It was a pair of eyes that started it. That began my obsession. They were streaked with red, blank with pain and despair, not the eyes of a sportsman. The face they stared from was coated with dirt, blood and spittle; the brows were caked and ghostly.
I’d seen such eyes in photographs before: in the faces of frontline soldiers after days of battle and nights without sleep; rescue workers after hours scrabbling through rubble; miners back on the surface after ten hours struggling at the peculiar hell of a coal face. Never on a man who rode a pushbike for a living.
The eyes were focused far away. Somewhere back down the road – kilometres of bone-snapping, teeth-rattling dirt and cobbles; the farm roads of Northern France, which grind down, then batter and break, men and their fragile machines.
The owner of the face, and those eyes, was no ordinary bike rider, in no ordinary race. He was Sean Kelly, the hard man’s hard man, an Irish farm boy who converted his unique talent into Continental superstardom. His unique talent was suffering – longer and harder than anyone else. And he was riding Paris-Roubaix, otherwise known as L’Enfer Du Nord, the Hell of the North, Queen of the Classics – the world’s toughest bike race. What one leading race organiser accurately called “the last trace of madness in modern cycling.”
I saw that photograph more than 20 years ago, and I’ve been hooked ever since.