Cobbling together some memories

Inspired by all the love that outpoured over the weekend for the gap in the spring classics and the postponement of a new entry into the women’s racing calendar, i thought back through my time with the race.

It was the first professional race i ever photographed with credentials and a baptism of fire which is almost appropriate for the hell of the north. It’s also the race i have photographed the most times, i think i have a story from each race, which usually only seem fine after the fact and with a good, dark Belgian beer in hand i’ll bore everyone with them, although i do like to think some of them are funny.

Boonen on the Pave – (35mm fully manual Canon)

Firstly the weather…always at the forefront of peoples minds..i have never seen wet roubaix, in person or on TV the cobbles below are as close as its gots…and i’m not sure i care…there i said it, it may be an unpopular opinion but there it is.

2016 Paris Roubaix 114th Edition The wet cobbles of the Carrefour de l’Arbre

If i were watching at home i might be more for the muddy, water logged Roubaix but when you have to work the race there’s an element of danger that the mud adds that i am quite happy to do without.

Tom Boonen leads the peloton through the Trouee d’Arenberg during the 2009 edition of Paris Roubaix

If not for the dry conditions i would have no idea who was leading the peloton, probably not even editing it afterwards.

While i haven’t seen mud, i have had complete vista of other options…so cold i’ve had to wear gloves, so sunny i got sun burnt and so windy i almost got blown over and certainly got a face and mouth full of gritty dust, not exactly Belgian toothpaste, maybe more like Belgian mouthwash…

I honestly enjoyed the sunny editions, the dust can be irritating…your camera’s certainly need a good clean afterwards but so does everything else…the dust does get everywhere. Its not quite the dust storm that you get for Strade Bianche but it occasionally works for Roubaix

2018 Paris Roubaix 116th Edition – Geraint Thomas (Team Sky Procycling) fights through the dust behind his team car to chase back to the peloton after a crash

I’ll take blue skies and warmth any day of the week.

The peloton rolls through the early cobbles surrounded by the yellow flowers of a rapeseed crop

Aside from the racing, Roubaix was always a long weekend for me, bike and camera gear packed into the car, not that i had any plans for Cobbles, the ones outside the Palais de Compiegne were more than enough. As with most of the spring classics there are inextricable links with the great war’s the consumed Europe and Paris Roubaix is no different and its for that reason i was drawn to the Foret de Compiengne, where both the armistice of WW1 and the French surrender of WW2 was signed

The quiet tree lined roads of the Foret de Compiegne

Its possible that i have trivialised it but most times i have ridden there the fog hung around the tree’s like treacle i pictured it as the perfect location for filming a zombie apocalypse

The Forest of the Zombie apocalypse

Digressing back to the race itself, its hard to convey the chaos that ensues once the race hits the cobbles, following the race doesn’t always lend itself to what’s going on, each stop between Compiegne and Roubaix a snap shot of what’s happening right there in that moment. There a few set pieces that narrow the options…before luck and the pave claim their tributes. Once you leave sector 17 of Pave all bets are off…anything can happen, the race is on and stops for no-one.

The race has taught me that even applies to photographers, possibly even on a bike as well as in a car. The evening before i usually finish up my route planning, not that it varies too much from year to year, at least not in advance, bending the satnav to my will…programming in seemingly random targets that will take me on and off the race route at the right points.

That one year i climbed on a bulldozer to try and get a slightly different shot, as i stepped down i landed in a rut and fell flat on my face, twisting my ankle, the rest of the day was quite a challenge and every shot needed to be about 2 hobbled steps from the car, that day would not have been improved by mud.

It may seem foolish to follow the same plan every year, but its mostly just a starting point, the route doesn’t alter much, the official deviations are the same, the non-official deviations also don’t alter much, its the race the alters it, headwind or a tailwind…30s either way make the difference of popping out in front of the race with clear roads or sat watching the race go by and reprogramming the satnav…there’s always a back up option…hit the gas and zip off into the tiny roads of northern France.

The times its gone wrong are usually boring, the gendarme pauses just too long deciding if they are going to let you through, you don’t even get out of the car, there’s just a blur of colour. Its the times it almost goes wrong that are most exciting.

Having navigated an official deviation which cut down most of the public, an extra little jump was meant to get us back on schedule, the gendarme calmly waved us onto the route, driving along at a sensible speed for crowd lined road and hit a cobbled sector. As you’ve probably seen from the tv, or maybe even experienced yourself they are not nice things to be on and unless you have to drive fast on them, you don’t!

Sadly for me having rolled onto a longish, twisty section of cobbles, that choice was taken away…i spotted a blue light in the rear mirror, not an unusual site, there are lots of police bikes making sure things are safe, but this one seemed to be moving a little faster than expected. While i focused on the road ahead my passenger Pete looked behind…and suggested i might like to go a little faster. As it turns out, that wasn’t an outrider, it was the lead bike and Tom Boonen had taken a flyer 50km out. Yet again, grateful for a dry Roubaix, as i slammed my foot on the accelerator and gunned the crappy little car with about 50HP under the bonnet urging it forward. Almost immediately i have to then slam the brakes on and throw it round a cobbley s-bend, the crowd literally goes wild and i get a mexican wave as i somehow bounce round then end of the sector is in sight. But the cobbles aren’t done with me yet, there’s a crater like hole where the pave meets the tarmac which i manage to avoid but not without the suspension taking a bit of punishment…and the side mirror actually popping out. Somehow there’s enough time to slam the brakes on, Pete jumps out and grabs the mirror and i take great joy in smooth straight roads to pull away.

The kicker to that story, that i learned later, on that same corner was another good friend who was also working that day and had managed to get to the cobbles with a bit more time to spare. Usually no slouch when it comes to capturing the action, he was left stunned into paralysis as we flew by…apparently with looks of horror on our faces, which given how well the car handled i’m not overly surprised…

It wasn’t that long before we saw him again…having got a little breathing room to let the adrenaline wear off, the plan was adjusted and boom there was the shot.

while that’s probably the best story, there’s also the time i though i lost my passport, the time i drove into a crop field (although that doesn’t count as that was the TDF does Roubaix). Its safe to Taylor sums up how i feel after every Roubaix i have done

2018 Paris Roubaix 116th Edition – Taylor Phinney (Ef Education First Drapac) stretches out post race in the roubaix velodrome

In a way i am happy that Roubaix has been postponed, by the time October comes i might actually be able to make it to Europe, there might even be crowds and with the World Championships the week before it will be like we’ve had Holy Week twice this year. Hopefully we’ll get to see the newly crowed Womens and Men’s champions flying over the cobbles, although given the time of year i hope MVDP doesn’t go for the all white look…the mud will ruin that skin suit

While you may not agree and desperately long for the caked mud, dirty faces collapsed in the Roubaix velodrome i’m hoping i won’t have to pack my wellie boots…and on that note i’ll bow out

2018 Paris Roubaix 165th Edition – World Champion Peter Sagan (Bora Hansgrohe) taking a bow with his cobble trophy for winning Paris Roubaix

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