29 January 2010

Cyclocross in France: Roubaix World Cup

A couple of weekends ago, we completed our 2009/2010 cyclocross spectating season by taking the train up to Roubaix to watch the 8th race in the World Cup series.

The city of Roubaix hosts the finish of the spring classic Paris-Roubaix bike race, which is contested over a bunch of now-carefully-preserved-and-valued super-crappy cobbled roads in northern France. It hosts the finish way more accurately than Paris hosts the start. For the last 40 years or so, it has started in Compiégne, which would be like saying a race from Allentown, PA starts in Philly. Regardless, the Roubaix velodrome is iconic in the bike racing world, a place where the few tough and crazy riders who survive the race finish. And the 'cross race is held in and around the velodrome, which was at least part of the reason we went up.

The Roubaix velodrome. The technical part of the course uses the sliver of steep hillside from where the spectators are standing to the street.

The velodrome and sports park isn't a particularly big place, and they run the race entirely on the grounds. At first glance, aside from the use of the velodrome surface for part of the lap, the course doesn't look much different from my club's Whirlybird course back home, winding around a bunch of playing fields, using the track-and-field sand pits, and eeking out just a little bit of elevation gain on the berms around the fields. But the sliver of land between the velodrome itself and the street provided some technical challenges, including a steep set of stairs (tricky because the front of the stair is wood but the step itself was just soil, which in the mud made for some precariously uneven footing), a couple of tricky off-camber switchbacks, and 2 steep downhills that ended in very short run-out sharp right-hand turns (or, failing the negotiation of the turns, ended in a head-on collision with a solid wall, thoughtfully covered with very thick padding). The first descent was harrowing enough that on the first lap of the pro women's warm-up, there got to be quite a gaggle of riders looking, laughing nervously, and waiting for somebody to dare to push the front wheel over the edge.

The first descent on the lap is a pretty intimidating sight when you're the first to roll up to it...

It was tackled a lot of different ways during the day, riding, running, and plenty of hybrid technique. This is the U23 race.

The second descent is longer and steeper, but the run-out is longer, and the approach is less sketchy than the first. Still, even the leaders in the pro race ran it as often as they rode it.

The atmosphere at Roubaix was really different from the other races we've been at. First, the crowds were smaller. It was still plenty packed in the techy section behind the velodrome, but the rest of the course allowed pretty easy moving around. The crowd was still mostly Belgian, but unlike the races in Flanders, I could hear at least a little French wherever we stood. There were tons of French riders in the younger races, 11 in the U23 race alone. These guys haven't been racing much 'cross, since there are only 2 French riders in the top 36 World Cup standings for the season, so they apparently gave every kid in town a bike and told them to show up on Sunday.

In addition to this pajama-wearing oompah band, there was a drum corp at Roubaix. Overall, there was more silliness and a more relaxed vibe.

There was only 1 beer cart, and no real beer tents, which may explain why there were fewer specatators. The food vendors, much to my surprise, were still Belgian, something I figured the French wouldn't stand for. But France doesn't have a big street-food tradition, and maybe they figured the Belgians who would come to watch the race didn't want (or deserve) French food. Interacting with the vendors at Roubaix was completely different than at the races in Belgium. In Belgium, it's Dutch or English with them, and though they're nice about it (a lot nicer than the French are, certainly), it's clear that by speaking English you're definitely foreign. In Roubaix, I spoke to them in French, which just seemed like the the natural thing to do in France, which it turns out they didn't like or do very well, but they couldn't really complain, being in France and all. It was a strangely empowering series of interactions, perhaps the first time since we've been in France that I felt like I actually lived here. That I was the "native." I almost wished I'd had a beret.

Some things, like curry ketchup, you don't need to taste to know not to eat. But being slower than the average guy, I exercised some regrettable judgement and tried it on my frites.

And in fact, there was a bit of that feeling all day in Roubaix. In contrast to Barcelona, Brussels, Vienna, Stockholm, Tokyo, etc-- or Paris, for Pete's sake-- places we've been over this past crazy year that were decidedly foreign, Roubaix felt very familiar. An industrial city of a bit less than 100,000 people that's lost most of its shine, made mostly of red brick row houses that weren't distinctly Flemmish or Norman or Alsatian, it could have been any smallish-to-midsize PA city: Lancaster, York, Allentown. Hell, it could have been Racine or Kenosha, WI. It felt oddly like home.

The Roubaix train station is handsome and in excellent repair, though there aren't many trains through here anymore.

Roubaix's streets remind of home.

It wasn't all like familiar, though. The Grand Place (hotel de ville) on our walk from the train station to the velodrome was a striking, and very European, sight.

It also felt like perfect spectating weather, with sunny skies on race day. We'd done our 34-degree-and-rain spectating in December, so we were happy for the difference a little sun makes when standing around all day (and it really was all day, because they did UCI officials training between the U23 and women's races, an extra 90 min of just standing around). Like most of the races we've seen this year, the course was crazy-muddy, since it had rained all week. Those steep downhills were as gnarly as I've seen, with even most of the pro men running them, and it was just a long, brutal slog through the flatter sections of the course. It looked like a painful day on the bike, for sure.

Safety Jogger work boots is a major sponsor for many of the 'cross series. As Karen has said, it ain't a cross race without the inflatable boot.

However, the more logical sponsor would seem to be Wellies, because the deep mud has made for messy and treacherous walking all season long.

One guy who isn't getting dirty is Sven Nys. In this promo in Roubaix, pictures of muddy Niels Albert, Lars Boom, and friends, and a sparklingly clean Sven Nys, have been photoshopped together. There's no shortage of pictures of Nys in the mud, so the use of this one is perplexing.

With the various European national championships having run the week before, there was a lot of commentating over the loudspeakers about who was in what jersey. It would be a big day for the Czech champions, with Katerina Nash taking the women's race, the most notable moments of which were the missing Katie Compton (they called her repeatedly at the start line, but she didn't race due to leg cramps) and seeing Dutch national champion Daphny Van den Brand touch wheels with Nash on an early lap and crash hard on the velodrome concrete. Van den Brand got back up and though well-bloodied, held her position to take the overall lead in the World Cup.

Czech sensation Zdenek Stybar won the men's race convincingly, and World Champion and crybaby Niels Albert, who had until that race been leading the World Cup, had a tough day of it and finished well back in 8th place. sniffed after the race that with the broken ribs he suffered the week before, it wasn't possible to "defend my chances in a fair way." Having suffered through some busted ribcage myself in the past 12 months, his toughness is not in question in my book-- I can't imagine the pain of piloting a bike around the slop like that on freshly broken ribs. Chapeau, monsieur! Maybe there's something that happens in the translation from Dutch, but he just can't seem to help but whine in his interviews. There must have been something in the air, though, as even the normally stiff-lipped Sven Nys groused that day, saying that whereas the Czech champion had the luxury of training in Majorca the previous week, he, as the Belgian champion, had Obligations including an early-week race and a team event. Poor Svenny. It's such a burden to be so good.

Daphny Van den Brand got back up a couple of moments after her hard fall, but somebody apparently forgot to tell the emergency crew, who struggled to get the yellow backboard, stationed up at the top of the 2 treacherous descents, down to the velodrome through the thick mud, but not arriving until at least 5 min after she left the velodrome.

A guy who seems to be having a rough time for much of this season is American Jonathan Page. A good technical rider, it seemed like every time up this run/ride up at the soccer fields, somebody was running into him. On this lap, it's Ondrej Bambula (#28) with his shoulder in Page's ear.

Watching these races in person is a totally different experience than watching on TV. I know this, because I watched the TV coverage of it (on Belgian internet: neither of the French World Cup races this season were broadcast on French TV) that night when we got back to Paris. Unless you're lucky enough to be standing where the race is made or lost, as we were at Diegem when Nys broke his derailleur hanger at the top of the stairs, you really have no idea how things got the way they did in the race. But there's so much else you just don't get to see on TV. Like the Mongolians.

There's been a contingent of Mongolians racing in December and January, and since I figure that just about every other nation racing has representation in the crowd, and even the announcers keep calling them Chinese (I don't think Boldbaatar or Myagmarsuren are traditional Chinese names), I focus my cheering efforts on the Mongolians. Fortunately, this doesn't much interfere with cheering for the leaders, because the Mongolian fellas are pretty quickly off the back. Though the only time you see them on TV is when they're being lapped (usually just past mid-way through the race), they embody a lot of what I admire in bike racing: they ride hard and with dedication, but not without a little sense of humor about their situation, they're always taking chances and trying to conquer the lines and technical challenges (at Roubaix, with a little encouragement from our group at the soccer field run-up they managed to ride the run-up more often than most of the other guys in the pro race), and they're good sports, always getting clear out of the way of the front of the race as it laps them and, unlike a lot of the tools who get lapped and then try to draft the guys who caught them (which in my book just endangers the guys at the front of the race-- if you had those skills, you wouldn't have just gotten lapped...), they leave a gap before soldiering on.

Mongolian U23 team member Baasenkhuu Myagmarsura pushing through the slop.

I came to decide at Roubaix that they're a little like Power Rangers, with powers that can be summoned (briefly) on command. In the U23 race, one of the Mongolian fellows (Naran Kangarid) was struggling with one of the zillions of French riders (Dmitri Corriette) pretty far back in the race for several laps. With a couple to go, Kangarid absolutely lit it on the velodrome, as if he'd just been saving energy for the previous 30 min, and just toasted the French guy, eventually finishing a lap up on him. It was amazing. I thought I heard him shout, "Mongolian powers, activate!" when he kicked, but I could be wrong. Anyway, they were fun to watch and cheer, and I sincerely wish the team the best. I hope that when I get back to racing, I can do it with as much class and good nature as they do.

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