“Just think of everyone who died in those fields. Pain is only temporary.” When Marijn nervously lines up in Compiègne for the Hell of the North, she knows the win is a possibility. Can she make her dream a reality or will the pavé claim another victim?
I wake to the sound of rain. Soft yet insistent, falling from the pre-dawn sky onto the car park of this cheap hotel, onto the fields and trenches and, of course, onto the cobbles. Hearing rain never scares me, even today. I’m the same girl that lay in bed listening to the rain sweeping across the polders, thinking about the ride to school. Then later, going out training when my brother refused because it was too wet or too windy or too sunny, always some excuse.
My room-mate, a young British girl called Alex, is still asleep. The rain will give her the jitters. I’ll go and do some stretching in the corridor. Let the innocent sleep.
My favourite bit of A Sunday in Hell? Just after the start, when Merckx and his team are spinning from their hotel to the start. I can visualise it now – the glittering morning sunshine, the whir of their freewheels, the shapes the boys make with their wheels. For me that sums up racing. And it seems a million miles away from sitting on this bus, stuffy with a composite smell of coffee, embrocation and the dreaded chemical toilet. Beyond the darkened windows lies Le Nord, desolate and brutal, glorious just for today.
Oh fuck, I really want this race. I’d give anything to come into the velodrome alone. All those medals and trophies at Dad’s house mean nothing compared to this. This is the race I had in my mind in Mallorca, in Calpe, on the turbo trainer, out running in the snow the day after Christmas.
The bus is quieter than usual. Some of the girls have headphones on, some are fiddling with their kit, some staring at their phones. Only Alex is talking. She talks when she is nervous, fast and faux-happy, giggling at her own jokes. I smile to be polite but it’s an effort. Now she starts talking about the crashes in last week’s Ronde. Some of the other girls turn their shoulder, not wanting to hear about broken bones and snapped handlebars. Alex, I say, and shake my head. It takes her a moment to understand and then she bites her lip, apologises.
In Compiègne I preoccupy myself with the usual rituals. Eat, sign on, a few clichés for the Dutch television crew, talk to the mechanics, toilet, team talk, legs, pick up food for the pockets, eat some more… tape up my fingers and wrists… the rain is still falling. The crowd waiting outside the bus are huddled under black umbrellas. An appropriately dreary scene, but look to the sky in the north and there is purple and gold violence, a streak of light breaking through. Cornelissen would prefer it dry and fast, that’s her style.
She has that uncanny ability to float through trouble, evading crashes and punctures, always pedalling at the same cadence, impervious behind those gold glasses, hardly saying a word, even to her team-mates. I resist the temptation to send someone over to see what tyres she’s riding today.
Naturally, at the start line they usher me to a spot alongside her. Our rivalry is almost entirely manufactured by the media, and by a few rough comments made by people who think they know me. Still, now that this duel has been created, I find myself slipping into the role. I am the tough old bird, uncompromising, calculating, icy.
The photographers fire away. The crowd hopes to see fear in our eyes. The motorbikes kick up their engines. Paris-Roubaix. Next to me Cornelissen takes a drink. Like everyone else she is well wrapped up; we are a peloton of wraiths about to traverse the battlefields. She is shivering. Good, that’s energy she’s using up.
As soon as we finish the neutralised zone it stops raining. An omen. The pace is high and everyone is jittery. Wheels touch, bodies fly into the grass, scrape and snap of bikes, screaming. I move up. Come on, remember where you are Marijn, this is Paris-Roubaix. Position is everything.
Haveluy. Holy fuck! Did we recon this sector? The cobblestones are like alligator teeth, only more scary. Black and silver and glistening with evil portent. Riding them is like a circus act. A motorbike slides into the ditch, its passenger landing stunned on his bum on the road, where two girls hit him and fly over the handlebars. Braking here is impossible, as they’re finding out further back. So this is where the war begins.
When we emerge from the sector and take a look around it’s clear there is a split in the peloton. Maybe forty of us ahead, the rest twenty seconds behind. I sprint up the side of the group and assess who is here. Plenty of good riders, plenty of team-mates. No Cornelissen.
I yell at three of my team-mates, who are unwrapping silver foil packages of food. The two Dutch girls, Ellen and Lotte, both of whom I have grown up with, shove the food back in their jerseys and muscle their way to the front of the group. The third, Alex, looks at me in despair, the cake clamped between her teeth.
Eat, then ride, I yell, we’ve got a gap.
Cross-headwind. Perfect. We drive the group into an echelon, shedding a few more riders in the process. There are still 95km to go and perhaps they’re unwilling to ride hard so early. Who cares what they think? This is where I make the race.
The wind whips spray off the road, throws the smell of manure into our nostrils. I hover five riders back, out of the wind but ready for the next sector. The gap creeps up… the DS tells me Cornelissen has her team on the front, and if we let up the pressure she’ll get back. Through the cobbles I make the Dutch girls ride on the front. On the tarmac it’s over to Alex. She’s so small she hardly punches a hole in the air at all, but she certainly has some grit.
Arenberg. From gloomy skies to black forest. There’s a bang as a rider hits a hole and flies into the barrier. Further crunches. The crowd are only a distant hum. Staying upright is everything. The bike dances underneath me. I’m on the front of the group. The only person who can bring me off is the motorbike rider. Afterwards, when we make the transition onto tarmac, it is curiously quiet. No spectators, no rattling bikes or yelling riders, even the helicopters seem to have disappeared. We roll along, in something of a daze, then remember ourselves and reach into jerseys for food.
Orchies. Attacks from that crazy Australian, the one with the skull and crossbones sticker on her downtube. She goes hard down one gutter, making spectators leap backwards into the field. Ellen goes with her, protecting my interests. Great plumes of brown water sluice up off Ellen’s tyres into my face but I can’t let a gap open. The stones are making my body hurt now.
The group has split again. I have Ellen and Lotte with me but Alex has been distanced. There’s a French girl in this front group who was flying at the Ronde. On the Paterberg I couldn’t hold her wheel. She comes from somewhere round here, I seem to remember. This race is in her blood. Her brother and her father have both ridden it many times. It treated them badly, filling them with hope then dumping them on the roadside with wrecked wheels. Neither man troubled the front of the race. And now their little girl is heading towards the velodrome in the lead group, her ponytail tossing in the crosswind. Imagine that.
Mons-en-Pévèle. My front wheel digs into the mud, sending me slithering across the road and into the grass, but I unclip, stay upright, get back on the pedals. Someone pushes me off and shouts my name. I’m getting tired but luckily I was at the back of the group and no one else saw it. More attacks and I’m biting the handlebars just to stay on the last wheel. What’s happening? Didn’t I eat enough? Or was driving that early split a suicidal decision?
Once, my father and I were watching Paris-Roubaix on television, curled up on the sofa at home, and while I was bemoaning some tactical error, he was staring absent-mindedly at the screen, not listening to me. And then he said, just think of all the boys who died in those fields. Pain is only temporary, Marijn. Remember that next time you’re in the gutter trying to hold a wheel. If you’re only in pain, you’re lucky.
We switch left and right into a village, slow down, study each other’s mud-blasted faces. Car horns from behind, the radio crackling, helicopter shuddering closer. Four riders come piling into the back of our group. Among them is Alex, grinning wildly. What a girl! She says hello and hands me a fresh bottle and gel. Moves up the group and gives a gel each to Ellen and Lotte, both of whom are suffering now. Alex swings off, looking backwards for me, but doesn’t see a bollard in the middle of the road, clips it and goes spinning into a crowd of spectators, a tangle of bike and limbs. In horror I watch her slam into the high kerb. As I turn to look she is swamped by people, only her motionless legs are visible. Shit, this bloody race.
Camphin-en-Pévèle. The battles rage on. That crazy Australian is still at it, and now she has the Norwegian Mortensen with her. The speed is insane. I put myself through hell to stay with them. Beer sprays on my face. The stench of it! My bottle flies out of its cage, yanked by the Gods of Roubaix. I’m getting delirious… just hold the wheels, Marijn.
And then there were five. The Aussie, Mortensen, the French girl who knows the cobbles, the Belgian De Kuick, who has the biceps of a wrestler, and me. The Aussie and the French girl are on the same team, and I have no team-mates left. 16km to go.
We ride at 80 per cent, gulping down energy gels and swigs of Coke, stretching out back muscles. I can feel the first twinges of cramp. Through and off, through and off. Watching each other for signs of exhaustion. When the attacks start, they all turn to look at me. Once, twice, three times I close down an attack. Cycling is cruel. When the Aussie attacks, the French girl, Sylvia, turns to me and says, Marijn, allez!
Through the last proper sector at Hem. De Kuick rolls past on her fat tubulars but it’s not really an attack. She just enjoys the cobbles, and hasn’t got a sprint. Into town, the false flat, still no attacks. Motorbikes zoom off to the finish.
Mortensen goes up the middle of the road. This time the Aussie shuts it down, but it takes a lot out of her. So Sylvia is the favoured rider. Okay. I lurk at the back, scheming. My mind is still alive, but I worry that my legs are dead. Try an attack now? No, the Aussie used to be a track pursuiter – she’ll just grind me down. No, now it’s a sprint.
Into the roar of the velodrome. I’m fourth in the line, too far back. As the bell rings, I push past Mortensen into third place. The Aussie is leading out. I have to disrupt their plan. Sylvia leaves too much space on her inside so I accelerate into it, keeping my right elbow out and nudging her up the track. The crowd gasps. Oh their poor girl! The move puts me on the Aussie’s wheel and I stare at that skull and crossbones sticker, barely visible under the mud. What is it they say – death or glory?
In the back straight I start winding up the gear. The Aussie is slowing, but it’s too far to go from here. Just another fifty metres. I duck my head under my armpit and look back at Sylvia. She is young and snarling. I go, but she’s on my shoulder all the way around the bend, and the crowd are exploding. I’m just a skeleton trying to make my bike move faster. Sylvia bursts past and throws her hands in the air. And her scream of delight rips me open.
Later, in Lille University hospital, I hobble in to see Alex. She is being kept in as a precaution because of the concussion. Other than some nasty abrasions she is alright. When she sees me, she starts to cry.
She says, I cursed you by talking about crashes on the bus, didn’t I?
You cursed yourself, I say. But the words sound cold and harsh. This is not what she needs to hear.
I shake my head, correct myself. No, it’s the race that is cursed. It’s stupid and ridiculous and I hate myself for loving it. You did good today.
Alex smiles. Apparently when I was lying on the road all I could say was, how far till the next sector? How far till the next sector?
One year, I say, we’ve got to wait a whole fucking year.