Its two weeks till Paris – Roubaix, and for weeks now I have been contemplating photographing the race. I’ve been picking my races sparingly recently. I’ve got two children now and they take precedence, but I still have the need to shoot bike races and limit myself to at least one big bike race a year.
Last year it was the Tour of Flanders, the year before was Liege – Bastogne – Liege and this year it was going to be Paris – Roubaix. Despite not having a client or the cash to do it, I still really wanted to go and would complain about not going (to the annoyance of my wife).
I had to go, it’s been on my racing wishlist for nearly 10 years, and as I have full international press credentials I wanted to put them to good use. I scraped a couple of hundred pounds together, booked a ferry and applied for press accreditation. I was roughing it properly, packing just a washbag and packed lunch and bunking up on the backseat of my tiny Ford Ka.
I didn’t have time to think about what I was doing or to search out a client, I was simply doing this for myself, and come Friday night I was setting off to catch the ferry across the channel.
With a bag, a pillow and my cameras, I jumped in the car at about 1am and headed 250 miles to Dover. The driving was bliss and I remembered why I fell in love with it. The only vehicles on the road were truck drivers from all over Europe, and it was a joy to drive amongst my people: those that actually know how to use a motorway. Driving during the day is like hell, driving at night is how it was supposed to be, a joy.
Driving down the road towards the ferry terminal, I could see right out to sea, the sun was about 2/3 above the horizon, a huge red ball illuminating the sea. Yes! I thought, this is going to be a good trip. I was excited.
I tried to sleep on the ferry, but it wasn’t happening, I just couldn’t get comfy and anyway by the time my eyes shut it was time to get back in the car. Back in the car, I sorted the sat nav and headed to Compiegne, the start line for the race. It is about 3 hours from Calais, close to the Belgian border and 257 kilometres from the velodrome in Roubaix.
Fifteen minutes in to France I realised I hadn’t put my GB badge on and the regulation anti-dazzle stickers weren’t on my headlights. I was about to pull into what looked like a lovely little picnic area when four or five guys jumped out of the back of a truck and legged it up the motorway slip road. I wasn’t far from the campsites we saw not long ago on the news about refugees turning up at Calais and being held in make shift shanty towns, so I decided to carry on for another hour or so just to be on the safe side.
It was pretty straightforward all the way into Compiegne. As well as truck drivers the French know how to use the motorways too, so much so that they often just have two lanes, occasionally three, but they are very rarely needed. Stick to the left or right depending which country you are in unless you are overtaking: simple!
Compiegne was a very pretty little town in the middle of the countryside surrounded by agriculture, and I recognised the little horseshoe-shaped road going through the town square from ‘A Sunday in Hell’, 1976 Danish documentary film directed by Jørgen Leth. Believe it or not very little has changed, the bikes were steel – as were the cars – and the shorts woollen, but little else has altered from that film. The buzz, the atmosphere and even the entertainment at the presentations the day before remain the same.
I had arrived at the start line in Compiegne, and it was hot, really hot. I struggled to find some shade, it was roughly lunch time, so the sun was at its highest in the sky, and everywhere was direct sunlight. Before I could enter the building housing the press areas I had to get my bags checked and tagged, then on to what I think was the Town Hall. I would call it a palace, it was pretty swanky.
Walking into the courtyard conjured up images of horses and fancy people 200 years ago frolicking about as fancy people do. At the entrance stood Scott Mitchell and Kristof Ramon chatting, then Freddie Maertens and his entourage walked by. I gave him a nod and he returned the gesture. Following him in, security was very tight, which with recent events, I was quite happy with. There were race security, Police officers and the army with some pretty heavy armoury. I didn’t feel frightened or intimidated as it seemed normal, but I don’t think I would feel this way if it was the UK police with huge guns in hand!
My friend Fabien from the ASO was there to greet me. He recognised me from my press pass, but I had no idea who he was. He said “argh Paul you made it!” and I said “Fabien?” “Yes, so glad you made it!” He gave me my pass, car stickers and my road book, and instructed me on where I could go and what the deal was at the velodrome in Roubaix. I went and sat in the press room, to find food and tables set up with sockets for equipment. I sat down, had a drink and used the wifi and went outside and sat on the steps in front of the building. I was taking it all in, relaxing and enjoying the adventure.
Scott and Kristof were still talking when Raymond Poulidor rocked up, I felt very privileged. While hiding from the sun like a vampire I spotted Ian Cleverly looking like a tourist, wandering about the team presentation area, and I introduced myself when Roger Hammond walked by and the DS from Movistar. They chatted and shook my hand, saying nice to meet you and goodbye. I figured he was an ex pro, but didn’t recognise him, he was talking about when he had raced here, and mentioned how it had never been so bad in his day regarding water and mud on the cobbles. Half his team had been hospitalised in the week running up to the race just in the recon, and he was cross that fans were gunning for a wet race – this is a freak show he said, they just want to see accidents, it’s not right!!
We said our goodbyes and I moved back into the shade, feeling my forehead burning. I didn’t have any suncream with me as the forecast was for rain not 30 degree sunshine, I didn’t even have a cap.
I still hadn’t settled on a plan, should I stay here in Compiegne or move on to the forest of Arenberg 90k from the finish? I would miss out a lot of the cobble sectors, but I could deal with that if I got Arenberg and the finish in the velodrome.
I have seen many start lines and they’re all the same, team sign on a bit of hanging about and back to the busses. The gun goes off and so do the riders, its a good opportunity to get portrait shots of clean riders, but the finish is the spot for portraits especially Roubaix. So with that in mind the decision was made: I was heading to Arenberg. I was going to meet a friend at the start, but we couldnt match timings, so I jumped in the car and drove to Arenberg.
I arrived at about 3pm at a country park and could see the festivities, the tents gazebos and campers, but most importantly I could spot the trench. I carried on and came out the other side of the park and straight into the town of Arenberg. I could see the coal mine and the huge pulley things poking out of the trees and knew I wasn’t far away. I drove into a little housing estate, where there were kids playing in the street and a few beer bellied men chatting. Looking at me and the car and spotting the Presse sticker on the front, they weren’t happy to see me, indeed their expressions said it all: I wasn’t welcome.
Turning around to retrace my steps, I found the entrance to the Tranchee de Arenberg and parked up. I could see a gazebo selling a beer called L’Enfer du Nord, I knew what my plan for the evening would be, and got a good spot twenty yards from the entrance. Well I thought it was a good spot until a huge train a mile long zoomed by, this would be a regular occurrence every twenty minutes throughout the night.
It was a beautiful warm evening, I got my L’Enfer du Nord beer from the gazebo on the entrance to the cobbles and set off, thinking I’d walk down those cobbles – all four kilometres of them. Two there and two back doesn’t sound like much, but those cobbles were not made for walking on, not in modern shoes anyway. Hobnail boots would have been more suitable. There had been a couple of sportive rides passing through earlier in the day and the cobbles were littered with nuts and bolts shaken from thousands of bikes, some of which were still passing through at 7pm.
Climbing up on to the bridge which crosses the cobbles, I could see that iconic view, the split in the trees right down to the exit of the Arenberg trench. I was a little bit shocked at the state of the bridge to be honest, It was derelict and probably should be condemned. On race day you’ll see fans hanging off it, and each time I see that now on television I’ll think about those dinner plate sized holes and the trees growing through them.
I made it to the exit and my feet were hurting badly. I don’t know if riding them or walking them is worse, but my feet felt bruised. They aren’t like the cobbles of the Tour of Flanders – flat, even and uniform – these cobbles jut out and roll over, they’re all over the place, not a surface for riding a pedal bike on.
I walked back to my car as the sun was setting, passing couples and people on fold up bikes all saying hello or bonjour as they passed, it was such a lovely moment. Back at the car and my bed for the night, I was a little unsure if the locals were happy with me staying here, and would’ve moved if I was asked to, but no one did. I made my tea and a brew and put my head down for the night. It was very cosy and I was excited for the day ahead.
Setting my alarm for 6am, I was hoping to catch the sunrise over the cobbles and thought about getting a shot from the old bridge. I woke when my alarm rang, but I was too tired from the long day before, so I set it to snooze and turned over. Sunrise was due at 6:30 anyway. I woke again at 7am and missed it. Damn. Up, dressed, teeth brushed and I was ready for the cobbles. I skipped breakfast and had cobbles instead – this time with comfy fell running shoes – I wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice, although my feet still hurt from walking the cobbles the day before.
I went up on the bridge to get my shot and decided that was enough, I headed back to the car and went on a recce around the area. There were three other cobbled sections within a five mile radius. The first was sector 20, a short stretch of cobbles with a level crossing halfway through it and the famous Pont Gibus graffiti on an old railway bridge foundation. I didn’t know if it was ok to drive on the cobbles, but I did anyway through that section there was another, section 21, which was pretty plain apart from two giant water towers. I parked up this time and walked the full length right up to the towers before deciding I didn’t want to photograph here. I was still formulating my plan, and there was plenty of time before the race came through at 3pm. Next I moved on to what I thought was sector 22, but it turned out that it was just an old cinder track leading to a farm house.
I spotted an old French man and tried to strike up a conversation. We couldn’t understand each other, but what I got out of him was that the coal seam here travels all the way to Liege in Belgium or was that the train that runs past his home? Well I suppose I’ll never know…
Back to the plan. I would have liked to get to some of these other cobbled sectors, but it just wasn’t feasible, I had to pick one as I wouldn’t have time to get to any of the others as they were too close together and traffic would not be in my favour.
Arenberg it was, so my next decision would be entrance or exit. Knowing that the entrance was heaving when I left at 8am and having driven passed the exit on my recce I could see that the exit was a perfect spot for a getaway.
As the riders exit they take a sharp left turn, almost a hairpin bend back on themselves, I would go straight on to the motorway and head for a couple of sectors on the way to the velodrome in Roubaix. I parked up 100 yards from the exit and set off on foot to check out my potential shots, when an old man asked where I was from and if I was shooting the race. I was, but he asked if I was shooting the Coupe des Nations too (the Juniors Paris- Roubaix). I knew it was in the area, but I didn’t think it was possible to get to that race and the main show. His name was Jos and he had a secret to share. Every year he comes across the border from Belgium and knows exactly where the race will pass “20 minutes, I will show you the way”. So I went with Jos, and as we walked my theory about the old French mans gobbledygook was confirmed. The coal seam, which has been mined here in the town of Arenberg actually does go all the way through France into Belgium near Liege.
We met another Belgian man who told me to watch rider no.57 “he will win I promise you”. I didn’t comment and just nodded, but he was extremely confident about this prediction. The peloton passed with a few British riders on the front and one or two dropped out the back a few minutes down the road. I had the last laugh as British rider Lewis Askey actually won the race. I contacted Jos when I arrived home and mentioned a British rider won. He told me that he knew a Brit would win, but simply gave the Belgian man his moment.
The junior race had come and gone now, it was still only 1pm and the race was due to pass by at 3pm. I could see the exit to the trench and it was swarming with police. 30 or 40 police officers stood guard in the sunshine. I speak a little French, but not a lot. I can understand it, usually, but I don’t speak it very well. When I tried to explain that I was press and needed to get to the other side of the barriers I was met with a shrug and a no.
I had met with the head of operations earlier on and had a chat with him about the race. If I could get his attention he would explain and the policewoman would let me through. I was calm and collected, but stood my ground and finally caught the gaze of the guy. He came over and told the policewoman that anyone with this pass and vest could pass through the barriers. Still she said no and a heated discussion took place, something like, the newspapers, press photographers and videographers need to record the race, this is their job! Eventually another police officer confirmed that yes I could pass. I felt a little smug, but didn’t dwell.
I wandered about, still with a couple of hours to go before the first rider would enter the Arenberg forest. I was told there will be two areas to shoot. One on the bend at the exit and one 300 metres before the exit banner. I walked up and down a few times with the crowds flanking either side it was a bit surreal. This was the great monument and I’m standing here in the middle of it all. I took some shots of the fans and chatted to a few. A guy from Holland, another from Newcastle and a couple from Yorkshire. At 300 metres there was a kind of lay-by just off the cobbles for the motos to pull in, the police weren’t letting anyone in other than motorbikes, even with passes. I couldn’t be bothered arguing my case this time, just went and took my spot on the exit bend, and anyway there was live coverage in the vip trailer overlooking the cobbles.
I started to hear rumours that a rider had fallen and was in a serious condition, but at this point I didn’t know who it was and from which team. The race continued and I couldn’t really tell what was going on from the screens as the policemen were between us. It was a bit weird looking through them at the tv, they kept looking back at me and wondering why I was looking at them. I wasn’t of course.
Motos started pulling up, so I knew the race was getting close, when I spotted a guy who I had met the year before at on the Paterberg at the Tour of Flanders. He’s a photographer named Nicco, he remembered me too and was well known amongst the other photographers gathering in the scrum. I also saw my friend Jared Gruber and fellow photographer Pauline Ballet and a couple of others. I got chatting to Nicco, he usually rides the moto, but was in a car this time. He had invaluable advice on where I could get to in time by car and which way to go to the nearest motorway.
He recommended I go straight to the velodrome in Roubaix and suggested I follow him, saying I’d need to run to the car and speed off before the team cars come through. The helicopters were buzzing overhead now and motorbikes started pulling up with more photographers.
I was in a tight bunch now with the sun beaming down on my forehead. I could feel it burning, but couldn’t escape. I could feel the race approaching, the tension in the air was building then boom, there they were. The first rider to exit the Arenberg Trench was Sunweb rider Mike Teunissen followed by quickstep rider Phillip Gilbert. There was a pause of about ten or fifteen seconds then another group of three or four riders came through. It was fragmented, with riders coming through in groups no larger than ten riders at a time. There was dust everywhere, making it hard to spot who was who. I spotted Sagan and Wout van Aert, but every other rider was just a team kit covered in dust. Some of the motorbike photographers were talking about the conditions on the cobbles, as they had just ridden through. I heard them say that the entrance into the cobbles was bone dry and dusty, but then in the middle of the Arenberg Trench there is a dip which was still wet and incredibly slippy. The cobbles are like polished blocks of marble with years of wear, but then as the riders came out of the dip again it was dry and dusty again. As far as I am aware everyone made it through without hitting the deck, I wouldn’t say in one piece, just upright.
It was over in a matter of seconds, the moto photographers remounted and moved on to the next sector, sector 18 and this is how it would be for them all day, leap-frogging the peloton to the next sector of cobbles. Taking my friends advice, I headed straight to the velodrome in Roubaix.
I would have liked to get more sectors in, especially close to the finish or something on a 90 degree bend, but I didn’t want to risk missing the finish and headed to the motorway. I legged it to the car to find that spectators who couldn’t find a spot to park had just abandoned cars in the road. One of them was parallel to my car. I couldn’t believe it. However, my car is tiny, perfect for this sort of stuff. I had a ditch to my right and a car to my left with about three feet behind me and a car directly in front of me. I manoeuvred back and forth until I could just squeeze out with the help of a few fans.
With plenty of time to get to the velodrome, I could take it easy and catch my breath. As I was travelling along the motorway I could see crowds lining some old farmers lanes. It was clearly part of the route and there was a bridge over the motorway crossing the lane to the other side. I spotted a Team Sky car parked up on the bridge, and it was my friend Morgan who I had planned to meet up with at the start in Compiegne! I gave him a toot of the horn as I passed underneath.
Arriving in Roubaix, I couldn’t find the velodrome and took a few wrong turns on a one-way system, ending up on the wrong side of town (in more ways than one). It was rough. I turned down one street and a young lad had his car on jack stands with the engine on an engine stand ready to swap it into another car. It looked dodgy as hell, but good luck to him and well done for giving it a go. I’m not sure his neighbours would have been happy with what looked like a scrap yard out on the street.
Finally getting my bearings I found the velodrome and arrived at this iconic grandstand of cycling history. I was here and had access to the finish line as the first rider entered. I was on foot now as I came through the gates, flashed my pass and through I went. This was ridiculously cool, I had watched this race on telly for years and now here I am in person soon to be standing on the line sharing that final moment with the winner.
I was almost an hour early and in hindsight could have added a few cobbled sectors in, but I was just happy to get there. I wandered about track centre for a while and watched the race unfold on the huge screen. I could see it all happening – Silvan Dillier was duelling with Peter Sagan and it was clear that one of these riders was going to cross the line first. What wasn’t clear was which one. Dillier was riding his socks off and it looked like he was riding Sagan’s socks off too. Sagan was attacking, while Dillier was holding, not just surviving he was contributing to the effort to get to the velodrome alone together.
I scouted the finish line and the banking directly opposite and chose the finish line atop a set of steps provided by the organisers. I spotted another friend, Daniel from Manual for Speed, who I had met at Red Hook Crit the previous year in London. We chatted while a camera man filmed us both for a film Daniel was making. I got my spot on the steps when a guy came up and asked if I was taking both steps, with an American accent. I stepped back and said “no its yours, take it” quite politely. No need to be an asshole, just ask and I’ll gladly move over.
The atmosphere was getting tense again, you could feel the excitement building. The big moment was coming. I was watching it count down on the big screen: 6km, 5km, 4km, 3km, 2km, 1km. Then they enter the velodrome together, Dillier leading as they entered with Sagan following. They cross the start line and pass me to ride around the velodrome one more time. I don’t remember hearing a sound, my head was in this totally, my eyes were on the riders. I could see Dillier in front of Sagan as they rounded the last banking, Sagan was on the outside of the track. It was clear to me what was going to unfold. Sagan dropped in behind Dillier to the bottom of the track hitting the after burners and throwing his arms in the air well before the line. Dilliers came second with Nikki Terpstra following 30 seconds later. Peter Sagan had won the second monument of his career.
The race was over, the best time for photography in my opinion. You have riders all over the place, sometimes resembling a field triage. Riders being given oxygen, or eyes staring into space, occasionally even a smile. This is where I thrive, as I love portraits of riders with pain and anguish on their faces. It is as close to war correspondence as you can get without being in battle. I spent a long time waiting for the winners to make an appearance – only one photographer had been given permission to shoot the podium winners – so I left those guys and walked over to the iconic showers of the Roubaix velodrome. I’d seen photographs and films and read about this place. It was cool to be there, it took the portrait shots after the race to next level, as this isn’t something you get at any other race. Just this one: Paris- Roubaix.
The race was over, I was done, time to go home. I had a ferry to catch at midnight, and I was happy to go now. And very tired. I hadn’t slept much and covering a race like this is hard work. I had a ninety minute drive to the boat which would get me there before 9pm. Thankfully they let me board an earlier service so I was able to grab some tea and a nap before the long drive from Dover back to Manchester. Believe it or not it was bliss. No drivers on the motorways other than truck drivers. I put my foot down and got home remembering again why I fell in love with driving. What a trip. Now for the next one: Il Lomardia?
In Memory of Michael Goolaerts 1994-2018
Words and pictures – Paul Davy