After 260km of hell, one and a half laps around a cauldron of noise is all that will separate the legends from the also-rans
The Champs-elysées, Alpe d’huez, Mont Ventoux… iconic places all, although often for their associations with the Tour de France. There are few events outside of the Tour that can compete, but the venue that hosts the finale of Paris-roubaix – a race first run in 1896, making it seven years older than the Tour – certainly comes close.
Roubaix’s velodrome is also known as the Vélodrome André Pétrieux and apparently got its name from a local Roubaix father and son, who shared the same name and were ambassadors for sport in the area. Outside of that one special Sunday in April, it is a somewhat desolatelooking place: the empty grandstands, the faded painted lines, the old shower block.
But once the tell-tale chop-chop-chop of the approaching helicopter blades signifies the imminent arrival of the arrival of the leading riders, the packed-out Roubaix velodrome suddenly rumbles and bubbles into life. All at once, what everyone has been watching on the velodrome’s big TV screen is what they’re all seeing with their own eyes: the leading athletes riding straight onto the hallowed track surface.
The track has hosted the denouement of every Paris-roubaix since 1943, save for the three editions between 1986 and 1988 when it was being resurfaced. Of course, while the pavé sectors are the stars of the Roubaix show, the velodrome has the honour of always being the site of the victory. Whether solo or fought out between small groups, the finish protocol is always the same after the leaders emerge onto the track: one-and-a-half laps of euphoric or agonising track racing after 260km on the very worst roads northern France can muster.
The closest finish came in 1990 when Canada’s Steve Bauer and Belgian Eddy Planckaert were eventually separated by a single centimetre – in Planckaert’s favour.
‘The velodrome is a really special place for me, because the first time I finished there was the time I finished second in 1994,’ says BMC sports director Fabio Baldato, who used to race for Italian team MG Maglificio. ‘That was amazing – unbelievable – because there had been mud and cold and snow for the first 100km, and then rain. It was a really epic race.
‘I finished Roubaix more than 10 times, but my favourite memory is when in 2008, aged nearly 40, I finished 10th. I was thrilled to still be there at the end with the best riders. After I had a bad crash in the Arenberg Forest in 1998, there was a period when I hated the race and didn’t want to do it. It took another three or four years before I got my confidence back, but I did get it back, and finishing Roubaix at the velodrome has given me some wonderful memories.’