Sunday, April 7, 2024

Biased Blow-By-Blow - 2024 Paris-Roubaix


Sometimes the infamous “Hell of the North” classic cycling race Paris-Roubaix is held on Easter, which is tricky if I’m supposed to be entertaining guests and/or my children. This year the only obstacle to my watching—and reporting—live is my own sloth, since it’s 6 a.m. on a Sunday. But I’m up, and have my coffee, strong coffee in fact, and that means (as usual) I won’t be pulling any punches in this blow-by-blow report. If a rider is a known doper I’ll give you that background (with all appropriate vitriol); ditto if somebody’s helmet is goofy and needs to be ridiculed. This is the (low) level of journalistic integrity you can expect. Also: if Riley Sheehan (Israel-Premier Tech), who finished 13th in the Tour of Flanders last week, does absolutely anything in this race, I’ll zero in on him, for two reasons: 1) I used to race with his dad, Clark; and 2) ‘Mer’ca!

2024 Paris-Roubaix

Here is the course map:

Wow. Isn’t it funny how pointless the race seems, from that perspective? I mean, it doesn’t really go anywhere, it just snakes around as if by random. That map as so complicated, the race is already hard.

As I join the action, there’s a breakaway with Nils Politt (UAE Team Emirates) and Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ), along with some Swedish guy. They’ve got about 20 seconds with about 70 km to go in the race.

“Danish,” Bob Roll says. “Oh, I’m sorry, did I say Swedish?” Phil Liggett says. Oh dear. Not these two again. I was hoping for the Eurosport guys, but then I’m watching on Peacock so this is what I get. If you come across any errors in this report, you can blame them on Phil. That gives me a lot of journalistic liberty, I now realize. Hmmmm.

They’re on a four-star section of cobbles. These ratings, by the way, are from Yelp users. I just read one of the reviews of this sector: “Pretty good rocks, not too slippery, and free Coke refills, but the riders were kinda rude lol.”

Whoa, a crash! Look carefully, it’s the background there. Some guy named Van Dijke.

The breakaway has been absorbed as though by an adult diaper. The peloton is very absorbent.

“They’re picking up the dust, and it’s getting through to the tires, from the looks of it,” Phil says. His voice is so agreeable, so confident and authoritative, it’s tempting to ascribe some meaning to his words … but so often I cannot.

Bob’s delivery has this chipper, upbeat flavor that is pleasant to listen to, but doesn’t really highlight the drama. I can so easily picture him narrating an elementary school crafts activity. “Well, it looks like they’re going to be doing papier-mâché, based on the newspaper strips and the balloons,” he’d say cheerfully.

Now Politt and Fred Wright (Bahrain Victorious) are off the front but they won’t get very far. The much-touted favorite today is last week’s Tour of Flanders winner Mathieu Van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck), who has been so ballyhooed, I’d like to see someone else win just to make things more interesting.

OMG, Van der Poel must have heard me because he goes right to the front and drills it! How is he hearing me? Is his directeur sportif reading this report as I type it, through Van der Poel’s earpiece? That must be it.

And just like that, he has a massive gap!

Could he endure, solo, for 57 km? Yeah, probably. This year we saw Tadej Pogacar solo for 80 km in the Strade Bianche race (with a little help from his friends, and I don’t mean teammates). I’m not saying Van der Poel isn’t clean, mind you. But his dominance would be more believable if he weren’t breathing through his fricking nose. I mean, come on.

I don’t know, though. A 57 km solo breakaway? I mean, wouldn’t he get lonely? Is this some COVID aftermath thing where Van der Poel has forgotten how to socialize?

“They’re trying to chase but they’re soooooooo tired,” Phil says. I think he’s projecting. Why would they be particularly tired, this far from the finish? They’re professionals, and they’re not 80 years old.

The gap is out to 25 seconds with 53 km left. You know what? I’m tired of Van der Poel. And I don’t like his socks. They’re too tall, like the tube socks I wore in the ‘80s.

Tom Pidcock (Ineos Granadiers) is just sitting on the back of this disorganized, disheveled chase group. He’s an Olympic gold medalist in mountain biking and a cyclocross world champion, so I’d hoped he could figure in this race, but apparently not.

Is the chase group really “disheveled”? No, I confess it’s not, particularly. That was poetic license. I’m trying to keep myself awake because this race has gotten so boring.

“He’s the world champion, Van der Poel,” Phil says, as if helpfully. Yeah, Phil, I know what the rainbow stripes on his jersey mean. I think most cycling fans understand the difference between the world champion’s jersey and, say, the pride flag. (Van der Poel isn’t gay, as far as I know—I don’t pay attention to the riders’ personal lives.)

Come to think of it, I wish I were on X (the platform formerly known as Twitter that all journalists will always refer to as “X, the platform formerly known as Twitter,” because X is a stupid name) because then I could X (is that a verb, or do we still say “tweet”?) some irresponsible things like, “Amazing breakaway—will Van der Poel be the first gay winner of Paris-Roubaix?” That might get some traction because it would be perceived as the only interesting thing about this race today. (The difficulty in expressing facetiousness in such a short form is one of the main reasons I don’t do social media.)

“He’s just adjusted his cleats, and now he’s taking the corner!” Phil says. Bob replies with a chuckle, “Well, he’s not tightening the screws on his shoes, of course, but he is scorching this course.” I am not making this up. That verbal exchange did just happen. It’s so funny … these guys remind me of an old married couple, where the husband is always diplomatically saying, with a little good-natured head shake, “What my wife means to say is…”

Van der Poel’s lead is out to 1:31 and he’s still breathing through his nose. If that lead starts to drop, and gets down below like 20 seconds, all he’ll have to do is open his mouth, and that’ll be like firing the afterburners and his lead will go right back out again. Imagine how confident he must feel, knowing he’s got that Ace card up his sleeve if his legs ever start to hurt.

“Should he have a mechanical, his team car is right there,” Bob explains helpfully in case there are any idiots watching. I guess Bob is running out of things to say. And in fairness, that’s not really his fault. It’s gotten to the point that nobody even needs to say “Van der Poel” anymore, it’s just “he” because there’s really nobody else important in the narrative anymore. If you’ve read Wolf Hall, that’s the same narrative style that Hilary Mantel uses … throughout the book she never says “Thomas Cromwell,” only “he” and “him.” That’s why it’s so important to get our personal pronouns right … in case we ever become important enough to referred to only by them. Can you believe I’m rambling on about literature and pronouns? Trust me, it’s more interesting than this race.

How’s this for a headline: “Van der Poel crushes Paris-Roubaix … but does he have a crush on Pidcock?” I know that’s irresponsible. Pidcock isn’t gay, as far as I know, but without some kind of intrigue I’m going to give up on this race completely.

His lead is up to 1:46, which is actually interesting because I’m talking about Cromwell now. No I’m not. It’s Van der Poel, Van der Poel, Van der Poel. Blah blah blah.

He reaches sector #4, which would be good news if the numbers went up, but they don’t, they decrement. So he has just four sectors to get through safely, one of which (the last one) is so short and easy, even Cromwell could handle it, on a high wheeler. If you haven’t heard of a high wheeler, it’s another term for penny farthing. I’m not sure which term Cromwell would have used. I may go research that now, just for something to do. Stay tuned.

Phil just said, “Adri Van der Poel.” Bob, to his credit, doesn’t jump in and correct him. He pauses, surely squinting as if in pain and thinking, “Please Phil, please correct yourself.” Phil does, saying, “I don’t know why I keep saying Adri, that’s Mathieu’s father, I used to watch him race [back in the good old days when my mental faculties were intact].”

“He’s visibly flying over these cobblestones,” Phil now says. I guess he’s referring to the lack of any cloaking device that would render Van der Poel’s effort invisible. That would actually be a really cool innovation for this sport, if they could have cloaking devices. Riders would only get to use them for a set amount of time per race, or perhaps the cloaking device would draw down their strength and have to be used very strategically. So a good rider could turn it on, chase like crazy, and then suddenly appear on Van der Poel’s wheel. I guess it would take something like that to neutralize the Dutchman’s dominance.

“Surely [Wout] van Aert [sidelined with an injury] is watching these pictures with a little bit of frustration,” Phil says, “because I think he has a thing for Van der Poel and is very jealous of Pidcock.” Yeah, I made up that last part. It’s easy to put words into Phil’s mouth because nothing would seem out of character for him.

But what’s this? He’s overcooked a corner and goes off the road! Maybe he’ll stack and breathe new life into this race!

Nope, he saves it, and—interestingly enough—his lead actually increases by three seconds through this unexpected maneuver.

“The showers are very famous. Every rider’s name is engraved on the shower. Well, on the wall I mean. Of the shower.” Phil actually just said this. I think he meant every winner’s name. But how did he get to talking about the showers? I wasn’t paying attention (my mind having wandered to Wolf Hall and how engrossing that was compared to this race) and suddenly I hear the word “shower” which is one of the only words I’ve heard Phil use that isn’t a cliché. Perhaps he’s seeding innuendo.

Oh no! A rider totally stacks in a corner!

It’s Laurence Pithie (Groupama-FDJ) and man, that looked really painful.

While the camera was fawning over Van der Poel, the chase group behind broke up and is now down to four riders. Here it’s being led by Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ), who finished third in this race in 2022. But Küng doesn’t look like he’s trying that hard since he’s breathing through his nose just like Van der Poel. Or could I be mistaken about mouth-breathing being more effective? Is this Mona Lisa style some new aerodynamic thing?

Maybe Küng is just having an off day. It does look like his pre-race ritual was interrupted because he never worked that foundation into his skin. That’s not very professional, obviously. These riders are supposed to know how important it is to get their makeup right. Cycling is very much a psychological sport and a rider cannot show weakness, and of course cosmetics play a huge role. Studies have shown that the first thing a professional rider notices, on the start line, is his rival’s complexion, which is why foundation and concealer make such a big impact. Riders are often perceived differently if they have discoloration, under-eye bags, or blemishes. Fortunately Küng is blessed with almost perfect skin, which he’s used to great advantage throughout his career.

Jasper Philipsen, Van der Poel’s Alpecin-Deceuninck teammate, gets to just loaf on the back of the chase group, obviously. This means he’ll be nice and fresh for the sprint, and since he’s one of the fastest sprinters in the world to begin with, we won’t even have an exciting race for second place, unless Küng gets his face together, does something with his hair, and opens his mouth for the final sprint.

Here’s another boring photo of Cromwell. I mean Van der Poel.

Pithie seems uninjured from his gnarly crash and is now working well with Florian Vermeersch, Philipsen’s Alpecin–Deceuninck teammate, so perhaps they’ll catch the lead quartet of chasers. That would make it even easier for Philipsen to take second, making this race even more boring and predictable.

“If I just said ‘Adri’ I apologize,” Phil says. Which is kind of sad, because he hadn’t just said Adri; he’s simply doubting himself because he’s no longer aware of what he’s even saying anymore. I guess that’s partly my fault. Okay, now I feel bad.

Van der Poel is on Sector 3 now and his lead is now almost three minutes. Perhaps the only way he could lose now is if he got cocky and stopped to sign a few autographs. “But he’s far too clever a rider for that,” Phil does not say.

Not that you care, but leading the chase group is Mads Pedersen (Lidl-Trek), a former Wordle champion. It’s rare to see a top rider who also excels at word games. Oh, wait. Bob has just corrected me: Pedersen is a former world champion. That actually makes more sense.

OMG, Phil just used the phrase “suitcase of courage” for about the four hundredth time in his career. “But I don’t think anybody is going to catch Van der Poel before the showers today,” he continues. Again with the shower thing! Perhaps he’s just as bored as I am. Actually he’s probably even more bored, because I’ve only been reporting on these races for eleven years (my first blow-by-blow being the 2013 Giro d’Italia), whereas Phil has been reporting on cycling for something like fifty years.

Van der Poel is on Sector 2, which is only a two-star section. Here’s one of the Yelp reviews: “This section is kind of meh, just a bit of dust and dirt and a couple weeds not sure why such a long line overrated imho.”

It looks like the chase group is down to three now, having dropped Küng (who will surely learn his lesson and never, neglect his pre-race makeup ritual again).

Wow, with five km to go, Van der Poel is already starting to celebrate, giving his DS a fist-bump. Maybe with three kilometers to go he’ll try to give this guy a hug, which would be just the kind of dangerous move that might make the race interesting for a moment.

Is that white nail polish on his right thumb? Is that a thing now? I’ll have to pay close attention to Küng’s nail polish. What color did he choose?

“What do you do with a horse, do you tap it on its neck, when it’s about to win?” Phil asks. What? Has he lost his mind?

“He will be the first rider since Peter Sagan in 2018 to cross the Paris-Roubaix finish line wearing the rainbow jersey of the Wordle champion,” let’s pretend Phil just said. Van der Poel is now on the velodrome with a gap of three minutes over the guys we might call “chasers” if they were actually doing anything but running out the clock and waiting for the sprint.

Well, here it is. Thomas Cromwell becomes the 121st winner of Paris-Roubaix.

Politt makes a surprising early attack on the velodrome but it comes to nothing. Philipsen takes second!

Isn’t it remarkable how little my exclamation point did just now to make that sprint finish exciting? I guess you’re probably not very impressed that I predicted the outcome. I guess that doesn’t make me an oracle or anything.

They’re interviewing Van der Poel:

INTERVIEWER: You have just won Paris-Roubaix, having won Flanders only a week ago. Does this win have a different flavor?

VAN DER POEL: This one was kind of oaky and jammy, with a toasty undertone and hints of cherry. Kind of a fruit-forward win but just a bit tannic.

INTERVIEWER: Was it planned, to take off that early?

VAN DER POEL: I find it interesting that you use the passive voice, “was it planned,” because that’s rather appropriate in that it wasn’t really anything active like an attack. I just increased my effort because I wanted to make the race super hard. I know it was a tailwind to the finish line.

INTERVIEWER: Were you worried about a puncture or some other setback [since obviously nothing else could stop you]?

VAN DER POEL: Well that’s always possible but I had a support car, duh!

INTERVIEWER: It must be pretty special to win two monuments back to back…

VAN DER POEL: Yes, well, what can I say? I had a good hair day.

INTERVIEWER: Is it really as simple as that? [Tom] Boonen was practically bald, after all.

VAN DER POEL: I’m kind of at a loss for words, actually. I’m a cyclist, not a statesman.

INTERVIEWER: You mean, a statesman like Thomas Cromwell?

VAN DER POEL: Exactly.

Okay, I admit, I made most of that up. The bit about the tailwind is real, though. And the support car part, minus the duh part.

Here’s the top ten:

And now Van der Poel hoists the famous cobblestone trophy. Note that they were able to affix the plaque well in advance because they knew he’d win today.

Here’s a fun fact: I did some research and it turns out the stone used for the Paris-Roubaix trophy isn’t actually a cobblestone, which would be composed mainly of granite. It’s actually mostly pumice, which was selected for these trophies some decades ago when too many modern cyclists were unable to heft an actual cobblestone. So the rock Van der Poel is hoisting there is very similar to this one that your famously wimpy blogger was able to handle with ease (despite my Oscar-worthy grimace which is just for show).

Okay, full disclosure, I freestyled a bit with the trophy/stone thing. It is a real cobblestone as far as I know. 

Here is the final podium.

Well, that’s about it for this year’s race. I’m sorry if this report was kind of boring, but at least I saved you some time … this race took me two and a half hours to watch, and I wish I could take that time back and do something more exciting with it, like sleeping.

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1 comment:

  1. Thanks Dana, That 10 minutes of reading was more entertaining than the 3 hours I spent skipping through the actual race.