Shooting Roubaix

Paris – Roubaix is one of the toughest and most loved races on the riders’ calendar.

It’s also the highlight of our embedded photographer Jojo Harper’s season. The Hell of the North is a race like no other and Jojo loves to find its brutal beauty through her lens.

For everyone supporting the riders, the planning process starts way before race day. Our sports directors meticulously research the parcours, making sure all of the resources riders will need, like bidons and spare wheels, are in place. One of the biggest challenges for people trying to meet the riders along the course is that the roads are so narrow and sometimes the cobbled sections are so long, that following the race feels as tricky as riding it.

“I don’t know the roads, so first I have to organize a car with a driver to help me navigate between secteurs. Ideally, that would be with one of the Trek bidon guys,” Jojo explained.

The bidon guys are a support team that came to be in 2012 during Fabian Cancellara’s tenure with the team. They know the roads by heart and receive detailed instructions from Trek-Segafredo Sports Director Luc Meersman on where to be to offer extra feeds and spare wheels at the key cobbled sectors.

“Roubaix is the most expensive day race there is,” Luc said. “Every team builds special bikes for that race. Ours is the Domane. And it is the race where we need the most people out on the course. We will have at least 14 bidon guys.”

One of those guys will be the key to helping Jojo and her camera traverse the course and catch the raw moments that make up the glory of Paris-Roubaix.

“Riding with the bidon guys, I manage to avoid some of the stress of planning and can focus on my job. If I were on my own, I’d get very lost on the rural Roubaix roads and I’d probably only manage two stops. But, when you’re with an expert who has been doing it for years, it’s possible to make four, five or even six stops and still get to the finish.”

Ask anyone what is special about the Queen of the Classics and you’ll get the same answer: the brutality.

It’s a tall order for a photographer to do justice to a race as unforgiving as Paris – Roubaix. “You have to show the brutality – and the beauty – of it,” Jojo said.

For Jojo, the interest extends further than the physical toll inflicted on the riders. “The cars covered in dust, a flag lying on the floor, a fan drinking beer. There’s so much around the race, as well as the riders themselves, that creates the story.”

Even for the sports directors following the peloton in the team car, Roubaix roads present a formidable challenge. The crown of many of the cobbled sections is high enough to cause engine damage. Luc said that Trek-Segafredo goes to the lengths of adding alloy metal plates under the car to lessen any impact the bottom of the car makes with the road. And just like the riders, a flat tire is another common setback for Roubaix race vehicles.

As Jojo flies along in a team car, she has her eye on the fans as much as the teams.

“It’s important to capture the fans who bring the race to life. There are excited fans, drunk fans and angry fans. I’ve even seen a few fights,” Jojo remembered. “At a race like Roubaix you get all ages, from 3 years old to 93. It’s in their blood; the passion and the effort they go through to watch the race. You could do a whole story on Roubaix without even shooting a rider.”

Even if it’s just for a few fleeting moments as the race flies by, the scenes witnessed at the Hell of the North are strong enough to be etched in memory, especially the portraits of pain carved on the riders’ faces.  It’s the end of the race that Jojo appreciates the most, when she can get up close and see the details which reveal Roubaix’s savagery: “The riders’ hands arrive ripped to shreds or covered in tape. I love the white teeth of the riders contrasting with their dusty faces.”

Despite having photographed the Hell of the North four times, Jojo had never shot one of the most famous cobbled secteurs, Arenberg Forest, until recently when she joined Mads Pedersen for a solo recon of Paris – Roubaix. The images of the World Champion riding through Arenberg alone are a striking contrast to the nervous excitement from race days in the past. “It was quite peaceful. We were all waiting there and then we saw him appear. It was something special.”

Paris-Roubaix is the stuff of legends, so it even feels special to be part of a recon ride preparing for the big day. And for Jojo to be part of a recon with the current World Champion, that just put it over the top.

“Mads loved it. I thought to myself, ‘It’s freezing with rain. Everyone else has gone home and you’re on your own riding through rain and over cobbles.’ I was with Trek-Segafredo’s technical director Matt Shriver and he said he’d never seen the Roubaix roads like that. Mads wasn’t even wearing gloves.”

Along with everyone in cycling, Jojo is crossing her fingers for a 2020 Paris-Roubaix to make it back onto the calendar.

“If we get to see a Paris – Roubaix this year, I’ll speak to Luc to see if we can work out a plan to stop in Arenberg,” Jojo said. “It encapsulates what the whole race is about. Screaming fans, brutal conditions and riders giving it everything. It makes a perfect combination to photograph.”