Top Ride: The culmination of my visit to Holy Week was the long anticipated, much feared, and never completed ride across the parcours of Paris-Roubaix. Finally I learned what it was like to battle the toughest roads in northern France and earn my own lap of honour at the Roubaix velodrome.
My first time to ride the roads of Roubaix was 2004, and although I had a big day on the cobbles, I didn’t make it to the famed velodrome. Even worse was that I had to wait until 2012 for my return to clear up this unfinished business. Once again I was joining Velo Classic Tours’ excellent Cobbles week trip, and this day would be the Queen stage of a top-notch week of riding, race chasing, and soaking up the best of Flemish culture.
My week with Velo Classic Tours was a big one – and while the group rode every day except race days, I had to get some work done here too – which meant a scaled back version of riding for me. But still I logged over 400km in just 4 rides – and after Thursday’s almost 100km ride to Tournai from Gent, I was a little nervous about how my legs would hold up for Friday’s main event to Roubaix – and over 25km of cobbles to cover.
The VCT group rolled straight from the hotel enroute to the pick up the course at the Arenberg Forest, I exercised the ‘short option’ to forego the opening 40km to the Trench, saving my legs for what lay ahead, and enjoying the flexible ride option offered by Pete – afterall, customer satisfaction is important!
The Velo Classic group rolls out just after breakfast.
Picking up the ride at the Arenberg Forest – better known as the “Trench of Arenberg” is a very good way to take in the best of the cobbles, cover the best parts of the course, and end up in the Roubaix velodrome. Doing this on the Friday before the race also means you’ll see a lot of pro teams doing their recon, and at a leisurely pace.
When you see the old mining tower, you know it’s time…
The forest itself was already abuzz with fans collecting at both ends, and Friday is recon day for most of the teams. We passed the Garmin and Sky busses parked new the entrance, and it wouldn’t be long before we saw a lot more of the pros checking out the course.
…to get ready to rumble. The Arenberg Forest awaits.
The Arenberg Forest is a defining point of the race – at about 80km to go, the sprint to be first in is legendary, as are the perils that await riders once they hit the treacherous stones. The moss covered cobbles are now cleaned before the race, which has to help a bit, but at 2400m long – it’s one of the longest in the race, and requires vigilant attention just to get across at a normal pace. It’s not the hardest sector of cobbles, but it’s one of the most popular, and race day will see fans lining the entire length.
We arrived about 10:30, and it was still pretty quiet, peaceful even, except for the work crews setting up the barricades in the center. The teams were expected to show up soon, but wanted to get going, knowing full well the pros would overtake us later on.
Time for me to get down to business.
I’d remembered the Roubaix cobbles as basically the nastiest, hardest riding I’d done on a road bike, and these stones are generally worse than those found in Flanders (which are pretty ugly themselves). We regrouped at the end of the forest and rolled on – only 17 more cobbled sectors to go. I tried not to think about that.
Good thing the day was sunny, and at around 7-8C degrees, pedaling my bike around these roads was the perfect way to enjoy a day.
Riding with the teams is a big part of this already big experience, and riding alongside guys who are so good they get paid to do this is always a cool experience. Ettiquette dictates that we amateurs stay out of the way and at the back, and while you don’t want to be the guy asking Tom Boonen dorky questions, most of the pros are happy to say hello. One of the Vini Farnese guys confirmed for me that Ale’s pal Diego Caccia was not here.
At one point I slotted in behind the Vacansoleil guys – and the three in front of me soon swelled to all nine as the team car brought the stragglers up in ones and twos. I love watching how smooth and fluid these guys are on a bike – it’s really just an extension of their own bodies. I admit wondering if my pedalling looks anything like that… not even close I’m sure.
The crowds of star-chasers do get a tad out of hand at times, but it takes nothing for the pros to turn up the wick just enough to burn out the fat in short order.
Tucking in on a day like this I also notice how clean their kit and gear is – everything is ‘showroom’. Must be nice to have someone prep your bike like that before each ride – there’s no way those mechanics get paid enough.
You also notice how fast they go. While the Vacan guys were taking it easy on the smooth roads while they regrouped, I had no probs sitting in. But once we hit the cobbles, it was another story. They just ride you off the wheels with no visible effort – and this is just a training ride… That’s what you get when you’re superfit (I would imagine).
With Tom Boonen rocking the season, it’s no surprise QuickStep was the team to watch for. He was said to be riding the new bike from Specialized, designed for this race, so I was hoping to get a pic. It was around the end of Sector 10 when the QS car pulled over to stop ahead of me, and I knew the team was getting close.
But I barely had enough time to pull out my camera and get set up before the dust cloud was on us. Riding as fast as these pros do, it’s a crap shoot to get a decent pic of just one rider, but more impressive was the media armada following the team. There must have been at least 10 cars carrying journos and camera crews. It was pretty comical, considering they could see nothing.
VCT guest Shailer Hart undertakes some mechanical duties, commonplace on the cobbles.
The race course actually goes by from left to right at the far end of this line of trees.
Here’s where I got lost. I’d missed a turn – not sure why since the Rabobank truck was parked right there… but off I went down a very smooth residential road that seemed quiet – a little too quiet. Thinking I’d find the course again around the next bend I kept going. Soon enough I came out beside a field and could see a couple teams rolling along – a few hundred meters away on the other side of the field.
I also recognized a stand of trees I’d photo’d on my last trip, and figured I could reconnect with the course by riding down the road that went through those trees. So in I go for a hundred meters or so, then look around again and realize I can actually reconnect with the course not too far along in the other direction, if I stay on that smooth road. Hmm, what to do… backtrack and connect at the beginning of another nasty set of cobbles… or skip it and rejoin the course up ahead.
That decision took me about 2 seconds.
And on that note about the cobbles… Anyone who’s ridden these knows just how rough they are, and how hard it is to ride ‘em well. One or two sections are fine for a taste… but on my last trip I soon realized they just beat the crap out of me and my bike – not to mention being bloody hard to pedal over at any decent rate of speed.
Riding through the Carrefour de l’Arbre section is a bit surreal. It’s several hours since we started, the sun has shifted and the pavé disappears into the distance like a gossamer thread. There’s no talking anymore… just a silent march onwards.
The key is to push the biggest gear you can – you gotta keep the speed high so you bounce over the tops. Slowing down only extends the pain, and intensifies each and every blow. Grip the bars on the pads, shift the weight back, and settle in for some big gear intervals – all the while getting pummeled by the ‘road’ beneath you.
I got caught up in the excitement and charged into an early sector with a small group, going way faster than I could sustain, but determined to give ‘er my best. I hung on a lot longer than I’d expected – but I’d guess about 700 meters in I could feel the acid starting to burn in my legs, my heart rate started thumping and my breathing got loud enough that I could hear it. Battle stations!
I remember this bunker from my first trip. The landscape here is dotted with them, and it seems many have been preserved as heritage sites. Even with French bureaucracy, I’m sure getting the paperwork for that was easier than trying to demolish and remove these solid concrete heaps.
It seems like in one second I went from skimming over the top of the center ridge like a stone skipping across a pond – to instant and unexpected directional change careening down the side and bouncing into the gutter. By now I’d been forced to downshift, which only made things worse. Convinced there must be a better line on the other side, I plowed my way back up the ridge like the SS Minnow riding out the storm, only to be tossed down the other side of the ridge into a gutter that was invariably worse than where I’d just been.
With my head bouncing around like a dashboard Troll doll, this went on for a few sectors, and seemed to get worse with each one. Then somewhere around sector 11 or 12, I found some kind of rhythm that was admittedly much slower than when I started, but also seemed much more sustainable for however long it was going to take me to get through this.
Then I came to accept there is no shame in riding the gutter – which in many places is notably smoother than the cobbles. Look – I just want to survive this thing – that’s all I ask.
Many of the crops have yet to appear, and the rural landscape is a patchwork of fields of all kinds – including these deeply furrowed clay/ mud ones that were home for thousands of soldiers in World War I.
When you finally turn into the town of Roubaix it’s one long drag down the boulevard towards the velodrome. Being Friday afternoon, it’s traffic time, but drivers aren’t as rushed here as in the bigger cities, but you do share the small road with large transport trucks, so caution is advised.
The final sector of pave is only 300 meters long and thankfully the smoothest of the day. While my riding partners rolled straight into the velodrome, for me it was time for one last pause before the big reveal. There was no point rushing this – from here on it was down shift to “savour the moment” speed.
There was lots of activity around the track, but it wasn’t too crowded, as other sportif riders milled around, and work crews continued preparations for Sunday.
Looking back down Sector 1 – the last of the cobbles.
Rolling into the velodrome for the first time is a pretty special moment. I knew it would be, but I had no idea exactly what it would be like.
It’s awesome. It’s humbling. It’s spectacular. And it’s a whole bunch of other things that are hard to describe to someone else – but like so much of riding the roads of the cobbled Classics – you’ll never know what it’s really like until you do it yourself.
We rode a few laps, posed for the obligatory shots, had some fun and looked around for a while – just trying to take it all in, and not knowing if or when I’ll pass this way again – I wanted the memories to last.
But the best part was about to happen. Pete had arranged access to the famed stone showers – the same ones we’ve seen in so many photos, books, and even the movie “Sunday in Hell”. It’s the most famous locker room in all of cycling.
The showers are old – I don’t when this place was built – but it ain’t modern. Water pipes hang from the ceiling, there’s a chain to pull when you need water, and the change stalls are tiny – barely enough room for a bag of clothes and yourself.
Some of the change stalls are plated with the names of past Roubaix winners – I chose Magnus Backstead’s stall for myself – it was the closest to the showers, and I was keen to get in there.
And yes – the water is hot. No better feeling after a long ride than a hot shower to wash the salt and grime away. And I can tell you there’s no more special shower than these.
That was a ride for the ages, and while riding those cobbles is not exactly what I’d call fun, it’s an experience no true fan should miss.
– Thanks for reading –
• And BIG thanks to Velo Classic Tours for hosting a week of fantastic riding and chasing the Classics.