Inside Emils Liepins' epic last-place ride at Paris-Roubaix
Emils Liepins is sick. He’s exhausted. His left eye is red and irritated from getting pounded by dirt and mud for nearly 240 kilometers. His vision didn’t return to something approximating “normal” until two days after he raced. He is taking medication to stave off infection.
Two day after making his Paris-Roubaix debut, Liepins looks and sounds like he’s been through hell. As the Lanterne Rouge, the last man across the Roubaix Velodrome finish line within the time limit, he suffered as much or more than anyone during the most grueling edition of road cycling’s most grueling one-day race in two decades.
And he says he’s happy. He looks happy. Somehow.
“I just came back from the doctor and he said, ‘Why do you do this?'” Liepins says. “That’s cycling, and that’s Roubaix.”
I was saying in my head, 'No matter what, I go to the end. If I finish at nine o'clock in the evening, I'll go until then.'
Liepins’ Sunday in Hell went awry on the first cobbled sector, 96 kilometers into a 257.7-kilometer race. He was out of his saddle, trying to stay near the front of the peloton on narrow roads as riders went onto the first of 30 teeth-chattering sections. Positioning is key in the event. The farther back you ride, the more you risk becoming part of the crashes that will inevitably occur on the pavé.
But Liepins’ hand slipped off his wet handlebar. No one else caused what happened next. His body fell down hard on his top tube.
“I hit my balls,” Liepins says. “And I lost a lot of positions.”
Liepins rode in excruciating pain for the next 20-30 kilometers as he fell off the back. Even worse, he lost his glasses. For the rest of the race, he had nothing to protect his eyes from the elements.
Cobbles make for thrilling racing in part because of the way they discombobulate the peloton. The roads are simply too narrow and too gnarly to ride in a large bunch. Instead, the cobbles scatter riders all over the road, seeding chaos.
With roughly 150 kilometers still to ride until the Roubaix Velodrome, Liepins suddenly found himself alone on the course, tending to his physical and emotional wounds. For the rest of the race, he occasionally joined up with other riders who either he caught or caught him. Every so often he’d see otherwise healthy riders quit the race, but he never entertained the thought of stopping.
“The group became smaller, smaller, smaller and a lot of guys just say, ‘This is not for me, I just stop,'” Liepins says. “And I was saying in my head, ‘No matter what, I go to the end. If I finish at nine o’clock in the evening, I’ll go until then.’
“I was feeling, ‘No, this is my first Roubaix, and I will fight until the end.'”
260k on wet cobbles, and then you see the light, you see the light of the end.
Riding Paris-Roubaix had been Liepins’ dream since childhood. He has ridden plenty of cobbled races — he likes them — but the Hell of the North eluded him until this year, when he was chosen for the Trek-Segafredo squad alongside Mads Pedersen, Jasper Stuyven, Toms Skujins, Eddy Theuns, Alex Kirsch and Quinn Simmons.
Pedersen and Stuyven have combined to start Paris-Roubaix 10 times. They tried to prepare Liepins for what he was about to experience, but in truth, no one who took the start had ever experienced anything like that Sunday. For the first time in 19 years, rain fell on Paris-Roubaix, creating slippery, muddy conditions on top of the notoriously terse terrain.
“They said [Paris-Roubaix] is hard, but every race is hard. But I was not ready for it to be like that,” Liepins says. “We all did the first wet Roubaix, and it’s totally different. You need to be really, really lucky to stay on your bike, to not break your bike. Because if you crash, then it can be impossible to come back.”
Liepins fell once at high speed on the cobbles, hurting his leg and twisting his handlebars out of position, though not badly enough to make him consider abandonment.
Then the race threw one more obstacle in his path, as if he was serving a biblical penance. Somehow, his tires found nails laying in the road. Dirty, pointy, nowhere-in-the-road-book nails. Over the final 50 kilometers of the race, Liepins rode with a slow leak in both tires. He says that by the end of the race, his rear tire was completely off the wheel, and his front tire had maybe one bar of pressure.
Liepins had no team cars near him, and no choice but to soldier forward with what was nominally a functioning bicycle. He was fortunate that the team had opted for inserts inside their tubeless tires. (The decision was a boon for the team, especially for Paris-Roubaix Femmes winner Lizzie Deignan and the Trek-Segafredo women, who placed three riders in the top 10.) Still, he could barely maintain traction on the cobbled corners, slowing to a crawl to make sure he stayed upright.
That for sure was the hardest thing I ever did in my life.
When he finally glimpsed the velodrome, he nearly cried. The crowd noise inside the arena took him aback. He heard a few people yell that he was approaching the time limit. He did not have an earpiece, and to that point he had no reference of where he was in relation to the race’s official cut-off. He tried to pedal faster, but that proved ineffective as he essentially rode on his wheel frames.
But Liepins kept pedaling. And he stayed upright. And when he crossed the line, he still had 11 seconds to spare. Liepins was the last finisher on the day, No. 96 in a race that began with 175 riders. Nearly half the field didn’t make it.
“It was unbelievable, man,” Liepins says. “260k on wet cobbles, and then you see the light, you see the light of the end, I was super happy when I finished. Really I wanted to cry. Soigneurs waited for me and said, ‘Emils you did a really good job, you finished this race. A lot of guys didn’t finish.’
“That for sure was the hardest thing I ever did in my life.”
Liepins will never forget the fans — particularly in the velodrome and at Carrefour de l’Arbre, the fourth-to-last cobble sector of the race — who cheered on a struggling rider as if he was the solo leader.
They were swept up in the same madness as Liepins.
Racing Paris-Roubaix is hardly a sane decision. Liepins’ vision was “in a fog” during the race and for two days after. He only slept one hour after the race because the pain in his eyes, caused by embedded debris, kept him awake. But there’s a note of contentment in his voice as he recalls his suffering. Liepins remembers standing in the famous Roubaix showers after the race, trying to wash out his eyes. He noticed Fabian Cancellara’s name on a plaque in a stall. At that moment, he understood that he had a place in history.
Against his body’s protests, Liepins’ advice to other first time Paris-Roubaix riders is simple:
“No matter what, just keep going. You will be happy that you finished that race,” he says. “If you finish Paris-Roubaix, it’s for all your life.”