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Words: Tao Geoghegan Hart | Images: © matschneider.de
Seventeen year-old Tao Geoghegan Hart was born and raised in east London. Part of the British Cycling Olympic Development Programme, the precociously talented teenager was a competitor at last year’s Junior Paris-Roubaix. With 20km to go, and with thoughts of the Roubaix velodrome looming, Tao was riding well and feeling strong. But they call it the Hell of North for a reason…
Last year I took my first journey through the race that some like to refer to simply as ‘hell’. Paris-Roubaix was like a war zone although, in all honesty, the same could be said of most international junior races throughout the year. One hundred and forty teenage riders from all corners of the world doing their utmost to kick each others heads in. The nondescript fields of northern France provide the perfect blank canvas for the pain and passion the race is guaranteed to provide.
A race of this prestige begins well before the start line. It consists of a succession of smaller events dotted over the days and weeks preceding that moment you clip in to the pedals and set off for Roubaix. A daydream in a boring classroom, a conversation a with team-mate, the reconnaissance the day before; all serve to build the nerves boiling up inside. Roubaix isn’t a normal race for the simple fact that anything can happen. And like the Junior World Championships, the junior edition of the race immediately precedes the pro race. We race in the morning, our boyhood (present tense) heroes in the afternoon. Same cobbles, same (slightly less) intoxicated fans.
On that morning, I distinctly remember sitting at our team table, another pasta meal among countless other, as conversation about ‘wet’ rain played out for a full 20 minutes. bike riders; every obsessed with the weather, but also trying out damn hardest to distract the mind from the pain to come, attempting to quell the fear of the unknown coursing through our veins, the dreams we secretly harbour, the sheer excitement. It could have been any big race and yet the pavé of Roubaix has the ability to multiply the odds. Once you start racing, the symphony of computer bleeps and cleats clipping in becomes all too familiar. Ultimately, it’s just another race: the constant need to move up; the gear shifters digging into your buttocks; and crazy crashes left, right and centre.
Yet this one isn’t just another race, it’s L’Enfer du Nord, the Hell of the North. One of my most vivid memories was the wafts of barbecue smoke that hit me in the face on almost every sector. It may seem insignificant compared with the romance of the pavé, yet when you are nailing yourself along desolate and empty roads, fans really do make a huge difference. For the fans in this part of the world, this race is the ultimate and they really do it justice – each sectors is an amphitheatre of noise. The reality, for the riders, is that you barely absorb it. Utter concentration is required at all times, dodging yet another flying bottle, or worse, a flying rider. One moment of lost concentration is all it takes.
With the legs that had won me the first round of the British National Series the week before, I felt fully immersed in the race, like I was going to do something special. It was possibly naivety but Roubaix was my first international junior outing and I had already started to play my part in the race, feeding our team leader, Jon Dibben, with bidons, leading him out into a few of the early sectors. I knew it would be the last 20km where team mates would make the difference, I knew I could make it, and after that…
The race was a war of attrition, the bunch becoming ever smaller as crashes, cobbles and mechanical catastrophes gradually began to claim victims among the hopefuls. Each sector would arrive complete with a fresh surge of adrenaline, urging you forward and through the mêlée of bodies.
The smoothness of the tarmac that followed was such a shock it almost felt like the abnormal element of the race. As the sectors came and went, my hands became increasingly tender; what I can only imagine arthritis feels like began creeping into my knuckles and fingers. Despite this, the legs continued to go and, fuelled by the fervour of the occasion, not to mention caffeinated cola gels and sticky, foil-clad cake, I soldiered on.
And just as I’d predicted, it was at 20km to go that crunch time arrived. The scar on my back, the hole ripped in my base layer, both provide reminders of that moment, before I hit the deck, when I was still in with a chance. I have no idea how I crashed. But I remember the back spasms, the shame of riding at the rear of the field on the biggest of cycling stages. I remember, too, riding to the Roubaix velodrome with my head down; I was still fighting but this time it was to hold back the tears. The gates to the mythical velodrome closed moments before I arrived. It was one of my worst races of the year but one of the biggest lessons of my life.
In the end, Jon Dibben made the podium, third place in one of the biggest races of the calendar. I’d like to think I played a very small part in this and will take every ounce of last year’s experience into the morning of 7th April 2013.
To quote Winston Churchill: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
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