When Stephen Hodge recalls his first of eight starts in Paris-Roubaix, of which he finished four, the memory is not a fond one, but it is ever-lasting: he "hated" the race.
"Everyone said, 'It should be your kind of race, you should be really good at this,'" Hodge tells Cyclingnews. "But I never quite nailed it. Part of the reason was probably because I just hated it. I really don’t like this race, unlike Flanders which I loved …"
But with 19 years having passed his retirement in 1996, the 53-year-old Australian can find some reason to laugh some aspects of the 'Hell of the North.'
Such as when Sean Kelly, the 1984 and 1986 winner Hodge rode for in the 1987 and 1988 seasons would often make fun of Hodge's Bachelor of Science degree that he studied for at the Australian National University in Canberra before he began cycling.
"He always used to have a laugh at me," says Hodge, then recalling how the Irish cyclist would quip to him tongue in cheek as they raced helter skelter over the ancient cobbles of Paris-Roubaix: "So 'Hodgey', what good is your science degree now?'"
However, Hodge recalls Kelly's focus for the classics was anything but light-hearted. "He had his race head on the whole classic season," Hodge says. "He would just be curt, focused and quiet. I tried not to give him any excuses [to earn Kelly's disfavour or wrath] …
"I tried not to be a 'Wally'. I tried not to [appear to] be a novice."
No place to hide for the rookie …
But as Hodge says, Paris-Roubaix quickly exposes a rider’s lack of experience and vulnerability; as his memory of his first entry in to Arenberg Forrest will remind.
"I remember going, 'Oh my God' while sucking in my breath, and then hitting the cobbles on a downhill at 60kmh going, 'Holy shit,'" Hodge says.
"I was a complete novice at cobbles. I hadn’t done any racing on cobbles, especially the French ones. I made the common mistake of holding on too tightly and all of that.
"Because I was so inexperienced I didn’t really have any specific responsibilities. They threw me in to see how I went. It was such an incredible learning experience."
But as Hodge found in the years to come, the speed, the fight for position and the tension within the peloton as the race approached the first cobbles never became any easier.
"It's just crazy," Hodge says. "It's like coming in to the last five kilometres [of a sprint.] If you are not placed when the hammer goes down, it is almost impossible to get back up.
"You are going so fast. If you miss the launch of hostilities for the [cobblestone] sectors, those first ones, it is just makes life 10 times harder. You could almost build a team just with sprinters to get you onto the first three sectors and then they have done their job.
"Once the selection is made, you need people to help you in the wind and stuff; but you are kind of half there if you've avoided the [early] problems."
Finishing … the plusses and one minus
Hodge's first Paris-Roubaix finish came after he left the KAS team - in 1990 when he placed 70th, followed by a 65th in 1992, 57th in 1993 and 41st in 1995.
It is a feat Hodge now appreciates – despite his dislike for the race at the time.
"Absolutely," he says. "It’s not quite the same as when you've done three weeks of the Tour and get on the Champs Elysees.
"It is more, 'Thank God I have made it.'"
But Hodge says there was one downside to finishing the race ... often there was no hot water left in the legendary old showers of the Roubaix velodrome.
"If you actually finished the race, they would always be cold," Hodge says. "Everyone would pull out at the second feed … come in and empty the water. "In the later years I rode it, they fixed up the boilers and they had plenty of hot water."
So what of the reverence held for those showers as part of the Paris-Roubaix legend?
Was it well founded?
"No …," Hodge says laughing. "They were stink holes."
Rupert Guinness is a sports writer on The Sydney Morning Herald (Fairfax Media)
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