Ed. Note: On Hell of the North eve, the High Holy of HTFU, a Rob Anderson looks back at his ride over the cobbles.
Forty. That’s how old I was when I took a stab at living a dream I’ve had since I was sixteen. That dream was riding the cobbles of the Paris-Roubaix route. There were many reasons why I thought that would be something to achieve. The imagery I gre up with in the 80’s of Sean Kelly, Claude Criquelon and Bernard Hinault all smathered with mud at the finish. The broken bikes, the concentration camp showers. It all created the romance for me. So, when I approached 40 and since we had the means, I was going to do it. So let me walk through that trip for you. I had planned to spend a couple of days in Belgium drinking beer, eating frites and immersing in the Flanders cycling culture. It was everything I imagined. The Belgians are to be revered for their commitment to bike racing. They are hardasses and fanatical. It extends to their bike commuting behavior, city layouts, bike lanes and driver behavior. It is amazing and I miss it. So after a couple of days of this, I had to pack up and meet the great folks at Sport Tours Internationalfor my transport to Valenciennes, France. Our home base.
Nothing will teach you more about European culture than a road trip with a couple of Brits. My hosts were down to earth, old-skool cyclists… and well-versed in all things PRO about cycling. By the time they dropped me off, the tour mechanic had my rental bike all assembled and ready for me make final adjustments to the fit. In retrospect, I’d highly recommend renting a bike for this endeavor. The cost of transporting my own steed over there and then having to manage moving it around on the train and in cozy Euro hotels outweighed the $75 cost of renting a brand new carbon bike equipped with SRAM. My only beef was the fit. It was a ‘cyclotour’ geometry and I like a little more ‘racer’in my bike. That said, being more upright turned out to be better for handling on the cobbles. After a few tweaks, a handful of us were off to visit the cobbles of the Arenberg Forest.
Tchmil is a total badass in this clip. 0:50 he’s just killing it
When it comes to fascinating professional riding machines, there is no day like the second Sunday of April. Paris-Roubaix. A race that is simultaneously one of the most famous bike races and the least representative of the sport. The very name of the race conjures images of shellshocked men irrationally compelled to ride over decaying roads at inadvisable speeds, their eyes just frightening windows of pain in a mask of filth. But the bikes…..if the skies of northern France weep for a week beforehand, it’s a mechanical parade of freaks.
1996 Bianchi titanium full-suspension, from cinelliguy’s flickr page
Over the last two decades, some of the coolest prototype bicycles have appeared at Paris-Roubaix. If before the 1990s pro teams had unique frames built for the race, the bikes probably didn’t stand out from those the riders used at the other spring races. Back then all the bikes had generally more tire clearance than today’s carbon bikes. Maybe the Roubaix bikes had more supple fork blades, but differences would have been subtle. Then in the early 90s the ever-tinkering Greg Lemond and his Team Z debuted the Rock Shox suspension road fork, and teammate Duclos-Lassalle soloed to a long-sought victory in the Roubaix velodrome. That was 1992. The next four years it was anything goes. Suspension stems, suspension seatposts, rear suspension, they tried everything…but usually not more than a week before the actual race. As you can imagine, the results were spectacularly mixed.
In 1993 with the new team sponsor Gan, Duclos-Lassalle again raced another conventional frame, fashioned from French Excell tubing and branded as a Lemond. Supposedly, he had the very same 25mm travel Rock Shox fork he had used the year before fitted to the newer frame. Instead of a solo win, a crash-battered Duclos followed on the heels of MG-Technogym’s Franco Ballerini. Ballerini was riding an Allsop Softride suspension stem, derived from the company’s popular mtb stem. The Softride stem was a sprung/hinged parallelogram with a lock-out, but because the stem had a taller stack than a traditional forged quill stem, frame sponsor Bianchi built the steel bike with a top tube that sloped down to reduce the length of the head tube. Fresher and possessing presumedly superior sprinting prowess, Ballerini looked good for the win, but the cagey Duclos came round the right and held the Italian off by less than the length of that Softride stem. As a side note, Duclos became the oldest winner of the race on record, as well as the last winner to use down tube shifters.
Also in the race was Canadian Steve Bauer riding for Motorola. Bauer had the most radical machine of the day, a custom Merckx with freakishly long and slack geometry, virtually a semi-recumbent. Although Bauer finished a respectable 21st, the design was judged to be a net disadvantage. What is also remarkable is that Bauer supposedly spent 6 months adjusting to the positioning of the bike, which sounds like 5months/3weeks more than typical. It is worth noting that the professionals are notorious for resisting changes to equipment or positioning once the season has started, and that Bauer was being employed by Motorola on a race-by-race basis. Perhaps attending less races, he simply had more time to concentrate on preparing for specific events like Paris-Roubaix.
The next year Bianchi famously debuted a full-suspension bike for GB-MG’s Johan Museeuw. With the Rock Shox fork up front, the bike used a rear swingarm design adapted from Bianchi USA’s mtb bikes. At this point in this cycling adaptation of Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang you might have noticed the American mtb theme. The truth is that the early 1990s was a dark era following the mountainbike boom, and America was plagued by rampant abuse of CNC machines and purple anodized seatposts. Even an ocean wasn’t enough to protect the purity of the professional European peloton. Paris-Roubaix had become a one-day orgy of indiscriminate prototype testing. Rock Shox was passing out forks to teams like Blowpops at a rave, and Lotto team mechanics simply bolted one to Andrei Tchmil’s stock Merckx frame (bearing the name of Lotto’s official frame sponsor Caloi).
There comes a time in all men’s lives that they must face the truth that they are on the slippery downhill slope of life.
Women, being the saner sex, are more graceful in dealing with this news and have created billion-dollar industries to disguise and reshape their faces and bodies.
Men deal with it by buying more expensive toys.
For men who ride bicycles for fun and the thrill of spending more per ounce of bicycle than the other guy, there is another signpost on the road to the cemetery. This one is called velo-sexual dysfunction.
The condition is caused by the repeated process of squeezing testicles into tight-fitting shorts that position the genitals for maximum pummeling by saddles made of military-grade table-tennis paddles.
In recent years, bicycle manufacturers have increased the ball-barrage by using materials to create bikes that are light enough to place on a roof-rack with one hand while also directing the same foot-pounds of force created by a highway-grade pneumatic jack-hammer at the area scientists refer to as the t’aint.
This precise targeting was followed by a growing cult of “slamming” a bicycle’s handlebar stem into a horizontal position that created a sonic wave that passes through the rider’s body and down through the saddle, and eventually into the t’aint target area.