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.
We rolled out of Valeciennes for a 10 mile warmup before our tour guides introduced us to what I would consider the worst feeling cobbles of the entire route. You hear all sorts of advice about riding cobbles… ride the gutter, ride the crown, ride a big gear, ride fast… none of it really applies to the Arenberg. It bucked the bike so hard I lost my hold on the bars a few times. I remember thinking “this is going to be just rediculous tomorrow.” Of course, we weren’t going to be encountering the Arenberg on our ride the next day, but it painted the picture of what cobbles were going to feel like to ride. I will remember the feeling of riding that path through the forest… Of course on PRO race day, the entire Arenberg is just an insane Belgian/French party. Before and after the PROs have gone.
The Fine Folks of Flanders
Here’s a little something you should know while you’re watching Paris-Roubaix (and the Ronde too). You know that wonderful pageantry that is the Yellow Flanders flag? Waving proudly as the racers speed by.The reason you see them in some areas vs. others. You see none and them you see a pack of them with caravans and such. That’s because they know where the cobbled torture and crashes occur. Those flags let you know that some kind of insane action is going to take place in an area. Usually a corner or like a really badly built section of cobbles. Those flags represent sadists. It’s a cruel visual joke for the TV viewers but a nice landmark for the helicopter crews.
Oh, the cobbles you’ll see
Here’s another little PowerBar of wisdom. There are different kinds of cobbles. The Arenberg is made up of smaller, more jagged cobbles with grass in between. During rainy weather, that grass is like wet leaves on wet pavement. The Carrefour l’Arbe section was our final section of cobbles and thankfully it was not wet. It would have just been a mess. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:1%C3%A8re_partie_carefour_de_l%27arbre.jpg. There were sections with large, bluish cobbles that seemed to have an extra hardness to them. There were sections with dusty, brown cobbles and lots of dirt brushed over the gaps. And then you have the large, brown cobbles with literally nothing in between them except your front tire if you’re not careful. At one point, I had tried to turn my camera on only to see a huge bike-swallowing hole point my bike downward. I think on the footage, you could hear me say “OH $hit!!” and my front wheel dropped. I have no idea how I didn’t go down, and the 20 minutes that followed I must have run my heartrate 20 beats higher because of the stress. Yeah, I’ll never forget that section.
As I said before, the last section for the ‘tour’ was the Carrefour l’Arbe section (the one with the bar at the end). I gunned it through that section, knowing it was the last only to shoot out at the end into a sea of riders standing around taking photos. I was thankful for the last few kilometers of smooth pavement to the Sports Center where the riders could pick up their medals and do the photo op. I rode most of the day alone or with a few others and in looking back, I’m glad I did. The people on the roads, the scenery, the cobbles. I don’t think I would have enjoyed them so much had I needed to be attentive of the actions of others.
Overall, I completed the ride a little bonked… I’m guessing that riding a larger gear the entire time took its toll as well as the pure concentration you need to have while on a section of pave. I think us roadies take that luxury for granted. Mindless miles. There was an awareness I had the entire ride that I’ve never experienced. It was somewhat exhausting. No flats, no blisters, no crashes or saddle sores. I was lucky. I have a new level of respect having done this when I watch the PROs. They go insanely fast. The entire time. If you get a chance, do this ride. It’ll change your perspective on what a rough road is and what concentrating during a ride looks and feels like.
So as I watch the Paris-Roubaix this weekend, I’ll crack open a Kronenbourg 1664 and watch with fond memories.