Why am I telling you about this famous bike race that is known as the toughest one day race? Simple, I went to the 108th running of this race last weekend. I also rode the final 115kms of the course including over 32kms of cobblestones (the last 18 sections)...
I met four members of our intrepid group near Victoria station on the Friday morning as we awaited the arrival of our transport to Northern France. Phil (the Kiwi), Daniel and Klaus (two Columbians from the US) and Simon (also originally from Adelaide). It didn’t take long for us to be chatting away happily until the coach arrived.
Once we were all loaded aboard and on our way to Dover, we met the rest of our group (who’d been collected from various locations around the UK) and settled in for the in-drive dvd, which we nattered on throughout. The rest of the trip was fairly uneventful, with even the channel being like a lake - a good chance to sit outside in some sunshine and watch Dover's white cliffs disappear over the horizon.
That evening at the hotel restaurant during dinner, we ran into the crew that place out the race arrows that mark the race route. It didn’t take long before broken French and English were being exchanged along with beers and a pile of the race arrows for us to have as souvenirs.
Saturday was a relatively early start and we set off into the morning mist of Valenciennes with both excitement and apprehension. We had a good 10mile ride before we made it onto the race course and eventually the first section of cobblestones - the Forest of Arenberg (see first pic above). This is also the most famous section as well as one of the most difficult. “The Trench” as it is often referred to, has the added bonus of the dew from the trees making the surface of the pavé here slippery as well.
Thankfully for us, it had not rained, as wet pavé are even more treacherous, but it was still a very tough ride. I had blisters on my hands in next to no time, and the heat between my hands and the handlebars was something I didn’t expect as I battled my way through the forest struggling to stay upright. I did discover that the “trick” was to go as fast as you can. That way, you tend to skip across the tops of the cobbles and not drop into the gaps. Pity that this discovery was near the end of this section (right).
Our coach was waiting for us at the end of the forest for those that needed repairs or anything else, and thankfully I wasn’t one who did. Meanwhile, now riding on the flat bitumen road was like riding on a pillow! We continued on.
After a few more sections, we met the coach again as we refilled water bottles or had a bite to eat. It was at this point that Phil and I decided to ride on so that we didn’t cool down too much. We were joined by the other Simon and the three of us proceeded to have a very pleasant ride together.
I say “pleasant” because it was, when on the tarmac and riding through the sunny northern French countryside and villages.
The cobblestones, were a different matter. I continued to plough on over the middle of the roads and the crest of the camber. The other method to ride the pavé is to ride along the edges of the roads, but this can be just as treacherous - as Phil soon discovered when he hit a particular cobblestone that gave him a flat tyre.
We settled into a bit of a rhythm at the beginning of each section - I’d blast off trying to hit that “magic speed” where things became a lighter vibration across the tops, while Phil and Simon tried their luck with either the edges or middle. We’d meet at the end of the section with them somewhat less knackered than I before continuing through the countryside together.
It’s worth noting that not every section of cobblestones is laid the same, nor of the same type of cobbles. When first laid centuries ago, each village was responsible for their own road section, and sometimes the locals looked after just the area in front of their houses. So the pattern and type of cobblestones could vary throughout each section.
We were slowly wearing down and still with around 30-40kms to go, we came across some Belgians (we think) who let us refill our water bottles and gave us some sort of quiche (as you can see here). I passed on the quiche as I had my own food supply and would rather stick with what I know won’t give me problems later. Thanking them profusely, we continued on as we still had about 7 sections to go including the famed Carrefour de l’Arbre - renowned for its difficulty and also as a race decider due to its proximity to the finish.
With Simon having to stop at the coach for repairs, Phil and I continued on. Eventually, we reached the end of the roads as we made our way through Roubaix to the famous old velodrome, where the race finishes, only to discover that the main gates were shut! I can’t remember who saw that the small side gate was open, but we made a beeline straight for it. “Why not, they can only tell us to leave,” was our rationale, and in we went. Down the finish laneway and into the velodrome itself. We did the full lap and a half as needed to complete the race, before pulling out our cameras for the mandatory finish line photo-opportunity.
Once done, we rode back to the Roubaix cycling club’s clubhouse by the velodrome’s entrance. Here we ordered some well earned beers before plundering the club stores for a t-shirt, cap or whatever. We also couldn’t resist ducking back into the velodrome to take our photos with our cobblestone trophies atop the recently built podium - just like tomorrow’s winner will do with the actual winner’s cobblestone.
On that note, the velodrome’s showers (left) are also another iconic part of this classic race. Each cubicle has a plaque with the name of every winner engraved upon it. These are old concrete showers and cubicles with no hint of luxury (well, maybe many generations ago when they were first part of the velodrome, but I doubt it). We managed to get to go in and have a look. While others in our group sought out the more famous name plates - the likes of Merckx, Coppi, Hinault, Boonen, etc... I found the only one I was really interested in: Stuart O’Grady, the only Australian to have won this race (and also from Adelaide). Naturally, a photo soon followed.
Sad? Maybe, but as Daniel was to put it later - “This is akin to going to the Superbowl and having a kick of a football on the pitch, and access to the locker rooms before watching the Superbowl match itself.” Something that just cannot be done...
An even earlier start for race-day, had us wearily onto the coach for the trip to the race start, and the “circus” that goes with it. I know that there was a dvd on again, but I was nursing my blistered hands and like a few others, grabbed a few ‘Z’s between watching the sunrise over the French countryside.
Once at the start, it was all happening with the team buses and cars moving through all the spectators to the start area. It became so blocked that some teams couldn’t get into the cordoned off area that they needed to be in. This left some of the riders to have to pick their way through the crowds to get to the sign-on and start. You could say that this is how I “met” Australia’s Robbie McEwen as he nearly ran me over after swerving to miss another spectator. I stepped to one side while exclaiming “hey, Robbie McEwen” as I registered who it was before me. He looked at me and said “What”, to which I wished him good luck, and on he went.
Others had managed to get inside the team zone and collect signatures or shake hands with riders, but my brush with Robbie was it for me after a good time of watching it all with Phil.
Soon we were back on the coach and heading up the motorway for the very first section of cobblestones. Our “guide” translating the French radio broadcast of the race kept us in touch with what was going on. Everyone swapping stories of what they’d collected in the way of freebies, souvenirs or signatures. With the riders needing to cover over 100kms before they got there, we had plenty of time to find a park, then find ourselves a good spot to watch them come past. I wasn’t quite ready for the atmosphere, but it was excellent for a bunch of people from around Europe standing by the side of the road waiting to watch some bikes go past.
Arenberg. With the coach parked, we all headed to join over 30,000 other spectators line the trench and await the riders to come through. Thanks to the BMC team (of Cadel Evans) for the free hat too! Amazing crowds here. And seeing the pro’s on the cobblestones that we’d ridden the day before was great as they didn’t look all that comfortable on them either. Pretty cool to be amongst something as unique as this... Once the riders had come past, it was again the dash to the vehicles (not so easy on our tired legs) and on to another place to see the riders come through.
After seeing the race both from the bus and at another location by the road, we headed for Roubaix and the velodrome. It was packed!! But eventually we managed to worm our way through the crowd to a spot where we could see the track and also the big screen showing the race. When the race leader, Fabian Cancellara, entered the velodrome the place went beserk. Again, an amazing place to be.
With the race won, we stayed with everyone else to cheer in the rest of the riders who had completed the race, as that truly is a feat in itself. From there, some of us went around the back of the clubhouse to the yards with the team buses and cars to watch the behind the scenes after the race - somewhere where you can pick up some extra souvenirs like musettes, water bottles, caps and anything else the teams will give away or sell...
Shortly after we were on our way back to Valenciennes and our hotel restaurant/bar. Later that night we headed for bed. Packing up and the coach ride home to London awaited...
While the blisters and aching muscles will fade, the memories of such a unique experience at this historic race will stay with us all for many years...
(now enjoy a little taste of riding the cobblestones below, and make sure your sound is on!)