The weather for Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix race is uncertain but if riders make it to the finish then a shower is guaranteed. Indeed 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. Do other sports treat the showers or locker room with the same reverence?
If you weren’t into cycling and from outside France, you’d probably never have heard of Roubaix. Art lovers might have heard of the gallery in a converted swimming pool. Is there something about preserving watery facilities?
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 feature. The track is crumbling and as I wrote a couple of days ago a new track is being built. The showers, part of the same 1930s building, are no different. These are hard blocks of cement.
Indeed 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, it is but it helps to get there early.
Why are these showers so special?
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.
- Cycling is an accessible sport, just as you can meet the riders before the start of the race, photographers are free to stroll around the showers. The images of shattered riders tell the tale of the day.
- To reach the showers is itself an achievement, it means you have finished the hardest one day race of the year. Only 108 riders merited a shower last year, just 74 the year before.
- Each cubicle bears a brass plaque of the past winner. This is more than a washroom. Instead is both a museum and Elysium, a resting place for heroes.
- Many riders are aware of history and finishing Paris-Roubaix is an accomplishment greater than finishing many other races.
- 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.
A nameless Swiss journalist whose article is no longer online sums up the experience:
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.
Finally, rain showers are forecast for the weekend. The weather has been wet during the week and the cobbles are muddy. More than ever these showers have their use.