What's Cool In Road Cycling

Cobbled Pez: Floating And Flatting!

The pavй dust has settled, but anyone who’s ridden the cobbles and watched the race live knows these memries are more vivid than most. As part of Velу Classic Tours cobbled Classics tour, we rode several sections of the Roubaix pavй on Friday before the race…

Even horses have trouble on this surface … so why do some lunkheads make the pros race here? Because it is, truly, a fantastic enterprise.

This is a story of anguish and despair. It is also a story of achievement, success and happiness. More than that, it is the story of one group of riders, a dozen punctures and thousands of brutal cobbles.

A confident “Thumbs up for the Pez readers” from Jeff Kraft (l) and Michael Hutchinson, as we prepare to roll towards Roubaix.

The Velo Classic Tours riders cut rather nervy figures over breakfast in the Hotel d’Alcantara in Tournai this morning, knowing that this would be the hardest ride many of us had ever undertaken – the road to the velodrome, hammering the last 17 cobbled sections of Paris-Roubaix. A 30km loosener saw us barrelling down towards the Arenberg Forest.

Special guest Scott Sunderland (now ds for Team CSC) was also on hand for the day – offering ‘insider’ knowledge of the corsa, and entertaining us all with some great stories from his long career as a rider.

Our well-drilled squadra detoured to the exit of the Forest of Arenberg, just as QuickStep were rolling out and into a fury of journalists and TV crews. None of this seemed to phase Tommy B too much, as he took a ‘nature break’at the road side before charging off again with Pozzato and his buddies.

This was too much of a challenge for Clint, Michael and Gary to resist and they tagged onto the blue train for a 40km joyride in the World Champion’s slipstream.

Chaussйe Dйformйe? No kidding. Everything on these stretches of road is dйformйe.

Not quite having the leg speed – in fact, possessing nowhere near the leg speed – I trundled up the highway where I hooked up with Corey and Jeff from Park City, Utah, where we decided to double back and attack the dark, enchanted forest.

The mining towers that loom ominously just before the Arenberg Forest. You want to know what creaking metal sounds like?

The mining towers that act like sentinels loomed into view about 3ks later, and we jumped round the barriers and took off. The beauty of this famously brutal cobble stretch is that you can see virtually the whole way when you’re about to start.

That’s also the problem because the horizon disappears as your eyeballs start bouncing around like rubber balls, and within metres, a mere mortal like me is starting to hallucinate. The horizon just ISN’T getting closer.

The woods are silent, dark, and deep…

As soon as we let rip, all Hell breaks loose. You can’t choose a line because there’s no clear path to take. You get no respite down the gutters, and the crown isn’t even close to offering a level track.

The cobbles are unevenly spaced, and odd shapes, and I can’t say that the repairs have made any positive difference. You can tell which cobbles are new because of the colour, but they seem to be sticking up like nails hammered into a tree stump by a lunatic.

Everything on the bike is shaking. Everything in my body is battering around, and my brain feels like it’s bouncing back and fore like a punchball. The winder on my watch jags into my wrist and soon it’s broken the skin.

It starts to sound much worse when you batter onto this beautiful highway. It’s straight, but that’s about all that good…

A rider from FDJ shouts and comes around, but rather than disappear into the distance, he lurches just a few metres ahead and stays there.

We all make it out OK, somehow, with no crashes, no feet down, and we’re rolling back to where we detoured when ……….. phhhtt!!

No, it can’t be ………. but the evidence is flapping around my rear rim. A cruel flat tyre on the motorway.

We look up as we change the tube and there’s Davitamon-Lotto shooting past. Then a lone rider in blue smiles and nods – Erik Zabel!

We roll, but my rear wheel isn’t doing too great and I’m dropping off the back in sector 16 when a railway gate comes down, putting me even further behind – thank God for the yellow route markers. I take sector 15 as hard as I dare, and get to within cursing distance of the end when ….. phht again! Flat number 2.

Beautiful cobbles, but it’s a hard luck story if you puncture here. I did. Damn!

Another stop, where I perform my Bjarne Riis 1997 bike hurl in disgust. A bit of water, some energy bar, a quick fix and I’m off again. Feeling fine, the legs are good, and I’m on my own but that’s OK. I blast through 14, 13, 12, 11.

Mons-en-Pevele (sector 10) is a beast, like crossing a desert of teeth. The headwind is vicious, but I try to keep rolling a 53×19 – as much as I can manage. I keep glancing around because I think someone’s watching me and see a dust cloud coming.

Happy for a break I dive off the cobbles and watch a T-Mobile quintet explode past, bikes jumping around from crown to gutter and back, left to right, as they thunder into the distance.

Off again, and it’s a blast. I’m going well, and the sectors are ticking off. ( is fun because it’s so short, and 8 is OK, and I hit 7 where a bunch of school kids think I’m a pro in my stylin’ Pez kit.

But it’s a bad omen; halfway through sector 7 I make a bad move, switching down to the right hand side of the road for a better line. The rear wheel starts clattering, and I’m out of spare tubes.

My day is done, like a good domestique, a fair distance from that fabled velodrome. Time to bag and tag that bike.

The clouds parted, a dust cloud appeared on the horizon. And, lo, cometh the Velo Classic Tours cavalary. Saved!

Rudimentary French gets me help from a lady in her garden, and after proffering me a CO2 canister, I get the mobile to call for back-up from Lisa Easton in the Velo Classic Tours battle bus.

I have to tell you, Custer would have been OK with a cell phone and assistance like this. The VCT crew appears out of the dust, cruising over sector 7 to offer me rescue, and the hope that if I ever come and try this again, I might just make it as far as Roubaix.

The Roubaix Velodrome: not in the cards for our man Gord, but he’ll be back… and it will be waiting.

A big shout out to all those good, good people who rolled all the way around that velodrome: Mike, Clint and Gary for easing off and not embarrassing QuickStep; Jeff and Corey; Jeff C, Mike (from Austin, TX); my room-mate Brian; Carl S; Heidi and the man himself, Peter Easton from VCT. He’s a Scot by descent, so that’s why he’s so good at this.

PEZ is travelling with Velo Classic Tours during this first Classics week.
For more information, log on to
www.VeloClassic.com or call 212.779.9599 2006 color brochure and itineraries are available.

• And check out more great travel ideas in the PEZ Travel & Tours section.

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