Paris-Roubaix: observations from the front line
Since 2004, Sebastien Piquet has been a ‘speaker’ at cycling events. His role at events like the Tour de France and Paris-Roubaix is to call the information for Race Radio: every attack, every time check, every puncture, every crash… he’s the one who relays this information over the airwaves. Much of the action he sees himself from the passenger seat of the chief commissaire’s car. His driver is often Pascal Lance and the backseat of the red Skoda usually carries the director of competition Jean-François Pescheux and a UCI-nominated commissaire. When he doesn’t see the incidents he reports on himself, Piquet uses information given to him by colleagues on the fleet of motorcycles that follow the peloton. He is effectively the voice of the race and the information he shares is enormously useful for teams, media and others associated with the race.
A day after the 111th edition of Paris-Roubaix, RIDE spoke to Piquet to get his appraisal of a number of events during the race. We also asked him to share some observations from the post-race interviews that he conducted as part of the international television feed. Here is an edited transcript of that exchange…
Seb Piquet Interview – Paris-Roubaix 2013
8 April 2013
Sebastien Piquet: “I was actually expecting a quite boring race – like quite a few people – but it was really great, probably one of the best editions of Paris-Roubaix I’ve been involved with. It’s now a day later and I’m still shaking and am a bit tired because it was pretty stressful and, on some cobble sectors – where some people tend to have too many beers – it was downright frightening. The road ahead looks very small from inside a car. We were really, really close to the spectators and sometimes I just had to close my eyes and hope nothing would happen.”
RIDE: How frantic was it? You were sending some Twitter messages early but once the cobble sectors started, there was less from you. Is that because there’s no time for anything but calling the race?
Piquet: “It actually started before the cobbles. From about 15km before Troisville, the last city we go through before the first pavé sector. That’s pretty hectic because, obviously, all the favourites – all the good riders – want to be in the front of the pack. That’s when it gets crazy. That’s when there are crashes… because the guys go off on the left, on the right – on the pavement. And, by the way, that will be forbidden next year.
“It’s going to be a new UCI regulation: riders will not be allowed to go on the pavement. As of next year, anyone who does try riding on the footpath during a race will be kicked out of the race. The idea is to avoid crashes.”
RIDE: Was it your car that almost cleaned up Yoann Offredo after his off…?
Piquet: “Ah, Offredo. Jeez… he was just next to us and he put his arm in the air to get his car because he wanted to change his bike. We could see him turning around. We could see that sign post in the middle of the road. And we could see Offredo go straight towards it. So Pascal [Lance], the driver, started using his horn and we were yelling, ‘Watch out! Watch out!’ And [Offredo] was turning around and hadn’t seen it. He turned back, turned forward again and we thought he’d avoided it and bang! It was just in front of us. He was a metre next to us. If you watch it on TV, you see our car just next to him.
“We saw him flying.
“I normally never see the crashes. I see the guys on the floor. But that one, I really saw. He went flying. And we could see it come – we could see it coming.
“Actually, I was speaking to Gilles Le Roc’h just afterwards and he’d interviewed Marc Madiot [the manager of the FDJ team] and Offredo wanted to change his bike because he thought that something was wrong with the bike. And after they checked his bike was fine – so he actually stopped, and crashed, for nothing.”
RIDE: How close did it seem to you? Did it feel like he was almost under your wheels?
Piquet: “No. No, because he was well on the left so that wasn’t a huge concern. And we could see it happen so Pascal had time to watch out. We really saw it happen; we could see [that] he was going straight towards that post! All we could do was shout: ‘Watch out!…’ but he wasn’t listening. It’s so chaotic at those moments.”
RIDE: The whole day must have been outstanding. Was it a highlight or does it just sort of blend in to the other races?
Piquet: “No, that one was good.
“Very often I finish Paris-Roubaix and I’m really frustrated because I’m not very happy with what I did and what the info bikes have done. But they were really good on this one, maybe because the race was pretty ‘simple’ actually.
“It was a good edition.
“I was at the press conference to translate [Fabian] Cancellara at the end and I did an interview with him and [Sep] Vanmarcke.
“Cancellara was exhausted! I’ve never seen him like that. His whole body was destroyed.
“And Vanmarcke, I did his interview and he started crying in front of me. I asked my first question and suddenly I saw tears in his eyes. And I didn’t even know what to do in that moment: do you want to get more tears out or do you want to stop the interview? And he carried on crying…
“Actually, I did the Vanmarcke interview just after Cancellara. And just after the interview a friend of his turned up and he completely exploded in tears after… And he stayed standing up in the arms of his mate for 10 minutes just crying the whole time. It was absolutely emotional.”
RIDE: Can you tell us your perspective on some other bits of the race? Were you there when Stijn Vandenbergh crashed?
Piquet: “Yeah, well the guys ride so quickly on the cobbles that we can’t follow with the car. We might actually be driving a car but we’re never as fast as what they are because they’re faster on cobbles and because we have to cope with the dangers on the left and right of the road. And so we only saw Vandenbergh on the floor…
“Actually, there was a question in the press conference afterwards to [Niki] Terpstra and some journalist was asking him if he thought it would be a good idea to put barriers on the Carrefour de l’Arbre and some key sectors [of pavé] and he said, ‘Yep, it would probably be a good idea…’ because obviously a few of his team-mates fell – well, [Zdenek] Stybar didn’t fall but he was slowed down by a spectator.
“And what [Terpstra] was saying was that on the reconnaissance on the Friday they were on the cobbles and Stybar, who had never done Paris-Roubaix, asked him: ‘Can we ride on the side of the roads just beside the grass?’ And Terpstra told him, ‘Yeah, yeah… of course you can.’ But he hadn’t realised that there would be so many people so obviously, with no experience, that’s what happened.”
RIDE: Were you on the wheel of the attack by Cancellara when Stybar went with him? One of the key moments?
Piquet: “We were driving behind Cancellara, Vandenbergh, Vanmarcke and Stybar. And Vandenbergh crashed, Stybar was dropped because he had that incident, and then we did the last 15 kilometres with the leading two.
“I was there to see those two work together all the way until we reached the velodrome.
“I saw when Cancellara took off – or at least try his luck – with five kilometres to go. But Vanmarcke remained in his wheel.
“Then, when we arrived at the velodrome, they entered the velodrome, we stopped the car, and I ran to see what happened at the finish.”
RIDE: And how long was it before you saw Fabian again for the interview? And how did he come across. He was the star…
Piquet: “Yeah, he was impressive. Earlier in the race, [Stijn] Devolder was in the dropped group and I remember thinking, ‘Ooh, it’s going to be a hard race for Cancellara…’ because Devolder would have been really helpful in the last 60 or 50km. It would become exactly what Fabian said it was: ‘Everyone against Cancellara’. And he managed to stay put and remained calm and composed and he ticked off group after group after group and of his three victories I think it’s probably the most impressive.
“He really was on his own for a lot of the finale. Omega Pharma-Quickstep had three guys, Europcar had two, and he managed himself beautifully.
“Fabian didn’t react to all the attacks but he reacted to the important ones. And he managed to go from little group, to little group… and while incidents happened around him, he ended up in front with Vanmarcke. But, again, he was completely destroyed at the finish.
“It’s funny actually, I just saw a replay of the last 15km of the race on television before you called. And even just after his winning sprint you see him on the grass lying down and he eventually had to be helped out by his team support just to be able to walk to the podium and he looks finished!
“He got to the interview tent before I did, then I arrived. He did an interview with France Télévisions and then did the podium and then we did an interview in English after that.”
RIDE: Can you confirm some rumour about an incident with team cars? Did some get thrown off the race?
Piquet: “What happens is that, on Paris-Roubaix, they’re allowed one team car on course – inside the race – and all the other cars have to take an alternate route. There are allowances for different sectors to ensure the distribution of spare wheels and various team staff. Those other cars are not allowed to get into the race. They have to wait for the race to pass, then they can drive behind the convoy or get to the following sector via other roads, they can cut the course and go ahead.
“But what happened is that there was the first group, then a peloton but we were way behind the riders… just because we couldn’t go fast enough. And a second – or third, or fourth – team cars took off just in front of us which is completely forbidden. There was a BMC team car and a FDJ team car and they went back into the race just ahead of us but they had to wait until all of the cars had gone through before being allowed to get back on the road.
“Pescheux went crazy and started yelling but they kept driving so he kicked them out of the race.
“From some reports I’ve read, it could be misconstrued that he’d kicked out the whole team but that’s not the case.
RIDE: How do the sectors of pavé vary for you as a follower. Are they more intense at the end, in the middle? Where is the peak of the spectator count?
Piquet: “In terms of spectators the Carrefour de l’Arbre is always an interesting moment. That’s where Vandenbergh and Stybar had their incidents this year. It was really, really crowded. There was a lot of alcohol there.
“It’s not only the spectators that make it crowded. It’s also the team members. You have to understand that, on every sector, a team has at least one or two team members waiting there with wheels in case of a puncture. And what happens is that they may change a wheel but they don’t see what happens behind them. Largely because they haven’t been in the flow of the race [like they usually are when servicing riders – ie. after getting out of a team car]. They don’t even think to turn around. They don’t understand that cars are coming and riders from other groups are coming which all adds up to making it super dangerous.”
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