Through the keyhole: Transfixed by the magic of Roubaix for the first time

Reporting from Roubaix, Rouleur writer Chris Marshall-Bell recounts a long-awaited first visit to one of road cycling's most historic locations

From time to time, I experience moments that utterly transfix me, and hold me still in the position I find myself in. They are moments that I’ve usually long-anticipated, previously having imagined what I will see, guessing what I’ll feel. I’ve had them walking through the bowels of a stadium, up the stairs, and then seeing the day’s sporting arena unfolding in front of my eyes for the first time. I’ve had them, too, approaching the top of a mountain, just metres from the ridge line, when the scene on the other side, the jagged and snow-capped peaks, slowly starts piercing into view and framing the horizon. They are magical moments in time, first glimpses that prompt a smile, sometimes temporarily take my breath away, and are etched in my memory like visual scars. I stand there and soak it all in – the sight, the sound, the smell, how it all makes me feel.

For half of my life, I’ve been regaled by stories of Paris-Roubaix. I’ve read books and magazines, watched the races, videos and films, listened to the podcasts, and heard the anecdotes. I’d never been to the Roubaix Velodrome, though, a place of cycling mythology, a concrete track where the condensation of evaporating rain could be bottled and resold at premium rates. This weekend, 14 years on from first hearing about this charming setting, I finally got the chance to step inside the velodrome, to witness a sight I had longed to experience.

I approached the sporting theatre from the doors of the new velodrome, past the barracks to the right that house the fabled showers, and towards the road that leads into the velodrome. There was a security man at the gate, blocking my access until I showed him my press accreditation, but I managed to sneak my first glance into cycling’s greatest coliseum. It was an obstructed view, but I could make out half of the grandstand on the opposite side, packed in mostly by Lotte Kopecky’s fan club. I could see part of the green turf in the middle and about 30% of the pink-washed concrete track to the right, its 31-degree angled banking pressing up against the advertising hoardings which hundreds of fans were sitting on, watching the TV screens that were projecting the finishing kilometres of the women’s race. I could also see the Ville de Roubaix advertising blanket painted on the track, a logo that is ingrained in my mind, having watched, from my TV at home, Cancellara, Boonen, Deignan, Sagan and many other icons ride across it en route to often career-defining victories. There were flags – French, Dutch, Belgian – fluttering at full mast, and I could just make out the very edge of the podium erected in the middle. It was a keyhole view, a quarter of the full image, but it was everything. Everything I had hoped to one day see for myself. I was completely enchanted, absolutely in the present, an irrepressible smile darting across my face. I was at Roubaix, and I was about to be privy to history occurring before my very eyes.

As I walked past the gate, the scene widened, the grandeur became ever more visible. The finish line and the last lap bell came into view. I got to walk over the track – actually walk on the banks of history. I knelt down, touched it, rubbed my hands across the wheel tracks of legends. I continued into the stadium’s centre, and after a short while, the six leading women appeared from the road, took a turn to the right, went up the banking, and darted back down to the blue racing line.

Roubaix’s velodrome is big – double the size of an Olympic-sized track – and for a lot of their one-and-a-half laps, I couldn’t see the sextet who were revving their motors to determine who would be sprinting to glory. I could have watched the many large screens showing an unobstructed view of the action, but I chose not to. I didn’t want to watch the finale on a gigantic screen or through the lens of my phone’s camera, but with my own eyes – just like spectators did in the days when Coppi, Merckx and Hinault won here.

As the six passed the ringing bell, signalling 500m of racing to go, the crowd of thousands roared, and hairs stood up on my arms. Actual goosebumps. Around the backside, I again lost the riders from view, but they appeared once more, this time in front of me. Their faces were grimacing, they were stomping hard on their pedals, their bodies were shifting about on their saddles. Ellen van Dijk hit the front, but Marianne Vos, Elisa Balsamo, Pfeiffer Georgi and world champion Lotte Kopecky were the four who would determine the final orders. With 200m to go, they disappeared from my sightline yet again, and I stood on the railings to see over heads and temporary furniture. I just made out Kopecky edging past Balsamo at the line, and Georgi throwing her bike in front of Vos. I saw Kopecky raise her arms, her rainbow bands on full show, and then ride another 100m, come into the track’s centre, and collapse on the ground. A new Roubaix legend had been crowned.

Twenty-four hours later, the velodrome was even more packed, and even louder, as Mathieu van der Poel coasted to a three-minute victory in the men’s race. It was another moment in time, a day of dominance that will have entire chapters written about it in the future. But for me, nothing will ever replicate that first sight of the Roubaix Velodrome, that first look through a keyhole, that first tangible moment with history and magic. It’s a unique, spellbinding place, a decrepit amphitheatre in many ways, but our sport’s coliseum, a glorious battleground where tears of joy and pain are wept, war stories are told, dreams are fulfilled, careers are made, and extraordinary sporting drama happens. 

It’s every bit as magical as I could ever have imagined.

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