What follows is a continuation of a sort of diary of my trip to Europe to ride the Paris-Roubaix Challenge and do a bit of bike-nerd tourism, in several parts. Read Part 1 here.
Day 3—The Big Day
I awoke with my alarm and despite the early hour, felt relatively well rested. It was cold in the AirBnB, so I slipped into my Tiralento Brooklyn tracksuit before making breakfast. I ate more than I usually do—scrambled eggs, ham, yogurt, pain au chocolat and coffee (if you can call it that). For inspiration, I watched a A Sunday in Hell while I ate. Afterward, I redressed in my riding kit and loaded my bike and gear into the car. It was just after 4. I should have plenty of time to get to Roubaix, I thought. Even if I had no idea where the parking lot was located.
No one was on the roads, so the drive was smooth. My TomTom was still crashing about every 10 or 15 minutes, so I used my iPhone and Apple Maps as a backup—an excellent idea. At the Velodrome, I looked for signage telling me where to park. There was none. I asked an official-looking man standing at the entrance of the Velodrome. He told me to park anywhere along the road. I considered doing that briefly, even temporarily parking on the sidewalk with several cars owned by other riders. But I paid extra for parking, I thought, so I decided to take a lap or two around the block in the hope that I’d see a sign or two or other cars with bikes I could follow into the lot.
It worked. I followed a couple cars turning into a nondescript driveway. Although organizers included a parking pass with my goody bag, there were no parking attendants to collect it or direct us to the lot. I hesitantly made my way across a narrow road between soccer fields to an open grass lot where a hundred or so others were parking, gearing up and riding off to wherever the buses were waiting for us.
It was cold—below freezing—and still very dark. I chatted with the carload of Brits parked in front of me. They were dressing and, apparently, planning to ride in shorts, despite the cold. I asked about the bus and they, like me, had no idea where it was. We figured we’d just follow the other cyclists and hope we got there. I offered them embrocation creme, but they declined. I, however, slathered it on my legs before pulling on my tights.
With a Kucharik wool undershirt; 2Velo, short sleeve, wool jersey and Kucharik arm warmers under the long sleeve 2Velo jersey and Tiralento wool shorts under the Vittore Gianni wool tights, I was pretty warm, considering. But, having opted to ride sans booties, I was worried about my feet getting cold, even with some sweet Patagonia wool socks.
With my pockets packed with food, an empty musette bag, CO2 cartridges, a multi-tool, a bottle of Güp, wallet and cell phone, I hopped on my bike and headed toward the street where I hoped I’d see a mass of cycling humanity riding toward the bus pick-up point. I did. And I joined them for the five minute roll to a nearby grocery store where a dozen busses and trucks were assembled. My feet and forehead were impossibly cold.
I lined up with dozens of other cyclists speaking a variety of languages. Many were British, others from somewhere in Eastern Europe, plus plenty of French and Dutch riders. Looking around, I noted I was the only guy there in full vintage mode. There were a few steel frames, but the bikes were all equipped with integrated brake/shift levers and clipless pedals. Everyone was fully kitted out in Lycra and nylon. There were a lot of Rapha, Assos and Specialized logos.
The line moved slowly. After about 10 minutes, a pair of volunteers working their way through the queue let us know that the line was for those who needed to buy tickets for the bus. Those, like me, who already had a ticket, needed to move to another, much-shorter line to collect new tickets that would pair us with a specific bus and cargo truck. Mine were F5.
The trucks weren’t marked and we weren’t told where to wait. Everyone wandered about asking other confused riders where to go. It was all a bit of a cluster. I settled in with a group of riders at the front of a truck someone identified as F5. Ten minutes later, a volunteer let us know we were at the wrong truck and we should gather at the rear of our truck. We waited there another 20 minute, easy, before three men carefully loaded our bikes into the truck. These same three men were the only people loading the trucks. It was a slow process.
While standing there, I noted that my wool kit was keeping me plenty warm.
On the bus, I sat next to another American. He lived in Northern California now, but had spent a lot of time in Southern California where I live. He was with two childhood buddies. The three of them had been riding around Italy for several weeks before coming to France. I never got his name. But I did see him at the last rest stop on the ride and again later on the road when he and his buddies passed and dropped me.
Warm in the bus, we sat in the grocery store parking lot for at least another 30 minutes. The drive to Busigny was supposed to take abut 45 minutes, but, I swear it was more like two hours. The countryside we drove through was typical of Northern Europe—bucolic farmland, rolling green hills, plowed fields, quaint villages. As the sun rose, we could see a layer of frost and occasionally ice covered everything. It looked really cold out there and a strong wind was buffeting the bus.
Stepping off the bus in Busigny, I discovered just how cold it really was. It was not time to decide what I would wear for the ride. As I waited for my bike to be offloaded, I shivered uncontrollably. My gut told me to drop off the extra clothes—mainly the long-sleeve jersey and musette bag—for transport back to Roubaix. But my frozen hands and feet and frosty breath were telling me not to remove a single stitch from my body.
My bike came off the truck quickly. Since I was riding solo, I was ready to go. I looked around trying to get my bearings and figure out which direction to ride—people were riding up and down the street we parked on—and where the bag drop-off might be, if there was one. I correctly decided to roll downhill.
A few hundred yards later, I saw a gathering of cyclists in a parking lot. Again, there was no signage, so I wasn’t sure what was going on. Was this place to check in? Could I drop my stuff there? (I still was undecided about whether or not I would.) Was food or drink available there? Maybe coffee?
I stopped and gave a look. It was unclear what was going on, but based on the fact that I saw several riders removing backpacks before disappearing into the crowd, I assumed it was bag drop-off. I was still freezing, so I made the decision to ride with my extra gear and just deal with the hassle of carrying the bag.
I rolled on, hoping to find an open coffee shop and a bathroom—I had to pee. Deeper into the village, I found two port-a-johns, which seemed to be far too few for the thousands of riders about to start a 109-mile bike ride at dawn. I stopped. Waited for a four guys—one from the Bay Area and a member of Team DFL—to do their thing. Did my thing. And headed off, still looking for a coffee shop.
Not far from the port-a-johns, I passed a small bakery with a dozen bikes parked out front and queue out the door. Getting started with the ride was more important to me than coffee. I rode on. Shortly after I passed the boulangerie, I found the spot where organizers set up a dozen or so port-a-johns. There also were a few vendors selling water, bananas and pastries. Some signage up the road would have been nice. I rolled past, crossed the starting line and headed out of town. I was still cold.
The sun was low in the sky, just above the horizon, and cast a golden glow over the frosty grass of pastures and grey dirt of freshly plowed fields. The sunlight may have been warm in hue, but it wasn’t in temperature. I was quite cold, my feet and forehead, in particular.
My body felt okay, but I wasn’t really riding strongly. I hoped it was just the cold, the 15-mph winds or maybe a lack of coffee and that it would pass with the miles. Several groups of riders passed me. Despite trying, I was unable to sit on until a strung-out group went by on a slight downhill. I hopped on the back and cruised for the next few miles until we hit a slight uphill grade. I slipped off the back and settled into a rhythm. At the crest of the hill, I was overheating. I stopped to remove the long sleeve jersey, stuffed it in my musette bag and slung the bag over my shoulder. It was going to be a long 100 miles with that thing sliding around on my back. I regretted not dropping it off at the start.
A number of the riders who passed me early in the ride gestured or called out their approval of my bike and gear choice. “Allez Roger!” “De Vlaeminck!” “Respect!”
I was a little unclear how far we would ride before getting to the first sector of cobbles—sector 29 at Troisvilles a Inchy. I knew it wasn’t too far. I figured less than 20 miles. But it was taking longer to get there than I expected. I was recording my ride with my iPhone on Strava, but it was in my back pocket and I had no intention of pulling it out all day to check my mileage. Knowing how far I had gone or how far I had to go wasn’t going to make the miles pass any faster.
Then I saw it—the banner signaling the entrance of the sector. A smile broke across my face. We turned left onto the pavé—an “easy” two-star sector of only 0.9 kilometers in length. I was glad our first section would be a light appetizer of the pain I knew was to come. I switched on my GoPro and rode in.
I had ridden the cobbles of L’Enfer du Nord before. Twice Specialized invited me to attend press conferences in Roubaix. Both events included 50-kilometer rides over some five or six cobbled sectors, each time including Trouée d’Arenberg. It had been some 14 years since the last time I rode the pavé, but I hadn’t completely forgotten what it was like. Those rides, however, were on first-generation Roubaixs, bikes designed specifically to conquer the cobbles.
On this day, I was on a bike built in 1972. The frame and all the components were more than 45 years old and I was unsure what to expect. I was, however, confident that my tire choice—27mm, Challenge, Paris-Roubaix tubulars—would be superior to the smaller clinchers I used in 2004 and 2005 with Specialized.
Despite my smile, almost immediately upon hitting the cobbles of Sector 29, I knew it was going to be a long, difficult and painful day. (I actually knew this when I signed up last December.) My watch, a vintage 1970s Rodania like those worn by Roger De Vlaeminck, Eddy Merckx and Freddy Maertens, immediately began bouncing violently against my forearm. At first the pain was dull. Then it became clear to me that the pain wasn’t limited to stainless steel bouncing against bone. The crown was digging into my skin. I rode on.
The short sector ended quickly. Other than the pain I felt in my wrist, which stopped as soon as I hit smooth asphalt, it wasn’t too bad. I wasn’t powerful enough to float over the pavé like the greats do, but I managed to maintain enough speed and found enough “smooth” gutter to get through the section with confidence that the day wouldn’t be too horrific.
Then, I hit Sector 28.
Sector 28 at Briastre a Viesley was the first of seven four-star sectors. In this case, the high rating was likely due to its 3-kilometer length. Of the 29 sectors, only three would be 3km or longer. It was chunky, but there was a fair amount of dry dirt gutter to ride in. It took me 4 minutes to cross the rocky expanse, but it seemed like 30. It was also clear my watch was going to be a real problem. I didn’t loo, but I was pretty sure my arm was bleeding where the crown was digging into the skin. Still, I was having fun.
Sector 27 was rated only three stars. It was chunky and 1.8km long, but again, there was plenty of gutter to ride in.
I noticed that my legs weren’t coming around. Even on the roads between pavé sectors, I was riding slowly. And when we hit a hill, I struggled. I’m too heavy to climb fast these days, but I don’t usually go backward on the sort of short pitches along the route. I was a little worried I hadn’t hydrated well enough.
The 3.7km, four-star Sector 26 started with a slight uphill, then dropped fast. It was a hoot to ride. I passed a lot of people while “descending.” At times my vision was so blurred I had no idea which of the three or four objects I was seeing was real. I just hung on and tried to keep my bars straight. At the bottom I chatted with an Aussie, who also was pumped on the super fun sector.
The next sector at Saint-Pythin was the first two-star sector. It was 1.5km long, but fairly well maintained with smoothish gutters and a descending finish. I wasn’t felling great at this point, so it was a welcome relief. I would find out later that not all two-star sectors, however, are as “good.”
Sector 24, a 2.3km three-star section at Vertain a Saint-Martin-sur-Escallion would be the last before the first rest stop. My bike had only one bottle cage and I had emptied my bidon miles before the rest stop. I was feeling parched and in desperate need of liquid refreshment. I considered adding an extra bolt-on bootle cage to the bike, but thought the vibration of the cobbles would cause it to come loose and possibly mar the beautiful paint on my frame. My hope was that I’d be able to buy water at shops along the route. Unfortunately, I hadn’t seen a single open shop since we left Busigny.
When I pulled into the rest stop, I immediately went to the water station, filled my bootle with water and chucked its contents twice before filling it a third time and adding a powdered energy drink I brought with me. I grabbed a handful of gels and gobbled down bananas and orange slices before getting in line for the port-a-johns. There were three—far too few for the crowd.
During the wait, I noticed there was blood on my left glove. I pulled up my arm warmer to get a better look and saw that my wrist under my watch was smeared with a mix of dry and wet blood. Worried that my watch would bounce out on the pavé if I put it in my back pocket, I moved it to my right arm with the crown pointing up my arm. I hoped flipping the watch and putting the crown farther from my wrist might prevent it from gouging my arm.
When it was my turn, my pee came out somewhat brownish. Needless to say, I was a little bit alarmed. I was clearly dehydrated, which may explain why I felt so sluggish. I returned to the water station and downed a couple cups before getting back on the road.
I was only six sectors into the ride and basically felt like shit. I had felt that way for the last 10 or so miles. With 23 more sectors to go, I wasn’t feeling very optimistic about my chances of finishing. As I rode, I broke the route down into thirds and set my goals accordingly. I focused on being only four sectors from getting into the teens, rather than 23 from the finish in Roubaix.
Much of the ride between Sectors 24 and 20 is a blur. I vividly recall feeling terrible and working really hard to talk myself out of climbing off at the next rest stop. And at some point, I stopped and removed my tights. I was unsure it was good idea, but I did it anyway. Vintage Vittore Gianni tights may appear thin, but they are extremely warm. Initially the cold winds stung my exposed legs, but I got used to it quickly,
When I hit the cobbles in Haveluy a Wallers, I knew I was nearly to the legendary Troupe d’Arenberg. The thought of riding there again, sent a surge, albeit a small surge, of adrenaline through my body. A massive does of fear and trepidation accompanied it.
I approached Arenberg, the first of three five-star sectors with another rider. As he passed me we exchanged a few words and rode the last kilometer together. It was bit of a circus at the entrance to the “forest.” Among the hundreds of people at the entrance, were two gentlemen directing traffic—pedestrian, cycling and automotive—away from the pavé. Among those they directed down the road to the right were the two of us.
We were confused and quite sure this was a mistake. Several riders ahead of us were allowed to enter the sector, after all. We rode a couple hundred feet down the wrong road, threw U-turns and headed back the Arenberg. This detour meant we would enter the pavé going far slower then the recommended 30-40 kph. Before I even entered the forest, I was already screwed.
As soon as my tires met the cobbles, I knew this was going to be brutal. I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to make it through. And if I did, I might call it a day at the end. The pain of my heavy watch bouncing on my wrist was nearly unbearable. I tried to focus on other things—catching riders a head of me, keeping the pedals moving, the faces of the fans walking along the adjacent path, looking good for the photographers—and searched for a non-existent gutter or sections of smooth road. I felt like I was going 5 mph.
My bike and body bounced in slow motion over the centuries-old loaves of granite that undulate through the 2.4km forest. With every up and down, I felt as though I was being punched from all directions. It was inhumane and I couldn’t believe I was putting myself though this. At times I laughed to myself about the stupidity of it. Then, someone I assumed was a young stud would blow by me at 30 kmh as if floating just above the pavé. What the fuck? How the fuck? I felt as if I was about to fall over. It was the longest nine minutes of my life. Every second along the way I wished it was over.
When I reached the end, I stopped to ponder what I had just done. Dozens of others were also stopped at the end of the road. I shot some selfies—the only ones I‘d take all day—drank some water and sucked down a gel. My right wrist was aching. I didn’t look at it. I remounted and joined a small group on the road. The smooth asphalt was heavenly. I was now dreading every one of the 19 remaining sectors. But at least I’d made it to the teens.
All I remember about the miles between the Arenberg forest and the next rest stop was that each of the cobbled sections seemed worse than the one before. And that I was intensely thirsty. I think it was along this part of the route that I began to contemplate giving up cycling all together. It was the most idiotic activity I could imagine.
As before, I chugged a couple bottles of water and inhaled a half dozen orange slices, grabbed a bunch of energy bars and went to the bathroom at the rest stop. My pee was no longer brown. A relief. But I was still really thirsty. And I was knackered. I vowed to myself to ride on, no matter what. I was, after all, half way to Roubaix.
Between the rest stop and the finish on the Velodrome in Roubaix, I was going to have to conquer two more five-star sectors. One, Carrefour de l’Arbre, I had ridden twice the previous day. I was the third sector from the end and I knew, as bad it as it was going to be, it would signal the end of the ride.
I was pleased with how my bike had held up. No flats. No lost water bottles. No loose bits. I saw dozens of riders along the road with punctures. I also saw a few broken rims. Others were sitting on curbs or the front stoops of buildings, cell phones in hand, probably calling for a ride home. I was glad I wasn’t one of them.
No doubt there were crashes on this day, but other than witnessing someone climb out of one of the many drainage ditches along the route, I saw no evidence of carnage. I never had any close calls despite riding in the “more dangerous” gutters and grass whenever possible.
Between the five-star Sector 11 at Mons-en-Pévele and the finish are three two-star sectors. I looked forward to riding what I expected to be smoothish pathways. What I learned, however, is that two stars doesn’t imply a lack of chunks and bumps. I recall one three-star section being very tame for most of its length, but none of the last three two-star sections were easy. They were short—0.5, 0.7 and 1.1 km long—but at least one of them was in worse condition than Arenberg or Mons-en-Pévele. None of them was easy nor was riding them comfortable.
At one point, I heard one of my fellow riders proclaim to his friends, “Fuck cobbles.” I couldn’t have agreed more.
It was a monumental struggle for me to keep riding. I pedaled squares on the assault between cobbled sectors and I wallowed in my pain and fatigue on the pavé. Nothing about it was fun any more. I had become empty inside, feeling nothing but contempt for those who created racing over cobbles and for myself for ever thinking I enjoyed such a thing.
Not long after I left the third and last rest stop, I was freezing again. The sun had disappeared behind a haze of clouds. I doubt the temperature had dropped, but without the sunshine, it sure felt like it. I stopped and put my tights back on. Twenty minutes later, I was hot again. Removing them again, however, seemed like too much effort. I kept going.
I still dreaded Carrefour de l’Arbre. The previous day there was almost no place to ride along the sector in the gutter. It was long at 2.1 kilometers and followed almost immediately by another 1.1-kilometer sector. I had a feeling it was going to break me. I tried to focus on the fact that it was a mere 10 kilometers from Roubaix.
By the time I hit Carrefour, unlike the day before, thousands of cyclist had already been there. Apparently many of them chose to ride in the gutters and grass, creating a fairly wide swath of comfort for me to follow in. I was grateful. It wasn’t until the end of the road when it tilts up a few degrees that it got really difficult. But it was basically over.
Only two more sectors to go. (We would skip the last, strictly ceremonial one-star sector a few blocks before the Velodrome in Roubaix.)
I plodded through the last few kilometers until we entered the city center of Roubaix. There, I linked up with a dozen or so others. Carefully, we rode single file in rush-hour traffic. It was sketchy at times. More than once, a car would drift into our path forcing one or several of us to slam on the brakes or hop the curb onto the sidewalk. Once, a guy hit his brakes and fell in front of me. I was still strapped into my pedals and despite falling to the right, just managed to pull my left foot out, swing my leg over my rear tire and plant my cleated shoe on the ground to the right side of my bike. It was an acrobatic move and the only time I almost crashed all day.
Soon, I recognized the road that leads into the Velodrome. Relief mixed with anticipation and excitement rushed over me. I was about to ride into one of the most hallowed grounds in cycling, following the path of all my cycling heroes. I tried to focus and soak it all in. If ever there was time to be in the moment, this was it.
The steepness of the banks surprised me. I had watched the race finish from the infield of the velodrome twice before, but this was my first time on the track. I briefly went up the bank before dropping down to the light blue strip along the infield. Should I sprint all out, I wondered?
Before exiting the turn, I looked toward the finish line and saw photographers. I decided it would be best to slow down and back away from the riders in front of me so I could cross the finish alone for an unobstructed photo. Unfortunately, the riders in front of me had the same idea. My finish line photos suck.
After I crossed the finish line, I immediately slowed, pulled my foot from my pedal and stopped in front of a young, female volunteer who placed a medal around my neck. I looked at it, pleased with the design and quality. When I dismounted my bike and stepped into the infield, I nearly fell. I was shattered.
It occurred to me that it would be nice to be sharing the moment with someone. I looked around hoping to see a familiar face. There were none. It was a particularly lonely moment.
I considered what my next move would be—Grab a beer? Sit down in the infield and watch others finish? Get some food? All the above? Go back to the AirBnB? One thing I knew for certain, I was never going to ride a bike again. I was over it. I was going to find a new passion.
Standing there in the infield with a 1,000-yard stare affixed to my face, I felt a presence behind me. I turned to see a large man dressed in street clothes getting ready to speak. With a German accent, he said his friend who had also just finished, was admiring my bike and jersey. I thanked him and told him the bike was a real Brooklyn Team bike. He said it was a cool bike and went back to his friend. Then, he came back and asked if he could take my photograph. I doubted I looked good enough to have my photo taken, but I agreed to pose for him with my bike. He snapped a few frames and thanked me. I regret not asking for his name or contact info.
I looked around the velodrome and tried to soak it all in. I was tired. I was cold. I was sweaty. I was hungry. I wanted to go home. I made my way to the carpark, undressed and redressed, and loaded my bike into the car. My right wrist, like my left, was caked with dried blood. The crown and dug into two spots only forearm and wrist. I still have the scars.
I was super stoked I finished. But I was exhausted and unable absorb its meaning.
Back at the flat, I took a long hot shower. It was good. I was starving and craving a hamburger, frites and a Coke, a beverage I gave up years ago. I knew there was nowhere to get any of that nearby and I had no energy to set out on an adventure to find a place. Instead, I made a huge bowl of penne arrabiata and paired it with one of the selection of Belgian beers I had purchased the day before. I think I chose the Trappist Rochefort 6.
I had booked the AirBnB through that evening. My plan had been to check out in the morning, as was required, then find a place to hang out for the race, either at a bar or along a cobbled sector, before going to my next AirBnB outside Gent. As luck would have it, I was only a handful of miles from one of the best sectors to watch the race go by, Carrefour de l’Arbre. Even better, the AirBnB owner said I could keep my car at her place until after the race finished. Sounded like a plan.
I tossed in a load of laundry and packed up my stuff. I climbed into bed, turned on the TV, which was showing a rebroadcast of the 2018 Paris-Roubaix race and passed out.
To be continued…