The Meat of Fleche

From Michael David Murphy

Television is The Great Flattener. Tailor made for the two-dimensionality of a sitcom sound stage, its low-resolution flicker can't deliver depth. It's this flatness that makes anything seem possible; Randy Johnson's fastball looks hittable, that fifteen foot putt at Augusta a cinch. Even the Mur de Huy, a backbreaking bump that rises above the Meuse River in the Belgium Ardennes, looks like just another hill.

However, if you're anything like the three French recreational cyclists I watched downshift their way up the Mur a few days ago, it's not just another hill. Heads-down, they huffed - their complaints falling to the road with the afternoon rain. At the spot where Belgian Rick Verbrugghe shook loose from the dogged Italian, Ivan Basso, and ascended to the finish to win the semi-classic Fleche Wallone, the road's grade increases from steep to silly. It's here where the French riders dismounted and began to walk.

Was the Mur's steepness a surprise? These days you can research anything, yet information cannot replace experience. And when accurately describing the challenges of the Spring Classic parcours (hills, cobbles, mud, cobbles, hills) all the pictures, videos, and analyzed altitude data are like a pizza made with emmenthaler cheese: a poor translation.

It was raining so hard on the morning of this year's Paris-Roubaix, I couldn't stay dry beneath an umbrella. Riders huddled out of the rain and wind, waiting for the last minute to approach the start. Motorcycle pilots (stalwart tough guys) eyed the sky and grimaced. Forced to wait until the last second to introduce the riders, the sign-in announcer's commentary ran a stream. Hours later, when a blazing George Hincapie led the breakaway on its blitz across the infamous cobbles at Arenberg, he and his companions look like they'd been buried alive; mud-caked faces, cracked lips, and scared, beady eyes. Seconds later; a skid, a slide, and a woman's thin scream. Phillipe Gaumont had crashed and broken his femur.

A mud covered Theo de Rooy famously said (between curses, while standing on the side of the road with a broken bike) Paris-Roubaix is "...the most beautiful race in the world." It depends on who's winning, and who's watching. It was 1985, and de Rooy was watching Marc Madiot slip-slide away (through mud) toward the cobblestone trophy waiting at the packed velodrome in Roubaix. I was thirteen, and was channel surfing after a morning spent on my bike, delivering the Washington Post. George Hincapie was in sixth grade; John Tesh was still an innocuous sportscaster.

No matter how much drama the producers injected into that day's story (I recall a slow-mo Madiot spliced into a battlefield montage, cannons ablaze) the place, and by extension, the race, never completely existed. France may as well have been Mars, except Mars seemed closer, visitable even.

Although I'm in France now, I still feel like an astronaut, taking rock samples in the Arenberg. In America, it is strictly verboden for journalists and fans to run around the Super Bowl the day before the game, and doing so would probably yield little understanding as to the nature of sport. But in cycling, there's no substitute for clipping on one's helmet, leaping on a bike (even if it's borrowed from the man selling frites) and riding three of the sport's most famous kilometers.

Naturally, there's no way to approximate what it's like to race, versus ride, the course. But what's missing from both speeds is stillness. On the giant, high-tech screen at Roubaix's finish line, cobbles breezed by in a blurry conveyor, revealing little of the road's claustrophobia, the crowd's cacophony, or the rider's actual speed. A TV camera is like a horse with blinders; the world is 360 degrees wide, and the cathode can only show so much.

No matter how slowly I rode over the forest's criminal cobbles, I had to walk in order to understand the depth of the race's insanity. The cobbles are so old they look as if they were once molten and poured into molds. They look birthed, harder than stone. Some have faces. Some have sharp chins, chipped teeth. Just as the road is barely a road, there are cobbles unrecognizable as cobbles, and they sit shyly, just beneath the surface, silent and deformed. All this on the entry section, a downhill the riders would hit at speeds close to forty miles an hour.

The day before Paris-Roubaix, a group of old men stood beneath the Arenberg railroad bridge. They hemmed and hawed in the way that men hem and haw, standing around and chewing stubby cigars. They spoke of Stefan Wesseman, Erik Zabel and George Hincapie. One adjusted his pants, leaned over, picked-up a loose flint, and held it up for everyone to see. He turned it in his hand, and stopped for a second, as if using it to test the wind, and said one word, "Domo."

The answer is always in the road, even if Team Domo's dominance of the race owed more to great tactical riding than pre-race cobble prognosticating. There was a road long before this race existed (though the farmer who recently installed his own cobbled section to be included in the Tour of Flanders could put this into doubt). On the hill at Huy, where the grade turns up to 25% and the road jags into a mirrored Z, or in the serrated cobbles that backcut the descent of the Kemmelberg outside of Ipres, the road's history is visible. Roads remain. They are always there, fanless and quiet, with the occasional faded spraypaint spelling, "Boogerd."

Roads consume riders, heartbeat by heartbeat. A race isn't just a chance for sponsors to advertise their products, it's an acceleration of life's wavelengths. The roads absorb what a rider is willing to give, and more. From the fans, the race picks-up Charleroi's morning cheers and delivers them in the afternoon to Huy. The cheers arrive softly, the first time up the climb, but by the third ascent they seem loud enough to push Verbrugghe uphill, away from Basso. At the finish the victor will typically say it's a day he's "always dreamed of." And from the winded, you'll hear, "I just about died out there."

Domestiques "sacrifice" themselves for their team leaders. It's the stuff of religion, and perhaps that's why the organizers of Fleche Wallone make the race climb such a holy hill (or why Paris-Roubaix is called "the hell of the north"). Like answered prayers, altars appear at intervals on the Mur de Huy. They form the spiritual meat of the Fleche. Each displays a 19th century sculpture depicting a story from scripture. Close to the top, just after the steepest stretch, the crucifixion. A hundred meters from the finish, and a hundred meters from the door of the Notre Dame de la Sartre chapel, the resurrection.

The third and final time up the climb, Verbrugghe's grimace told the passing crowd a story, and it was the same story he told his breakaway companions when he galloped up to them from behind, twenty-five kilometers earlier. It said, "I'm strong, I'm can suffer, and I'm going to win." Minus the grimace, it was the same face I saw on George Hincapie in Gent, on the morning of his big win at Gent Wevelgem. As riders, both are unafraid to feel. More important (and rare in today's prepackaged sports world) they let it show.

Humanness isn't the only thing that separates Verbrugghe's win from last year's stone-faced romp by Francesco Casagrande. This year, post-race, instead of reading results online, I was sitting at a table at the Hotel du Fort in Huy, encircled by cycling's ace photographers talking shop. Sitting there, amongst those who trust the power of pictures, I was convinced that what brought us all to Huy wasn't a bike race after all.

For the matronly woman in the mothball smelling coat who stood beside me and gasped every time she heard Verbrugghe's name, it was the chance to see her pop star. For the photographer who entertained himself digitizing Pinnochio-sized noses onto pictures of his friends, it was camaraderie. For me, it was the chance to listen close and hear the race official's car horn as they made the turn at the bottom of the hill, a kilometer away. All said, like life, the Classics are a three dimensional stew.

It could be the Mur de Huy, or a corporation; the Arenberg forest, or a fight for tenure. One ascends, three pretend. Each has its successes, its sacrifices. In cycling, life may be accelerated (a month of pain in the space of six hours) but it's this intense pressure, this forging, that's so admired, that illicits the sweet relief of cheers, or an uphill push for a cramping rider from Team Kelme.

As he weaved through the crowd (who having seen nearly all the riders pass, had begun walking downhill) it became clear that like most things, the Classics, and racing in general, are about contact, connection. For the riders, it's contact with the road's challenges, with their own limits, with each other. For fans, it's their chance to spraypaint a bedsheet sign for Johan Musseuw and drive out to the middle of nowhere and sing songs with each other and be happy.

Sometimes joy in life is unexpected, inexplicable. Verbrugghe, on crossing the line, raised one fist defiantly in the air, and fans up and down the finishing straight did the same. A Belgian on a Belgian team had won a Belgian race. Who wanted anything more?

The hectic scrum of journalists pitched Verbrugghe all the right questions -- who did what, and when, and where. Yet one stood out, "Why wait so long to start chasing the breakaway?" The answer never came from Verbrugghe; there are so many acceptable reasons why. But it came from a man standing beside me, in a topcoat and scarf, a frayed bit of newspaper with the start list in his hands. A satisfied smile crossed his lips, the smile of an onlooker who's just watched the best and final scene. He said out loud, but to no one in particular, "Why not?"