The Toll Collector

Janeen McCrae

My name is Paris-Roubaix. Feel free to call me “The Hell of the North.” For over a century, I have endured your pedaled assaults, your attacks, and your childish whining when I’ve scuttled your plans with my rude-edged cobbles. Even after being ravaged by war—a war that scarred me and gave me that hellish moniker—I continued to collect the toll from your kind. I continue to this day. The cost will always be high. You will pay it through the ache in your bones, and the sub-woofer-thumping that clubs the heels of your hands hour-after-torturous hour. I will play you like a human instrument,plucking the strings of every sinew and tendon in your pampered, athletic bodies. For in these fields, no one rides for free.

I am The Toll Collector. Today, you will pay with your body.

FAREPAID. REWARD COLLECTED.

Niki Terpstra speaks the same way he rides: with a calm, smooth, and gentle intensity. He smiles as he politely answers questions, translating his thoughts into English with practiced ease. But ask him about Paris-Roubaix and why he loves it—ask him to recall that one Sunday in April 2014—and he becomes animated. On that sunny day, Niki Terpstra rolled into the velodrome alone, and for the first time, his investment in the race paid handsome dividends. On that day, the relentless Dutchman emerged from Paris-Roubaix’s dusty, hacking throat victorious.

Hell of the North? “For some it is hell,” he says. “For me it was heaven.”

It’s easy to see why a rider like Terpstra would crave another victory. In that one moment, you can forget the physical price you’ve paid—the pain, the pounding punishment, the blisters forming on your hands, and a brain that’s felt like it’s been rattling around in your skull for hours.

“It’s just pure suffering. Racing on cobblestones feels like you’re in… [pauses]. It’s a rollercoaster with shock shock shock. It’s hard to describe. You have to feel it for yourself.”

Four times he’s lined up and absorbed the shock-after-shock of Paris-Roubaix to just once have that moment, raising that granite block of a trophy above his head just as 113 winners have done before him. Heaving that cobble skyward after such a brutal day in the saddle must be some kind of delicious agony. A sweet pain mixed with the satisfaction of knowing you’ve stepped on the neck of a vicious bully.

“When I was young and was watching [Paris-Roubaix] on television, it was already my favorite race,” he says. “Now I’ve won it. It was really a dream come true. I am still happy when I think back on that day.”

To a non-cycling fan, Roubaix must look like utter madness. The sound of machines skittering over cobbles, the sudden slide out on a slippery corner and you watch in transfixed horror as the group goes down. There is no body fat to jiggle on these riders and yet the cobbles call the tune and their bodies dance. Each year, fans yearn for rain, just for the spectacle and excitement it brings. Riders most certainly do not. It just makes a gritty scene—dust stirred up by motorbikes and official cars, and the peloton itself—even more hellish.

“There’s a lot of dust on the road,” says Terpstra. “It’s hard to breathe […] in the end, you are just breathing dried cow shit and actually that’s not fun. And when it’s raining, the dust is mud and it’s really slippery.” Terpstra wears a half-smile as he says it, his face grimacing slightly. It’s the kind of wry smile with an undertone that speaks volumes. It’s a smile that says, “see the kind of crap we have to put up with? Like, literally. Crap.”

But it’s not all dust and a fine powder of cow excrement. The physical tollParis-Roubaix takes on the human body is collected over all 257.5km. The cobbles may only account for 20% of that distance, but to a body bearing the brunt, it’ll seem like more. Sector after sector, the fatigue bricks are stacked to build a temple of exhaustion. It all adds up.

Terpstra describes Roubaix as a race of survival. He explains that you can have mechanicals or crash, and that you need good luck and good bike handling. “It’s crazy,” he says. “We are all good bike riders, and we know how to handle the bike, but sometimes it doesn’t go well and then there are some riders laying on the ground. That’s why it’s so important to stay in the front of the peloton,because in the back, that’s where the chaos is.”

To succeed at Paris-Roubaix you have to be prepared to not only suffer, but to gamble and lose everything. You have to be ready to accept your fate and know that your hopes of winning can be crushed and tossed carelessly into the bleak fields of northern France. And accept that, if that happens, you’ll be riding into that velodrome to claim the only victory available to you at this point—to simply finish Paris-Roubaix.

Despite this, riders who thrive in the Classics and who love the challenge the cobbles bring can’t help but come back to this race again, and again, and again. The memory of Paris-Roubaix’s cobbles chafe like some irritating piece of sand under an eyelid. It’s hard to remove and impossible to ignore.

IT’S VERY SIMPLE. YOU HAVE TO SPEAK WITH YOUR PEDALS NOT WITH YOUR MOUTH. THEY ONLY RESPECT YOU WHEN YOU CAN HURT THEM.

Patrick Lefevere, CEO Etixx – Quick-Step, talking about Tom Boonen

Tom Boonen has got it bad for cobbles. It has always been this way. He just can’t stay away—especially when it comes to Paris-Roubaix. It’s as though The TollCollector is always whispering in his ear, calling to him, even when he’s stuck on the sidelines, as happened in 2013.

“It wasn’t a good experience,” he says, describing what it was like for him to watch from home on television. “I am not made for it. I was actually more nervous watching the race at home than I am when I am on the bike. I was even texting [the DS Wilfried Peeters] to tell the guys what to do. […] But it’s always a few seconds too late and something else happens and, oh, I am not good at watching races. I have to be in the race.”

Boonen has dropped coin into Paris-Roubaix’s toll jar eleven times since 2002. Four of those times he has won the race, and should he win in 2016, it would mean adding a record-breaking fifth cobble trophy to his mantle—a fistful of stones for Tommeke.

But it’s not all about the record for Boonen—although he wants it for sure—it’s about defeating Paris-Roubaix at its own game. To prove once and for all that as a rider, he is a smart and savvy, tough-as-nails, all-out brawler. Tom Boonen would prefer to let his pedals do the talking.

TomSteels, Etixx – Quick-Step directeur sportif, says it best: “Winning a fifth Paris-Roubaix…I think for Tom [it] would be nice, but it’s not an issue. It’s just about winning that race. That’s what you root for, that’s what you go for and the records come later. If you win it…okay, then you have a record. But if you don’t then you’ve lost Paris-Roubaix.”

“ALL KIDS CRASH. IT’S JUST WE ARE BIG KIDS NOW.”

Tom Boonen, four-time Paris-Roubaix champion

Winning definitely makes it worth it. Worth the pain. The suffering. Worth waking up the next day feeling like you’ve fallen off a building. Worth taking a chance and knowing the whole thing could end on the next corner when the guy in front picks the wrong line and takes you out. It’s worth paying that toll.

For riders like Boonen and Terpstra, it will always be worth it.

My name is Paris-Roubaix. Some people know me as “A Sunday in Hell.” I’m hungry. Starving for your peloton. I will dine on your confidence.I will eat your dreams and belch them upon your agonized faces in a gale-force-wind of choking dust. I will hurl your hopes at you in a heady mix of cow dung and coal-tinged mud. Your ultimate withdrawal will be my goal. Your defeat will be the culmination of all my might, my strength, and my almost intolerable cruelty in wringing every watt and drop of motivation from your body. That whisper in your ear? The one telling you to quit, that you are not worthy of being here—that’s me. These words of doubt are my gift to you. Accept them, pay up, and move on.

I am The Toll Collector. Today, you will pay with your mind.

NO ONE RIDES FOR FREE

Paris-Roubaix is the one you want to win, but it can be unbearably cruel. The cobbles of northern France are littered with tales of a race lost due to an ill-timed flat, a poorly executed attack, or worse, ended by a crash. Weather can decimate the field, as in 2002 when only 41 riders—out of 190—finished. But it doesn’t seem to dampen the enthusiasm of the fans or, most importantly, the riders. Every year, about 200 of them sign their names and line up. For professional riders, there would be almost no greater honor than to have their name go beyond that sign on sheet and added to the iconic shower stalls of the Roubaix velodrome as a winner. These are the dreams of ordinary men—to do extraordinary things.

Paris-Roubaix is a race that favors a more burly body type. A taller, heavier rider can flyover the cobbles much easier than someone with the stature of say, a pure climber. It’s what makes the big men like Boonen Kings of Cobbles. “You don’t send a guy of 55 or 60 kilos to Paris-Roubaix,” says Etixx – Quick-Step’sPatrick Lefevere, “you’d better give him a gun to shoot himself, because he will never [make it] to the finish.”

The cobbles are not your friend, and even when you come off them, they mess with fatigued minds.

“Sometimes it’s really weird,” says Lars Boom, talking about the switch that occurs between riding the cobbles and the smooth tarmac between each sector. “You’ll feel really good on the cobbles—like you think you have ‘super legs’—but then you come on the asphalt and you’re like, ‘pfwaar! What’s happening?!’ That’s when you look at your back wheel like ‘Do I have a flat tire?’ Sometimes it feels like you have flat tires, both front and back.”

Then there’s the final indignation: Just because you pay the toll, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be granted the honor of actually finishing. The whole thing is like a lottery—a romantic, unpredictable mess of sharp edges and jarred minds. Paris-Roubaix doesn’t care that Terpstra and Boonen are previous winners. It doesn’t care that Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) is on form, or that LarsBoom (Astana) seems to always to be nibbling at the hem of victory. Any rider will tell you that to win here takes a special mix of skill, bravado, and straight-up good fortune for The Toll Collector to smile on you come that second Sunday in April.

“You have to have luck,” says Boom. “You have to be in the right spot at the right moment. It’s all about surviving. Surviving a crash in front of you. Surviving a flat tire and coming back.” Without the survival, it seems, there can be no hope of celebration.

Sometimes as a fan, it can feel wrong to love this race. We fret that we enjoy the riders’ suffering a little too much or take too much pleasure in the voyeurism. But perhaps it’s exactly because we’re allowed to watch their pain that makes us love it. To see those emotions—the doubt, the anger, the devastation broadcast by their body language when their race is over; the uncorked joy and satiated collapse when they succeed—it brings them closer to us. For although we may never race Paris-Roubaix, or anything as remotely difficult as it, we all know the feeling of falling short,of breaking down, and of beating the odds to triumph. To see ourselves reflected in a brief glimpse of their mortality is comforting. In that one moment, we are all simply riders.

My name is Paris-Roubaix. I am the Queen of the Classics. A monumental Monument. Despite my best efforts to destroy you,you come back year after year and pay your dues. I confess to be awed by you.Without you, without your persistence and stubbornness, and unwavering dedication to lining up for this one brutal day, I would be nothing more than a stony, ancient memory to be talked of quietly in ale and coffee houses. A relic to be paved over and discarded, destined to become that ‘oh, well, time simply marched on’ footnote to history. A fun fact relegated to the back of a tourist brochure. My name is Paris-Roubaix and I feel you as deeply in my bones as you do me. Don’t think I don’t know my price is steep.

I am The Toll Collector. Today you will pay with your body and mind. All our souls will profit, always.

Credits:

Words: Janeen McCrae  |  Photos: Brakethrough Media