Tour de France 2018 – our dusty day in hell

The sun is glaring down, baking the land in Belgium and Northern France.

The landscape is fluffy clouds and blue skies above golden fields which have begun to be harvested early because of the heatwave.

Copyright photograph Kevin Mayne

But across one set of fields is a break in the natural order. As far as the eye can see a discordant band of colour – flags, banners, cars, bikes, beer crates, gathered to pay tribute by the side of cobbled track, barely justifying the status of road.

Copyright photograph Kevin Mayne Copyright photograph Kevin Mayne

Why are we here? Because two legends of cycling have combined in these fields. As if it wasn’t hard enough the Tour de France organisers have routed the 9th stage of this year’s Grand Boucle across the route of Paris Roubaix, “the Hell of the North”. To be nice to the peloton the organisers have skipped the worst bits, with “only” 21km of the pavé, but this is marked as one of the decisive stages where the tiny mountain climbers could lose time to the power men and the poor bike handlers could lose minutes. Our spot was a big draw because it was the second last section, likely to be decisive in the race because it was a true 5-star brute, nearly two kilometres long.

Copyright photograph Kevin Mayne Copyright photograph Kevin Mayne

It was a multi-national gathering because this was an ideal viewing spot for many nationalities. Just metres from the Belgian border so the Belgian and Dutch fans were well in evidence and an easy drive from the ferries and Channel Tunnel for the Brits, with multiple other flags and colours sprinkled along the way. The French were in very fine form, but the ones who had come out for the cycling must have been enthusiasts, because with France kicking off in the World Cup final at 5pm they really would have to rush back to their TVs to carry on the flag waving.

Copyright photograph Kevin Mayne

We settled into our spot by the roadside and then absorbed the race in the way of 21st Century spectating. There were a few radios (so old school) but mostly we were tracking the approach of the race on mobile phones.

Live feed “Porte is out”

Radio chatter “Chute de Froome”

Text “Crash for Landa”

Minute by minute news “Bardet punctures again”

Voices in Dutch “Sagan, Van Avermaet…….”

Copyright photograph Kevin Mayne

The energy rose again as more cars and vehicles started to pass, almost on our toes. Cheers for each car that crashed its underside into the stones through one of the dips, while the experienced drivers forced the crowd back by hugging the road edge.

Copyright photograph Kevin Mayne

The anticipation peaked as multiple helicopters appeared just above the fields, crossing our view as the race zig-zagged through the fields following the tracks that have now been preserved for the classic Paris-Roubaix.

Copyright photograph Kevin Mayne

Almost without warning they were on us and the hell emerged through clouds of dust, grim faced men whose faces were black like coal miners, grimacing from the effort, the battering of the stones and the need to stay in line or see their Tour de France hopes blown away.

As they got to us we realised we had picked our spot well, because the plucky breakaways had been swept up, the big moves were on and we could just pick out flashes of star riders in ferocious concentration and effort as they fought the stones and battled for their place.

The speed was absolutely phenomenal, just like as when we went to Paris-Roubaix itself a couple of years ago, so the game of spot the stars was a blur, just like the images through the dust and the distorted images on the camera.

Copyright photograph Kevin Mayne

A front three – Lampard, Van Avermaet and a third follower hidden behind – northern hard men looking for the stage win.

Copyright photograph Kevin Mayne Copyright photograph Kevin Mayne

People yelling out names and asking questions to their friends. Did you see? Chasing – stars like Sagan, Gilbert, Thomas, Valverde. Overall classification riders Froome and Quintana doing an amazing job hanging onto the specialists.

Copyright photograph Kevin Mayne Copyright photograph Kevin Mayne

Then after the initial flourish it started to break-up and we could look down the road to see the damage that had been done, with groups spread over two to three minutes and some big names chasing hard.

Copyright photograph Kevin Mayne

As the last groups passed there was a happy hubbub as we started to head back to the village and the trip home, suddenly interrupted as small groups and solo riders came through adopting a very different posture to their leaders ahead. This wasn’t racing, this was a tough shift at the factory which had to be endured. Most would be very happy that Camphin-en-Pévèle marked the final hard section of cobbles, the showers and rest day were waiting just up the road.

Copyright photograph Kevin Mayne

Back home later we imposed a video replay of the whole stage on my long-suffering wife as we tried to make sense of the drama that had unfolded, and we finally found out that we had seen the decisive break and the unidentified rider in white was German stage winner John Degenkolb.

The TV coverage of big bike races is amazing for us fans, but having the greatest races on my doorstep is one of the great joys of life in Belgium. Regardless of the result we will remember this year’s Tour de France as flashes of dust and noise set against the golden fields of France, because this is where we brought the images to life.

And next year? Le Grand Depart in Brussels!

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