“Just wait for the helicopters” was the heavily accented advice I got from a man sitting contentedly cross-legged on a wool blanket with his wife. The couple was sitting a few hundred meters into the forest of Arenberg. In preparation the race barriers had been set along one side of the cobbles; on the other side the riders were only protected by a deep, bramble-filled ditch. The couple had neatly set out a full picnic spread on the awkwardly steep, rough bank of this ditch. They had a small mouthwatering collection of meats, cheeses, fruit, bread, and wine. They also had come prepared with a small portable radio, knitting supplies, newspapers, and tiny paper Belgian flags. The “Just wait for the helicopters” advice was hurled my direction after I had made a pitiable attempt to cross the ditch but had fallen tripping on leaf-covered roots. It was a frantic Clouseau-style pratfall. A procession of team cars, motorcycles and official-looking white Land Rovers had suddenly appeared on the cobbles. “Oh no! I’m missing it!” I thought. I was sure Cancellara would fly by, prompting me to attempt the action-movie-war-correspondent leap across the ditch.
It would be another hour before the race made it to me.
The man’s advice was proved out. A small black helicopter flew in low, swinging sideways just over the tall trees tracing the cobbled line though the forest. The low thump of the rotors made my chest tighten. The tension had significantly built over the last hour. Hundreds more had filed into the narrow corridor and milled about drinking and staking out their respective spots along the cobbles. People were now pressed against the metal barriers, standing on tiptoes, leaning over, straining to see the approaching riders. The universally sour French police paced back and forth trying in vain to get people to stay on the other side of the ditch. The couple was standing now—everyone was standing now. I had been shouldered into position by a group of sallow faced, red-eyed, beer soaked Germans. Surly and large, they edged far into the cobbled road allowing ambulances and neutral support vehicles only inches of space to pass.
Everyone was shouting. How long had I been waiting now for this? Three hours? Four hours? “This must be them now,” I thought. I was standing on the pavé. I knew I was out too far for a car to pass between me and the opposite barrier. The crowd pushed forward like a mob. People were standing on the barrier, screaming at full volume. I sort of expected any passing rider to be torn from his bike, devoured in frenzy, his bike smashed to pieces on the cobbles.
The helicopter hovered directly overhead, the noise of the rotors was now matched by the shouts of the crowd and high-pitched tear of the motorcycles. I peered gingerly around the largest and most surly German, and I glimpsed the first rider following closely in the slipstream of a motorcycle with a cameraman precariously perched facing backwards on the back. Then instantly the whole peleton was there. “I’m too close!” I thought as I pressed in vain back against the mob. The riders passed less than a foot from me. I held my camera limply above my head, worried the lens would clip one of the passing riders. The force of the wind was significant. And then all I heard was the hideous staccato crack pop sounds of the carbon frames traversing the rough stone. Then they were past. “Was that it?” I thought. I stepped out, watching them roll through the forest. The crowd folded in around them as they passed. The shouts followed them like the wave at a football stadium. “They were going so much fast!” I thought in broken English, as my heart thudded in my chest.
Watching on television, I have always had this enormous sense of the duration of bicycle racing. The almost hypnotic ambient sound and quiet lackadaisical commentary lulls you as the tension ratchets up in a nice smooth arc. The narrative of the race unfolds so slowly, so calmly that when a definitive attack happens you are not quite sure when exactly you got so excited. Watching the race unfold this slowly, one has a feeling akin to boredom, but not quite. I know my endurance watching the early kilometers will pay off as the tension mounts in real time—that these aren’t wasted minutes. I am able to share a breakaway rider’s giddy agony because I know exactly how long he has been out there (even if I thought I got to just sit back and sip coffee). I watch the gap timer slowly tick down in the corner of the screen and I feel his disappointment as the peloton envelopes him.
I was surprised to find that watching race side was nothing like this. Especially if you are in a country where you do not speak the language. It is a seemingly endless wait for a brief moment. A brief moment that is extraordinarily rich, immediate, humanizing, but indeed very brief. And the wait is very long.
Preparing for Paris-Roubaix
On the day of Paris-Roubaix, the Tenspeed Heroes all rose early, as it was a long drive from our rented farmhouse in Belgium to the forest of Arenburg. We sipped coffee and, like excited schoolchildren, fiddled with lenses, checking and rechecking our CF cards. I spent the long drive anxiously staring out at the French farmland in the early morning light. Cool green under yellow farm fields incongruously littered with white stone monuments to fallen soldiers of WWI. This bucolic landscape seemed totally unaware of the storm of riders rolling up from the south. I knew the race had started but nothing more. We arrived at the forest of Arenberg several hours before the riders were due to arrive.
We parked on the side of road relatively far out to allow for our quick escape hoping to also catch the pack closer to the velodrome. I was anxious, diligently rechecking the course maps as we fiddled with our camera straps and grabbed bottled water from the trunk. My phone chimed; it was a slight missive from friends further south telling us that the pack was on its way. Cars lined the roads as we walked further in. We joined a slow, lazy procession of fans headed to the forest.
At the entrance to the forest we were greeted by garish, kitschy festival atmosphere. Vendors hawked cheesy cobble-themed souvenirs from small booths. Beer and frites were served with plastic cups and waxed paper on white plastic tables. A contingent of RVs was parked nearby with retirees perched on lawn chairs. A small stage had been set up, but it was empty, the speakers blasting that vague rock/dance music ubiquitous at public festivals. A 20-foot LCD screen gave the only hint of the approaching race. Its large pixels abstracted Trek–Leopard riders into curious white and blue masses. Police in starched, dark blue uniforms milled about. An impromptu media tent was set up on the edge of the forest. Wires and light stands nestled in the grass. The crowd was amiable and unfocused. “Everyone is here for the bike race?” I thought.
It was all a bit hard to take in–the tension wasn’t there, that excitement, the sense of great narrative unfolding, the 109th Hell of the North. It felt like a county fair. I stared at the massive screen, trying to glean something about what was happening in the race. All I could make out was that they were on the way.
I wandered amiably out onto the cobbles of the forest. I knelt down, running a few fingers along the edge of the cobbles, bits of grass and moist earth filled the gaps between the stones. It all felt so ordinary. None of the mythic qualities I had imagined. I looked up at the iconic train trestle, a few young men had scrambled up the concrete supports and were looking down at the assembling fans. I closed my eyes. I tried to imagine the riders coming through here. I pictured what it would be like to come off the smooth pavement and the sharp change to muddy pave, flanked by a narrow tunnel of screaming fans, like an astronaut hitting the atmosphere, all heat and noise. My memory was a jumble of shaky motorcycle footage splattered with specks of mud.
I was shaken out of my daydreaming by the distant sound of drunks. A few hundred feet down the forest was a rowdy pack of thoroughly inebriated, animated youths shuffling toward me. They hung onto each other, sporadically breaking into song, as they shouted cheers loudly to the empty trees. They wore shoddy party hats, gaudy jerseys, full kits, their shoulders were draped in Flemish flags. Though a common enough group for a sporting event they oddly clashed with the Sunday morning rustic festival atmosphere. “How much longer before the race comes through?” I thought and continued to wait.
The wait felt interminable. I wanted to know what was happening, who was in the break? Was there a break? Had anyone crashed out? I didn’t know. But this was the forest of Arenberg and it was a beautiful morning. And it was a beautiful race. I guess this is when a good Flemish fan knows to just sit down next to his knitting wife and open the paper. He knows when to tune his portable radio to Eurosport. He knows when to sip a glass of wine and eat a bit. He knows when to just sit and wait for the helicopters.