Roubaix’14: Taking On The Cobbles
On the Friday before the big race Lee Rodgers and the Velo Classic crew hit the cobbles for their own Paris Roubaix for 124 kilometers of torture over the famous Roubaix stones. 18 pavé sections in total and memories to last a lifetime.
Monday is travel day for most of the Velo Classic Tour’s Cobbles week guests – and our own Lee Rodgers is leaving behind a month of riding his old roads in Britain, and the last 12 days tackling the cobbles & bergs in Belgium and France, on his way back to his home in Asia. We’ll have Lee’s Roubaix race Chase report in the next couple days, but here’s how he spent Friday on his last ride of the trip – taking on the feared Hell of the North Cobbles from the Arenberg Forest to the velodrome finish line. – Ed.
“Where you from then?” asks the older gent with the London accent.
“Lancaster, but I live in Taiwan.”
“That’s a fair old distance innit? What you doin’ over ‘ere then?”
“I’m here for Paris-Roubaix.”
“Me too, I’ve been coming since 1986. I remember once I was out on the Friday and I rode behind Moser for a bit. Bloody animal he was… That reminds me of another time I was racing, and Fausto Coppi comes up behind me, so I get on ‘is wheel. Beautiful sunny day, birds chirpin’, glorious it was. Then I start feeling drops of water on me leg, and I’m looking up but there’s nothin’ in the sky but blazin’ sunshine. Then I realize: I’m being pissed on by the Campionissimo!”
“Haven’t washed me legs since!”
I met this fellow, Trevor Smith, an ex-pro, in the dining room at our pleasant little hotel here in Tournai, our jump off point for Sunday’s visit to the great Paris-Roubaix. He was with two friends and their better halves. They’ve been coming to see the Race of Races for almost 30 years.
The living history of lives addicted to cycling, this is the crowd that lines the fearsome cobbles every Sunday one week after the Tour of Flanders, in this little corner in south-west Belgium. Hundreds of thousands… millions of personal memories of pedals they’ve turned, Sunday club runs, first bikes and bad crashes, breathtaking landscapes and both amateur and professional races they’ve competed in, their brains further infused with tales of derring-do by the true pros in the great events of the Continent, of the exploits of legends gone by and legends in the making.
It is simply beautiful. No other word for it.
Our day on the cobbles, 18 whole sections of them, came on Friday. The atmosphere at breakfast amongst the participants in the Flanders Week with Velo Classic Tours was subdued, with none of the banter and the usual boisterousness that usually enlivens the air before our rides.
I’ve raced in some important races and there was a similar feel in my gut that day too. We all knew that were in for a pummeling over the stones, through the Arenberg and over the Carrefour de l’Arbre, all excited yet suitably fearful.
After a gentle 30km roll out we came to the Arenberg. At the entrance was a scrum of photographers, officials and cyclo-tourists, steeling themselves to ride over the 2.4km of rock. Lined by trees, the narrow avenue lies shaded by the foliage. Dark and ethereal, there is no end in sight when viewed from its starting point.
As we stood there taking our selfies, designed to stir envy amongst our friends back home, Lampre-Merida rolled up with Pozatto at their head, impeccably metro as ever. In tow were about 30 amateurs, some bloated and looking decidedly ‘non-pro’, presumably businessmen associated with the team’s sponsors.
Then Cannondale rocked up. Pozatto and his crew stood about but Peter Sagan wasted no time in getting his reconnoiter of what is just about the most critical part of the race under way.
And how he and his teammates flew! All but one barreled along like it was race day. I did though pass the straggler, who looked decidedly ginger over the tumultuous path.
What turmoil must roll through the minds of these pros who just do not feel the love for the cobbles. They must sleep as flittingly as the men who went over the top of the bloodied trenches in the great wars that laid this land to waste in the last century.
At the end of the forest the Velo Classic Tour folks paused for a breath, with one guy saying “Sagan passed me!” and another five chiming in with a chorus of “Me too!”
They’ll be dining on that til the end of their days, trust me.
In truth the Arenberg is not the worst of the sections we rode. I expected loaf-sized cobbles and holes galore but they were no larger than the Flandrian cobbles, if a tad more schizophrenic. The fear of the Arenberg is justified though because of where it comes in the race and because of the narrowness of it. The riders will be flying along for a good 10km beforehand at speeds of up to and over 60km/hr, fighting for a top twenty place to ensure they don’t become ensnared in crashes that inevitably occur.
Drafting on these cobbles is extremely hairy because you cannot prepare for the rutted, snarling stones that appear in a flash below you. The ideal place to navigate the Arenberg is on the crown, because the sides are not flat nor usually dry enough to ride. However, if you wander from the crown you’ll encounter series of rocks that have been deformed by tractors and Old Mother Time, gnarling, gnashing incisors that come from the mouth of a subterranean beast, hungry for clean-shaven legs and fearful souls.
Check for DNA on those fangs and you’ll find the blood of champion cyclists and weekend warriors alike.
The Arenberg also likes water bottles. Cannondale lost theirs and I did too, yet unlike Cannondale, who had their giant mega-bus parked at the exit and could get replacements, I had to struggle on through the day without.
“Ah, worst over!” said one of my mates. I nodded in agreement.
How wrong we were.
I don’t know how many km long the next section was. But we’ve just done the feared Arenberg. This won’t be too bad right? The thing about these cobbled sections is that 1km becomes 3, 2 becomes 6, and 3 becomes 9. You start them full of adrenalin and testosterone but within 500m your legs feel like they’re carrying a troupe of little monkeys on each, all armed with small hammers and programmed to bash the crap out of thigh muscle.
How is it possible to go so slow over flat road?!
And yet, despite the battering, I loved it. I was riding over each section with a grimace that was actually a smile, yelping away besides myself with joy, cheered on by the inhabitants of camper vans that had already secured their spot by the road.
I saw one car with a huge Belgian flag and a poster with ‘TOM’ written on it. As I approached I yelled out ‘Hey my name is Tom!’, and they hollered back ‘GO GO TOMMEKE!’
At another I spied an Italian flag and two grey-haired senior ladies standing in front.
“Ciao bella donna!’ I cried through clattering teeth.
“FORZA! FORZA!” they replied.
Our pack regrouped at the second ‘pit-stop’, magnificently manned by Lisa Easton in the Velo Classic wagon with her fantastic selection of crepes, waffles, Speculoos (a spread made of sugar and ground cookies) and encouraging words all lined up for us to guzzle down.
Every one of us had a non-sensical smile playing on our lips.
If I had one euro for every time I heard the word ‘crazy’ I’d be able to buy myself three extra rolls of bar tape, which was exactly what I needed on that ride. Blisters on the palms were a common sight the following morning.
“It’s like being 12 again and discovering masturbation,” opined one of the gang.
Oh how we laughed.
Back on the road after one of my 5 punctures that day, I came upon the Tinkof-Saxo team out for a reconnaissance ride. I hung in between them and their team car, not wanting to draft too close. We hit a section of pave and I got in behind them, my noisy bike drawing nervous glances from the Aussie Rory Sutherland who was 5 meters ahead of me.
After the section he turned to me and said “Mate, can you give us some room please?”
To which I replied:
“Dude, are you gonna say that to Fabian on Sunday? And if you’re that nervous give me your number and I’ll ride it for you!”
Well, I should have said that – in fact I just replied “Uh, ok,” and let them trundle off. I really need to work on my trash-talking skills.
I should take a leaf from Peter Easton’s book. On the drive back he missed a ‘yield ‘ sign and got a barrage of honks from the enraged occupant of the car he’d just unwittingly cut off.
He put his hand up to say sorry but the honking continued, so he stopped and rolled down the window.
“You should say sorry, you s**t!” the other guy screamed in French, veins popping from his temples.
“JE SUIS DESOLE, YOU F**K!” replied Peter in an even if very loud tone, in his best New York French.
I swear tears of laughter were streaming down our faces.
Back to the ride, along came the piece de la resistance – Le Carrefour de l’Arbre.
At 2.1 km long this is by far the toughest section of the lot. Gnarled, furious stones present themselves in a vision that is truthly worthy of hell.
Myself and Peter Easton hit the section together, with me taking the dirt at the side whilst Pete rode over the crown like a trooper.
“Why… don’t… you… ride… the dirt?” I stuttered, as my head bounced around like a buoy in the perfect storm.
“Because.. I’m… I’m…. not.. a pro…. and… not… a CHEAT!” came the reasoned response.
Suitably chastised, I joined him on the crown – for about 10 seconds.
As you ride these sections you can glimpse the smooth tarmac in the distance and it appears like an oasis, hosted by scantily clad sirens calling you over the rocks. You get there, finally, after what not just seems like but actually is an eternity, and then once on the smooth road you feel like a lion. You can hit 45km/hr there not because you are actually that strong but because the adrenalin coursing through your blood equates to a shot of EPO, amphetamine, testosterone and whatever else you can cram into a man without killing him.
Make no doubt about it, you become, fleetingly perhaps but real as real can be, a legend in your own mind.
After 124 grueling kilometers you enter Roubaix and make your way to the Velodrome. Without the crowds and the frenzied clamor the track is no less breathtaking, considering all that has gone before.
Peter took my camera and I did the obligatory arms raised salute.
I’d just ridden 18 sections of the pave of Roubaix. And I, like everyone else out there that day, had won my race.
A couple of Leffe Blondes, a sandwich with Johan Museeuw in the background and a trip to the fabled showers later and my voyage to the Promised Land was complete.
The greatest day. Simple as that. And no need to buy souvenirs. I’ve discovered my soul is Belgian, and that I will carry with me forever.
Thanks to Velo Classic Tours for making it happen.