Have you ever found yourself in a situation and thought to yourself ‘This is a bit surreal’ ?
I found myself in one of those situations recently when I was sitting with Sean Kelly and who came along but Sam Bennett. We chatted away and then Sean asked Sam what his programme of races was for the next few weeks. Sam listed out a few big races and then finished with ‘and I’m doing Roubaix’
Sean then went on to give Sam a few good pointers and some great advice about riding the race. I was just sitting there thinking ‘this is a bit mad. Here I am sitting between one of the greatest cyclists of all time and one of the brightest cycling prospects in the World, and they are nonchalantly chatting away about Paris Roubaix, the hardest race in the World.’
Paris Roubaix is different from the Tour of Flanders. Whilst they are both cobbled classics and Flanders has plenty of hills thrown in the cobbles are a different variety completely.
The cobbles of Flanders have been put in place with great care and attention. Artisan craftsmen laid them out and whilst they are rough to ride over on a bike, it is manageable.
The cobbles of Roubaix are a different kettle of fish altogether. Most date back to the time of Napoleon. They are haphazard and all over the place. It seems as if many carts of rock were unloaded wherever that fell and over time they flattened into a bit of a track. The cobbles of Paris Roubaix are so bad that over the years towns and villages did not want the race to pass nearby as it would give a bad impression of the roads in the area.
Many of the cobble sectors of the race pass through wide open desolate fields where not even a tree can survive. For 51 weeks of the year the only vehicles to be seen are agricultural tractors. All team vehicles have to be modified for the race.
For all of the pain and suffering associated with the race, it is still the one everyone wants to ride. Just to finish in Roubaix and have a cold shower in the shower block that is the closest thing to a prison camp shower is seen as a reward. To pass blood for days after the race is a badge of honour. This is hard to fathom for many people but when you look into the eyes of every rider who has taken part in the race you see a steely sense of accomplishment. Those guys know that they are the hardest, toughest, most unstoppable men in the World on that day. They are invincible.
So far this has been an incredible year for Sam Bennett. This is just the middle of April and he has already had six top ten finishes. A win in the Classica de Almeria. Twelfth in Ghent Wevelgem and yesterday an incredible fifth in the GP Scheldeprijs. This has already been a dream start to his career at the pinnacle of the sport.
Over the years Sam would have been glued to the TV watching Paris Roubaix. He would have read all about it in magazines and online. He would have gone to bed and dreamed about Paris Roubaix. On Sunday another one of his dreams will come true !