Memory of Michael Goolaerts lives on in a race of sustained brutality

Richard Williams
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Belgian cyclist Michael Goolaerts died of cardiac arrest following a fall on the second of the course’s 29 sections of cobbles.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Luc Claessen/Getty Images</span>
Belgian cyclist Michael Goolaerts died of cardiac arrest following a fall on the second of the course’s 29 sections of cobbles. Photograph: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

The death of young Michael Goolaerts following a crash in the Paris‑Roubaix on Sunday reminds us of the price that can be paid for our pleasure. First held in 1896, which makes it seven years older than the Tour de France, Paris‑Roubaix has a reputation resting on the sustained brutality of the physical challenge it presents to those brave enough to take it on.

Sunday’s 116th edition of the race was a good one, with a worthy winner. At the moment Peter Sagan and Silvan Dillier entered the old velodrome in Roubaix after more than 250km of riding, Goolaerts was still being treated in hospital – where the Belgian died of cardiac arrest on Sunday night – following a fall on the second of the course’s 29 sections of cobbles. Sagan, wearing the world champion’s rainbow‑striped jersey, hung behind Dillier before outsprinting him in the closing 100 metres.

Dillier, who is the Swiss road champion but not one of cycling’s big names, had spent all day in a small group of breakaway riders. He was the last to be caught by Sagan, the pre-race favourite, who had launched his attack out of the peloton 53km from the finish. The two of them covered the closing stages together, pacing each other, maintaining a gap of a minute or so to a bunch that included some of the other favoured competitors: Greg Van Avermaet, Niki Terpstra, Philippe Gilbert.

These are all hard men, mostly Belgian and Dutch, brought up to race in harsh conditions. There is little room in this race for the slender Spaniards or tiny Colombians who fly up the great climbs of the Alps and Pyrenees. Paris-Roubaix’s 54km of huge cobbles, designed for the horse-drawn carts of 19th century farmers, would shake them to pieces.

That’s why the race is so revered among hardcore fans. Last week my colleague William Fotheringham toured several UK cycling centres screening Jørgen Leth’s A Sunday in Hell, a documentary about the 1976 Paris-Roubaix, and talking about the new book in which he analyses one of the best sports films ever made. The audiences were spellbound by the work of a director attracted to cycling by the “non-rational” courage of the riders: “Something that is historical, an eternal quality.”

Paris-Roubaix is a highlight of a spring calendar which many now prefer to the three-week Grand Tours that occupy the summer months. In their view, the Tour de France in particular sucks up too much of the sport’s oxygen. There is also a measure of quiet scorn directed at those for whom cycling began with the creation of Team Sky, whose focus has been almost wholly on the big stage races.

In many ways, of course, Britain’s cycling boom is a great thing – not least because it seems to be keeping large numbers of middle-aged men and women off the golf course. And they, too, having been hooked by the rich history and picturesque spectacle of the Tour de France, will surely come to appreciate the less obvious qualities of the one-day classics.

Nothing could have been more stirring than the solo attack with which Vincenzo Nibali won Milan-San Remo last month. Gent-Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and the trio of Ardennes classics which take place later this month are a treat for those who don’t enjoy seeing the same team riding at the front for day after day, dictating the pace to the field with the aid of their power meters and radio communication. Of course the sporting directors try to bring similar strategies to bear on the one-day events although their calculations are often foiled by spontaneity and individual initiative.

For Sunday’s race the mighty Quick-Step Floors team brought a squad specially assembled to win Paris‑Roubaix and could manage only a distant third place for Terpstra, who had won the Tour of Flanders the previous weekend. Team Sky entered a strong team but spontaneity and individual initiative have never been their strong points and the 19th-placed Dylan Van Baarle was their only finisher in the top 40.

To watch Leth’s film and read Fotheringham’s Sunday in Hell book is to appreciate how little this cherished race has altered over the decades. The Danish director brought a poetic sensibility – and 25 film cameras – to bear on the harsh spectacle, establishing an intimate rapport with the race and drawing out its deepest rhythms in a way that even today’s live television coverage, with its moto‑mounted 300‑frames‑per‑minute super slo‑mo cameras, cannot match.

“We concentrate on empty space as well as occupied space,” Leth said. “We observe silence and noise. We trust in chance’s limitless gifts and yet the place in which we find ourselves isn’t necessarily the product of chance. The moment suddenly comes when we are no longer astonished by its appearance. We are ready to capture it. We don’t know where it will lead us.”

As soon as Sagan had crossed the line on Sunday he extended his hand to Dillier, who later called his conqueror “an angel and a devil – an angel because he took me with him, a devil because I had to go man‑to‑man with him. Congratulations to him.” That was cycling at its most beautiful. Here were competitors going to their limits and beyond, grateful for the shared experience, respectful of each other.

Six hours later, in a nearby hospital, the 23-year-old Goolaerts was pronounced dead. The tragedy for the rider and his family is not to be minimised. But in a year’s time the field will assemble once more to ride over the cobbles, through the mud and dust and fields and forests, in a non-rational act that, by reasserting the value of the challenge he chose to confront, constitutes the only meaningful memorial.

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