Ian O’Riordan: The Paris-Roubaix race is ‘hell’ on wheels

The winner of the Masters gets a hefty cheque of $1.9m – and a blazer in green

Spain’s Sergio Garcia   after winning the 2017 Masters. In some cases the winner might  surrender that winning cheque and happily walk away with just the blazer.  Photograph:    Reuters/Mike Segar

Spain’s Sergio Garcia after winning the 2017 Masters. In some cases the winner might surrender that winning cheque and happily walk away with just the blazer. Photograph: Reuters/Mike Segar

 

Most of us have no idea of what it would mean to win on Sunday. That sense of history and hype in perfect rhyme, of keeping your head when all about you are losing theirs, the spiritual bravery of the effort involved.

Truth is all sporting events are becoming less about the taking part and more about the winning, and Paris-Roubaix is no exception. Sunday’s 116th edition of the cycling classic comes so vertically steeped in history that the winning of it goes lifetimes beyond the actual prize. In this case €20,000 and a piece of granite pavé screwed onto some wood. Second is nowhere, everywhere else is nowhere at all.

Actually, second place still gets €10,000, third €5,000, and a little further down 10th-20th place get €500 each, then the rest nothing at all.

The total prize fund is just €49,500, and still Paris-Roubaix remains one of the most coveted and boldly contested titles in professional cycling. At least outside the three grand Tours.

That €20,000 may just about buy the winner a replacement bike, if the need be, as well it might. For all 175 riders the Paris-Roubaix will be one hell of a journey and all about the destination – 257km between Compiègne, just north of Paris, to the finish line in the Roubaix Velodrome, close to the Belgium border.

It includes 29 sections of dusty cobblestones (or granite pavé, to be precise), over some 54km, where staying on the bike is the greater challenge than staying with the pace. Sean Kelly crashed out of contention several times over the years, and he also won twice – in 1984, and 1986.

First staged in 1896 and interrupted only by the two world wars, just 11 countries have produced winners (no Brits, no Americans, no Spaniards), which leaves a lot of losers. “Paris-Roubaix is a horrible race to ride,” Kelly said, “but the most beautiful one to win.”

Small country

Meanwhile faraway on the infinitely greener and marginally hillier confines of Augusta National, the US Masters is offering a total prize fund of $11 million (€8,977,089) – enough to feed a small country for a year if the need be.

Sunday’s winner is set to pocket $1.98 million, second place gets $1.18 million, and so on down to 50th place – just inside the cut – which gets $27,720. Those who miss the cut still get prize money starting at $26,620 going down to $10,000, which means there is something for everyone.

And, of course, it doesn’t end there. Everyone on the course is being paid handsomely for whatever little strip of logo they’re allowed to reveal. It’s why Nike went from making running spikes to selling golf clubs, and there’s no wealthier audience than the US Masters.

The exact breakdown isn’t announced until just before Sunday’s final round, the Masters moving ever closer to the currently biggest prize fund in professional golf of $12 million, offered by the US Open, including $2.16 million to the winner – the standard 18 per cent payout, according to the PGA Tour’s prize money distribution chart.

They also throw in a polyester blazer in hedge-coloured green, which often appears to be of greater value to the winner than that cheque for $1.98 million. In some cases they might well surrender that cheque completely and happily walk away with just the blazer.

Bank account

Truth is for the 87 golfers who teed off on Thursday, especially the 10 former champions, the prize money hardly matters. Most of them won’t notice the difference in their bank account.

In ways that’s what sets the Masters apart – not just from other golf tournaments, but from some of those sporting events which seem to be all about the prize money. Consider that properly obscene amount recently pocketed by Conor McGregor, and what it apparently all means to him now.

Even with nothing else on the line on Sunday except victory, the Masters would remain one of the most coveted and boldly contested titles in professional golf.

Still some sporting prizes are not in direct proportion to the prize money on offer, especially when there’s some proper history to go along with the hype. Nor is the prize money always related to the spiritual bravery of the effort involved. It’s why the Olympics have never needed to offer any prize money.

Purgatory

William Fotheringham has just written a book about the film about Paris-Roubaix, Sunday in Hell. That was same title of the film by Danish director Jorgen Leth, who followed the 1976 race, the closing scenes of which resemble a sort of purgatory, as the riders – naked and bruised – walk among the concrete shower room. Eddie Merckx, by then a three-time winner, finished sixth, and looks close to death. The winner, Marc Demeyer, died five years later of a heart attack.

The hell of Paris-Roubaix doesn’t actually come from what the riders go through to win, or even finish: Henri Pélissier first described the route as “hell” after his 1919 victory, the first since the war and when all roads towards Roubaix were left lined with rubble and empty shells.

Still, that term has stuck. Most of us have no idea of what it would mean to win on Sunday, but can imagine what some of them must be going through. And not just in the bicycle race.

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