ROUBAIX, France (CT) — Wout Van Aert dropped off the four-inch lip where the Roubaix velodrome’s concrete banking ends and the grass infield begins, then dropped his bike on the grass and dropped himself on his back, surrendering by every means available to the pull of gravity. He splayed out like the chalk outline at a crime scene. Knees akimbo and elbows out and head off to the side. Heaving.
At the start in Compiègne, six hours earlier, Van Aert stood outside his Jumbo-Visma bus, leaning nonchalance on his top tube, and chatted with the press. He smiled, confident, and denied his status as a top favorite. He told us he was excited for his second shot at this race. He was, as we were, unaware of future Wout’s predicament: Horizontal on the grass, coughing up dust and phlegm, left leg cramped and shaking, right hip bloody, head held tenderly by his partner because it wasn’t clear whether he could pick it up himself.
If you want to see Roubaix, to really see it, to understand what it does, just look at the two Wouts.
You can hear the hiss of a front puncture even over the clatter of the Arenberg forest. Wout must have heard it, and felt it in his hands, and with it that sinking feeling that this wasn’t going to plan.
He had a teammate behind, Pascal Eenkhoorn, who offered him a wheel. But Wout’s chain was stuck, wedged between the big ring and the little ring, rendering the bike useless. Eenkhoorn is just a touch shorter than Wout. He passed off his working bike and pushed Wout back onto the cobbles. Half a minute gone.
Roubaix, they say, is equal parts luck and strength. But it’s more complicated than that. The two feed off each other. They grow like vines, twisting, pulling each up, neither able to stand on its own. If either begins to wither it takes the other with it. Good luck feeds off strength, which allows a rider to make his own luck when he needs it most.
Wout was strong. He said so, when he could finally talk. “I had really good legs,” he said. But then the Arenberg puncture. “For one hour I was chasing, full gas.”
The left hand turn off the Arenberg, onto smooth pavement, made space for chasing. It’s long and straight, paved a year or two ago. Wind from the right. Wout was still back in the cars. Back in the dust. He had two teammates up front; it made no sense for them to return. “If we couldn’t make it back then we were dropped with three guys,” he said, a matter of fact. He still needed to get on his own bike again. But team cars spread out like an accordion on every sector, and his was far behind. He’d need to wait for the accordion to close.
He caught on. Then he changed bikes. Another 20 seconds back. Then he crashed. He was down over a minute.
When he came past me, in the series of slowly arcing S turns half way through Hornaing, about ten minutes after the exit of the Arenberg, he still dangled ten or so seconds behind the lead group. He chased near Heinrich Haussler, one rider in the right gutter, one in the left. It was the second time in half an hour that he’d found himself back there, alone, in the dust and the cars, and he grimaced as he rode past us.
It was the grimace of a rider who knows he has a long way to go and this thing he’s doing, back here in the cars with the dust and the chasing, this really isn’t the best way to go about winning a bike race. No number on his bike; it was a new one. Blood on his side; he’s just hit the ground. Seventy-five kilometers to go and chasing.
They don’t often show the world of flying dust and blaring horns that defines a chase through the team cars. It’s a space occupied by most of the peloton at one point or another, making it as least as much a part of Roubaix as the cobbles themselves. It is chaos, controlled, in a way, by the understanding that each driver would rather crash the car than hit a rider, and that the cars will hold their line even if it means another deep slice in the steel plating mounted to their undercarriages.
Yet while the riders maintain a relatively steady pace, the cars do not. They accelerate every time the road widens; slam on the brakes every time it narrows, forcing riders to weave in and out, dodging around back windows at the last available moment.
Seventy-one kilometers to go, Wout returned to the group. By 55, he was off the front. But Roubaix doesn’t allow the sort of indulgences Wout took. You don’t chase for an hour and stay off the front.
Vines of luck and strength wither together. Wout’s chase cut down both. In remembering to race, Wout forgot to eat. When his luck failed he leaned on strength, until strength ran out, and then he had neither. The last 30 kilometers, he said, were the longest of his life.
This race makes men into children. I don’t say that to demean them. I mean that each and every stone from Compiègne to Roubaix chips away at their self-reliance and self-determination. They are stripped, slowly, of the ability to do much of anything but pedal and point forward, and sometimes stripped even of that. They are meek. In the velodrome they follow team staff blindly, staring. They sit on the grass and refuse to move. They cry.
This, you see, is what Roubaix does.