“Left here. Yes, here, left. Then we go right, follow the signs for Brillon. That road will take us to the end of the zone,” commands Freddy, an assiduous BMC Racing Team soigneur, from the passenger seat of one of the seven team cars covering the zones of pavé at the 2017 Paris Roubaix. Jackson Stewart, BMC Racing Team Sports Director and today’s driver, presses a little harder on the accelerator as our backing track for the day drops in with another crucial race-related update: “Groupe Van Avermaet à trente secondes au groupe Boonen et Sagan.” There’s an intake of breath followed by a moment of silence; we are witnessing one of the key moments of the race, where the outcome is balanced precariously on a knife’s edge. “Come on, guys,” mutters Jackson intensely, whilst Freddy’s gaze hops alternatively from his map to the in-car TV, before getting back to the task of getting us to where we’re supposed to be.
Every single race in the WorldTour is important to the participating teams, but there are certain ones in which the tension, pressure and drive to go that little bit further is even more present. It goes without saying that Paris Roubaix, one of the five Monuments within cycling, is one of those, a race that has certainly stamped its authority as the Queen Of The Classics. 257km in distance with 29 zones of pavé (55 km over the cobbles in total) was the course of the day. With 45 pairs of wheels, 9 team cars and 3 bikes per rider, the BMC Racing Team were resolute that nothing would stand in the way of their efforts.
Hours before we had sat in the square of Cambrai, sipping a morning coffee and catching up. This was the designated meeting point, the convergence of the team staff that had been with the riders at their hotel before the race with those staff who had driven directly from the team’s service course. With wheels duly exchanged and routes planned, our departure as zone hoppers mirrored the departure of the race Compiegne, 100 km to the southwest.
‘Zone hopping’ is part of that unseen work that goes on behind the scenes at these cobbled classics. These are the nail-biting days when untimely punctures may have a major effect on the outcome of the race. After all, it is on the pavé where the race really happens. And even with BMC Racing Team’s privileged first position in the procession of team cars behind the riders, the arduously narrow roads hamper any attempts to reach riders for rapid assistance. The longer a rider waits, the more they have to chase. In a bid to safeguard their riders from the fate of losing contact, each team places staff at the end of each individual zone of cobbles. There, armed with spare wheels and extra bottles, this extra muscle waits. Riders can therefore rest assured that they’ve only got to ride out the section before getting access to any help they might need; it’s almost always faster than waiting. We were one of five BMC ‘zone hoppers’ that would essentially leapfrog along the course to cover each of the 29 sections of pavé.
The riders pass by once more, ticking off another one of the zones that we were covering. We return to the distinctive BMC car and buckle up, ready for the race once more. Freddy checks the map again, nodding emphatically: “Wow, Oss is looking strong, this is good. This is perfect, Greg can stay in the wheel and the others have to chase.” He looks up briefly: “Left, then the second right.” Jackson has to drive in hurry to avoid the hordes of fans who all harbour the same aspiration to watch the race in as many points as possible, shouting, “THIS IS PERFECT” to his co-pilot.
The race radio crackles with intermittent updates; they come fast and furiously as Greg gets back into the group of favourites. The strategy of the team isn’t unusual, as teammates are always responsible for a win. So are the soigneurs, painstakingly preparing the riders for battle. The zone hoppers are equally as vital on a race like this. Just before sector nine, Daniel Oss gets ahead, attacks, and puts the other teams on the defensive. His riding is a singular feat of endurance, and his best to date. Something of a lottery of a race, Roubaix rarely follows the same pattern, and never has a copy-and-paste winning tactic. This year was no different. On this day, the selection was made by the sheer pace of the race, seeing riders simply drop off, unable to stay with the group, rather than crumble under attacks.
As the race progressed, so did we. The windows for transfers between the zones got increasingly shorter, and the pressure upon us grew as the race worked up to its climax. At our final zone, just 2km from the finish, Freddy stood, poised with a bottle ready for Greg, who was now in the lead group of three. From here, the TV helicopter slowly hovered into view, sweeping over the roads that were filled with fans, all eager to see who would take this year’s win. The rider raced by in a flash. We ran back to the car, ready for our final stop at the mythical Roubaix velodrome, where two laps would decide the winner.
“But he’s not a track man,” says Freddy with a tremor in his voice. Greg and the lead group have headed into the velodrome. The bell rings out marking the finale, and the riders play cat and mouse. “Come on, don’t wait too long Greg,” Jackson shouts at his TV screen. The buzz of the race radio, the hum of the TV commentary and team radio fade into the background as we focus on the events. A group rolls onto the back of the lead three and the sprint is launched. Screams come from the car as Greg pulls past Stybar in the final meter. As Stybar hits his bars at missing out, Greg and our car break out into screams.
Congratulations to the team, and thanks for allowing us an inside view on this great day.