Serious cyclists will relate to this bit. Saying 'no' to a ride - it's like kicking a puppy, or talking back to your mother - some things are just not done. Some things are just not right. Especially when someone gives you an entry to a sportif over the infamous French cobbles.
I knew it was ambitious, riding the Roubaix Sportif just a day before photographing the Paris-Roubaix. To add to the challenge, I needed to drive to Compiègne immediately afterwards to pick up my accreditation and attend a press briefing. So I had to ride fast, as time was already tight.
On top of that, for the 2016 Paris-Roubaix I would be shooting for Beardy’s Caravan and the ASO, the organisation that runs the race. Never mind I had never shot the race before, or even attended it for that matter.
Still, I did the right thing. Instead of prepping to shoot the race, I got up at 5am and rode the sportif - but more on that some other day.
Post-ride and I threw on some tracksuit pants with a puffy jacket, then loaded up on multiple espressos for my drive to Compiègne. The good news about shooting for ASO is that it comes with some perks - in this case a driver and accommodation.
Pulling up in front of the makeshift media centre, I couldn’t help but stare. I also couldn’t help but feel a little underdressed for the occasion. The briefing would be taking place inside a palace. A palace.
It got worse. I staggered inside a little gobsmacked (and more than a little exhausted), hoping to grab my accreditation, hit the briefing (briefly), then make a quick exit for a shower and a proper meal. To that end, I half-whispered my name to the person behind the accreditation desk, hoping to blend in with the rest of the media before my getaway. No dice. Next thing I knew I was being introduced around as the ASO’s new photographer. This included a lengthy introduction to Christian Prudhomme, the manager of ASO and the Tour de France. Now I felt really underdressed.
As we sat in the press briefing, most of which was in rapid French, my 5am start began to bite. As soon as it was over, and I had said ‘bonjour’ to some old friends, I headed for the hotel.
You may recall that the hotel had been reserved by the ASO as part of my perks package. Regular readers of the Caravan will also know that the better organised something is, the more trouble I seem to have with it. And so it was, I needed a coupon to check-in. A coupon that was 30mins away, in Compiègne, with Pascal, my driver for the race. A coupon, in Compiègne, with Pascal, who now suddenly informed me, via text message, that he was going to stop for dinner before making his way to the hotel. After pleading with Pascal, the hotel staff – anyone who would listen really – and offering to pay for the room myself, one of the staff relented and rang the manager. Finally, I got my well-deserved hot shower.
Race day arrived – and I was a hot mess of anxiety, anticipation and caffeine. To say it was an honour to shoot the Paris-Roubaix, that hell of the north, for the ASO and especially for you, dear reader, is an understatement. I had spent countless hours in the lead-up pouring over the course map and creating a route that I believed would allow me to shoot the race from 8 different points. Again, it was ever-so-slightly ambitious, but with my trusty driver Pascal looking in the zone, I thought it just might be possible.
It started well enough, with photographs of the riders rolling through the streets of Compiègne. It was a relaxed drive to the second spot also; Pascal and I were a well-oiled machine.
As we got closer to Sector 25, a road closure forced a rethink of our route. After scrambling through a combination of local maps and GPS options, we arrived at a very crowded sector of Pavé. The car was blocked-in, so I left Pascal with the job of completing a 431-point turn, while I jogged to find a spot.
I knew this place. I had photographed this section during the 2015 Tour de France, so I knew it was going to be good. I also knew it would be essential to get out quickly once the riders passed, or be stuck for hours in a traffic jam. Pascal and I discussed tactics.
We were flawless. I leapt into the front seat in a single bound, camera bag tucked under my arm, while Pascal hit the gas. Our hasty getaway put us in a great position to make the next location at Sector 21.
Opting for a parking spot in the fields the car bottomed out on the transition from cobbles to grass. The wheels started spinning and I was getting worried we might be stuck. However, some overly-enthusiastic use of the accelerator for our man Pascal saved the day, with the car sliding back out onto the road.
Lesson learned, we parked roadside and setup to once again make a fast getaway. Suddenly, however, the convoy of official cars came to a halt; there had been a crash not far away.
I jumped out of the car and sprinted to the spot, making it in time to capture the Movistar rider, Francisco Ventoso, laid out on the ground as the ambulance tried to squeeze past and load him up.
This detour, however, put us badly out of position; and the race leaders pulled away. The next spot was the Forest of Arenberg – and I could not miss it. It was tense in the car as Pascal tried to make up the lost time. The street leading to this famous sector was clogged, yet miraculously we managed to push through. I handed my camera gear to a spectator and jumped the fence. He threw my gear back to me just in time to capture the riders approaching.
There was no time to catch my breath; I was running for the car before the last rider had passed.
The next sector was always going to be tight – even if everything ran like clockwork. Minutes later a traffic jam slowed us to a crawl. I could see the riders passing us on a parallel road. We had missed this one.
We pushed straight through to the next sector. As we got back towards the race route the traffic eased, and we made good time to our penultimate spot.
There would be one more mad dash to the finish. We didn’t have time to capture the last riders passing through before we were back on course, thundering towards Roubaix.
With the field splintered, and the lead riders well ahead, it was going to be close. We swung out onto the road behind a small bunch of riders. Pascal floored it and we squeezed past, only to get stuck behind another bunch. These guys proved more difficult to pass, as they snaked and weaved around on the road.
I was convinced we had missed the diversion that would put us out in front of the lead riders and on course for the Roubaix Velodrome. Pascal was equally convinced that it was still ahead. I started to sweat, but he was right; a Gendarme signalled us through the diversion – we were home free. Pulling up at the Velodrome I couldn’t quite believe we had managed 7 spots. Bon travail Pascal.
Lastly, I would like to welcome Santini to the Caravan for 2016; glad to have you on board as we gather pace towards the 2016 Giro d’Italia!
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