There’s a reason so many races toss ‘Roubaix’ onto their event. The name sets a tone. It’s a real, physical place, of course; but it’s an attitude, and a blurring image of cobbles, mud, and grit makes it seem like a dream. In 2014, Brad White went to France for the biggest one-day race on the professional calendar. This is his story.
1. When did you find out you had been picked by UHC to race at Paris-Roubaix? How much specific training did you do?
Paris-Roubaix was nowhere on my radar heading into the 2014 race season. I had signed a contract with UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling team to be similar to the year before focusing on domestic criteriums. I started the year in late February in Australia at the Sun Tour. Flew home for 10 days then across the world to Tour of Langkawi in Malaysia. In the Malaysia the legs were good and the early season form was looking good despite the snow filled winter we were having in Michigan. After being in breakaway 3 days and winning one stage the team talked to me about the possibility of going to Paris-Roubaix. I wanted it! No way would I turn down the opportunity to race a monumental race like that. I was told 3 weeks out from the race. It was sandwiched between two criteriums. I went from a criterium one weekend to Paris-Roubaix back to a criterium. Not normal as they would say in Belgium.
2. Coming from a crit background, were you worried at all by the distance of over 220km?
I was a bit nervous about the distance because yes I wanted to finish but what made me more nervous about the distance was the work I had to do in the first 90 kilometers of the race then try and finish. Luckily the legs were good from the racing and time in the saddle in 2011 and 2012. In those years I had a lot of experience doing 200 plus kilometer long races in Europe and then in 2013, I did a lot of criteriums. In 2014 I had one of my best years.
3. Did you make any modifications to your bike? Bigger chainrings, more tape, different tires?
For that race, I had a completely different bike. Our normal race bikes (Centro 1) had an integrated seat post and were very stiff. The Roubaix (Wilier Zero 7) bike was more compliant. I had only ridden the bike 3 times before the race. I changed the front chainrings to 53×46 and the cassette was an 11-25 but the limit screw was in so the 25 was blocked out. You would never need a 39 and 46 is a nice gear if there is a headwind or slight uphill on the cobbles. The reason they block the top gear out is just in case you were in the 25, it won’t hop off into the spokes. The roads aren’t smooth ;). Tires are so important in a race like that. Our sponsor didn’t make a tubular over 25mm wide so that’s what we rode. When you’re on the start line and everyone has 28 or 30mm tires you feel out of place for sure. It was an advantage for us on the pavement but on the pave it was brutal. I tried running lower pressure during the pre-rides but kept flatting so had to run the tires at 95 psi.
4. 2014 was the renewal of the Boonen/Cancellara rivalry after injuries had largely kept the apart the previous seasons. What were your impressions of those riders, and perhaps the other Classics riders on the line?
At the start of all Spring Classics, there is a lot of energy in the air. Roubaix is one of the biggest. Guys are nervous but excited too because it’s the end of the first big block of racing for them. Cancellara probably seemed the most relaxed because he had already had a good season. Boonen and his team always have a lot of pressure but they are so dialed they looked cool and relaxed at the start. Peter Sagan, I saw a bit during the race which wasn’t good because that means he was having mechanical problems off and on.
5. What were the cobbles like?
I try and tell people the cobbles are terrible. You can’t explain them. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve always raced them on 25mm tires or I’m not relaxed enough but they are brutal. Can honestly say I don’t like them but I like pain and I like a challenge so embrace the feeling. You feel everything in your body and it’s pain. The slower you go the more you feel them. The only thing I can say is slightly similar is riding on a rumble strip. On the cobbles, the best place to ride is in the middle of the road. There’s usually a crown there and it can be a little smoother but far from smooth. Lots of guys ride in the dirt on the side but you risk flatting especially if you can’t see the road in front of you. That day was dry so it was so dusty you couldn’t see anything.
6. You finished 144th out of 199 starters. You were the last rider across the line. Was it simply the opportunity to finish the biggest one-day race in the world?
My job was to get into the breakaway. So you’re putting yourself deep into the red at the beginning of an already epic day on the bike. We had a good team going for the break and we got one guy in. After that, it was watching after our best rider who had finished 4th there before. After he was taken care of it was survival for me to just finish. I had a teammate with me and we said we’re finishing. Guys were pulling out left and right as it’s just tough on the body and some have to race again in 2 days. I wanted to finish. When we were approaching the finish a group caught us from behind and I slipped to the back to finish last (lanterne rouge).
7. Do you remember hitting Arenberg? That section is probably the most famous road in the world.
Arenberg was like racing into the finish of a race. Everyone goes full gas to hit it near the front. I was near the back as there was a crash on the sector before. We trained there 2 days before so I had ridden it but the day of the race is full of fans, helicopter in the sky, and 200 guys fighting you to be one spot further up. It was incredible. I remember hearing the roar of the crowd and guys crashing.
8. Any other memories? Where does Paris-Roubaix rank in your professional cycling memories?
The day was a blur but so good. The day was full of ups and downs. I had a crash that I thought I was done but I got the bike back up and going. I have good memories of coming onto the velodrome with a teammate and friend of mine. It was a special moment. That night I remember laying in bed and the body just ached.
9. Do you watch the race each spring?
I love watching at least the highlights of all the spring classics. It is impressive what it takes to win one of those races. It takes more than just fitness. You need a team, tactic, and luck. You know it takes a lot because you see the emotion on their faces when they are done. When I did the race we had a whole group of local friends and family members at the brewery at 10 am eating waffles and cheering me on.
Brad is now a laid-back, baggy-wearing retiree. He owns Velo City Cycles in Holland, Michigan with his wife, Jenny, and has a great crew offering service, sales, and ice cream rides.