There is a lot to be said for the strange sort of beauty that the chaos of Paris-Roubaix brings. The way the dust is thrown up in the air and the riders emerge through it like soldiers from the trenches. The way that they battle to the finish line with bruises and blood-stained bodies. The way they collapse in the velodrome, some from exhaustion, some from emotion, some not really sure why they’re collapsing at all. Maybe because they’ve made it through Roubaix, a race as close to war as you can get on two wheels.
But with a race that gives such drama and brutality, there are always sacrifices. The unlucky ones. There are some who don’t make it to the finish at all, who are left somewhere in the barren landscapes of Northern France, scooped into the broomwagon, or into team cars. For those who have the most misfortune, they are taken into ambulances, whisked off to a unfamiliar hospital bed, the bright, sterile lights of the ward a harsh contrast to the earthy, wet, muddy cobbles which took them prisoner.
In this year’s fastest-ever edition of Paris-Roubaix, such high speed and stakes bought broken hearts – and bodies – in their numbers. Perhaps the most dramatic and memorable of them all was that of Team DSM’s John Degenkolb. He lay on the floor of the Roubaix velodrome at the end of the race, his body convulsing like he was writhing in pain. This discomfort wasn’t just physical from the crash that came only 20 kilometres away from the finish when Degenkolb was on track to get his best ever result in the Hell of the North since his 2015 victory, it was from a sort of visceral disappointment that looked to be tearing the German rider in half.
Degenkolb enters the velodrome alone (image: Getty)
Mathieu van der Poel, the eventual winner of the race who was involved in Degenkolb’s crash (some might argue the Alpecin-Elegant rider was at fault for bringing Degenkolb down, but Van der Poel said afterwards that he didn’t know what had caused the crash, “if it was my fault, my apologies,” he commented in the post-race press conference) went to console him after the race, placing a tentative hand on the DSM rider’s shoulder as he lay on the ground. For Degenkolb, his heart will take some time to heal.
“I have a lot of pain in my left shoulder. It’s not easy to describe how big the disappointment is. It’s been a long time since I was out there in a final like this. I think I rode a really good race and it’s really disappointing to have that chance for a really good result taken away,” the German rider said to journalists after the race.
It wasn’t just Degenkolb who felt the wrath of Hell today. While the German rider’s frustration lies largely in the fact that he is an experienced rider who may only have a few chances left at victory at Paris-Roubaix, there were others experiencing their first ever taste of Roubaix agony.
Josh Tarling of Ineos Grenadiers (Image: Alex Whitehead/SWPix)
“I crashed after the first two sectors with Luke [Rowe], got back to the front group and then had two punctures,” Josh Tarling of the Ineos Grenadiers, the youngest rider to start the race since 1937, said after he rolled into the velodrome outside the time-cut and just under half an hour behind eventual winner Van der Poel. From his bright-eyed excitement and naivety ahead of the race, Tarling spoke to journalists through dust on his face and with a bloodied road rash gaping through his ripped kit.
“I was on my own for 120km, so it’s just a long day. It was the last man standing, wasn’t it? It is always so hard. But it’s Roubaix, you have to finish Roubaix,” he said.
And among Degenkolb and Tarling there were others. There was Peter Sagan who left the race with concussion in his last-ever attempt after crashing in the earlier stages, there was Fred Wright who was dreaming of his first professional victory today before a puncture caused him to smack down hard on the cobbles of the Arenberg. He was left cradling his shoulders as riders raced through the forest towards him, hoping they would all see him in time. In that same crash, there was Kasper Asgreen who all hopes lied with to save another dire Classics season for Soudal - Quick-Step. There was Dylan van Baarle who had only just managed to recover from his crash at E3 Saxo Classic to return to racing in time to race Roubaix, now set back all over again. There was Owain Doull of EF Education-EasyPost who lost control on the pavé after a fan’s T-shirt got caught in his handlebars.
Then, there was the heartbreak of those who battled to make it to the finish, but were left disappointed anyway. There was Jumbo-Visma, who did everything they could but were victim to crashes and punctures which decided the outcome of their race. There was Mads Pedersen of Trek-Segafredo who bridged across to the group of favourites and clearly wanted today so badly, but just had to accept that “the legs were not there in the end. That is how it is.”
Asgreen and Wright crash on the Arenberg (Image: Getty)
Each edition, Paris-Roubaix chews riders up and spits them out again, but year on year, they come back for another attempt. Broken hearts heal over the next 12 months and teams return hoping it will be different, believing that their luck will change this time. The difficulties and extremities of this race add a strange intrigue. Perhaps the cruellest thing of all is how Paris-Roubaix can tempt riders in so they fall in love with its character and legend, but how much it can hurt them too.
There’s a famous quote that comes from the 1985 edition of the Paris-Roubaix. It was said by a Dutchman, Theo de Rooij, who was close to taking victory in the race until he crashed out and watched his chances of a win disappear up the road ahead of him.
He told a journalist from CBS after the race: “It’s a bollocks, this race! You’re working like an animal, you don’t have time to piss, you wet your pants. You’re riding in mud like this, you’re slipping… It's a pile of shit.”
But afterwards, the same journalist asked De Rooij if he’d come back to Roubaix and try to win again and the Dutchman replied: “Sure, it’s the most beautiful race in the world.”
Cover image: Getty