Roubaix and Nirvana

Frozen cobbles and Kurt Cobain

My guess is that there probably aren’t too many cycling fans around for whom the weekend of Paris-Roubaix summons up memories of Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994. I have to say I hope that I’m in a club of one in being unable to shake this bizarre link.

It stems back to my first trip to “The Hell of the North” for my then employers on a weekly publication that covers cycling that I won’t mention. I’d driven out to Roubaix on the Thursday night with my editor, William Fotheringham, who in typical fashion had booked us into a nice little auberge in the middle of nowhere not very close to Roubaix’s start in Compiègne. As we trailed around in the dark trying to find the auberge, snow started to fall and soon got very heavy. We were listening to the radio, when news came through of the Nirvana lead singer’s tragic demise. Any chance of a weather forecast was lost as Cobain’s suicide dominated all channels.

Thankfully, the auberge was found, and the next day we set out to plot our route around the cobbled sections of the course, with the aim of seeing the race as many times as possible. Hours were spent driving up farm lanes and down cobbled tracks so worn that the ridge in the road almost took the bottom of our hire car off.

On the day of the race, snow started to fall soon after the start of what was to become one of the most epic Roubaixs. William and I weaved our way around the countryside, seeing the race several times as it headed for the notorious Arenberg Forest. Just after that point, we stopped on a corner to see which riders were leading. Not far in front of them was a stream of press cars, one of which lurched to a halt beside us so that a French hack who may perhaps have had food poisoning but almost certainly didn’t could deposit the previous night’s dinner on the road.

As a commentary on the race, the hack’s heavings were well wide of the mark. Snow continued to fall and Andrei Tchmil launched an attack into it on cobbled roads that had disappeared under semi-frozen gloop. Johan Museeuw gave chase, almost reached the Moldovo-Belgian, punctured and then couldn’t unclip from his encrusted pedals. Tchmil went on to what was his breakthrough victory, which we watched from the middle of the velodrome having seen the race a dozen or so times.

Tchmil’s beaming face apart, the finisher I most remember is George Hincapie, who was making his Roubaix debut that day and finished in about 30th place or so – an astounding result for the Motorola youngster. I felt certain then that Hincapie would win Roubaix within the following few years, but form and luck have yet to fall his way at Roubaix in the same year. I won’t hex him by suggesting they will this year, but nothing would give me greater pleasure than seeing the American who debuted on my first trip to Roubaix finally raise that hefty cobbled trophy above his head.

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