We took a position near the start of the pavé section of the Arenberg forest – a good 160 kilometers into the Paris-Roubaix. As we waited a few hours for the riders to come, it occurred to me, I was literally standing on history – sections of pavé first laid down in the time of Napolean Bonaparte.
Bombs from both World Wars had fallen nearby.
Team Saxo Bank’s Fabian Cancellara leads part of the pack at the entrance to the Arenberg Forest.
I’d seen the coverage on and off for 25 years, and I’ve seen plenty of bike races before, but nothing could prepare me for seeing the 108th edition of the “Hell of the North” in person.
The fast-approaching buzz of the paparazzi helicopters from above. (If only Red Kite Prayer had the budget). The roar of the crowd, pickled from one too many Belgian beers. The bedazzlement of the many 100-year-plus French farmers, who still appreciate this annual spectacle.
And then there they were. Approaching fast from behind their gendarmerie escort, I could see the flurry of colorful jerseys from the world’s top cyclists.
Though each one was thirsty for blood, all with something to prove, it was the bouncing and vibrating of their arms and legs that said it all. The pavé – or, cobblestones to those of you on the left side of the Atlantic — humbled even the thirstiest of them. The gods of the pavé began to tremble. And tremble they did for the more than 50 kilometers of cobbled road.
And before we knew it, they were gone. In an instant. Nothing was left except the dust hanging in the air and gasps from the crowd — satisfied, but only for now. Arenberg forest dust coated my face and eyes.
And, again, in an instant, the crowd departed. I was off to see the next section of pavé, fully aware of my selfish desire to feed my new-found addiction.
But one cyclist on Sunday was not humbled. Was Fabian Cancellera’s addiction satisfied on Sunday or is he shaking the centuries-old dust off of his jersey in preparation for another cobbled classic?
Images: Alex Armitage