From Sean Yates in the break on his 7-Eleven Merckx, and then abandoning in 1989 to Johann Van Sommeren getting full repayment for all his years as a super-domestique in 2011. Whatever the year, the fairytale of Roubaix remains and how it unfolds is true magic, the sort that brings a tear to the eye of the hardest of men.
TOURCOING IS A LONG WAY FROM SOUTH MORANG
I mentioned that I was going to Europe for a spell on the internet. Within days I got two of what I’d call genuinely ‘cool’ emails that I can thank the interweb in great part for. One from Ciocc asking me to visit and one from an ebay seller I’d bought many an item from over the years inviting me not only to stay at his home, but an invite to ride the Roubaix route with him. He finished his invite with the line ‘After a day like this, it’s necessary to take a good beer.’Then he added that he had Patrick Sercu’s old MX Leader in my size to ride for the day.
I gratefully replied, modified the rough travel ‘plans’ we had and made the stars align. To what degree I was about to discover.
After driving all day from the Swiss Alps, 40 kilometres out of Tourcoing (pron: Tour-kwaa), The Boss asked how I knew ‘this guy’. I said I didn’t know what he did for a job, how old he was, but I’d bought many a beautiful frame from him over the years, he was pleasant to deal with and gave great service. For all I knew could be a part time serial killer, or worse a genuine bicycle psycho, the polar opposite to an afficianado which I’ve come across in my travels past. We were about to find out.
We were greeted by Sebastien and immediately I had a good feeling. A tasty meal and many belgian beers later we had a really good feeling. The Boss and my combined french is merde to pardon the preverbial, Sebastien’s english is remarkably good, and between that and a google app we talked ‘shop’, travel, music, furniture and renovations for hours discovering we had more than just bikes in common.
Where most guest houses and hotels you’d find Gideon’s bible, Seb has books on Eddy Merckx. We slept very well.
After a traditional french breakfast of cheeses, croissants, juice and coffee we waited for Benoit ‘Coco’ Boonen to join our cycling set. Seb had loaded his Peugeot 504, affectionately known as ‘Bridget’ with supplies and spares for the day. I sensed the first challenge for the day was not far away. ‘Bridget’ had a manual transmission, The Boss drives an auto.
An hours drive through the countryside and we were at the northern entrance to Arenberg. The weather for the drive was relatively fine though dark cloud loomed to the north, and the protection of the car belied just how windy it was.
While we unloaded, The Boss became acquainted with Miss Bardot, her manual transmission and other nuances.
Just as we prepared to ride through the forest, the heavens gave a light shower to make the pave greasy.
I can say with all honesty, Arenberg must be just about the scariest place on earth for a professional cyclist. After 150km the riders sprint for position to enter the forest first, then at full tilt they cross a railway, leave a smooth bitumen carpet and get their hands and bodies pummeled for 2500m. It’s a long and uncomfortable ride. You can barely steer through it cleanly, let alone change gears or brake. I know I should have a light grip on the bars but the pave turns this into a compulsive iron grip on the alloy. Arenberg is a monster. They say going faster over the cobbles makes it easier, but going faster than 30kph and maintaining it is hard work. The rims and spokes ping and clatter, my bidon became a projectile and after an eternity we made it out the other side.
Seb pulled out this years race route, and in the same vein of Melburn Roobaix, tried to decipher the best way to get to the following sector. My personal Roubaix had begun.
Each sector of pave put in perspective what ‘hell’ the racers face. The route is far more undulating than it appears on television, the pave are brutal, nothing like Belgian cobbles or the back alleys of Brunswick. We were fortunate to cover the course in dry, blustery conditions.
It wasn’t long before I was bought to a grinding halt by a by flat near the end of Orchies. The front tyre was on the the rim in seconds and every stone was like being hit in the hands with a baseball bat.
Fortunately, our road ‘Captain’ had more than just a few spare wheels for such occurances.
If you look closely at the saddle you’ll notice it’s pointing in an unorthodox direction towards the sky. Every time I’d adjust it, the constant smashing of my derriere on rear of the leather cover would tilt it skyward. It seemed this would be one battle I could not win. No matter how tight the bolt was cinched, over time the constant force moved it slowly and slightly.
An opportunity came to make my ‘attack’ and to chat with a kid on the scooter who was merrily beeping as as we rode over another railway. Frequent honks of support came from cars and bikes alike, and they all patiently waited to overtake at opportune times. A far cry from some Australian road experiences.
The ‘route’ is far from a direct one. The lanes and sectors meander from side to side, joining village to village, and farm to neighbours farm. The map said we still were a long way from Roubaix, and though we’d covered relatively few kilometres, the body told me a different story.
I was manually prying my fingers back after each sector as if they were now crippled by arthritis. Sebastien has double wrapped our handlebars but it still did little to absorb the constant pounding. My arms felt like I’d been through a boxing training session. Strangely my legs felt fine. I adjusted the saddle again and hoped that reefing on the 6mm and adjusting my position on the bike would finally stop the saddle from moving.
My own saddle experience puts this one in perspective.
The sectors for the most part are all a blur of bumps but one for me stands out. Mons-en-pevele.
First used in 1978. Overall the 3,000m rises from 53m at the start to 63m at the end. It begins with a 300m drop of two per cent down to the Ruisseau La Petite Marque at 47m. This is followed by 800m that rise 3m. A 90 degree right hand turn to the rue du Blocus introduces a 800m straight that falls 2m and leads to a difficult, muddy, 90-degree left hand turn to the ruelle Flamande. The final 1,100m of the ruelle Flamande and Chemin de Randonnée Pédèstre rise 16m to Mérignies.
Mons-en-Pévèle, (50.492°N 3.118°E), is the 10th section of pavé before the finish. Its 3,000m are rated the hardest level of difficulty, five stars. It is in the municipality of Mons-en-Pévèle. It is one of the key sectors, one of the toughest and within 50 km of the finish. It has been used every year since 1978, 2001 excepted. In 1997, 2000, 2002 and 2003, only the first 1,100m were used.
Cobbles rated . Good condition for the first 1,100m, then deteriorating, followed by 1,100m on which mud runs down from fields
Stolen from wiki.
Sebastien said even if he owned a tractor he wouldn’t drive it down Mons-en-Pevele.
Mons-en-Pevele is rated 5 stars and from our recreational ride, I also rate it 5 bloody stars of purgatory. It’s long, windswept and in terrible condition. Chasing down Bridget meant sucking down on dirt which would be a similar affair for chasers of any breakaway, or the leaders of the race following the motorbikes which capture every pained expression.
It drew most of the remainging energy I had, and completed my mask of grit . It was 5 stars of awesome.
From Mons-en-Pevele there is quite a long road stretch which passes a village or three before reaching sector 9. We rode along waiting for the support vehicle to catch up, but The Boss was not in sight. We waited. We waited. Finally Bridget appeared and we pedalled on.
We pedalled further on and a car came alongside me saying ‘I think your friend just crashed’. I look ahead to Sebastien, I could also see ‘Coco’. Oh oh.
We turned around to find Bridget and The Boss roadside. Frazzled and exhausted, we heard of how Bridget had stalled, then started and then been abused by a tailing car which nearly sent her into the rear of the car ahead.The Boss was spent. ‘Coco’ took the wheel for the final 9 sectors and I don’t think he minded. He too was sapped of all strength and was happy to push a pedal of the motorised kind.
A familiar sight came into view. Sebastien gave me a run down on L’Arbe which is a gastronomique restaurant at the end of the sector. Carrefour de l’Arbre sounds mythical in french but Sebastian set me straight, it translates as the Intersection where the restaurant (L’Arbe) is.
The sector itself is long, has some sharp turns and is hellishly difficult and I can see why it’s a turning point of the race. Come Easter Sunday it is lined with heckling Belgians, and the pathway along the pave becomes a mere metre between flags, flaggons and screaming fans.
For the rest of the year these roads see little to no traffic.
Sebastien made a pained declaration, took another swig of vitality and we headed for Gruson.
Gruson is one of the flatter and seemingly smoother sectors so I wound it up to 40kph and tried to hold the speed for as long as I could imagining I was locked onto Fabian’s motorised wheel. At this point the racers have done about 240km. The speed vanished from my wheels as fast as my energy, I waited for our road ‘Captain’ to join me where discussion quickly turned to tonights meal.
The weather changed yet again and we now heading into warm glowing sunshine to Roubaix.
The Captain had one last sector and burst of speed in him and it was the final sector which is a token 300m in length. Plaques in the name of past winners are scattered in no apparent order and our wheels rolled over giants of Roubaix. Both Coppis, Bobet, Van Looy, Merckx, De Vlaeminck, Moser, Madiot, Museeuw and our very own Stuey.
Like horses bolting for home.
It was slightly ironic that Roubaix velodrome for 364 days of the year is a playing field with a bank around it. Walkers, runners, and wannabe Zidane’s are the norm. A new indoor track has since been built, but it’s use will not be for this famed event.
We packed Bridget with our bikes, and after a well earned shower it was time to celebrate – Belgian style.
Ride ‘Roubaix’ – ticked off the bucket list.
Sebastien is hoping to start a side venture offering guided trips of the route. Offering true northern france hospitality, a chance to truly emerse yourself in the cycling culture of the event and the best Belgian beers and Nord pas de Calais cuisine on offer.
I’d like to thank Sebastien for not only offering a stranger a bed and sharing his ‘home’ with me but offering a an experience that can only be described as unique and one I’ll tell all and sundry about. Special thanks also to ‘Coco’ for his sense of humour which did not require an understanding of french to enjoy.
Biggest thanks to The Boss following me on the crazy adventure which began with an email from the otherside of the world, for driving Bridget and simultaneously capturing many of the images from the day.
Congratulations again to the lucky devil Will Ford who won last years Melburn Roobaix major prize – a return flight to see this years Ronde Van Vlaanderen and Paris Roubaix from the side of the road.
One day I hope to see it for myself.
Just in case you didn’t get enough there are more images in the gallery at the top to quench your thirst.