We’re at Paris – Roubaix 2007 and it’s more like July in San Trop than spring in Northern France. We’re in Wallers to take-in cobble sectors 19 and 17, both of which are on the outskirts of the village but at different ends, we had thought about watching at sector 18, Arenberg, but half of France has the same idea, it’s heaving, and we have to get up to the finish “soon-as” after we’ve cobble-watched.
We decided not to go to the start; too much crush, too much traffic and besides, we had to track down a can of tyre repair foam (we had a puncture with the Audi yesterday and we’ve no spare now).
Sector 19 runs through the maize fields, if you keep your eyes off the horizon, it’s a rural idyl. If you scan-out to the distance though, there are cone-shaped hills, covered with grass and trees. Only these aren’t hills, they are mine spoil heaps, ‘bings’ as we call them in Scotland.
When you sink shafts down into the earth, then run the ‘roads’ out to where the ‘black gold’ is, there’s an awful lot of drilled and blasted rock to dispose of; hence the bings. There are four within a couple of kilometres of where we stand.
It’s a long time since coal came out of the ground here, but the mine winding towers at Arenberg still stand tall over to our right.
The publicity caravan has started to come through; there’s hardly a breath of wind and it’s stiflingly hot. The dust off the cars is choking, it will be terrible in the bunch.
The speed was high early-on up those long, tree-lined avenues, but eventually a big group got clear; that’s only the early hands of the poker game though.
Grabsch (Milram & Germany) is 1-25 clear of the big break of around 30, with QuickStep well represented. The air is heavy with brown dust and the coureurs look more like miners who have just come-up to the pit head, than the tanned, sleek young atletes that they are.
It’s three minutes plus back to the CSC-driven bunch but Tom is right up there and bright-eyed. Top ten rider from last year, Bert Roesems (Lotto & Belgium) is way-back the group and Ghent Wevelgem winner, Marcus Burghardt (T-Mobile & Germany) is stone-last in the string, but he’s been on the deck – his sparkling white tape is all torn.
There are still riders passing after 17 minutes and there’s Matt White’s (Discovery & Australia) bike on the sag wagon; Russian race-favourite, Gusev has lost a strong team mate.
We try to catch sector 17 but the race is too fast for us and we miss the leaders. In the bunch, approaching the final hour it’s getting ‘for real’ as Lotto put the hammer down; Hoste was de-classed last year and will want his revenge.
A long walk back to the car, head for the motorway and the drive to Roubaix. Sector 13 of cobbles runs alongside the motorway and there’s a traffic jam as cars are abandoned wily-nily on the hard shoulder to watch the race.
Yet again it makes you wonder what you have to do to attract the attention of the traffic police on French or Belgian roads.
It’s a bit of a production getting to the velodrome, even with our ‘Press’ sticker on the car, but eventually we get there, abandon the Audi and head for the sun-drenched track centre.
The big screen is in full-flow, but it’s hard to get a handle on the action as the coverage switchs from group to group. Tour de France “speaker’, Daniel Mangeas provides the commentary, but it’s at auctioneer speed and difficult to pick-up if you’re not a local.
One thing we do know for sure is that Stuey 0’Grady is ‘en seulle’ at the head of affairs, riding like one of the greats – flying over the sets, making it look simple. It’s very fluid behind, but the jist of it is that the early-break, which I described as, ‘the early hands of the game’ is, in fact, ‘the play of the day’.
That group of 30 provided most of the top placings – O’Grady was in the break, punctured out of it but got back to forge-ahead and win in great style.
Of the bunch, only a late-charging Boonen made any headway, just failing to catch the Flecha group which sprinted for second. The smiling, Argentinean-born Rabobank rider further underlined that Spain is now a major player in the classics. In the last year, Fleche, Liege, Zurich, HEW, San Sebastian and San Remo have all gone to riders from the Iberian peninsula.
Flecha beat fellow early-break members Wesemann, Leukemans and Petito to the line with Boonen just failing to drag himself, Hammond and Franzoi into contention for a podium place sprint.
The good weather has played a huge part in the evolution of this race and also in Wednesday’s Ghent-Wevelgem. The lack of the rain which many riders hate, and more particularly wind, which means there are no echelons and less chance of splits, results in less factors to split the race.
With fewer riders wasted, there’s very little difference in speed between break and bunch. All that said, both races produced good racing and worthy podium finishers.
The track centre at Roubaix was a great experience – O’Grady in tears of joy…
Rare Bjarne Riis smiles…
Flecha happy to talk to every one about his excellent result…
Wesemann proving a point to his old masters at T-Mobile…
Boonen’s dad not making much of a job of hiding his disappointment – it was all there.
But there are pictures to email and copy to write; tomorrow it will all sink-in properly. Meanwhile, it’s motorway, Calais, Ibis, Ferry, and back to reality tomorrow.