‘Roubaix is the Hunger Games’ - Stories from the Hell of the North’s final finishers

The broken and bruised riders who battled all the way to the Roubaix velodrome

Almost half an hour after Mathieu van der Poel had crossed the finish line of Paris-Roubaix and celebrated his victory, the final fans were strolling slowly out of the velodrome. A few soigneurs stood waiting by the side of the concrete banks holding cans of Coke and Fanta, their eyes trained on the metal gates to see when – or if – the last few riders on their teams would emerge. There is no other race in which simply making it to the end is such an achievement, where the cobbles are so brutal that survival is a win for many.

Those riders who struggle all the way to the gates of the iconic velodrome, despite knowing that any chance of a result disappeared a long time before, aren’t doing it for enjoyment. They often come with war wounds and scars from crashes on the jagged stones, their faces shaded with dust and their expressions vacant and lost. These aren’t the people we have seen on television gliding over cobbles and fighting for the win, these are those who have fallen victim to Roubaix, battling through the team cars and grimacing through the discomfort because they bear to wave goodbye to dreams of riding into one of cycling’s most Holy places.

Photo: Chris Auld

The final finisher of this year’s Paris-Roubaix was Cyrus Monk, a 27-year-old Australian riding for Pro Continental team, Q36.5 Pro Cycling Team. Monk arrived with shaking hands and tired eyes, searching for the words to explain what he had just experienced.

“I had one thing in my head, just keep riding. I had a lot of shit go wrong which happens to a lot of people but I didn’t make it this far by giving up when things don’t go my way, so I just kept going,” Monk explained, while examining the blisters on his palms.

“I don’t have words to describe this race. Roubaix is the Hunger Games, everyone at home wants to watch us suffer. Every sector is like the cannon going off and someone gets killed. For me that was the first sector and it was 29 sectors of Hell after that.”

Monk’s teammate, Rory Townsend, had finished a few minutes before the Australian and was similarly overwhelmed by emotion. The Irish rider’s voice cracked and his eyes were shiny with tears as he recounted the turbulent journey he had been on to make it to the start of Paris-Roubaix in the first place.

“I’ve never been in the velodrome before, I was thinking about that a lot on the way here. I just dreamt about it. I’m glad I’ve done it in this way and I’ve actually made it. It seemed far off at the start as I punctured in the first sector and rode on a flat wheel for 8km. I was so far out of the race but everyone told me you're going to have bad luck but just keep going. I cracked on, kept my head down and managed to find a decent group. I hacked around for 180km in a three-man group to make it here,” Townsend admitted.

“This is another one on the list of things I never thought would happen. It’s pretty special, I feel so fortunate to be on this team. They listened to my story, looked at my background and they didn’t take me as a 28-year-old rider that hadn’t made it. They looked at everything that goes around that and I’m so grateful.”

While Townsend spoke gently as he fought back the emotion, Sam Welsford of BORA-Hansgrohe nattered with an adrenaline-filled rush when he crossed the finish line over 15 minutes behind Van der Poel. 

“The lights are on but nobody's home, really,” Welsford said with a wry smile after being asked about how he was feeling. “That was a long race. I had a crash actually quite early and went flying, my knee was pretty sore so I was actually thinking I wouldn’t be able to finish. It came good a bit after I started riding but it was like a big cork in my quad, it was a bit grim. I’m pretty gassed now.”

The 28-year-old recounted his experience of the Arenberg Forest with comical honesty: “The Arenberg was even shitter than in the recon. We do that chicane which is the shittest. Then you go over those insane cobbles. Nothing makes that sector any better, it’s savage, it shouldn't be ridden on bikes or horses, it should be barred or shut off to the public,” Welsford laughed. “Nah, it’s still special.”

Despite the stories of misfortune, pain and suffering that each rider told when they finally were able to take their ripped hands off the handlebars and unclip aching legs from the pedals, each of them said confirmed they would be back at Roubaix again. The charm of the race is that its brutality is endearing – professional athletes don’t like to admit defeat, and the Hell of the North poses the biggest challenge of them all.

“I’ll always say yes to this race,” Welsford said. “One day I’d like to come in here and fight for the win in the velodrome.”

Cover photo: Chris Auld

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