Be either really excited or completely confused, because this is one of those once-per-year race reports.
Easter Sunday 2012 marked my second Paris-Roubaix. The first time around one year prior I was coming back from a mind-bending few weeks of knee tendonitis. Steeped in heavy frustration, Roubaix was my fifth race after a month off the bike followed by a few weeks of very easy spinning. Take it from me that there’s nothing quite like jumping into the biggest Classics of the year, where everyone around you is chomping at the bit like a pack of two-hundred rabid wolves, and you’re the sheepish rookie popping up in the middle, unbeknownst just how gnarly these races are. Ready… aaaaand go!
So fast forward to yesterday – every chocolatier’s favorite spring holiday – and I’m in an entire different league. The fitness is there, the focus is there, and my hands are getting that calloused, “Belgian chap” from riding three weeks of cobbles. That said, I’m still hesitant to call my spring campaign experienced having now completed just one full spring of northern cobbled Classics, but the learning curve is steep, and slowly but surely it’s coming.
Also worth noting, we don’t do what many other teams do: recon. We don’t stay the weeks between races and scope the courses. We don’t blast through pave to test different tire pressures, which lines to try, where to tape your fingers to prevent the blisters. It’s six in one and a half-dozen in the other because while half the peloton is stuck in the same dank hotel in overcast Belgium, I’m home reaping sun and glassy smooth pavement while at home in Tuscany. But remember when I referenced that learned curve? Turns out you gotta study in order to ace the test. Sooo maybe eight in one and half-dozen in the other…
First section of pave? Flat tire. Crud. We’re now 100km and a hair over two hours into Paris-Roubaix. Heads up fellas, the boys are now coming out to play. Riding cobbles with a front flat is a similar sensation to hydroplaning your car over rumble-strips on the side of a highway. With your eyes closed. While getting punched in the junk.
Anyway, I jumped back in the caravan around car number 25 out of 25 and proceeded the slow and steady chase. While catching up to the peloton is obviously a priority, blowing your wad is low on my to-do list at this point in the day. 160km to go, which of course is a proper race unto itself, my stunning experienced showed in this return to the pack of wolves.
Zoom zoom zoom, I make my welcome return to the peloton complete with fanfare, fireworks, and having ingested ample dust kicked up from the cars to kill a lesser man. Around this time, one of the most memorable and horrific anecdotes of the race occurred. Out of the corner of my eye on a cobbled descent (yeaaup, there’s ample up and down in P-Rx), I caught sight of a rider hit a bump awkwardly, have his rear wheel pop up as he slowly rotated forward with just front wheel on the ground. Maybe two seconds after lift off and with very few options left, he hit the eject button causing him to Superman off his bike from a full six feet in the air… at 40kph… onto cobbles. That’ll scare you straight: Focus Ted, focus, focus, focus!
More crashes ensued. Heck, this is Paris-Roubaix after all. Wind, gutters, cobbles, flats, mechanicals, and at this point we’re no longer 195 dudes who started back in Compiegne, we’re maybe 80 guys chugging along in the front group. Remember when I talked about recon? Meticulously learning the ins and outs of the race. Something to the effect of, “When you enter the town of So-and-So, you will go through one roundabout and then about 250 meters later you will see two white houses with brown trim on the right. Be absolutely sure to be in the top twenty position there in the peloton or your Arenberg will be hell.”
As a related aside, this reminds me of something our very seasoned Italian bus driver said to me when he picked me up at the airport for Paris-Roubaix less than 48 hours before the start of the race. To win in the north, you must live in the north. Sage words Luigino. You can all stew on that for a while.
Anyway, when you’ve never even heard of the town of So-and-So, let alone know that there’s a roundabout, least of all have any idea where these white houses with brown trim are, you’re at the mercy of whoever is driving the peloton at a ferocious pace. Politely asking for them to slow down a touch so that you can prepare yourself for Arenberg just doesn’t work. ‘scuse me fellas, but I’ve never ridden Arenberg before. Mind if we stop at this bar ahead, grab a quick coffee, and then slowly group ride it all together?
Apparently they didn’t hear me.
So zooming through So-and-So, zipping through the roundabout, I was soon presented with a dilemma: go left and crash, go right and crash, or proceed straight and do not crash but stop entirely. To the delight of both my skin and bones, but to the chagrin of my speed and momentum I opted for straight. Thankfully a mighty sprint caught me back up to the peloton just as I caught sight of a whole bunch of trees, an enormous throng of people, and a banner that read, “Sector 16 – Arenberg”. Cripes, if only I’d known.
The anxiety is palpable as we hit Arenberg forest. It’s what I call square peg, round hole. Even with what’s left of the decimated peloton, everyone wants to be at the front of the race. Simple physics on small, French farm roads prevent this from being a possibility. But darn it, you may as well try!
My aforementioned stop-start at this very inopportune time resulted in a crazy first ever trip through Arenberg for me. The crowds are deafening, the cobbles are about fifty times more absurd than you could ever imagine. In retrospect, the word that strikes me as most fitting is unnatural. These roads are made for four wheel drive farming equipment – not for bicycles. Square peg, round hole.
Exiting Arenberg, the racers riding in ones and twos around me naturally melded together to form a groupetto. Still amid a caravan of cars and with the peloton still in sight, we optimistically chased. And chased. And twenty kilometers later, with now only a helicopter and swirling dust somewhere up the road to show where the peloton was riding away from us, we settled into the silent rhythm of a groupetto just riding to the finish.
The pave sections remaining ticked down into the single digits. The crowds still cheered with (nearly) the enthusiasm of the lead group. Bells ringing, shouts and whistling with the vigor of… err of proper, well lubricated cycling fans.
Then among one of the few pave sections remaining a cobble deflated both my tire and me. Psssshhhhht. I rode the rim for a while as I waved goodbye to my groupetto. Hoping a support car or team vehicle would come along and offer their services, it was not to be. A few kilometers later and still no support in sight, the only car that came along was a family of three generations of Belgian fans who were here for the race. Fine tuning the radio to catch news of their native hero Boonen riding to victory, grandpop, father, and son meticulously studied maps and GPS to get us precisely to the velodrome. Warmed up by a thermos of coffee brewed that morning but still piping hot, they were just the friends I needed to sooth the soul. And give me a lift home.