I don’t know . . . I just started thinking it would be funny to have a story published that mentioned Dante and Stijn Devolder in succeeding paragraphs. And from there the outline of this little riff was clear to me. It’s strange what drives a piece of writing. A goofy idea to make a funny juxtaposition can somehow show you an entire structure for a story, or sometimes you just have to follow the sentences to see where they go I didn’t have the last two sentences in mind at all until I wrote them. And I mean not at all. When I started to write Boonen’s, I still didn’t know mine was going to follow, not even when I put the period at the end. It was only with the first word of mine that I understood what I was going to write.
Forget the “Hell of the North,” and just call the damn thing what it is: Hell, no qualifier necessary. And someone get hold of Dante and let him know his nine circles with the horrible beast flapping its wings at the frozen center has nothing on our grimy flahutes whipping a mad pack across 28 sectors of pave. And, hey, by the way, God: Is it accident or design that hell is such a beautiful thing?
I was on Stijn Devolder’s wheel going into the Forest of Arenberg this year. Quick Step was pre-riding the course two days before the race, and a few journalists and friends had been invited along. We met in a little park a few kilometers from the mouth of the Arenberg sector, and although it was casual, pros are pros, and on the road they did that lazy crackling power thing that accidentally breaks regular people into bits. I hung on.
I remembered what Tom Boonen had said: “It’s like a finish sprint to get to the cobbles of Arenberg in front. Teams set up and lead out, and it’s full-on, it’s 60k per hour into the cobbles. Bikes fly apart and riders crash, and for some people the race is lost right there.”
Metal barriers funneled the road down into the cobbles, and there were spectators, behind the barriers but also walking out among us. Old men in thick coats and stout women in black shoes, kids already with little plastic flags, the smell of warm beer, the smell of mud and dust, and the chalky taste of granite on your tongue, and the black-yellow-red jersey of the Belgian national champion in front of you. Epic. Once in a lifetime, your wheel an inch off the demon god diving happily into hell, you hit the cobbles.
All cyclists deserve to see Arenberg once in their lives. And all the better to have tried to ride it with the deities, with all hubris gone one cheek lying against the cool, surprisingly smooth surface of a single cobble, and the ragged topography of the primitive road rising and falling like a blocky mountain range all the way to the horizon of your sideways vision.
That is part of hell. To start to appreciate its full horror and beauty you must ride its length, at any speed, gasping up the seven-percent climb in sector 23, and smiling knowingly at the abattoir in sector 12 at Orchies, and pondering the nonsensical 0.2-km sector seven. You must also lose yourself in the chaos of the Carrefour de l’Arbe, the fourth sector from the end, the most monumentally ridiculous and gorgeous piece of this cycling monument, where fans pile ten-deep and one of the lead racers must make a desperate move on frite-slickened cobbles while parting a sea of waving arms and Flemish flags and screaming mouths and spilling beer. Boonen told me it feels as if the Carrefour will never end. I told him that when I’m standing there, I never want it to end.
Originally published in the Rouleur Photography Annual 2008