At the back of Paris-Roubaix, it’s all about survival

The last two riders on the road share their journeys through hell.

Iain Treloar
by Iain Treloar 09.04.2024 Photography by
Gruber Images, Kramon, Cor Vos, Elissa Pieters
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In the Roubaix infield, we wait. Mathieu van der Poel enters to a roar. Three minutes later, the next batch. And on, and on, and on.

The crowd starts filtering out of the stands as shattered cyclists grimace, dismount their bikes and sink to the ground. Some of them are visibly stunned. Some are smiling. The soigneurs stand with their cooler bags full of soft drinks, wrapping young men in jackets and wheeling off with them to the buses back up the entrance chute to the velodrome. The security guards stop caring if we jump the fence to interview the riders, and we wander around among the back of the field, snap pictures of them in their most vulnerable post-race state, have earnest conversations with the cool remove of the media/rider divide stripped away by exhaustion. And still, we wait. 

An FDJ rider sits on the ground at the Roubaix velodrome. His face is not visible, just his dirty legs, kit and arms. He holds a water bottle next to another bottle with a soft drink or some kind of dark liquid.
A typical post-Roubaix scene: slumped to the ground, downing fluids.

Around 40 minutes after Van der Poel, it begins to feel like that might be it. A group of three enters, circles the velodrome to cheers and the banging of barriers, the young Australian rider Blake Quick among the trio. The last finishers? Perhaps. About 50 metres away, Miss France stands in a white trenchcoat and a white sash posing with passing fans, who hand their phones to her for her to take a selfie on the way out of the velodrome. Her head is always cocked at an identical angle, her smile absolutely cookie-cutter – a rare manufactured moment in a day full of chaos. And then, splitting the difference, there’s the manufactured chaos: the bizarre flame-throwers and booming soundtrack of the podium ceremony.

Mathieu van der Poel shakes hands with Mads Pedersen on the Paris-Roubaix podium. In front of them, flames spark from a pipe in the base of the stage and the crowd behind them shimmers in the heat-distorted air.

A few minutes later, a whistle sounds from down the road into the velodrome. Security stops the stream of spectators crossing the velodrome to allow a lone rider to enter, and he rides the last few hundred metres of his race, before pulling to a stop a few metres away. I stop podcasting, walk over to a young man from Team Flanders-Baloise – the 21-year-old Belgian, Victor Vercouillie – and we start talking. 

He’s by himself the whole time: there are no soigneurs 43 minutes after the finish. He seems a bit dazed. And slowly, he gives an interview that is strangely revelatory about the mental state that Paris-Roubaix ushers a rider into; how it boils an athlete down to elemental parts – loneliness, hunger, pain, and confusion. How is he feeling? “Bad,” he says. But you’re finished now, I offer. “Yeah … but [a big exhale here] it’s fucked up.”

For about the last hundred kilometres, Vercouillie tells me, he’d been riding without any communication from the team: he’d dropped off the back of the peloton into a group of 10 or so riders “before Arenberg, Wallers – and after the cobbled section I was alone for 30, 40 km. I was all the time speaking in the radio, asking where are the guys from the team, the soigneurs … but nobody answered. I was alone for about one hour, I think,” he says, still standing across his bike, dust sprinkled across his arms and legs. 

Did he think of stopping? “Yes, of course. I was thinking about stopping, but then three other riders [the Blake Quick group] came to me and then it was okay for most of the rest,” he said, the day coming back to him seemingly in fragments.

An EF rider makes a sign for a drink as he approaches a group of fans on a sector of cobbles.
From pictures shared with me from the roadside by Elissa Pieters (@elissaptrs.jpg) I learned that this group of stragglers had stopped at a group of spectators …
The EF rider and his companions eagerly accept water from roadside fans.
… grabbed some water …
A Flanders-Baloise rider guzzles a coke provided by fans as they cheer from the roadside.
… and a Coke for the road.

That small group had dropped Vercouillie about 10 km out from Roubaix, hence the time gap. That was the lowest moment of the day, he tells me. “I’m lucky there was a tailwind,” he says. Compared to the brutalised hands I’d seen the day earlier, his physical condition doesn’t seem too bad: his hands are “a little stiff,” his feet are hurting too – a discovery he announces with a groan as he back-pedals with one foot, shifting his weight a bit.

But the main thing I’m picking up is a deep, deep fatigue. He also seems kinda shellshocked, kinda lonely, and in the absence of anyone from his team, like he appreciates the debrief. So we keep speaking: about how for those last 10 kilometres he’d been thinking about what his dream meal would be at the finish (frites with Flemish meat stew, pickled onions, something that sounds like “yuppie sauce” but probably isn’t), and how he wanted a Fanta now because he’d overdone the Coca-Cola earlier in the day. He has three weeks until his next race, he says, and is looking forward to a few days off the bike. Then, just as he’s about to ride off, he turns back. “Hey, who won the bike race?” “You don’t know? Mathieu Van der Poel by three minutes,” I tell him. “Three minutes?!,” he says, totally incredulous. “Then Philipsen and Petersen.” “Oooft. Fuck!” 

After talking for five minutes or so, I thank him for his time and he asks me if I know where the buses are. I think I’ve just scored the last interview of the day, a very forthcoming chat with a young Belgian man who’s brought me inside his race and exactly what it did to him. But just then, as Vercouillie prepares to roll off, a whistle sounds again and Cyrus Monk (Q36.5) enters the velodrome, rounding the last bends and pulling to an exhausted stop, even his mullet seeming to flap exhaustedly. He is the last rider to finish Paris-Roubaix: 48.18 after Van der Poel, more than 20 minutes outside the time limit. 

Cyrus Monk enters the Roubaix velodrome ahead of the broom wagon. The barriers are empty of fans now.
Cyrus Monk on the last corner into the velodrome, metres ahead of the broom wagon. Photo: Kramon

Like Vercouillie before him, Monk stands there for a bit, just taking it in, looking around with red eyes. Unlike Vercouillie, the media this time crowds all around him. Like everyone else this afternoon he doesn’t want to talk, not really, but his team press officer Eva slowly coaxes it out of him. A few words here and there, before an analogy for the ages. Roubaix is, Monk says, like The Hunger Games: each cobbled section is like a cannon firing and someone else dies. It’s an evocative description for the people like him and Vercouillie, riders that have heard the metaphorical cannons firing the entire day, felt their time was probably up, and somehow survived. 

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