Joe Parkin: Paris-Roubaix revisited

How one of the earliest Americans to finish the race prepared for Hell

Joe Parkin is the American author of A Dog In A Hat, and a former professional road racer who fell in love with the sport watching Paris-Roubaix and the Spring Classics.

BikeRadar asked Parkin, who's finishing his second book, to write about his experience racing Paris-Roubaix in 1988.

For me, this is the greatest week in pro cycling. It kicks off with the Ronde van Vlaanderen, the classic most pros consider the hardest of all one-day races. We’re then treated to the mid-week, side-wind fest, Gent-Wevelgem. It’s fitting that this great week culminates with the Queen of the Classics, Paris-Roubaix.

Paris-Roubaix is the first bike race I ever saw on TV and is partly the reason I became a cyclist in the first place. The sheer brutality of what I saw captured my imagination completely, and I knew I needed to see the race in person. But as a 21- year-old in 1988, I went one better and experienced Paris-Roubaix as a competitor.

Being on a small team, I knew I was in the selection for Paris-Roubaix almost from the moment I signed my contract, and it was the race I was most looking forward to riding. Unfortunately, being on a small team also meant I would be riding every race in Belgium and Holland happening before Paris-Roubaix. I think that if my level of fitness had been better, I would have benefitted more from these other events, but the truth was that I was not exactly finding flying form, and was dropping out of many of these smaller races.

Had I not been looking for results in these, I would have been training through them, but I was hoping to get some early results and land a contract for the next year early, which meant I was resting too much between races, so my fitness was fading. I tried to “cram” a little for the cobblestone test by doing some motorpacing behind my derny, but knew I would be having it tough come race day.

Most teams that will be competing on Sunday have spent time checking out the sectors of cobblestones that give Paris-Roubaix its character. While many of the teams from my era did the same thing, my team, Eurotop, and other small teams opted out of any course reconnaissance. It’s my feeling that checking out the sectors beforehand is really more about putting a rider back into the cobblestone mode than course memorization – I rode Paris-Roubaix just once, but can still recognize every sector of stones that was in the race back then.  

We were riding bonded aluminum Vitus bicycles, which offered a good, soft ride over the Belgian cobbles, and the same type of frame Sean Kelly had won the race on, so I felt pretty confident about my ride. A 48-tooth chainring replaced the 42-tooth inner ring. In the back was a 12 -18 straight block 7-speed freewheel. This combination of gears provided not only the best possible gear selection, but also an added level of safety during shifts from the big ring, to the small one, since the jump was so small. We were using Mavic components and the Modolo-style brake calipers offered adequate clearance for the massive, 4-year-old Paris-Roubaix tubulars I’d bought from a retired racer.

Patrick Versluys, the runner-up in the 1987 edition of Paris-Roubaix, suggested I run 5.5 BAR, which is just under 80 psi, but I opted for a little bit more flat resistance and went with 6 BAR – roughly 85 psi. I rode the amateur version of this race the year before and knew, at least, what the cobblestones were going to dish out pain-wise, but still used just one wrap of handlebar tape.  

Being a competitor in any of the classics is exciting and inspiring but this one topped all the rest for me. The start square in Compiegne was packed full of spectators, journalists and autograph collectors, all wanting to be part of the action. After signing my typical “Sid Vicious” on the sign-in sheet, I spent the next 45 minutes nervously sitting on the hood of our team car, signing autographs or looking for another place to pee. As this was the time before the US had live race coverage via both television and the internet, I was also pretty excited by the CBS television cameras and crew, and lined up on the front of the starting line to make sure I might at least make the rollout coverage.  

Most classics during my era started nervously and quickly work up to full race speed, as lesser riders try to make it into early breakaways. Knowing my form was not exactly up to the level I would need to be great at the end of a long day, I stayed close to the front and went with every move I could. I was off with a little group that got absorbed just as another group including Dirk Demol and Thomas Wegmuller took off. I wanted to go with them but was in a bad position, so I sat tight, hoping this group would be reeled in quickly, like mine had been. This group somehow was the early breakaway that was meant to be, and the gap grew quickly to more than 10 minutes.

The sprint to the first section of cobblestones was insane. It started about 10km out and seemed to increase in intensity until it reached full bar-banging and head-butting mode. I found myself on the wheel of future Paris-Roubaix winner Eddy Planckaert. I told myself to stay on his wheel because I knew the guy was capable of keeping both of us at the front. As we turned onto the first section of pave, I learned that sprinters like Eddy are capable of shape shifting – he fit himself though a hole that and emerged at the front of field. It was a hole that closed just as his rear wheel entered it.  

As the early part of the race went on, our chasing peloton split into two groups. I was not happy to be in the second one and thought I would never see the race again. Entering the Arenberg Forest the groups fragmented again. I was near the front of the second group and managed to make my way through across this brutal section of cobbles with just one brush off the side of a team car, and one incident with a television camera. It was exiting the Arenberg Forest where I made my worst mistake.

A small group accelerated away as we hit the pavement again. I opted to sit up for a couple of seconds and enjoy what seemed to be the smoothest section of road I’d ever felt, thinking riders behind me would get us all back to the main peloton. I was wrong and not quite strong enough to get back to the group on my own, so I was relegated to riding in the group that would forfeit the race en masse at the second feed zone. This was Paris-Roubaix though, so when a neo-pro in his late twenties asked if I wanted to ride with him just so that we could finish, I grabbed a musette from one of our soigneurs, pocketed the goodies inside, and pedaled the rest of the way to Roubaix.

My partner and I made it to the finish nearly a half hour after Dirk Demol and Thomas Wegmuller made it to the finish, successfully keeping the chase group behind them. They’d been out in front from the opening kilometers and it was sort of cool to see an early breakaway succeed. Of course, Demol won the sprint, immortalizing him in cycling history.

1988 Paris-Roubaix

Paris-Roubaix is such a strange, amazing and brutal bike race. You simultaneously love it and hate it. The morning after riding it, you promise to never ride it again, as pain cripples your hands. By the next morning, you’re thinking about next year’s race. To do well in Paris-Roubaix a rider has to love the thing. Only the hardest riders in the world, who possess the strength and determination to throw themselves in the ring with the terrible and wonderful French pave, can finish Paris-Roubaix in the front. Its winner often seems to be the one rider at the start line who wanted it most.  

If I were back in Belgium right now, I’d go into a café and put some money on my podium selection. Fresh off his dominant victory in the Ronde van Vlaanderen, I’d say Stijn DeVolder could pull off a cobbled classics week double. Fabian Cancellara surely cannot be ruled out and will be looking to redeem himself from the bad luck in Flanders. I don’t know if he’s going to find the top spot on the box or not, but I would love to see George Hincapie in the mix somewhere in the race he loves so much.

Whatever happens, I’ll be tuned in this coming Sunday.  

Follow the live coverage at Cyclingnews.com.

Paris-Roubaix: A Journey Through Hell

The publishers of Parkin's book also released Paris-Roubaix: A Journey Through Hell in 2007. The coffee table book captures the imagery and gut-wrenching pain of the take-no-prisoners cobble stones Parkin experienced in 1988.

Held the third Sunday in April since 1896, Paris-Roubaix is a race of great tradition.  Belgian superstars Tom Boonen, Eddy Merckx, Roger De Vlaeminck and Johan Museeuw have won the infamously cobbled race multiple times, catapulting the race itself into legendary status each year.

The race’s long history, coupled with its proximity to the cycling-mad triangle of northern France, Belgium, and Holland, means that it has served over the years to confirm the fame of cycling’s greatest champions. The 224-page  Paris-Roubaix: A Journey Through Hell is a complete exploration of this glorious race. The race will be held this year on April 12 and will follow a 270-kilometer course between the suburbs of the French capital and the northern industrial city of Roubaix.

All of the history and excitement of the world’s most famous one-day bicycle race is captured and comprehensively illustrated with hundreds of spectacular color and black-and-white photographs in this lavish, oversized format. With authoritative text from France’s top sportswriters, Paris-Roubaix: A Journey Through Hell presents the inside story of the race, its great riders, its traditions, and its secrets.

Paris-Roubaix is known as “The Hell of the North” for good reason. Though flatter than the other spring classics, it includes interminable stretches of muddy farm roads paved with rough-hewn cobblestones. The cobbles alone are enough to shake bikes and bones to bits; throw in notoriously fickle weather, which often includes rain, snow, and driving wind, and the course becomes downright treacherous.

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