Seeing the finish of Paris-Roubaix in the Vélodrome in 2005:

Matthieu and I had been exchanging emails for some time about going to see the finish of Paris-Roubaix in 2005. Paris-Roubaix is one of the most famous one day bicycle road races. It is held in mid april each year and goes over many cobblestoned roads and tracks of northern France’s coal mining region. The race is re routed each year to maintain and repair parts of the route which may be damaged due to mines collapsing. The race is known as l’enfer du nord or the hell of the north. This name dates back to when it was held just after World War 1. The route followed the front lines of the war and passed many of the ruins, craters and destruction that had hit the countryside of northern France at that time. In 2005, Paris Roubaix would race over 54km of cobblestones.
On the Easter weekend of 2005, the young Tom Boonen, the same age as myself, had continued to follow up on the big success he had had during the 2004 Tour de France. Boonen had been a successful amateur and was already well known. As a first year professional, he had already shown himself at the front of the peloton on the steep Koppenberg in his first Ronde van Vlaanderen and then a week later he sent shockwaves when at the age of 21 he finished third in his first Paris-Roubaix in 2002. In 2004 he won several Belgian semi classics and he was a protagonist in the bigger races. His boss Museeuw was retired now so it was his turn to take the main seat.

E3 Prijs Vlaanderen

In the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen, with 57km to go Andreas Klier attacked on the Taaienberg – which is a climb that is also used in the Ronde van Vlaanderen of a week later. The cobble-stoned climb is around half a kilometre. It increases 45 metres from the bottom to the top and the gradient is said to be 9% on average. Klier broke away from a group of favourites. Boonen dug deep and joined him and the two of them shared the pace making to keep away from a group that contained Peter Van Petegem, Steffan Wesseman, Nico Mattan and David Kopp. There were six climbs left that included the Kapelberg, Paterberg, the Oude Kwaremont, the Knokteberg and the Tiegenberg. Their gap ranged from 1 minute to 30 seconds and even as low as 20 at one point but they made it to the finish where Boonen beat Klier in the sprint.

Ronde van Vlaanderen/Tour des Flandres

The next week I arrived on the continent. In Belgium I saw on the free metro paper that Boonen had decisively won the Belgian classic the Tour of Flandres or the Ronde van Vlaanderen. This is a race that is also very old and is raced on many of the same steep cobbled hills around Flandres in West Belgium that the E3 prijs race uses. I bought one of the newspapers which had a big report on it; I can only remember the front page but it had a picture of Boonen in joy winning and next to him a picture of the Pope who had just died. There was a massive colour picture in the sports section with the headline “en toen stond, in een zonovergoten mensenzee, de nieuwe leeuw op...TOM VAN VLAANDEREN.” He had beated all the stars from cycling – Peter Van Petegem, Erik Zabel, Alessandro Ballan and George Hincapie. But not only had he won but the manner in which he won was much talked about. Boonen arrived in Meerbeke alone, an unusual move by the sprinter who had beat all the big guns down the Champs-Élysées in Paris the previous July. The group of favourites were challenging each other with attacks over the last few cobbled climbs. With 9km to go, Peter Van Petegem attacked on a flat stretch. The T-Mobile team had two men in the front group and followed. Then Boonen counterattacked while Van Petegem looked to the others to chase, they let him get a gap and he was gone. Boonen kept a slender 10 second lead over the chasers to win his first classic.

Gent-Wevelgem

I then went to my first bike race that started in Ghent and finished in the village of Wevelgem. I waited at the finish line in Wevelgem for around 4 hours before and saw the crowd growing, the entertainment race (a circuit race of the town by amateurs) and then the big screen light up and showed the race for the last 80 km. All the commentary was in Vlaams which I didn’t understand at the time but I was familiar with the cyclists and watched the screen carefully. With 80 kilometres to go, a big break had established itself that contained such big guns as Boonen, Magnus Bäckstedt, Thor Hushovd, Steven de Jongh, Karsten Kroon, Fabian Cancellara, Juan Antonio Flecha and Jaan Kirsipuu.
After the peloton negociated the cobbled hill of the Kemmel, the front group splited again with around 50km to go. Flecha attacked with around 40km remaining and held his gap going up the final ascent of the Kemmelberg. A regrouping took place after that and then Boonen faded to some 15 seconds behind before giving up the chase. Then Nico Mattan attacked with 9km to go. Hushovd brought him back. Then Pozzato and Bäckstedt went down and lost time. Mattan attacked again and opened a gap but was reeled back by a group of five. Then Flecha and Cooke got away. Flecha shook Cooke off but Mattan stayed in a pursuit of Flecha.
Then the penultimate moment happened at the very end with the crowd roaring with arms and flags obscuring the view of the screen. I leaned over the barriers to see what it was, the strain of leaning and of the sound of the crowd in my ears and I had understood everything until the last kilometre. Juan Antonio Flecha was in front with a 5 second advantage with 1km to go but somehow in the last km, local boy Nico Mattan had found a turbo boost and was coming back so fast that I didn’t see anything except I heard the crowd roaring “allez Nico, allez Nico” and then sure enough I saw him over take Juan just before the line and raise his arms in aggressive disbelief. Juan seemed dejected, exhausted, he had given it everything.

Paris-Roubaix

The next day I took the train to France to Lille and found myself walking around the train station, and everywhere I looked I saw groups of riot police walking toward me. I just kept turning and thinking what way should I go, and then Matthieu appeared! At that time, there were a lot of protests happening in France by students from secondary school. We passed a big square and there were loads of riot police and their vehicles and gendarmes too. On the Sunday we left from where the big market takes place in Wazemmes. We took a metro and bus to go to Roubaix. We arrived at the vélodrome at around 12.30. I bought a copy of l’équipe and read the predictions about the race. All the talk was about how a famous section of cobbles the Foret d'Arenberg wasn’t going to be in that year’s edition. This was because the cobbles were being repaved as the ground was sinking there. The organisers added a few other sections instead. The vélodrome is a large track. All along people stand by the fence and hold flags. Just at the finish line there is a large stand with a shelter and loads of seats. I have seen pictures of famous moments when the legends of the sport won, crossing the line in victory, one of Eddy Merckx in 1968 while wearing the rainbow jersey and another of Sean Kelly in 1984 with his face covered in mud. And in those photographs the stand is just the same as it was when I was there.
We sat down and waited for the race to come. We watched the juniors race end. And then the screen lit up and the commentary in French blasted across the vélodrome. The first thing I remember about seeing the screen was images of a crash. Someone had ridden into the mud and about 10 riders had come off. Peter Van Petegem was one of them and had to wait for a change of bike. He waited calmly but it took a good 40 seconds before he got one and got moving again. The leading bunch split into pieces. While the race wasn’t looking good for Van Petegem, the camera flashed to a French rider who’s saddle was loose and had to have a bike change.

After several km and a stint of cobbles Van Petegem climbed off his bike in a lot of pain and limps into his team car.
Then with around 80km to go or it could have been less 60km, the peloton was breaking up and the camera then showed six or seven men up the front. This was the group that the winner was among and they set a blistering pace and ate up the advantage of the lads who had broken away hours before. Among them was Boonen, Michaelsen, Hincapie, Bäckstedt, Juan Antonio Flecha and Fabian Cancellara.

They all seemed to be taking turns at the front of the group. The sky was dull, a grey and the cobbles that they were cycling over seemed damp and wet. The camera zoomed back to the chasing group and I saw one or two familiar faces at the front of the affairs. The gap was 43 seconds or so but as the kilometres were clocking down, the gap only increased and for the team that missed the move (T-Mobile) it was futile. The footage on the big screen increasingly only drew attention to the main men who were beginning to whittle down. Going through a section of cobbles Flecha was at the front and driving a killer pace. Behind his teammate Cancellara punctured and was out. The five of them are all exchanging turns again.


In the vélodrome, Matthieu, Helene and I are all watching. We have a chat with the people who are sitting next to us. We talk about the controversy regarding the win I saw Nico Mattan get; it turns out he got back to Flecha because he get shelter from the race motorcyclists by accident. They blocked the wind on him as they were filming both him and Juan and he was able to power in to a sort of vaccum and make the time back in such a short space. He maintained he won fairly saying «C'est moi qui ai pédalé, qui ai roulé à bloc.» -it was me who won. He went on to say that he was ninth at Waregem, fifth at Harelbeke, 3rd at La Panne and first at Gent-Wevelgem – that he was the most consistent Flemish cyclist and it wasn’t over yet! . «J'ai fait 9e à Waregem, 5e à Harelbeke, 3e à La Panne, premier ici. Je peux dire que je suis le coureur le plus régulier des classiques flamandes. Et ce n'est pas fini...» Great Stuff. But the win will always be remembered as stolen from Juan Antonio Flecha.

We look back at the screen where the five are once again exchanging turns at the front of their group. Then Bäckstedt accelerates out of a corner with a grimace showing on his face. It looks so hard that I think for a moment that the race has taken further shape but immediately they are all onto him. The five are still together after Bäckstedt's acceleration. After another section of cobbles, punctures. And then soon after Bäckstedt fades despite his aggressive riding and is dropped. It is down to three. Boonen hammers at the front with Flecha and Hincapie still there. Boonen continued to drive it. The three share the pace making but Boonen does the longest turns.

We watch as they enter the outskirts of Roubaix. The crowd gets excited watching the screen. The screen shows them passing under a 1km to go banner and then in the distance I see three small figures surrounded by motorbikes making their way. They disappear out of sight for a moment. They pass over a last sector of cobbles just near the velodrome. Then they enter the velodrome. Hincapie accelerates but Boonen is right there with him. Flecha is in third wheel. Hincapie led as they went through the velodrome gates. Their positions are very important as they do the lap and a half around the velodrome. I watch them cycle around just under me, and then when it is out of sight I look toward the screen. A bell rings to say the one lap to go. I concentrate and concentrate and the crowd gets very excited. Flecha takes over with one lap to you. Hincapie is in second wheel and Boonen in third. They seem to be purely concentrating. They cycle up the outer rim of the velodrome right next to the barriers. They seem to have slowed slightly. Coming into the last corner, Boonen launches out of the saddle and accelerates from behind the two others down to the inside of the track. He pushes himself and quickly gains a momentum, the other two react. Boonen thrusts himself far ahead, the crowd is crazy. Matthieu is shouting, I think I also shout. Boonen passes just under us, at the finish line but I cant see with all the people leaning over the barriers so I look to the screen and see for a moment his arms stretched up straight into the air. Hincapie is second and Juan Antonio Flecha is third. So that was that, all the people with the Lion of Flandres flags were all walking toward the bus station very happy.