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Floraine Bernard enters the Roubaix velodrome as the third-last finisher.

Waiting for the gates to close

After the cheers have gone, the best part of Paris-Roubaix begins.

Floraine Bernard enters the Roubaix velodrome as the third-last finisher.

Jonny Long
by Jonny Long 09.04.2024 Photography by
Jonny Long
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In the immediate aftermath of the big races, you know, the really big ones, the feeling can be similar to a book or TV show that has completely engrossed you, that you’ve binged from start to finish, which has taken over your life. The story ends and you try to remember what you did before to occupy yourself.

Paris-Roubaix fits into this category. Such is its unpredictability that there are more kilometres truly worth watching than any other bike race on the calendar. Everything can change in a second so you watch it all, not wanting to miss a moment.

While, like other races, there is a winner and podium spots divvied out amongst the strongest and smartest of the day, there is a special honour bestowed upon even making it to the finish line. So after that dopamine hit of hearing the roar go up inside the velodrome as the first rider or riders swing right onto the track, the subplot of who will be the last to enter before the gates close becomes a mystery that takes the edge off the comedown of the finished main event.

The applause still rattles through from those spectators positioned just outside, alerting us to the arrival of yet another rider who will ride their laps as the podium is being packed away.

These riders are often the ones with the most interesting stories from their day out, experienced far away from any television cameras. In Iain Treloar’s last man in the velodrome feature, Cyrus Monk tells an often-told tale of punctures before likening what he’s just been a part of to the Hunger Games, a book series where children fight each other to the death to entertain the masses. Then there’s the trio who stopped for refreshments from fans.

For the women, this phenomenon is arguably even more special, given it’s rarity. Standing at track centre, there have so far only been three women to be the last in before the gates are closed on another edition of Paris-Roubaix. We want to know who will be the fourth.

A Komugi rider sitting on the ground after finishing.

With more than 20 minutes gone since Lotte Kopecky won the sprint to claim the win in her rainbow jersey, Roland’s Sylvie Swinkels rides in. Maybe she is the last finisher?

“My chain dropped on the first cobbled section, I lost the peloton because of it,” she tells us after she’s come to a stop following her lap and a half of the velodrome.

“I really wanted to finish this race because it’s such an iconic race. I was alone but I saw a little group in front of me and I hoped to get to them but it wasn’t possible, so I did 70 km solo,” she laughs. “Half the race.”

What was going through your head? Was it just painful? What did you do to keep yourself occupied.

“I was in pain but also we have it numbered 1-17 [of the cobbled sectors] and I think I was already counting down from 15 … it helps to count down.”

This was her Roubaix debut, a brutal introduction to the race, but the 23-year-old Dutchwoman is determined to come back.

“I hoped it would be better, maybe next time it’s better … I hope. I really liked the race, I raced cyclocross before so I should have the skills but today wasn’t my day.”

Sylvie Swinkels rides off towards the buses.

But then, as we follow her out of the track to the buses, thinking we’ve got our woman, a Winspace rider passes by going the opposite way, 27 minutes down.

It’s the 21-year-old Frenchwoman, Floraine Bernard, who is hugged by team staff and trying to hold things together.

“At the start everyone passed,” she says. “I lost my place, crashed. After I was behind, I felt sick.”

Floraine Bernard enters the velodrome.
Floraine Bernard finishes Paris-Roubaix.
Floraine Bernard on her teammate’s bike.

We leave her to it, she clearly needs to not be talking to us right now. And anyway, such is the fickleness with which we are dispensing with one purported final finisher to the next, another two riders have just rode in.

They are both from the French Team Komugi-Grand Est, the Swiss Fabienne Buri leading home Canadian teammate Joséphine Péloquin.

Péloquin arrives and collapses to the ground, crumpled into child’s pose, receiving pats on the back from the rest of the team. She then rotates, on all fours, crying. Before long she’s then lying on her side, not looking well at all, with team staff crowding around her.

Joséphine Péloquin collapses on the floor.

We sidle over to the team’s press officer and ask what is going on: “I think she needs to go to the hospital,” comes the plain reply.

We later text the press officer asking for an update but nothing comes back, however, Péloquin posts on her Instagram detailing her day out as the final woman to get in the velodrome before the gates closed.

“I knew starting the race sick was not going to be ideal, but I told myself whatever happens, I’ll make it to the velodrome. Punctured not long before the first sector and then it was a day of chasing,” the 23-year-old wrote.

“Being sick made it hard to eat and drink as I was nauseous and about 40 km from the finish I hit a massive wall. The last 30 km were the hardest ones of my life, I can only say a massive thank you to Fabienne who carried me to the finish. I would not have been able to finish without her. Proud of myself for never giving up and to have made it on the velodrome.”

31:54 down, Péloquin was the 117th and final rider into the velodrome. Although an OTL (outside time limit) will stand next to her name on the official results (as it will for the other riders we spoke to above), that is hardly of consequence for having reached the end of the race everyone wants to finish.

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