„This race has a special place in my heart.“
There is a turning point in every cyclist’s career. About forty riders tackle Paris-Roubaix for the first time every year. Bitter or sweet, their first taste of cobblestones will stay with them forever. From now until 14 April, four riders who made their debut in 2018 will look back on this singular rite of passage. The former Under-23 world champion Sven Erik Bystrøm finished 27th in what was an emotionally charged experience for the Norwegian rider.
No Norwegian rider has ever won the Queen of Classics, with Thor Hushovd coming closest to the coveted cobblestone trophy a decade ago (third in 2009 and second in 2010). Meanwhile, thousands of kilometres away, a teenager was glued to his TV set and watching on the edge of his seat as the future world champion, then riding for Cervélo, launched his bid for glory on the cobblestones: „Thor was the greatest cycling star in Norway at the time“, says Sven Erik Bystrøm. „I used to follow him with great interest and saw him come within touching distance of victory, especially that time he crashed in the Carrefour de l’Arbre. Knowing this, I’ve always found this race fascinating to watch, it’s really special.“
The apprentice tried to follow in the footsteps of his idol from the very beginning by adventuring into this bone-rattling terrain already in his junior years. „Cobblestones are something out of the ordinary. I remember very clearly the first time I tackled them. My local club in Stavanger took us to Belgium for a training camp and a few races. Riding the same sectors I’d seen on TV was mind-blowing. We spent two weeks there, and we went to the Mur de Grammont or the Bosberg every single day. I found it exciting from the beginning“, recalls Bystrøm, who soon after experienced the thrills and rolls of the dice that characterise Paris-Roubaix in its junior version. „I have a rather specific memory of the race. Jasper Stuyven came out on top that year . I was riding in a group right behind him when I lost a pedal in the last cobbled sector. I missed out on the opportunity to fight for a top placing [39th], but the race still managed to captivate me.“
„The Trouée d’Arenberg is truly spectacular.
We enter the forest with the peloton going full steam ahead
and fans everywhere… This is where things get serious.“
Although this first experience left Sven Erik wanting more, he had to wait a long time to face the real deal: „In my first few seasons as a pro, I was picked to ride the Belgian classics but not Paris-Roubaix, which left me a bit frustrated. I was finally selected last year. I managed to slip into the breakaway and tackle the most famous sectors at the front of the race. Then Sagan caught us and it was extremely hard to hold onto his wheel.“
Bystrøm is one of the men conscripted by UAE Team Emirates to ride for captain and mentor Alexander Kristoff, who could already count on him last year: „My role was to help him, and this is the main reason I got into the breakaway, to work for him once he caught up with us. Unfortunately, the plan fell through after he crashed. Alexander and I live in the same city and have been training together for years. We’re close friends. After winning Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders, he still dreams of taking Paris-Roubaix some day.“
Bystrøm’s 27th place in the velodrome (second-best rookie, after Wout Van Aert, 13th) felt good but not terribly useful. However, the 2014 Under–23 world champion still has vivid memories of all the sensations: „The Trouée d’Arenberg is truly spectacular. We enter the forest with the peloton going full steam ahead and fans everywhere… You really get the feeling that this is where things get serious. However, the Carrefour de l’Arbre was the worst part for me. Apart from the cobblestones, fatigue started to kick in. I was still near the front, so I had to keep going hard, I couldn’t simply peel off and enjoy a leisure ride to the finish.“
Just like the most battle-hardened veterans, Bystrøm started by assimilating and accepting the suffering that awaits riders on the cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix: „This race has a special place in my heart. Of course, I’d love to win it some day, but for that to happen I’ll have to work really hard. It’s my kind of terrain, it’s a race that makes me feel good.“ The Norwegian rouleur is heading to Compiègne for the start of the 117th edition with the same prerogatives and determined to keep learning: „I expect another gruelling race. We’ll be fielding an ambitious group to support Alexander. For example, we’ve got a young Belgian rider who’s showing a lot of promise in the classics, Jasper Philipsen [fourth in the 2018 Paris-Roubaix Espoirs]. There’s going to be a big fight, and we have to be ready for it.“