Free t-shirts, swatting flies at a team hotel, and seven other tales from Paris-Roubaix.

As is usually the case, upon returning from a a race like Paris-Roubaix, I currently find myself lacking the ability to put the whole thing into a single cohesive post. So as I’ve done the in the past, I offer you the following bullet points, in no particular order, along with some of the pictures I took.

1. The fact that professional cycling teams often stay in dreadful hotels during the season should come as no surprise to avid fans of the sport. Social media in particular has made this fact abundantly clear. What still interests me, however, is the gigantic chasm that exists between the type of hotels that different teams stay in. And don’t assume that the lines are drawn between World Tour and Pro Continental teams. The night before Paris-Roubaix I went to two hotels. One was a huge, beautiful chateau surrounded by polo fields and manicured lawns. Inside, riders from three teams milled about, laughing with friends and family in the lobby. The decor leaned heavily toward the equestrian, and a plain coffee cost 8 Euro at the small bar by the front door. Free and fast wi-fi was available (which in terms European hotels is like saying that bars of gold bullion were being given away for free), making the whole experience beyond pleasant.

After dinner, I made my way to a small chain hotel by the highway near Compiegne. Three teams were staying there too. The small building sat among depressing Eastern European-style apartment blocks. I parked the borrowed rental car in a nearby soccer field, and walked in the dark to the front door of the hotel. Within seconds of walking in, I noticed the amount of mosquitoes and flies in the air. I went into a staircase with a rider to have a chat. Threadbare, stained carpet smelled of death, and we talked as we both swatted insects away under the flickering light of faulty fixtures. I suddenly found myself missing the gardens, polo fields and equestrian décor of the previous hotel.  

2. At said fancy, equestrian hotel, one rider told me he doesn't make enough money to afford the coffee there. Later on, a rider asked, loudly, why amateurs would want to do the Paris-Roubaix sportif. “I do this because it’s my job, I get paid to do this, why would you do it for free?” I didn’t have the presence of mind to tell him that people don’t ride the route for free. They actually pay for the privilege. I think that would have blown his mind.

3. Perhaps you’ve heard that actors get “goodie bags” at high-end events and ceremonies like the Academy Awards. These bags often contain goods and certificates for services of such a high value, that the IRS has become interested in them, wanting to count them as income for their recipients. What I didn’t know is that riders at Paris-Roubaix also get goodie bags. What do they contain you ask? Waffles, a promotional messenger bag (the kind that your cousin, who works in the IT department of a small accounting form, gets when he goes to a Holiday Inn by the airport to get training on new software), and a t-shirt. Yes ladies and gentlemen. If you compete in what is perhaps the hardest race in cycling, you get a free-shirt. Before you get any ideas, I checked, and they do not, in fact, say, “I did Paris-Roubaix, and all I got was his lousy t-shirt”. But maybe they should. The upside is that I doubt tax agencies in any country will have interest in the contents of these bags.

4. I’d like to think that I’m a considerate human being, but there's proof to the contrary. Twice I sat interviewing riders the day before the race, while they stood. There was only one place to sit, and I failed to offer it until the third go around of such a scenario. Well, it’s not like they had a tough day ahead of them. Right?

5. Jet lag means that I woke up at 4am the day of the race. Unable to fall back asleep, I walked to the race start, to see what was happening there. In retrospect, this was a foolish idea. I mean, what could possibly be happening anywhere at 4am? Answer: pretty much nothing. Four guys unloaded barriers from a truck, as vehicles from the publicity caravan sat there, parked in the dark. The lone source of entertainment was the insanely drunk man who rode his department store mountain bike in circles, endlessly repeating something in French at the top of his lungs (see picture above). Whatever he was screaming was followed by whistles and beeping sounds that, in my eyes, made him into an almost likeable, drunken, French R2-D2

6. You know that saying about treating or even beating something “like a rented mule”? I hereby suggest that we change that saying to, “like a rental car in Paris-Roubaix”.  Honestly, I’ve used rental cars before, and done stupid things with them (I still smile every time I see one of the few remaining Oldsmobile Aleros that are still on American roads, as I remember playing trash can bowling in the Hollywood Hills many years ago)…but what happens when you drive at very high speeds through cobbled sections on the race’s route is simply insane. The car groans and knocks as it’s oil pan smashes against the crown of the cobbles. Panels in the plastic interior begin to creak, and become loose. Fans on the race’s route pound on all metal panels when the caravan comes to a halt. No rented mule has been treated this badly.

7. If you are in a car in the race’s route, as I was, watching the race live on your phone is not an option. At least if you don’t have a European data plan. Because for someone like me, watching the race on my phone would incur data costs equal to or in excess of the cost of my plane ticket to Europe. So for me, the race happened in short episodes lasting only seconds (when they ride by one of the places where you are able to see the race go by). It’s only when you arrive to the velodrome that you finally find out what has actually happened in the race. There was a big crash? The break went when? You are clueless, and it’s only then that people who have actually watched the race fill you in. Amazingly, however, you can even miss things that happen in the velodrome itself while you are there. I couldn’t see the big TV screen, or the curve where Cancellara crashed. So I completely missed that happening, and didn’t find out until literally two days later. Cycling is a funny sport that way. It doesn’t happen in a stadium, but even when part of it kind of does, you can still miss it. At least I did.

8. Speaking of the velodrome, the infield area where photographers, TV cameras and journalists gather waiting for the finishers is home to the most amazing amount of quality gossip about the sport that you can imagine. Fans in nearby stands can’t begin to imagine the conversations happening there. It’s amazing, salacious stuff. But I think what happens in the infield, stays in the infield.

9. The showers in Roubaix aren’t really used anymore. Team buses have showers, and riders make their way directly to them after finishing. That also means that few riders stop in the infield, and collapse from exhaustion as you might expect them to. Their team soigneurs are there, so it’s a logical place to stop and get a drink before going to the bus. But few riders take advantage of this. So as you stand by the soigneurs, you instantly get the feeling that some riders are there for legitimate reasons, while others are merely playing things up for the camera, in an effort to get their picture taken. And really, who can blame them. They are indeed exhausted after the race, and if their picture ends up in a newspaper, and the sponsor’s logo is visible, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I completely understand, but it’s still interesting see. To me, the giveaway is how long the rider hangs around. If the span of time could almost be measured by pages in a calendar, rather than watch, you may very well be in the presence of a rider who knows how to play the game. And you know, you kind of have to admire that. When life gives you a crappy day on the bike, make yourself some publicity lemonade…or something like that.