For as long as I have lived in France I have covered Paris-Roubaix. Moving here in the 1990s, I witnessed the domination of the Mapei years as well as the Quick-Step years. But this year, for the first time, I will be sitting it out, thanks to a herniated disc that has suddenly brought my own season to a close.
So, for once, I will be watching the race on television like the rest of the world. In some ways, I am actually looking forward to being able to see how the race really unfolds. After all, most years I am too busy racing through the northern French countryside getting only fleeting impressions of the event as I photograph from different vantage points. It is only well after the finish that I can put the pieces back together, and get any real understanding of what actually transpired. But still, it will be impossible to replicate the live experience.
I have often said that Paris-Roubaix is my favorite race in the world, as it is capable of packing all of the action of the three-week Tour de France into a six-hour race. Tension is always high on the road to Roubaix. And there is no real downtime. Attacks are incessant as the riders race out of Compiegne. And once the pack hits the first cobbles in Troisvilles it is simply “game on” until the finish, with the suspense and drama only intensifying with each ensuing sector. And things happen in Paris-Roubaix that rarely happens in other races. Riders can be off the front, crash or have a mechanical, get dropped, and still battle back to win. In short, everything is possible and nothing is probable.
Looking back over my images from the past decades this week offered memories of previous editions of Paris-Roubaix. Certain images called to mind — the power that Johan Museeuw exuded, or the fluidity that Tom Boonen projected when they were at their best. And then there is the brilliance of more recent victories by Peter Sagan, or Philippe Gilbert, both of whom attacked their rivals early to score some of the greatest victories that I can recall.
But there is so much more to Roubaix than the list of victories and victors. When I think about race day in “The Hell of the North” I think first of the relentless dust kicked up on every sector, first by the riders and then the team cars. I think of the utter frenzy found in the Arenberg Forest, first as the crowds await the peloton and then the utter mayhem that ensues as the riders blast down this three-kilometer cobbled tunnel through the trees. And I think of the desperation of riders, suddenly stricken with a flat or a mechanical, trying to get back in the race, perhaps if only to accompany their team leader for another section.
And then of course there is the velodrome, an utterly unique sanctuary to the sport of cycling, packed with anticipation before the finish and intense emotions after. For 364 days of the year, truth be told, the old cement track is a pretty run-down place, set on the poor edge of a town well past its prime. But come Sunday, this oval track and its bleachers will simply come alive with a fever of excitement.
The anticipation of this year’s Roubaix is even higher as the event has been put on hold for nearly two years due to COVID. And it promises several firsts: This will be the first time that it is held in October, and the first time we witness a women’s edition as well. And according to Meteo France, this will be the first rainy edition in nearly 20 years.
While I have countless memories of the race itself, this past winter I saw the cobbles from a different perspective altogether as I photographed many of these same sectors on a cold winter’s day, documenting this forlorn landscape in northern France and the cobbles in waiting. It provided me with a different perspective altogether, allowing me to reflect on the unique nature of each sector and the role they play in their local environment. In many ways, the cobbles have a life of their own. They certainly have their own identity. And come Sunday, they will once again provide the ultimate stage for this race like no other. I sure wish I could be there. But this year at least, I will take my seat in front of my screen and enjoy it as a true fan.
Johan Museeuw won his third and final Roubaix back in 2002, the last rain-drenched edition.
While rain is on tap this year, dust is usually the order of the day at Roubaix.
Tom Boonen doing what he does best in the famed Arenberg Forest, floating over the cobblestones.
Paris-Roubaix has a way of inspiring riders and fans alike.
Every victory in Roubaix is great, but Peter Sagan’s long breakaway win while wearing the rainbow stripes of world champion was historic.
Belgian nation champion Yves Lampaert chases to stay with the leaders at the end of the treacherous Carrefour de l’Arbre section as the race nears Roubaix.
Few picked Philippe Gilbert to win in 2019, but he mastered the cobbles and is still the reigning champion.
The drama in the Roubaix is always unrivaled when the racers finally enter.
Like so many riders, Frenchman Arnaud Démare sits on the infield long after the finish, trying to come to terms with the race that just was Roubaix.
Former winner John Degenkolb savors the Roubaix veledrome in another way after the 2018 edition.
The entry to the cobbles at Troisvilles, the first stop every year.
Seen from above, the cobbles of the Arenberg Forest could be an abstract painting. But come Sunday, they will play center stage to one of the most spectacular days of bike racing imaginable.