Cobbled PEZ: Chasing Paris-Roubaix
The Belgian fans weren’t happy. “They’re praying for rain!” said our driver, ex-Navigators pro, Franky Van Haesbroucke. For the most part, the rest of us were delighted to enjoy a warm, sunny day, speeding across country to catch the action as Paris-Roubaix unfolded.
Another amazingly bright start to the day, and we loaded all the bags and bikes into the Vйlo Classic Tours battle buses for the journey around northern France, which saw us catch the hardest bike race in the world four times.
The crew rolled out to catch the first cobbled section (sector 27) at Troisvilles a Inchy. The crowds weren’t too manic which meant we were able to take up prime spots; what we didn’t know was that the riders were flying in the good conditions, and they came hammering through way ahead of schedule.
Vйlo Classic owner Pete Easton gives the sign… let’s roll.
Eyes focused on the main field, with our Flemish flags brandished for Tommy B, then hastily hidden for George. Cyclists aren’t best known for their running skills, and my cross-country jog back to the bus for our high-speed getaway was probably more painful to watch than it was for me to do.
Be sure to wave your souvenir Flandrian flag…
Franky slammed the van into gear and we roared off – no time for niceties, either, because we had a schedule to keep, and the riders were charging. Some expert manouvering and map-reading by Peter and Lisa Easton in the lead van kept Franky on his toes as he followed to sector 20 (Querenaing a Maing).
The break was still driving it, but the gap was obviously smaller. Franky hooked up with a Discovery Channel employee who said the Disco party had no fewer than 21 fans, friends and followers along the course with wheels and food. Pity they weren’t all issued with a ration of luck for George H.
Another masterful turn at the wheel by Franky took us to sector 15 in Hornaing, which was a dream position – you can see the field approaching from a long way off, and track their progress as they fly over the cobbles and blast straight out onto sweet tarmac again.
The fans were way more numerous as the race reached the business end of the day. 13 guys together, and we were able to cheer George on, note how smooth Boonen looked and marvel at how so many guys on French teams had made the key split.
Sector 15 also provided some excellent directional signage appropriation opportunities, with the gendarmes figuring it meant one less job that someone would need to be paid for!
Our final stop was in the party zone at sector 6 (Cysoing) where the crowds of drunken but good-natured fans (mostly Belgian) outnumbered the sober by a comfortable ratio of 50:1.
” Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Or more importantly, is it Tommeke?!?”
The radio commentary was blaring as we drove, with Franky calmly providing a simultaneous translation service from French and Dutch into English, using his pro experience to call the race and explain what exactly the various team permutations would mean.
We parked the van. The radio roared again: “Hincapie!! Hincapie!! Chute …. Hincapie!!”
Franky turned around: “It’s over for Hincapie, he’s crying by the roadside.” It could have soured the experience for everyone, but the crew here are all passionate about the bike, the racing and the atmosphere so we took off again to catch our last glimpse of the leaders.
Roadside sustenance. With a few Belgian cold ones, it always tastes good.
The clouds of dust were visible almost before the television helicopters, and the speed these guys go at simply defies belief. If you think it looks awesome on screen, try gasping in the dust they throw up as they hurtle past.
The big screen tent was mobbed, and all of a sudden the noise level dropped as Cancellara took control. The crowd was still cheering for Boonen, but the racket when those level crossing barriers saw the King of the Belgians abdicating his P-R crown was something to behold. Ever seen a few thousand Belgians throwing the finger …. at a train?
We hung out long enough to check out the finish, with lots of cheering for Cancellara when he hit the velodrome where our own crew had finished on Friday. The day shot past as fast as the riders had, and it was soon time for a few beers before the ride back to Mechelen, with a major ‘compare and contrast’ exercise on the digital cameras.
Completing another epic day…
If you know what you’re doing (and Pete and Lisa at Vйlo Classic Tours certainly do), you can traverse this region and still see the race a good few times without too much stress. For my part, having ridden some of the course on Friday, my admiration for Cancellara and co has convinced me that I just have to come back and try it again.
PEZ travelled with Vйlo Classic Tours during this first Classics week.
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