointed guest or media hack, you won't be anywhere near this. The best you can hope for is a tight spot in a nearby neighborhood bar or peek into the dark van of a weird, smelly guy who has a tiny little TV inside.
The 1.5-lap, 750-meter velodrome finish seems a bit cruel to me, as more often than not, the guy who had the big expensive horses in front of him the whole sleigh ride gets to slide past the exhausted rider whose eyes are bugging out of the dried mud on his death-camp face. But that's bike racing: somebody always gets Klusterfhucked.
If you would like to ride your mountain bike on the Paris-Roubaix course, you still have time to get stoned, pave' style. The Raid Paris-Roubaix on May 12 offers the VTT rider (Velo touts terrain, y'all) the opportunity to huck the hell out of the Hell of the North.
You and 3,000 other riders can race, er, "participate in an excursion for mountain bikers" on what the organizers call "80 miles of pure happiness." You can get your photo taken on course by a real pro photographer, get food at many places along the course and have the exquisite pleasure of taking a shower in the famed Roubaix Velodrome showers that have seen way too much of most of the greatest riders in history.
For an extra 10 Euros you will receive a chunk of real Paris-Roubaix cobblestone mounted on a piece of wood with a little bronze tag honoring your achievement of "80 miles of happiness." You can show up at the start and pay the 20 euro entry fee, but to avoid a last-minute Klusterfhuck, go to www.vc-roubaix-cyclo.fr