The rapeseed fields are just a yellow strip on the horizon. The road caresses them now and then, and their pungent whiff stings your nose. The same whiff we scarpered from as kids when we raced our bikes through the no-man’s land behind our houses. One of these areas is also caressed by a road made of stones or cobbles and it feels a bit odd to even call it a road. It cuts through the plain and divides the fields – but not our feelings. Those it unites. It unites them in spring for a ritual that coincides with Catholic Easter today. Enormous heavy tractors squash their sides all year long, before wrecking them with huge potholes where the roman stones give way to chasm-like voids.
The tractors never stop coming and going because they have to keep pace with the seasons: «… there is a time for sowing and a time for harvesting, a time to plough and a time for irrigating» the farmer that lives across from me used to say. But there is one short period when the big green John Deere’s engines fall silent and their giant wheels give way to slender bicycle tyres. That’s the Roubaix, baby, and there is nothing you can do about it. They call it the Hell of the North because Hell is a privilege reserved for the extreme, the boundary-pushing, the edge of the acceptable. Even if it was a punishment as hellish things should be, it would be pure evil to condemn a human being to pedal 250 kilometres of which 50 was over cobblestones. But that’s Paris Roubaix: a cursed lure that will do you the world of good by inflicting pain.
On the morning of the race, Compiègne is buzzing with dozens of colourful buses and hundreds of cars with bike-shaped carbon-fibre carriers on their roofs. There is an edgy tension in the air – tension mixed with curious joy of the cycling folk come looking for autographs, selfies, close-up photos of bikes they can blag to friends as the secrets of the pros’ success. Who knows if the decision to the traditional start from Paris to this elegant little down founded by the Gauls wasn’t actually written in its Latin name: Compendium meaning shortcut – something the cyclists would gladly take to avoid the 30 stretches of cobbles, each one a Dante-esque circle of hell.
They are rated with stars – just like hotels. Three have been awarded five stars and their names alone is enough to make your blood run cold. I’ve only ever seen the Forest of Aremberg and Mons-en-Pévèle on TV but I actually cycled the Carrefour de l’Abre just a few hours ago. It is exactly 2.1 kilometres of stones, holes, cracks, bumps, manoeuvres, noise (some from the bike, others from my poor knees), spit and sweat, staring straight ahead, searching for the end, thoughts and doubts (where should I put my hands, on the handlebars or on the brakes?), private cursing, and then more dust, gruelling steering, an overwhelming desire to just dive into a beer, a million doubts (….more agile?). But most of all: I just want to get to the end.
In short, a whole kaleidoscope of things that beg one question: why? In this life, I have learned that there isn’t a logical, rational answer to every question, and the Roubaix is one of those. You do it – end of story. No questions, please. When you are cycling it, you go into another, more equine dimension: your bike is a bucking, plunging horse and you have to control it. It’s a rodeo of emotions. Alessandro Vanotti is just behind me and smothers me with advice: he only did the Roubaix once and after 14 years as a pro, he still talks about it with all the enthusiasm and excitement of a kid (albeit from Bergamo) on the morning of Santa Lucia. «Keep your arms relaxed, … don’t grip the handle, … be more agile about it, …tighten your stomach …and most of all, don’t change direction: there’s no point». If he was charging 10 euros a suggestions he’d have the IBAN of a Russian oligarch at this stage. A team car stops, the window lowers and a hand shakes Alessandro’s: a couple of words are exchanged then they bid farewell, each going their own way.
At the end of every stretch, the group, all wearing the patchwork-style Forger des Heroes jersey developed by Santini and inspired by the Roubaix’s many souls, comes to all halt and a Tower of Babel of many languages begins. When a dozen journalists from all over Europe cycle together, no one wants to be left behind. It’s a question of national pride and the first remarks after finishing a cobbled stretch go something like: “You got away from me, but the next time you’ll stay behind. I’d rather the world caved in than let you pass me… …”. Aaron from England’s hands are covered in blisters the following day while his fellow countryman Liam is battling night-time cramping in his legs. Both, however, fly over the dirt track. Joaquin’s Spanish silences hide extraordinary skill while Lukas finished the Austrian snow season and on his first outing on the road, is constantly in the lead group. Matthieu is on home turf, language-wise. But also in terms of the Carrefour’s cobbles. Thomas and Danny from the Netherlands burst off powerfully at every restart on the dirt track, and Stevens who is one of their neighbours in Belgium, is no less able, giving like for like. Expert Alberto has come all the way from Italy to gamble once again with the cobbles of the legendary race and show the value of having legs that do 20,000 km a year. They took are all asking themselves: porque? Why? Pourquoi? Waarom? Perché? When the media group skirts the campers parked on the side of the road during the day, the fastest keyboards from the old continent battle each other through, rivers of barbecue smoke and screams of encouragement.
It’s midday and the temperature has shot up and sleeves are slipped into back pockets. But the April wind is coming from the north and stings like the strawlike fragrance of rape. Bikes are what we all have in common in terms of our kit with maybe a few modifications to our tyres, but technical wear plays a fundamental role at these latitudes. Despite the fact that the toughest climb in the Hauts de France is a motorway flyover, the air you breathe on these plains is as treacherous as a sweaty downhill in June from the Stelvio. You need something that will protect you from rain and, most importantly of all, cold air because what the thermometer says is one thing but what you actually feel is quite another as it is difficult to control how it jumps around.
To tackle a range that runs between five and 15 degrees, Fergus (Santini’s chief designer) tells me about the new Enfer du Nord jacket with its stylised cobbled strip on its front with an iridescent print that shimmers colourfully in the French sun. He and Polartec worked on producing a garment that would be waterproof, windproof, packable and light. And it seems like they have found the answers to certain questions.