Pauline Ballet is a freelance photographer and long-time Rouleur contributor who shoots many of ASO’s cycling races from the back of a motorbike. She recounts her experience at the 2021 Paris-Roubaix. It was her fourth edition, one like no other.
I had trouble sleeping the night before Paris-Roubaix. I could hear the rain falling hard outside in Compiègne. I woke up early, looked outside and it was like a storm outside – a true Hell of the North.
Pauline Ballet – Photo credit: Justin Setterfield
I’m a lover of Paris-Roubaix, I had really wanted to do an edition in the rain. But when that possibility becomes reality, there are really mixed feelings between excitement and apprehension. I barely touched breakfast. When I left for the race, I told myself that it was going to be rain all day and mud in my face, to not expect anything less. And I knew it would be exceptional to be a part of this.
I saw my fellow photographers in front of the sign-on podium. The greetings were warmer than usual, I think we all needed that mutual support. And when I saw the riders signing on and said hello to some of them, I could see they weren’t fully there; their heads were somewhere else. What was going through their minds?
My pilot [Jean-Marie Bellamy] told me at the start that we wouldn’t take any risks, especially as our motorbike wasn’t made for the mud and those conditions.
I was near the end of the first sector at Troisvilles (sector 30) for a good five minutes before the first riders. I saw the cars and motorbikes graze past us, driving through the puddles, mud and water going everywhere. And then when the riders came, many of them were already covered in dirt. It was insane.
You have to quickly decide which sectors to find cut-throughs between, which side of the road to take a photo on: if not the same one as the motorbike, it’s very hard to cross back afterwards with all the cars and riders. There’s no time to hesitate, barely time to think – or eat and drink. I think I had two sips of water and a cookie all day, and that was in the first 100 kilometres when there was less action.
I was sending photographs back to ASO live, on the fly. It’s really tough — I jump back on the motorbike and while rattling around behind the peloton, I look at my viewfinder and send it quickly, making sure it’s a clean photo and there’s enough network. I don’t know how I did all that, in fact! I took over 2,000 photographs in total — and there are a fair few that didn’t work out, as some water and condensation got into my kit.
We usually take a short-cut to get straight to the end of the Trouée d’Arenberg (sector 19). This year, we went over the whole thing on the motorbike. The public were screaming, and it was special to take that all in.
I heard the word "crash" all the time on the race radio from Sebastien Piquet. But I didn’t see many; one on the Trouée d’Arenberg, a motorbike that fell elsewhere. And a fair few mechanics changing bikes or wheels that I could only photograph on the fly.
I crashed twice. The first was on the cut-through to Orchies (sector 13). We slipped on a muddy roundabout and I fell onto my photo kit. One side of me is pretty painful now. But honestly, I had feared it would be worse; I’d never fallen from a motorbike before [in several Tours de Frances].
Then it happened again on the sector after at Bersée. It was really muddy, really bad, maybe the worst sector. I heard that Mons-en-Pevèle was terrible too. I planned to be there, but having fallen right before, I thought ‘I could really hurt myself there’ and we decided not to.
Pauline's fall on sector 7. photo: Kristof Ramon
I felt the most adrenaline on this very muddy sector of Vertain. I saw my friend and colleague Etienne slip and crash on his moto next to me, then the riders were upon us behind him. It was absolute chaos: you’re stunned at physically how they are, how they ride, motorbikes were going down everywhere, it all happens very quickly. Your brain is off, you act but you don’t have time to think.
I got to Roubaix velodrome, saw my colleagues and took stock: I’m here, so are they, I’m in one piece, nothing broken, very good. I don’t love comparing cyclists to warriors, I’m a little uneasy with it. But yesterday, there were truly some riders who, totally covered in mud like statues, really made me think of the trenches. Laid on the ground with thousand-yard stares, their sponsor logos not even visible. That’s the first time I felt those links to soldiers. This year’s Paris-Roubaix was beyond sport.
The photo I’m proudest of is my portrait of Heinrich Haussler [who finished tenth]. It’s funny: it wasn’t the most stressful, chaotic or difficult one technically like all the ones on the pavé, but he has just crossed the line, he is exhausted, his blue eyes come through. For me, it sums up the day. I thought he was looking at me; that moment of connection is there.
I had a deep joy and pride inside me to have taken part in an edition of Paris-Roubaix like that, the first wet edition in 20 years. Taking the photographs, you’re so concentrated on what you’re doing to get the best shots. Only afterwards do you reflect.
My helmet was totally splattered in mud, it was all over my shoes and trousers. I’d run on the sectors to get back to the moto; if you walked, you’d sink down into the mud. When I got to the press room, several people were looking at me like I had two heads. I was exhausted and my photo apparel was pretty bad. But every photographer I saw was enchanted like me, shocked but in a good way.
Without a doubt, it was the maddest, best, most special day in my whole career photographing cycling. I won’t forget it, that’s for sure. I hope that after having twenty editions without rain, there’ll be twenty with it – just to get the balance!
Now I understand what it was and understand the apprehension: it’s really complicated and dangerous, but at the same time great and thrilling. I’d do another Paris-Roubaix like that tomorrow. Well, maybe not quite tomorrow...