None of the three have been there before, at the gates of the Roubaix velodrome, a 500-meter ring of very smooth, polished white concrete. None have been there before, like this, knowing that one of the three, three actors who rise above humanity, to whom they can say, proud, wise, the emptiness of your life shakes us; and they speak covered their faces with a layer of fresh mud hardened by the wind, gray with dust, the sign of their greatness, the mask that distinguishes them from other earthly ones. They are thus an object of adoration.
They are three newcomers who have aged centuries in just six hours on a Sunday in October, in just over 250 kilometers. It is the end of the race known as the Hell of the North, which in its 125th year, and the first time in autumn, has been the no more between cornfields taller than themselves, who feel like giants on their bikes, and they float in the rain on the mud and puddles that cover the stone paths between the fields.
One of them is a complete stranger to the fans, he is Belgian Florian Vermeersch, 22 years old, the surprise man, the young man to whom the gods grant, without him expecting it, the opportunity to see the sky, to feel him close, at your fingertips.
The other two are more than desired acquaintances, they are cyclists who are expected, loved, suffered and enjoyed. They are life. They are the Dutch Mathieu van der Poel, 27, the chosen one, the one who carries the burden of having to be different, unique, special, every day of his life, and Sonny (as Sonny Crockett, from Corruption in Miami) Colbrelli, 31, the bulldog who, in the face of Van der Poel’s forced fantasy, opposes the practical realism that makes Italian athletes famous and invincible, and nothing less than a month ago, he disheartened Remco Evenepoel, the Belgian from 21 years symbol of those who have come to cycling to thrill, of those forced to go beyond themselves in each race, and after sticking like a limpet to his wheel in Trento he won the European championship in the last meters.
The two flamingos are over 1.90 meters tall, they are slender, they pedal with elegance, it is a pleasure to see them. Colbrelli is compact, it does not reach meter 80, but it gives off such an air of strength, of aggressiveness, that it scares. He knows, and everyone knows, that it is not written anywhere that to be the best you have to be the most beautiful.
The three wait for a sign, the moment of flavor, as defined by the Olympic champion Yulimar Rojas, the tenth of a second, in the corridor towards the sand pit, in which the body is invaded by the adrenaline pumped by the racing heart and to the stimulus it responds by bristling the skin, which is done chicken, and leaving the brain in suspense, in a cloud. And the answer tells the rider that he is ready, that he is invincible. He does not feel the signal Vermeersch, who 250 meters from the line, at the counter goal of the velodrome, launches his sprint as instructed by the masters of the track, and does it so as not to lie down afterwards and roll over in bed regretting not having tried; Nor does Van der Poel feel it, who sinks his head between his broad shoulders, and forces his pedaling, without ever reaching the desired speed, and his gesture of defeated alerts Colbrelli, always at his wheel, like the whole race, who reacts, feels the spark come out of him and explode 25 meters from the line, and like a withering forward to the incredulous Belgian boy. Colbrelli, the first Italian to win at Roubaix in the 21st century, is the third rookie to do so after the first winner, Joseph Fischer (1896) and the Frenchman Jean Forestier, who beat Fausto Coppi in 1955.
It has not rained in a Paris-Roubaix for 20 years. Cyclists, the most veteran, like Imanol Erviti, who runs the classic for the 16th time in his life, the most novice, share two feelings, fear and the irrepressible desire to face him, to defeat him. The mud, the inevitable falls that condemn everyone to loneliness and wake up wounded, the breakdowns, are the tests that must be overcome, which sink Gianni Moscon, the Italian who marches first, alone, launched towards victory, and who suffers a puncture, and then a fall after skating on the crest of an ass, and he curses not fate, but himself, like tragic heroes, with his mask. “After the puncture I started to go beyond my means and made mistakes,” he says. “And that’s why I fell.”
La Roubaix runs along the paths of the Arenberg straight, under which old mining galleries wind, they are the stones through which the miners, when coal was still being extracted, pedaled towards the shafts; the agricultural roads of Carrefour de l’Arbre, before the café that serves oysters and only closes on Sundays, molded, its flanks sunk by the weight of the wheels of the tractors that work them every day, and its crest is like the thorn back of an ass, narrow and uneven. And the cyclists of the Roubaix are miners, peasants, workers, who can transcend, rise from their routine lives, feel unique overcoming the obstacles that fate puts them, their luck. And only in the Roubaix, from the roots of their trade, they can achieve it. The mud makes the ditches impracticable, which in dry Roubaix are the best ways to avoid the jumps and balances of the tightrope walker at the top, the mountebank jumps, the skidding, the falls that make riding dangerous, and that cut the umbilical cord that seems to unite in all races Wout van Aert, another of the greatest prophets of the cycling millennium, and Van der Poel, who goes forward with his obligatory generosity, and spends and wears his strength in his search without success.
For 71 of the 175 who left, those who could not finish, and, among them, Erviti, the strongest of the Spaniards ever, the Roubaix was an escabechina; for the 104 who arrived at the velodrome, including the 10 who arrived out of control, more than half an hour from Colbrelli, and, among them, Niki Terpstra, winner at Roubaix in 2014, and Dylan van Baarle, second a week ago in the World Cup, finishing was his best victory.
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