It is cool and grey in Antwerpen. It is wet. It is an early spring Belgium day, I dare.
The planned ride under the Schelde and around the town has been put on hold. We are happy to sit in our little mobile home and do a bit of house work. But first...
The Paris-Roubaix Challenge
As I wrote before, the preparation was near perfect. OK, I wasn’t race fit and I didn’t have a special Roubaix rig, like many, but it didn’t matter. I said to myself I was there for the experience of riding the famous cobbled roads of Northern France.
But one thing changed as I got on the bike that morning, I felt like going as fast as I could on the cobbles, just like Kelly and did.
The challenge wasn’t incident-free, unfortunately. First, and although I was up by 5:20 am, we didn’t make it to the 7:30 start. An error in the communication with the camping ground staff kept us locked inside until 7:50 am. We were in Peronne and the cut off time was 8 am, in St Quentin, 15 minutes away.
Luckily, Sandra came up with the great idea of driving and dropping me off somewhere along the course. And after doing a quick search with the GPS, we drove to Bertry, 4 or 5 kilometres before the first cobbled sector (No.19). We stopped at an intersection where we saw Gendarmes controlling the traffic. We also saw cyclists riding pass. Great, bike off the rack, shoes on, on the bike, I was only hoping I could find a few riders with 400 or 500 numbers pinned to their jerseys, riders from my starting group. But they had already gone pass. I could only spot 800s, 900s and 1000s.
Time to race like Kelly.
Sooner than I expected, and after overtaking dozens, or hundreds perhaps, I got to Sector 19. Again, Gendarmes pointing the way, a small crowd clapping and I was riding the cobbles. It was kind of emotional, I must say, but all I could think was “don’t crash, don’t get a puncture”. It was only a three stars sector, a 2.2 km first pave experience, 18 to go and I loved it! One problem, one drink-bottle was gone.
The bike felt good, fast, perhaps the tyres were pumped a little too high because I could feel the hard pounding on my hands. Riding on the top of the handle-bars was best but that meant no breaks and no shifting. A little scary when overtaking someone because I never knew what they were going to do. I tried to get out of the saddle a couple of times, that wasn’t a good idea. The rear wheel jumped up and down and from side to side.
I was flying in between sectors, through the villages, dreaming that I was in a break. I was catching groups and dropping them. I think most of them were just cruising. I had number 1221 (I think) on my wheel for a while, just for a while.
The next sector was very much the same, so was the next. I was still riding in the middle of the road when I could and on the cobbles for the whole sector. It was fun, I wasn’t hurting but I noticed number 1221 passing me like a pro. I also noticed that my second bottle was also gone.
Having to concentrate on the course didn’t allow me to work out how far I was to the first feed zone and I had no map of the course. Stopping at one of the bars crossed my mind. I even thought of the old days when they had a glass of wine, or two, when riding through the villages. But I had no time to stop, I had to ride faster to get to the feed quicker.
One more sector, another village, a right turn and there it was a huge set up with tents, music, tables full of food, Mavic cars, you name it, but a hundred riders as well, some as if they were having a picnic. I managed a couple of slices of orange, a coke and “non biddon” before I saw a group I overtook early going pass.
Instinct made me run and jump on the bike, the folks from the village clapping and yelling. It was like a movie, as if they knew what was going on. I felt like racing. I did catch them and worked with a guy in a yellow kit for a while, the others sat there. I enjoyed the company because I was riding by myself most of the time. I was kind of lonely.
For the next sector, I was going solo again. And again, 1221 went past, flying. Where is this guy coming from?
I also recognized a couple of other riders and we rode together for a while. No words said but it was fun. They dropped me on Sector 14, I caught them again and they dropped me again on 12. Don’t push, I thought, too many sectors to go.
So far, the temperature was good and I only felt a bit of wind and couple of drops of rain. Nice day to ride a bike. The scenery started to get a little greener but I didn’t think of a forest until I heard the whistles from the people standing by the train line crossing, and turned left into it.
The Arenberg Forest.
The forest was really beautiful and the cobbles looked like they have been worked on. There was also growth in between them. The Arenberg gave me inspiration and a desire to go harder, faster. After that, I only had to ride to the velodrome. For some reason, I didn’t find the cobbles too difficult, they just looked slippery. I am sure it would be different at 40 km/h…
However, I run out of energy after that, my average speed dropped fast. I felt dehydrated and the energy bar I had, didn’t kicking in. I needed to make it to the next feed, quick if I wanted to get to the velodrome.
For the next three sectors I avoided the cobbles when I could. Riding on the dirt seemed faster and my body was asking for a rest. That wasn’t as easy as one might think, if you are not a mountain biker, riding on a 20 cm wide single-track requires a lot of concentration. There are also loose rocks, holes, sticks and other obstacles. Fun but not fun…
I wasn’t very optimistic when I saw the 70 km to go sign. I felt cold and my body ached. Only my arrival at the second feed zone brought some hope of a ride on the velodrome. I was hitting the wall.
One cup of water, two of coke, a few nuts and a banana and in a couple of minutes I was on the bike and slowly on my way. I couldn’t wait to see the next sector number to get an idea of what laid ahead. But there was a long, windy stretch and I didn’t feel much better. I started to rest behind the groups I caught before passing them, riders who now had 400 and 500 numbers. That felt good.
The next village, named Bourghelles and the short Sector 6 brought me back to earth, I think. I was still riding on the dirt when I could but now, I felt I could make it. The sectors also seemed closer to each other, quicker pain. I even remember pushing a bit harder when the crowd near The Restaurant applauded and yelled. It felt warm. I was getting closer and Sandra was waiting for me.
The landscape changed, there were more houses on the land. Then, another open field, one more sector, I was all by myself. I spotted a man using his mobile. As I got closer, he stopped his conversation, looked at me and yelled:
“You, chicken, get on the pave and ride, it is seven kilometres to Roubaix!”
Well, that was my interpretation and I tried but I couldn’t face the cobbles anymore. I felt like a broken man.
Next, I was in the suburbs of Roubaix. I saw traffic lights, I got directed through a pedestrian tunnel and suddenly I was on the main street. The people didn’t pay much attention as I rode alone, just like Stuey as he rode solo on the streets of Roubaix. Then, the sign indicating Sector One. But the cobbles were even and flat, nice to ride on and for the last time, a Gendarme signalled me to turn right, this time into the Roubaix Velodrome.
I tried not to show my tears.
Sunday, 1st April: Paris (Bertry)-Roubaix
Time: 4h 12min 25sec
Dist: 120.5 km
Elev: 350 m