Do you remember the first time? The pros recount their first Paris-Roubaix
Whatever your role in the race, you never forget your debut at Paris-Roubaix. Recollections of the Hell of the North from first to last place
The original version of this article was published in Issue 110 of Rouleur magazine.
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The 23-year-old rider Bahrain-Victorious racer tackled his first ever Paris-Roubaix in 2021. He faced crashes, punctures and chaos all the way to the famed velodrome, where his teammate, Sonny Colbrelli, had arrived over 12 minutes before and was still wildly celebrating his victory.
"I think it was probably the most nervous I'd ever been. I watched the women's race the day before, saw how muddy it was, saw all the slipping and sliding. It sounds cheesy, but it kind of felt like we were going to war. I'll admit I was pretty scared. I normally get a bit nervous for a race, but I knew this was going to be fucking crazy.
"We didn't know how well Sonny was going, but the plan was for him and Matej [Mohorič] to be the guys we were riding for, and then Heino [Heinrich Haussler], who has got so much experience, was going to support them, because he knows the race like the back of his hand. My job was to follow the early moves, as being in the break that day meant you were starting the first sector at the head of the bunch. Straight away, it was stressful, but I managed to get in the main breakaway, I think I was one of the last men to get across. I was so pleased when I realised I'd made it.
"I was feeling really good, I was actually enjoying it. We had a gap on the bunch and the cobbles weren't as bad as I thought they were going to be. But I just messed up, it's all learning really. I was too far back in the sector before the Arenberg, as soon as you're a bit further back there, you're at the mercy of the guy in front, especially when it's wet. You're more likely to puncture back in the group, like I did, because you don't see the sharp stones. I probably panicked too much when that happened. That was another thing that will come with experience, I was freaking out with the soigneur at the end of the sector where I punctured.
"After my wheel change, I chased back and got back to the group with Sonny, the favourites group. I tried to help him into the Arenberg which was the next sector, but I had a double puncture and a crash, that was my race over. But there was no way I wasn't going to finish. I don't know how many minutes down I was, but I couldn't hear my radio anymore so I must have been quite far back.
"I had no idea who had won until I got to the finish and saw everyone crowding around the team, and I was like, hold up, something mad has happened, Sonny has won. To have my first Roubaix as the first wet one in years, it was epic. I'm not going to forget that for the rest of my career. It's quite rare you're in a team that wins a Monument, that's for sure. I've done the race in the worst conditions now, so it's only going to be easier. Sitting here now talking about Roubaix, I think about the rain and everything, I almost can't believe I did it. That was me out there, all muddy and suffering."
The now-retired British rider, then riding for Lotto-Soudal Ladies, finished in last place at the inaugural Paris-Roubaix Femmes, but, to her, the race meant much more than the final results sheet.
"Everyone was really excited. It has taken so long for there to be a women's race, which is kind of crazy. We all thought it was about time we were given this opportunity. I don't think there were many nerves. I think it was just like: we're ready for this. It’s where we should be.
"Once we started, the bunch was quite hectic. It was tense with a lot of crashing. When we headed on to the cobbles, it was full gas there, almost as if that was the end of the race. I got caught behind a crash that took a few of the Trek-Segafredo girls down, just one kilometre before the first cobbled section. That wasn't ideal. Then I sort of came back but I crashed again. I can't even remember now. It all blurs, I was just trying so hard.
"When I reached the velodrome I felt relief. I was in pain, my body felt broken. My back was hurting, my calves were screaming. I felt like I didn't want to pedal. It was just nice to be on the velodrome, it was smooth.
"There wasn't a soigneur there for us at the end of the race. There was no one. When we finished it was like: okay, I've done Paris-Roubaix and no one's here with a jacket. We ended up sitting underneath a bus shelter. I cut my hand and I think I cut my thumb up as well. My hands were covered in blood, my knees were covered in blood and I sat under this bus stop not knowing what emotion I was feeling. I was just drained, cold and wet.
"We probably were at a disadvantage to the people that have specific bikes with the suspension and everything, who have done a lot of testing and recons, but I don't think that you can dwell on that. I think I was lucky to have even done the race, to have been on the start line and I think that is enough, really. It is what it is. As riders, we can't change some things. We had to make the best of it.
"I was happy that I finished. I would have been really sad if I hadn't made the time cut. But I wasn't even thinking about making it or not, to be honest. It didn't cross my mind. I just wanted to get to the line. I had that willingness to not give up, even though there were so many girls in front of me and I wasn't racing for a position. I was just aimlessly pressing down on the pedals with so much pain. I was on my own, it was raining and there was no one really around, but I just had to carry on. I felt like I needed to do women justice. To show that we can do it.
"Afterwards, I heard a few people say 'it's too hard for the women.' That's why I was pushing on, because it's not just my own reputation that I was pushing on for, it was for the whole women’s peloton."
An experienced mechanic for Bora-Hansgrohe, he has helped the likes of Peter Sagan to Roubaix victory. Over the years, Usin has learned how to keep a cool head in the chaos.
"I did my first Roubaix almost 10 years ago. I don't think I have skipped one since. Roubaix is my favourite one day race. It's more work and the preparation time is longer, but there is a kind of fear and excitement in it. You have to get everything ready, then it's like you go to war, just hoping that everything lasts in the race.
"The guys always have special wishes for their Roubaix bikes. In the early days when we still had rim brakes rather than discs, some guys wanted some additional brakes on their handlebars and other things to get a much smoother ride. We have to have more communication with the guys at Roubaix. You're trying to get into what they're feeling and what they want. In the first year, you start to understand what it really is like, the race itself.
"When I did it the first time, there was no break from the start, so until the cobbles the bunch was together, and it was really stressful. There was a big crash before Arenberg I think, there were some pretty devastating views. But we had our mission, we had our riders, so we were heading out to look for them. It's like a crazy memory, you have seen it but you can't fully remember what you've seen or what happened. Getting stressed doesn't help anything.
"The first year, I was more worried if we had a puncture or crash, but now I just take this as part of the race. In the end, the calmer you take it the better it is for everyone. I think the sections before the cobbles are worse. Once you reach the cobbles, the war is already on. But if they crash before the cobbles, that’s the time you have to be quick as a mechanic, reading the situation fast and seeing what is needed.
"There can be some bad sights sometimes, but in the end, you have to handle this. Sometimes you even have to do first aid when you are there as a mechanic, as you might be one of the first people to check on the rider and press down to stop the bleeding or something like that, before the ambulance gets there. You have to be ready for this kind of thing.
"In the end, in Roubaix there’s action all the time, even in the first 100 kilometres, which is on normal roads. The race is 270 kilometres but it feels like it goes past in 10 minutes or something. Before one sector is finished, you’re already on the second one, it goes really fast, that’s why I love it."
The 2016 winner Mat Hayman rode his first Paris-Roubaix in 2000. Suffering at the back of the peloton, he was a wide-eyed neo-pro who didn’t know what lay ahead of him on the way to the velodrome. Now retired, Hayman works as a sports director for Jayco-Alula, experiencing the cobbles from the team car.
"I was pretty nervous. Rabobank had a good team that year, but there was one spot left in Roubaix for a younger rider. I remember wanting that last spot quite badly, but when I got on the start line, I wondered what I'd got myself into. I really wanted to ride it but I got my arse kicked, that's for sure.
"I was still only three years into racing in Europe, and didn't really know my place in the peloton yet. For the first couple of years of being a professional, you're in a bit of ignorant bliss. Coming from Australia I didn’t really know who the biggest names were. Obviously, you don't want to be the guy that takes down [Johan] Museeuw. My teammates pulled me into line, they said things like: Do you know who that is? Or what he's done?
"I think I had an okay run in 2000. I'm pretty sure I had to wait for Rolf [Sorensen] and help him when he punctured, then that was my race done. I found a group and I remember thinking whatever happens today, I'm getting to the velodrome. Even if they close those gates, they've turned off the lights, I'm climbing over the fence. I'm going to get there. I finished every single Roubaix I started. I think I was pretty proud that I got to the end. I can't remember where I finished. For the first couple of years doing Roubaix, I was like, I'm not sure about this, they go so quick and so hard into the cobbles.
"I thought maybe I could win Gent-Wevelgem but I thought Roubaix was out of my league, I didn’t know if I'd ever be good at it. All the times I’ve done Roubaix blur into each other. I think the first two years were big learning experiences. The cobbles aren’t like Flanders, they’re flat, that was just a bit of a shock. It’s different as a sports director. You don't have any control over what's happening. As a rider, I can sense how my teammates are feeling and watch them. But as a Director, you're just sitting there and it's in the lap of the Gods. And that was more evident than ever when it was wet.
"I was having to try and motivate the guys, knowing full well that it was pretty dangerous. I didn’t want to see anybody get hurt but I knew, deep down, they wanted to be out there and they wanted to be racing. If they wanted to do well, there were certain risks that they needed to take. So that was a tough one to balance. I didn’t want to ask guys to do something I wouldn't be willing to do myself.
"I realise now that Roubaix is not something I want to do anymore. The one thing that sticks out was sprinting into Arenberg. That road, I can picture it, the houses, then the caravans on the side, and you just go into a black hole, and it's downhill and it's wet, and it's cobbles, and you're sprinting. Mitch Docker, my teammate, took his face off in there. I've seen guys with broken legs in there. Once I wasn’t sure that I could do that anymore, I couldn't race it. In my first Roubaix, I was willing to do it. I went for the flight instead of being frightened and made sure I was in the front and out of trouble."
The former racer, now directeur sportif for Jumbo-Visma, was in the car for the inaugural women’s Paris-Roubaix, guiding Marianne Vos to second place, while trying not to get stuck in the mud.
"I have never been to the race as a spectator. Of course, I have seen it many times on the TV, but never actually stood on the cobbles. If I am honest, I would not have liked to race it as a rider. I remember my brother and my boyfriend rode the ciclo versions of the famous Monuments here in Belgium – Liège, Flanders, both in the rain – and they said there is nothing that compares to Paris-Roubaix. So I was very happy there was not a race for the women in my day, but then I was really excited as a DS, and the recognition for women’s cycling.
"We did three recons, as we are very fortunate to have the experience shared from the men’s team. And we also had special bikes, like some of the bigger teams. The car had extra protection on the underside too, and was made a little bit higher to get over the cobble sectors. Even if we had done four or five recons, we could have learnt something every time, depending on the weather conditions. We had some sections on the recon that were already wet, and we knew that it was going to rain quite a lot. Plus of course, there was the amateur ciclo [sportive] in the morning. Thousands of people had ridden it already. We didn’t really know what to expect after 2,000 riders has been on the course.
"I didn’t have to drive as well, which was a good thing, so I could coach from the passenger seat. In most of the Classics, we have two in the front of the car so I can focus on my job. We knew it would be tricky but we had a lot of confidence that we had good preparation. I got nervous when we were already in the race and some of our men riders called us and said Mons-en-Pévèle is really bad, almost impossible to ride. Okay, that’s going to be interesting! But I could warn all the riders with that information.
"Some of the smaller teams did not have the modifications we had on our team car. One of the press motorcycles crashed at Mons-en-Pévèle, then the ambulance got stuck. We were one of the first cars in the convoy, and all the riders were coming up in our rear-view mirror. It was an “oh my God!” moment. Thankfully, four of our riders were already ahead of the chaos. We had to go right in the mud to get past the ambulance and hope we did not get stuck too...
"Just talking about this, I can feel my heartbeat pumping. It was so stressful. It was the week after the World Championships, and Marianne was in good shape. Her motivation was really high, and with her skills, of course she was one of the favourites. But with Lizzie [Deignan] attacking from so far out, we had to a make a plan and stick to it. But Lizzie was so strong. Marianne was disappointed not to win, but everybody agreed Lizzie deserved it. We were very proud of the way we raced as a team. Looking back, there is nothing I would have done differently even now."