Guest blogger: By Michael Edwards
Paris Roubaix….two words that have echoed in the very deep of my cycling soul since the first time I saw the images of De Vlaeminck and Merckx fighting their way over the cobbles. Finally, early last year, after seasons of looking on aghast at the racing in this ‘Queen of the Classics’ I decided it was time.
Having done the Marmotte with La Fuga I knew that the Hell of the North needed the sort of guardian angel service that Ian and the team offer. This trip promised to be hard enough as it was.
The weekend pushed off with a Friday afternoon warm-up and bike check ride in the Flanders countryside. I always find these first rides of a weekend fascinating as everyone eyes bikes, kit, body shape, confidence, bravado. It was a freezing cold route in bleak, grey countryside; passing small war cemeteries of pelotons of young men, where they had finished their last ride. Poignant, and I think made the group ride a little more quietly and self-consciously. Spirits were lightened at the end by Steve from La Fuga, drafting the La Fuga support van downhill at 70mph. Skills.
We had an excellent pre-ride carb loading dinner in a restaurant around the corner from our hotel. The evening was a stage set for those who had faced the pavé before. They spoke of the shock of the first sections, the battle to hold the bike, the crashes witnessed, the broken bikes, the importance of loose hands, a lower cadence. Could it really be that bad?
No need for the alarm very early on Saturday morning. We were driven in a quiet slow-chatting La Fuga van to the start town, and got ready in dark streets. I love the sounds of these early morning pre-ride preparations. Muffled conversations, track pumps working, cleats tapping and the whirr of a hub. Registration was in a sports hall full of very friendly early rising staff, who gave us our numbers, coffee and ‘bon courages’.
We headed to the start, clustered in a group of about 100 of the earliest riders, and then away behind motorbikes. It was thrilling heading the first 10km through sleep coated villages in a grey gloom, at bike-fast speed, behind our escorts.
And then the first secteur.
Shouts from ahead warning of the pavé. Coming. Coming. Now. The group shattered, riders accelerated away, others seemed to standstill, bottles flew off, shouts, curses, pounding speed, incredible concentration, pushing, pushing, pushing….and then road….free wheel…what just happened? Incredible, thrilling, and very intense. The pounding of the cobbles was not a surprise, but the concentration required was, and the surge of adrenalin. I now knew though, that it would be fine. I could do this.
A pattern emerged of smooth road, working steady; secteur, battle, push, work, dodge; back to road, drink, eat, prepare. And the secteurs just kept coming. Some short and over in less than a minute, others interminable. I found myself shouting out schoolboy French ‘c’est la guerre’ to roadside supporters, as it felt like a battle. Seems crass to me now, thinking of the real wars fought across those fields, rather than a weekend wheel warriors efforts.
Without doubt the highpoint was passing the iconic pithead winding engines and plunging downhill into the Troue d’Arenberg. This was the toughest section of cobbles, but by then the groups had all spread out and I had the place to myself and just a motorbike escort ahead. In my fatigue numbed mind the bike was my TV crew tracking my early break. Please tell me it is not just me that thinks like this!
I was reconciled now, with what to expect, so started to work hard between the pavé. But as time went on I had to pay on the cobbles for the cheques I was cashing on the road. The slower you go the harder the cobbles feel…and by the last few sections I was well into my overdraft! I had promised myself that I would do Paris Roubaix the ‘right way’; riding the crown of the cobbles the whole way. But towards the end I was regretting this. As my cobble speed was dropping riders were overtaking me on the smoother verges, free from mud in the dry weather. But I kept my promise. Next time though I ride to go the fastest I can, not the purest, I have done that now.
However, none of that fatigue and discomfort could lesson my excitement as we came into the long straight road towards the iconic Roubaix Velodrome. I got down in the drops and worked as hard as I could, then the right turn off the main road, barriers, cheering crowd, swing round the curves into the velodrome, up the banking, bottle it, back down to the blue, a rather sorry tired-leg slow-mo sprint; and done! And being with La Fuga, I rolled halfway round the track to a waiting gazebo, chairs, a cheer, warm clothes, food, and a Belgian beer. A perfect place to sit and let all that had passed start to settle.
We regrouped for a dinner celebration, and it was nearly a full house of success for the group, though there was one man down with chain ring punctures to the leg after a nasty fall. Not bad scars to talk of. Our Norwegian superstar who had ridden away from the motorbike escorts at the start had his wheels fail him in ‘the Arenberg Trench’. He got a new wheel from the La Fuga support van and finished off the ride, but the lost time cost him the chance to match his top 10 finish of the previous year.
The icing on the cake was that we had ridden the day before the pros. The signage and banners made it all the more ‘real’, and it meant we got to see the race the next day, not once, but four times! We were there for the grand depart, to see the riders sign in, and to laugh at the warm weather Southern Europeans clad in what looked like ski gear as they started. We stood next to the worst cobbles we could find in Arenberg, and watched in shock as the peloton went by us at 50kph.
I have seen a lot of sport events, but have never seen the look I saw in the riders eyes that day. Wide eyes, like stampeding horses. Fear, excitement and focus combined. And all less than a metre from me standing there wide-mouthed with a beer in hand. By either incredible luck or planning we drove along a motorway next to the peloton, with Spartacus riding right there on a road parallel to us, 50 metres away, before they turned off into the fields. And finally, we were on one of the final secteurs, to see Cancellara and the final three with him fly past, being chased by dirt coated gangs of wild men, and sorry groups of the broken. It made me feel less and more in equal measure. I could never match what I was seeing them do – less. But I had ridden my own battle across the same cobbles just one day before – more.
I had wondered on the Friday night how hard it could be. The truth is it was hard, yes; but entirely doable. If you love the history of cycling, and look at those pictures of the muddied riders with awe then sign-up. With decent training, the right bike, and just a splash of good fortune, the Hell of the North can be won over.
I cannot thank Ian, Tom, Steve and the rest of the team enough for a terrific weekend. If you are going to ride in ‘hell’ you need some guardian angels, and La Fuga were ours for a memory burning weekend.
- I rode a Van Nicholas titanium frame and forks, with custom wheels made by Pearson Cycles to be bombproof with my 90kg.
- I rode with Challenge Strada Clinchers at about 80 psi. I had no punctures and true wheels at the end.
- I put gel pads under my bar tape, and double taped the bars.
- That was all the special prep….i.e. not much.
Tempted to take on the cobbles challenge? Just a couple of spaces remain for Paris-Roubaix 2014 – vist our tour pages to secure your place.
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