“My first Paris-Roubaix was…” – Pro cyclists about the “hell of the north”

(c) Stefan Rachow / Mr.Pinko

Paris – Roubaix is a very very special race for most professional cyclists. We collected some individual stories and experiences of the queen of the classics OR the “HELL OF THE NORTH”.

Silvan Dillier (BMC Racing Team) – 2014 – DNF (did not finish)

“My first participation in Paris-Roubaix 2014 is not really a success story. After about a hundred kilometres, I crashed in a bend before one of the first cobbled sections. Fortunately, a mechanic from our team was on the spot. In retrospect, however, it turned out to be more of an accident.

The support vehicle then past me, because they saw that someone was looking after me. After checking my bike with the mechanic, I got back in the saddle and rode off. No sooner was I on the next pavé the derailleur slammed into my wheel and tore off. Because the derailleur had bent during the crash – which we both unfortunately didn’t realize. The cobbles then “did the rest”.

Since our support vehicle with my spare wheel was much further ahead in the race, I found myself only five minutes later in the broom wagon, which then chauffeured me straight to the finish.

Nevertheless, I can now look back on Paris-Roubaix with better memories (Silvan Dillier became second in his next participation in 2018).”

Tony Martin (Etixx – Quick Step) – 2016 – 76th place

“It was a great honour for me in general, to start at „the queen of the classics“. I started with a lot of respect. But it was also impressive to experience the whole atmosphere live, because until then I only knew Roubaix from television. It was a very special experience, not only the race, but also the whole preparation with the Etixx-Quickstep crew and of course with Tom Boonen. It was a lot of fun and the whole race was of course gigantic from my point of view. To be in the lead with a small group in such a race was quite unique.

The final was not the most important thing in my first participation. That’s why I was happy that I could do my work for Tom Boonen (he became second at the end).”

Jonas Rickaert (Topsport Vlaanderen – Baloise) – 2016 – DNF (did not finish)

“Paris-Roubaix is the most beautiful classic in my opinion. It’s a race you always have to try to finish, which unfortunately I haven’t been able to do so yet. The race is called the Hell of the North, and it is indeed a hell for your entire body. Your hands are usually the best proof of that after the race. It’s the hardest race there is, both physically and mentally. If you don’t have bad luck throughout the day, you can get far in the final. One day I hope to lift that cobblestone trophy.

What I remember from my first participation in 2016, is that I really went through hell that day. I had to change bikes ahead of the first cobbled section. I came back and entered the sector well, but after 200 meters they crashed in front of me, and I couldn’t avoid going down.

I suffered from a lot of pain in my ribs, but I got back on the bike because I really wanted to reach the velodrome. On a certain moment I found myself alone and I saw my mother on the side of the road. I got in her car, and we drove to the finish and then to the hospital in Belgium, where scans revealed I had broken a few ribs. That’s what I remember from that day. A lot of bad luck.

It was more or less the same story the next year for my second participation. I had to change bikes again and found myself in a group of five. With only 40 km to go we passed a feeding zone, where the other four riders stepped of their bike when they saw their soigneurs and quit the race. So, I was alone once again, but I wanted to reach the finish line. Sadly at some point I hit the wall, hunger, and I struggled a lot to continue.

Just when I was about to enter the velodrome, they closed the gates in front of me. I have never cried so much in my entire career than on that day. I feel that if you want to finish Paris-Roubaix, they should forget about the time cut. I tried so badly and struggled so hard in the Hell of the North to reach the finish line that day, it was a massive blow when they closed those gates.”

Jörg Ludewig (Saeco) – 2000 – OTL (out of time limit)

“Paris-Roubaix 2000 was my first, really big cycling race for my own dream team Saeco, which I joined for the 2000 season. In 1999 I was still wearing the Gerolsteiner jersey, but I was incredibly excited and wanted to finish the race in very good conditions – with temperatures above 10 degrees and dry roads. I did it at least – but with a gap of almost 33 minutes and therefore out of the time limit.

At the finish, my teammates awaited me with shaking heads and cynical laughter. The established Saeco-colleagues had no understanding at all for my sporting ambition. They were just angry and in a great hurry to catch their shuttle bus in time to come home on time.

I was completely perplexed, and at first I thought they were scolding me in jest. But no – they were completely serious. That’s how worlds and different views meet.

In the end I was dead as a doornail, but happy, I had four or five punctures – three of them self-inflicted, because “completely delirious” I really ran headlong into every pothole that opened up in front of me!

Then, 20 kilometres before the finish, the man with the hammer and the absolute hunger pang finally arrived. “Stuey” (Stuart O’Grady, editor’s note) then fed me from his bag. I think it was a completely soggy and sweat-soaked dusty rice cake from 7:00am that became the most delicious meal I could imagine at that moment.

Unfortunately, despite a magical attraction and love-hate relationship, it was never enough for me to achieve a great result; in 2003, however, I was at least able to act as a “relay station” and donate my two wheels to Dario Pieri from my team when he punctured on cobbles front and back while riding next to me and a team car would certainly have needed four to five minutes – that was my personal greatest moment in the “Hell of the North”.

Maurizio Fondriest (Ecoflam) – 1987 – DNF (Did not finish)

“I rode my first Paris-Roubaix in 1987 in my first year as a Neo-Pro. I only had experience of the cobbles from races in Belgium we did with the Italian Nationalteam. In that races we rode the last kilometres of Paris-Roubaix. And for me it was amazing! I’d liked the cobble roads a lot – in some way I would actually say they have a special beauty. So I came to my first Paris-Roubaix with the dream to finish the race, but after 220 kilometres I crashed and I needed to step into the bus.

One year later – in my second year as a pro – I rode Paris-Roubaix again. A few weeks earlier I became second at Milan San Remo and I came back to finish the race and make a good result. In the end I went seventeenth and I was really proud especially it was my second year as a pro. The whole race I rode in the front and it was just amazing.”

Jasper Philipsen (UAE Team Emirates) – 2019 – DNF (Did not finish)

Paris-Roubaix is always a special race. The first one is something very special. When I rode my first edition in 2019 I remember of all the crouds beside the track. When I came to the first cobble section I was really nervous and a few moments later I knew why. The pace is very fast although you ride over Cobblestones. The fight for a breakaway is also very hard. It has a high intense.

In the end I didn’t manage to reach the cycling track in Roubaix, but this is for sure a goal for this year and I hope that I can experience the whole race this year. I am very much looking forward to it.”

Marco Haller (Katusha) – 2012 – OTL (out of time limit)

“I remember my first Paris-Roubaix very well. It was in my first year as a professional with Katusha. I wasn’t even supposed to do it and I was scheduled to go to the Circuit de la Sarthe. I wrote a message to my sports director shortly beforehand asking him if he could think of me in case there was a place available due to injury or illness of a regular rider.

Then it really worked out that I got a place in the team. That’s how quickly my biggest dream came true.

I was very nervous and it took me a while to click into the second pedal. You also hop out of the start area in Compiegne on cobblestones. That’s not an easy thing to do, especially when you’re a bit nervous.

The race itself went rather badly for me. I crashed relatively early, but still managed to finish the race, even though I was a bit behind. But unfortunately I had the bad luck that it was one of the fastest editions ever and the hourly average was very high. I was still allowed to ride onto the cycling track of Roubaix and over the finish line, but I was one minute too slow and fell out of the time limit.

So I didn’t get an official classification, which I think was a bit stupid. Because if I’m already there, then they can let it stand. There doesn’t have to be a time limit because I have to ride the next stage the following day – like in a Tour. In any case, since then the jersey has been hanging unwashed at home in a glass case with a race number and everything.”

Stephan Schreck (Team Telekom) – 2000 – DNF (did not finish)

“Unfortunately my first Roubaix was over much quicker than I hoped. A year before, I had already ridden the Espoirs, the junior race in the Hell of the North – not quite well and therefore I wanted to do better. Although it was my first year as a pro, Walter Godefroot nominated me for „queen of the classics“.

I got into the first cobbled section I too far behind. Just when I had fought my way forward again, my team mate “Schaffi” (Jan Schaffrath) yelled me off the bike. He had a defect and I was our eighth rider – so I had to leave him my front wheel. It took some time until I got a replacement from our material car. Since I had rejoined the peloton than I got a flat tire myself. This time, however, no one stopped. Our mechanic simply gave me the wheel through the window of the material car. I had to fix it on my own.

I was left behind and after 160 kilometres I climbed into our camper, which was parked at the side of the track. Luckily there was Otto Wiedemann from our sponsor Adidas. An ardent cycling fan and a fine man. He cheered me up a bit and we rode together to the finish in Roubaix. Like many other athletes, I have a love-hate relationship with the queen of the classics.”

Michel Cornelisse (Superconfex – Yoko – Opel) – 1988 – 68th place

„It sounds stupid but I can remember almost the whole race, because it was my first Paris-Roubaix, which is always special. I was in the break of the day and they made it to the finish. Unfortunately I was not so lucky, because after the forest of Arenberg I had a flat tire and our sport director was – as normal –behind the big leaders of team and van Hooydonk was one of the favorites. So it took a long time until I could change my wheel and I didn’t make it back into the first group, but the breakaway group made it to the finish.

On Sunday on the cobblestones I always remember the first time when I was on the bike. This is always a special feeling.

In the end I finished the race – I think I did Roubaix six times and only one time I did not finished, which also doesn’t feel good. All in all it was not my worst performance. It was my first year as a pro and I wanted to see how far I can go with the big riders of the peloton.“