Chasing Roubaix with Ben Healy
A couple of days before he finished second at Brabantse Pijl, Ben went to the Queen of the Classics to hand out water bottles to his teammates.
A murmur rose through the lobby of the race hotel when Ben Healy rolled in a couple of evenings before Paris-Roubaix.
Everyone knew our team was down classics riders. With Alberto Bettiol home sick and Neilson Powless preparing for the Ardennes after racing to fifth at De Ronde and third at Dwars door Vlaanderen, the peloton knew we were missing a captain for the final, most formidable cobbled race of the year. Tom Scully, Owain Doull, Jens Keukeleire, Jonas Rutsch, James Shaw, Marijn van den Berg, and Julius van den Berg have done huge turns for our team this spring and earned the respect of every rider in the bunch for their efforts, but it would take some magic for them to go with the favorites’ moves in the finale of Roubaix. To get a result and round out a successful northern classics campaign, our team was going to have to get creative. But Ben Healy?
Ben had already won the GP Industria & Artigianato and a stage of Coppi e Bartali this season. He had the youth jersey he had just won at the Région Pays de la Loire Tour packed in his suitcase. He had attacked again and again in the French stage race and led Marijn to a couple of second places in the sprints. But what the heck was he doing at Paris-Roubaix? The Birmingham born Irishman weighs 60 kilos. He is as aero as anyone, but that wouldn’t count for much when he got bucked on the pavé.
No, Ben wasn’t at Paris-Roubaix to race.
He had his mind set on the Ardennes and then the Giro, where he wants to try to win a stage. But Ben loves bike racing and wasn’t going to miss a chance to watch a Monument up close, to meet the fans and see the towns and countryside that are always just a blur to the racers. So, instead of going home to Girona after Pays-de-la-Loire, only to turn around and fly back north to Belgium for Brabantse Pijl—where he finished second on Wednesday—Ben signed up for bidon duty. He travelled to the Roubaix race hotel from Pays de la Loire with James Shaw, Julius van den Berg, and Marijn van den Berg and, instead of wrapping his handlebars with an extra layer of tape and working up his courage to race onto the tractor-battered cobblestones with them, the Irish champ practised handing out water bottles.
Every pair of hands helps. On the morning of the Roubaix, Ben was bundled into a car with one of our volunteer service teams from Belgium and given a list of spots where he was told to be ready with bidons and spare wheels to swap in if any of our riders punctured. There were five on his schedule: sector 23, sector 18, sector 9, and sector 3. First Ben and his new Belgian friends would stop in Noyon for coffee and Easter chocolates.
Noyon | km 17.7
A couple of hundred people had filed out of Easter mass and gathered around the main roundabout to wait for the peloton. The sun was just starting to burn through the morning fog. Ben chatted with some of our team’s guests, who had travelled to France to watch Roubaix.
“Let’s see if the breakaway is ever going to go today,” Ben said. “Hopefully our two boys James and Julius will be in there. It’s going to be very fast.”
Ben is a breakaway artist. His move is to get ahead of a race and hold on longer than anyone else in the break, so he is the only one left by the finish line. He doesn’t pack much of a sprint, so that’s his way to win. At Roubaix, our move was going to have to be similar. None of our riders were going to have the power to match the favorites when they started blasting away from each other on the worst cobbled sectors, but if a couple of them could get out in front before that showdown, they might be able to get onto the wheels of the best and stay with them all the way to the velodrome.
Twenty other teams in the race were thinking the same thing, which was going to make it very hard to get in the move. Ben’s secret to getting in breakaways isn’t much of a secret.
“For me, the trick is to just keep attacking until you finally make it,” Ben said. “But if you do that here—they are doing 50 km an hour, so I think you would have pretty sore legs after that. If it is going to take a while, the smarter approach is to just follow moves to save the legs as much as possible.”
The peloton came whooshing around the roundabout. They were still all together. Noyon's citizens clapped and headed home for Sunday lunch. Ben and the Belgians jumped into their car and sped into the colorful motorcade behind the racers. They would have to dart onto the motorway to get ahead of them.
Sector 23: Quérénaing to Maing | km 132.4
“It’s crazy how fast they do 130 kilometers.”
Ben had been watching Eurosport’s feed on his phone during the long drive to their first bottle point. Down straight asphalt roads through huge forests and wide-open fields, the peloton had been averaging close to 50 kilometers an hour, speeding through the crowds that had come out in every town and village. Those people would see the riders for no more than a few seconds. There was no soft early break in this year’s race. It was flat out from the moment the commissaire dropped his flag.
Ben and the Belgians drove onto the first cobbles just a couple of minutes ahead of the peloton. Their car seemed as if it were about to explode, as it rattled over the rocky surface, chassis scraping on the ridge in the middle of the track, as they hurtled down the sector. They had to rush to get to their spot. Once the cobbles started, the sectors came one after the other. Sector 23, from Quérénaing to Maing, was the seventh. It is 2.5-kilometers long and given a three-star rating. The worst get five stars. After clattering through a grassy field, the sector ended on a fast downhill into a left-hander. Ben and the Belgians parked just after the corner in a little brick village at the bottom, where the road turns back uphill, and set about attaching gels to the bidons with elastic bands, while the locals watched. Paris-Roubaix is 264 kilometers long. Racers burn up to 7,000 calories to get to the finish and have to consume 90 to 120 grams of carbohydrate per hour. There is no way they could fit all that into their pockets.
What’s the best way to hand out bottles? From the top or the bottom?
“I feel like I have more control from the bottom,” Ben said. “As long as they get it, that’s the most important thing. Turn the gel away so they can get a good grip, and try to aim for how they are grabbing, and hopefully they can just take it as easy as that.”
The first riders jolted off the cobbles and attacked out of the corner, their faces covered in muck, hands in the drops, staring straight at the wheel in front of them. Less than a minute later, the first pink jerseys appeared with what was left of the peloton. Ben had to jump back to avoid the sprinting bike riders. They were all grimacing and grunting, chains clacking down cogs, spokes swooshing, as each rider tore back up towards the wheel in front of him. No one even tried to grab a bidon. Good thing, because Ben was holding his from the top.
“They were going way too fast for a bottle there,” Ben said. “We’re looking pretty good though. We’ve still got six in that split.”
Sector 18: Wallers to Hélesmes | km 167.4
The peloton was in pieces. So much for getting ahead of the race. The favorites started attacking each other with over a hundred kilometers left. Our riders came out of the Arenberg forest in chasing groups. They were not too far back, but Ben didn’t think they had much chance of closing the gap. The strongest riders in the race were up front and looked like they were going to ride right to the finish. Their teammates would sit on behind and do no work. There wouldn’t be any more fireworks until the final kilometers.
Owain came through, his face looking ashen. The bottle Ben tried to give him spun through the air and exploded on the ground, but Marijn got the next one. The others rode straight through. There would be bottles for them again soon. Our team had sent service teams to just about every sector.
Finally, James Shaw arrived at the back of one of the last groups. He was paying for his early efforts to get in the break and his decision not to wear gloves. When he saw Ben, he pulled over to the side of the road and unclenched his raw, bloody palms from his handlebars.
One of James’s friends sprinted past in the next group.
“Hey. Shaw. Come on!”
Ben gave James a nod.
“Oh, frig off!”
James clicked back into his pedals and took off after the race.
“Poor man,” Ben said. “I do not envy him. Hopefully he makes it to the velodrome with his hands still intact.”
Sector 9: Pont-Thibault to Ennevelin | km 218.8
People now stood four or five deep, waving flags and barbecuing by the cobbles. There were more and more of them on every sector. Families and groups of friends were out watching the race on the big screens they had set up in the middles of the fields and the small ones they carried in their pockets. It seemed like a music festival. Long lines of campers stretched down the side roads that lead to the worst cobbles. Those are the best spots to watch.
Ben looked out the window at the Pont Gibus, which had been given a new lick of paint. The bridge is named after Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle, a French rider who attacked there twice to win Paris-Roubaix in 1992 and 1993. Really, it’s a crumbling old railway bridge that hasn’t been used for decades. Northern France has seen better days. Once one of Europe’s industrial jewels, the region fell on hard times when the local mines and factories shut down and has never recovered. Paris-Roubaix is one day a year when it regains its lustre. The locals are proud of their bike race. Its cyclists need to be tough—like they are.
Everyone in the race was just enduring by the time they got to Pont Gibus.
Julius van den Berg came past, shorts ripped, covered in dust. He had crashed and had to run cyclocross-style through a field.
“Hey Ben!” he yelled.
Ben’s arm darted out with a bottle.
“I think I’m more nervous than the riders when they are coming at me at 50 km/hr and I’m holding bottles out,” Ben said afterwards.
Would he rather be in the race?
“I think I want to ride it less and less. It is pretty carnage out there by the look of things.”
Sector 3: Gruson | km 241.8
There were only 14.8 kilometers left in Paris-Roubaix. Ben’s Belgian driver couldn’t get to the end of Gruson. With roads closed and gendarmes and cycling fans everywhere, it was an impossible task, so they stopped at the end of Carrefour de l’Arbre, the race’s final five-star sector, which finishes just a hundred meters before the start of Gruson. Inside the final twenty kilometers, it’s against the rules to hand out bottles, so Ben and the Belgians just enjoyed the atmosphere. They did bring wheels just in case.
“It just gets crazier and crazier,” Ben said. “There are all these fans by the side of the cobbles and helpers everywhere. It is craziness, madness. You would have never expected it until you were immersed in it. There are fans everywhere, partying, cheering. It is bloody good.”
The TV helicopter hovered overhead and then there was a roar down the sector. The noise rolled like a wave towards them. The leaders hurtled past, followed a while later by a group of chasers.
“The race has been absolutely blown to pieces,” Ben said. “You have the favourites up ahead with a pretty big gap. And then this second group that has just gone by. They are all looking pretty dead. I think we know who is going to take this now.”
There was a rush to the big screen, but most people stayed by the cobbles to cheer on the stragglers. Ben joined in with the crowd and yelled words of encouragement to each one of his teammates.
Did he wish he were out there?
“I do a little bit now, to be fair,” he said. “The atmosphere has just kept on building. What a bloody race.”
It’s probably a good thing Ben didn’t ride Roubaix.
Three days later, he was second at Brabantse Pijl, a hilly semi-classic that suits him much better, but after his day out on bidon duty, don’t be surprised if you see him on the start list one year.
Ben has chased Roubaix. Now, he has to race it.