Paris-Roubaix must be the only race where the washing facilities make up part of the legend. The showers inside the velodrome are as much a part of the ritual as is the photo of the winner lifting the cobbled trophy in the air. Indeed can you name another sport where the showers or locker room is treated with the same reverence?
If you weren’t into cycling and from outside France, you’d probably never have heard of Roubaix. But maybe an artist would know of the town as it has an art gallery made from a converted swimming pool.
But if the town has lavished money on the old swimming baths to make a modern public space, the velodrome in Roubaix is neglected, a less than lavish water feature. The track is crumbling and as I wrote the other day a new track is being built. The showers, part of the same 1930s building, are no different. These are hard blocks of cement.
With the mud and dust from the finishes, the communal showers resemble a cow shed with milking stalls. The plumbing looks like it was installed by Heath Robinson or Rube Goldberg. You wonder if the water is even warm.
Why are these showers so important?
It’s hard to pin one reason. Obviously the riders need a good wash, this race throws up dirt like no other. But riders these days have team buses with onboard showers. No, for me there are three more factors.
- First up, to reach the showers is itself an achievement, it means you have finished the hardest one day race of the year. Only 74 riders merited a shower last year.
- Next the showers are a place of legend. Iconic images have been taken and each cubicle bears a brass plaque of the past winner. This is more than a washroom, it is a part-museum, part Elysium.
- Also this is a race where I find a lot of luck is involved. Those who lost out find a moment of calm to replay the race, to reflect on what happened, what they could have done differently. Above all what would have happened if they hadn’t punctured, if they’d taken the other side of the cobbled road. Few other races have such a coulda, woulda, shoulda aspect and the shower is the moment for a rider to lament when the race slipped, sometimes literally, away from them.
I’ll leave the last words, translated, to an anonymous Swiss journalist:
The showers are the only strategic place to get hold of a Paris-Roubaix rider. They all go there. And they dream of the place like a dog dreams of a bone. With time the communal showers have become a legend, as much as the cobbles. They are the wall of tears, the place where riders grimace, lament, compare injuries, describe their crashes… it’s the place where they wash dust, wounds and fatigue.