On a cold April 13, 2008, when we lived in Lille, I rode out past the town of Hem to see the Paris-Roubaix come by on the 260km race’s penultimate section of pavés. Those are the brutal cobblestones that the Hell of the North is famous for.
The racers had started in Compeigne near Paris that morning, but my ride was just 30 km or so round-trip to see them pass. I stopped to shed my jacket and tie it around my waist. I passed through La Madeleine, a big cemetery, a playground, residential apartments, then the leafy suburbs of Lille, Mons-en Baroeul and Villeneuve D’Asq.
Up there in the far north of France, the shopping centers, warehouses, business parks and neighborhoods were recently farmland. It’s American-style development, but that Sunday afternoon there wasn’t much traffic, so it was nice to pedal through.
Down a narrow. well-paved farm lane, to the entrance of Heron Lake Park, I was suddenly in farm fields. There were a few people out on bikes, walking unpaved paths to another road, another town. It still feels like the countryside but the city is coming.
Pavé section No. 2, started at the hamlet of Robigeux, in the community of Willems, passed through Sailly-lez-Lannoy, and ended at the edge of the bigger town of Hem, before heading for the 1.4 km last pavé section in Roubaix and the finish in the velodrome.
I had arrived in this little village about two hours before the race. Some amateur riders had passed. ” Were not from around here,” a cop at the barrier told me. He said I could go no further on my bike. There were giants dancing to march music, sausages sizzling, beer flowing. People cheered at every passing vehicle.
I walked my bike down the edge of the pavé section. The race was still far away, but I could updates on my phone. There was a steady wind. I had worn barely enough. The sky went from brilliant blue to menacing black.
I stood at a sharp curve. First, came the cars. People gathered. A big group of Belgians, with those big flag hats, and Jupilers in both hands. People cheered when on old man came by on his old bicycle. They’d mock cheered me, too.
Finally, the race arrived, the leaders, Belgian Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland, and Alessandro Ballan of Italy. The first chase group about two minutes later. The riders stayed on the band of asphalt on the side, mostly avoiding the cobbles. Five minutes later another, a bigger group.
Then the peleton came by, looking exhausted but clearly soaking up the applause, sensing they were almost at the end of the 260km race.
A few drops fell on my way home. Boonen won the second of his four Paris-Roubaixs that day, beating Cancellara and Ballan.