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Watching the Hell of the North in Arenberg Forest is an adventure, one way or another, for any cycling fan

Orica-GreenEdge’s Mitchell Docker hit the cobbles hard and it was instantly chaos.

Sometimes when there’s a crash in a bike race, it’s over before you’ve registered that there’s a problem. Not here. Mitchell Dcker smashed the ground face first and then just kept going, as if trying to plough a furrow into the Trouée d’Arenberg with his jaw. 

Shiiiiiit! He’s hit the pavé really, really hard… 

And he’s still sliding… 

And it’s still going on.

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It was horrible. You get those cartoon crashes where everyone falls off, they get up again, and they’re back on the bike in seconds. This wan’t one of those.

Inevitably, everyone behind came flying off too, the classic domino thing. There’s a mess of bikes and riders. Blood, torn Lycra, wheels facing skyward… It’s hideous to see, goodness knows what it’s like to be involved.

Something that was so vibrant and exciting a few seconds ago has turned ugly. 

I’ve never been to see Paris-Roubaix on the roadside before. I’ve watched it on TV for years, of course, and I did the sportive a few years ago – the one run by Vélo Club de Roubaix rather than the one run by the pro race organiser – and loved it. I’ve been lucky enough to have ridden the cobbles quite a few times since, including last Friday when we did about a dozen sectors including Arenberg Forest.

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This pic was taken at 11:30am. The pavé wasn't as wet or muddy by the time the race came through.

Arenberg is my favourite sector because to my mind it’s the toughest. The cobbles at each end are kind of okay, but the middle bit is nasty. It’s like the builders lost interest by the time they got there and just lobbed in any old jagged stone they could find. It’s uneven, there are dents all over the place, there’s loads of mud when it’s wet, and there’s loads of dust when it’s dry. It’s a terrible place to ride a road bike. That’s why it’s so good. I really wanted to see how the pros tackled it so we decided to watch the race there on Sunday, along with thousands of other people.

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Watching the race is only a small part of it, though. For some people, the day is essentially a piss-up near a bike race. If you’ve heard that watching the north European Classics is all beer and frites, well, that pretty much sums it up. There’s cheese as well, but it’s mainly beer and frites.  

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We rocked up to Arenberg Forest at 11 in the morning and the beer was already flowing. We walked the length of the pavé, couldn’t find a coffee so had a pilsner instead, and walked back again. 

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By that time the race had started and the TV coverage was up on the big screen. Some people were watching it, some people half watching it, and most were just having a party.

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Cycling fans in France and Belgium aren’t like cycling fans in Britain. Over here, cycling fans tend to be cyclists who, when not riding their own bike, like to watch other people riding bikes. Over there, loads of cycling fans haven’t been near a bike in years.

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There’s music, a stage full of people dancing, other people dancing on tables, singing, chanting, a really unconvincing drag act (either that or je suis très désolé, madame), a bloke dressed up as that Where’s Wally? character (I think his name is Charlie in France; they just can't be told, those French), stupid hats, flags… The sun is shining. It’s just a big party. Oh, and there’s a bike race going on too.

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We see the riders on the big screen hit the early sectors of pavé and try to work out what’s going on, and we eat chips – not because I really wanted chips but because it seemed the right thing to do. It’s soon time to go and find a place to see the race come by.

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The place is rammed now – and I mean the whole of the 2.4km (1.5 mile) Trouée d’Arenberg. Check out these pics from up on the bridge about 45 minutes or so before the riders came through. It got considerably more crowded after that.

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Like I said, rammed. People are allowed on both sides of the road up to the bridge, then just on one side for the remainder of the sector, and every available vantage point is taken. People are standing on the banking, sitting on the struts underneath the bridge, and some people have even climbed up into the trees. 

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There’s lots more singing and shouting. It’s just a lot of people out having fun.

You couldn’t design a bike race like this, it’s just the way it has ended up. Like the keirin riders following the derny bike on the track, it makes very little sense when you think about it.

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There was never a meeting where someone said, “Let’s get 200 blokes to race a few centimetres from one another on skinny tyred bikes over muddy cobbles in a forest in northern France in April while mostly rat-arsed spectators chant at one another.”

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It’s mental. But the fact that you’d struggle to dream this stuff up is what makes cycling so amazing. This is what the sport is all about.

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Everyone stretches over the barriers as the first cars come squealing through. Trouée d’Arenberg is wide enough for one car but not two, so when they come past they’re pretty close to the barriers on both sides. The cars all get a cheer because… well, why not?

Then a motorbike leading the breakaway riders appears in the distance and they’re here in seconds. The speed is astonishing. They zip over the cobbles in a line, at most two abreast. You can make out the teams easily enough but picking out individual riders is more tricky. You can recognise some if you spot them early enough, but others are gone too quickly, just a blur of colours. By the time you’ve focused on them they’ve gone.

Then there’s a gap – those guys have built up a lead – before the next bunch comes flying through. It’s a bit like a train going by as you stand on a platform, some of the riders passing maybe a metre from you. 

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I think that was Cancellara followed by Daniel Oss, although I wouldn’t swear to either. That was definitely Sagan over this side, I could see his rainbow stripes. Who was that Giant-Alpecin guy? Couldn't say. And so on. I have very little idea what’s actually going on in the race. If you want that, stick to the TV, but as for spectacle and atmosphere, this is incredible.

Then a wheel flips out from inside a bunch of riders 20 metres down the road. Uh-oh! Wheels should be vertical, more or less, and this one ain’t.

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Mitchell Docker seems to spend an age bulldozing the cobbles with his face before his legs kick up and he rolls. He ends up a good few yards from where he hit the ground. A Bora-Argon 18 rider squeezes through by the barrier while the crash is still going on, but no one else does. Other riders behind are thrown off their bikes and there are bits of broken eyewear flying about. It’s a mess!

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Some riders pick themselves up, remount, and are away. Others caught up behind the crash jump the barriers, carry their bikes through the spectators, and climb back on to the course beyond the pile up. 

Mechanics are quickly on the scene with wheels for those who need them, chains are put back on to chainrings, brakes are straightened, and the area gradually clears. 

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Some riders aren’t so lucky, though. Mitchell Docker is clearly going nowhere any time soon. He’s surrounded by a team of medics and his face is covered in blood to the extent that his own mother would struggle to recognise him. He has several lesions to his face and it turns out that he’s broken his nose too. 

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Sky’s Elia Viviani has been hit by a motorbike and he’s not looking too healthy either, while Etixx - Quick-Step’s Nikolas Maes is moving badly and is clearly in need of stitches. Paris-Roubaix is over for another year for those three.

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Crikey! This day has taken a turn for the worse. A minute ago we were laughing at a bloke up a tree wearing a monkey mask and a bunch of Roman soldiers, and now it has gone all gruesome.

 

I guess that’s the cobbles for you. Paris-Roubaix is amazing because it’s crazy. The pavé is uncomfortable, it’s difficult to ride, and it can be dangerous, especially if you’re going full gas. It’s evil but that’s why we love it so much.

We wish Mitchell Docker a full and speedy recovery.

Mat has worked for loads of bike magazines over 20+ years, and been editor of 220 Triathlon and Cycling Plus. He's been road.cc technical editor for eight years, testing bikes, fettling the latest kit, and trying out the most up-to-the-minute clothing. We send him off around the world to get all the news from launches and shows too. He has won his category in Ironman UK 70.3 and finished on the podium in both marathons he has run. Mat is a Cambridge graduate who did a post-grad in magazine journalism, and he is a past winner of the Cycling Media Award for Specialist Online Writer.

3 comments

Avatar
sizbut [48 posts] 2 years ago
6 likes

Thank you. Nicely told and refreshing from the world's insistence that it should all be video clips. Words and some pictures can still do the job.

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Colin Peyresourde [1839 posts] 2 years ago
0 likes

I rode the Challenge the day before and your pictures capture some of the wetness of the cobbles we 'rode' on. The conditions were super treacherous and people were skidding and falling over all over the place - a battle field in Flanders.

Some guy tried to do it on a Penny Farthing, but had to walk it.

I'm glad it dried out for the pros as that would have been horrendous. It was even so.

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barbarus [536 posts] 2 years ago
1 like

Great writing, really enjoyed it.