We’re stood halfway down a steep bank that is both slippy and sticky at the same time, waiting. Suddenly a wave of sound breaks from the left and creeps louder as it follows the lead riders round the course, the air tingles electric and as the wall of cheering crashes onto us they’re right there and riding down the muddy, chopped, rutted bank as if doesn't exist. Heart-rates quicken, and not just the racer's.
We’re in Roubaix for the World Cup cyclo-cross, a quick weekend away with hopes of beer, cobbles, a bit of cycling history, chips with mayo, mud, velodromes and cowbells. We book into the Formule 1 hotel late on the friday night, stash the bikes in the rooms and step out into the cold of Northern France for a beer to rinse the taste of ferries and Pet Shop Boys on iPod heavy rotation from our mouths. Roubaix it would appear, is shut. We wander down a street that looks good to be mugged in and stop at one of the few doors with light leaking from it. It sort of looks like a bar. A few positive words with a shadowy man sucking le fag outside and we enter. It smells badly of bleach and changing-rooms but it serves Leffe and there's table-football and pool at the back. In for the long-haul then. A few games of football later and a local plops a challengers 50cents on the table and it doesn’t take us long to realise that this local has probably been playing this table for quite some years as he schools us with more than a few fancy moves, but spirits are high, the Franglais flows freely and we play until we're comprehensively spanked. Returning to the hotel we find a man, naked but for a soaking wet t-shirt, sitting in reception. We scurry upstairs. Then he’s standing in the corridor waiting for me when I exit the communal toilet, but he just stands there vibrating gently and being mostly harmless, then he spends most of the night wandering the hotel trying all the doors and getting sworn at in lots of French. I learn some new words that weren't on the ‘O’ level curriculum. Roubaix - the "What-The-Hell Of The North".
Saturday morning is particularly grey and bleary-eyed and we trudge into town for coffee and croissants and get girly excited by Roubaix branded socks and caps and stickers. By the time we’re togged up and ready to ride a recce of the World Cup course and then go pavé hunting the grey has turned darker, with a proper hardman drizzle, and the pedal of a mile or so to the velodrome is through miserable industrial town streets that no amount of cycling history and glamour can transcend. The “I *heart* RBX” stickers that we so desperately squealed after are already looking a little previous.
The velodrome feels like all race courses do the day before the event, racks of metal crowd-barriers, steams of marker tape, men walking round with zip-ties and hammers, vans, piles of things, a few cyclists nosing about. We take the chance to pre-ride the course and after 100 metres are told we’re going the wrong way by a swagger of UCI officials. Ahem. We retrace our steps back round the football fields, through some trees, alongside some tarmac, snake around some more trees, run up the incredibly steep, tall and deep steps and wiggle and slide about at the top of the bank that flanks one side of the velodrome.
I pause at the top of a short but steep grass-greasy slope to watch Olie, whose idea all this was, slither down the bank, where instead of, or unable to turn sharp right to follow the course he slowly, very very very slowly, bumps head-on into the crash-mat strapped at the bottom of the slope and folds his frame in half. Hmmmm. That's what you get for riding a ‘cross bike with UCI illegal disc-brakes on a World Cup course that isn’t officially open for pre-riding, cycling's governing body has a all-reaching and all-powerful influence. Later on we notice that the top of the slope has been taped-off to stop anyone else being so stupid. We may have laughed. The dead bike essentially sacks the planned day’s riding, a point encouraged by the ever hardening rain and we scour Roubaix again to find a bar to waste the afternoon to evening in with traditional surly waiter service.
Race day breaks crisp, clear and cloud-free making the suburb the velodrome lies in look almost pretty. We wander through the race pits oggling the wealth of bike kit laying around, piles of wheels enough to make any bike-shop proud lay racked against vans, rows of bikes are being cleaned and fettled, racers zip in and out like worker bees, there's the whiff of composed practised urgency and embrocation in the air. It's fantastic. The crowd for the U23s, Juniors and women's races is thin but vocal, but the day doesn't really warm up until the elite men start to arrive. These are the racers with their own motorhomes and fan-clubs, fans that come from across Europe in their own chartered coaches, fans that have their favoured rider's name embroidered on their jackets. And flags.
We had thought that the crowd would be six-deep with people clanging cowbells and blowing horns and were keen to join in with our own specially-bought implements of noise but we are very definitely the only ones here with cowbells and as we clang and clonk our way around the course we sure get a lot of funny looks and comments. Maybe cowbells are too common for France and they only do it in Belgium. Oh well, we were making the most noise until the drum band turns up.
It doesn't take long for the cream of the racing elite to rise to the top and leave the rest of the field floundering in their wake, literally. This front group splits in two with a small yet significantly impossible to bridge gap for most of the race and finally with a lap or so to go the front runners make their move leaving the also-rans to fight over the scraps.
The course is compact and knotted enough that we can run around (stopping off on our arduous spectating travels for a beer, gluhwein, bratwurst in a bun and chips with mayo, bien sûr) and watch the racers deal with the varying conditions; up on The Hill the mud is deep and sticky forcing a lot of running and carrying, in the concrete velodrome the gong is fast but slippy if you creep up on the banking, and finally the rim-deep slop of the sports-fields with the pair of sand-traps that can stop a tired rider dead. Despite all of this they still manage that particular pro combination of speed and fluidity that is impossible for the majority of us to attain. Watching the top guys is always an eye-opening lesson in how good we can never ever be, but it is also reassuring to see by the expressions on their faces and tiring flailing bodies that they can suffer like us ordinary mortals. They just suffer faster.
And all of a sudden its over, national anthems are played, the pits are flooded from an army of jet-washes, bikes are meticulously cleaned ready for next week's battle, fans cluster around mobile-homes for a chat, an autograph, a poster of their rider, the street of coaches slowly fills with supporters for home and we walk back to our van into the late afternoon sun along a restored stretch of pavé that has memorial stones laid at intervals along it for each of the Paris-Roubaix winners. It's the only bit of pavé we've managed all weekend, but we've had beer, touched a bit of cycling history, eaten chips with mayo, wallowed in mud, ridden the velodrome and got all tingly about it, shouted and shaken our cowbells at heroes, and as a added bonus there was a semi-naked man and we broke a bike.
The "I *Heart* RBX" sticker is firmly stuck on my seat-tube.