The 11 riders in the finale of this year’s Paris-Roubaix were all exceptional cyclists whose faces were so cracked and lined with sweat and dust that a fortune teller could have read their fates like a dying man’s palm.
This is a race notorious for the toll it takes on men and machines. So grueling is the 257-kilometer course that a team director must use every known technological trick available in order to better insulate his racers from the bone-shaking suffering on the cobblestones of Northern France.
Yet in this year’s winning break, two of the riders appeared to be racing without gloves, usually the first-line of defense in the 111-year old running battle against the pave. One such rider was John Degenkolb, riding for Team Giant-Shimano. The other was Omega Pharma-Quick-Step’s Tom Boonen.
This is a race Boonen was destined to win again and again. He has four times, though he came up short this year when his teammate soloed to the line. There are riders whose relationships with certain races, the terrain or the climate, are as profound as a marriage. It would be hard to find a cyclist, professional or amateur, who is not secretly wracked with a kind of jealousy over Roubaix’s regular embrace of Boonen.
Some riders need to race Roubaix with a death grip, trying to finish the day without a career-ending wipe out. It is duty, not joy. Boonen spars with the pavé with a boxer’s suppleness. His hands drape over the brake hoods with the sort of deftness needed when driving a super-car that can kill you if you do not respect its raw power, the kinds of super-cars Boonen keeps in his garage.
Seeing Boonen ride bare-handed is a rare reminder that the professional can ride as a human, not a machine. Which side professional cycling chooses in the man and machine divide is key to the sport’s future and our attraction to it and its athletes. Roubaix’s distillation of bike racing to its hardiest elements is part of its enduring value to the sport.
A rider of Boonen’s stature seems as alien to our understanding of what a cycling life is in so many ways. On the cobbles he is a machine. Off them, he is fallible, and it would seem that this is the way we relate through our own failings and shortcomings.
But it is on the bike that we may be closer than we think. We may not know what it is like to have a fender bender with a Lamborghini Murcielago or hammer a Specialized S-Works Roubaix frame through the Arenberg Forest at more than 50 kph. We do know the resonant sting of bare hands on bar tape. We know what it feels like to wipe the grit from your eyes after a heartbreaking loss. We know what it is like to raise our open hand in encouragement, frustrated by another’s unshakable resistance, just as we have seen Boonen do.
The hardest and most trying experiences we have on the bike are actually the ones in which we are closest to those the fates plucked from ordinary life and dropped into the middle of the peloton. The shared suffering is what links us as humans and bonds us as cyclists. It has little to do with whether you wear the same team jersey or even ride the same bike or wheels as somebody paid to turn a hobby into a vocation.
If you really want to feel closer to a race as storied as Paris Roubaix, or an athlete such as Tom Boonen, you have to start by taking off your gloves. You need to feel the road, especially when it is at its roughest.