Friday, 15 April 2011

I was a Paris Roubaix Virgin

Strange isn’t it. After shooting bikes for so long this was my first time at the famous Paris Roubaix race. I’ve seen it countless times on’t telly and the big reason I love the race is , of course, the pave sections. When I started shooting bikes it was road that I aimed at but when mountain bikes entered the fray I was sold. I have shot fat-tyred machines for a long time but always watched the Paris Roubaix because, discounting cyclocross, it is the nearest the road guys get to off road. The rough and tumble, the carnage, the mechanicals and crashes that form the race and decide its outcome are fascinating to watch. One year it can be a dustbowl (like this one) , the next an epic muddy morass. Brilliant!

I went over principally to cover the Paris Roubaix Challenge for Cycling Plus the day before, which is a shorter ride for The People, but still incorporates many cobbled sections. After taking a few shots of the man that is Sean Kelly, looking trim and well up for the run, I mounted the moto (always moto, never motorbike!) and was off into the riders. Starting at 7.30am meant the temps were low but the Spring sun was starting its arc into the sky. The light was pretty amazing for photography, casting long shadows as it hit the groups of riders from the side. Bright yellow rape fields set off the multi coloured Lycra of the riders all heads down and set for the long day in the saddle. So, anyhoooo. Flash cards choc-full, swift Duvel at the Arrivee to wash the grime from the roof of my mouth and it was back in the car to re-charge (batteries and body) for the following day.

I had maps, I had the expected times of arrival of the peloton at a multitude of spots, I had water, grub and even a co-pilot/navigator. But I still only caught the race twice. Sunday drivers are international, the roads are narrow, there’s a lot of traffic on a race day and I am a yellow chicken are all valid points and excuses. There were moments of indecision as we opted for a spot further up the route rather than risk missing the riders completely and be chasing our posteriors. We opted for Quivey, a short and narrow cobbled dive between houses and barns and then a longish drag up through the fields, as the first ambush point. The obligatory camper vans were there before us, along with a few locals. The crowd grew larger as the clock ticked over and some hour or so later the TV choppers hoved into view. I chose a high bank from which I could shoot 300mm tele images and then , when the group came beneath me, I could shoot wide angle pix on a second body using the pretty village as the backdrop. A billowing dust cloud from the countless vehicles in front of the race was the signal the riders were due at any second. Thankfully a brisk sidewind whipped the dust away so I could get clean shots. Boom, boom, boom. Hit the first gruppetto. Wait. The snaking of the main peloton in the distance. Boom, boom boom, that’s them in the bag on the tele. Drop it in the grass and shoot wide on the 12-24mm. Boom, boom, grab everything and speed ramble back to the car.

Tear-arsing up the motorway (watching an Eddy Merckx emblazoned Merc bullet off the slip and squeeze in between the car in front and my own at a rate of knots: most impressive sir. Chapeau!) got us nowhere. The slip we wanted was blocked. Feck! Guarded by guards they were. It was non, non and triple non. Head further north. Double back to get to Orchies. I saw a great bar there on the Challenge that would make good images. But non. More blocks. Park up. Walk down a farm track to the pave at Champin-en-Pevele. A crucial point. Campers to the left of us, campers to the right of us. Sun bathers, beer swillers, mask wearers, TV watchers, horse riders, radios, barbeques, smokes, smells. A sense that something Big was coming and it would be too long before it rolled into town.
The best thing about this race is that it criss-crosses fields on the ancient roads, switching this way and that like some giant Etch-a-Sketch. There are no hedgerows and you can see the race coming from a long way off. And you can walk to a spot where you can see everything unmolested and be so close to the riders that you could touch them if you wanted. Try that in Formula One. Again, I maximised my shooting by switching between the long shot and the wide. The lead group came through: I caught three keepers of winner Van Summeren leading the breakaway group of four. I got even more of Hushvold and his group of chasers containing the race favourite Fabian Cancellara. . By the time race reached my point, field was decimated. I waited until the very last rider had come through, switching between sides of the road so I could get back-lit and front -lit images. I was wasted. The driving, the excitement, the cross country yomp with my gear all took their toll. There was only one thing for it. And there it was a small village sports hall with a bar. Full of happy French and Belgians. That cherry's well and truly lost.

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