I know you are thinking. What the..? Have the Trek guys gone bonkers? Do I really want to read this? Yes you do, that title is meant to catch your attention. Worked, eh? Bear with me, it will all make sense.
In spit of the lack of oatmeal involved, this past week has to rank as one of the most amazing since I have had this job. There have been a lot of really great things that I have been allowed to do with this job, but of all of those - this story has to be at the very top.
If you have been following along, you know that I have been building up to do the Paris Roubaix (Hell of the North) bike race. It has been something that I have wanted to do for a long time. The allure of the pave, cobbles buried in the ground at a million different non level angles, roads built centuries ago and left to deteriorate through wars and winters that cannot even be counted, the pain, the danger etc… I was looking forward to all of it.
I spent 62.5 hours this past month watching old footage of the race. (I know, my wife kept track. I'm a little bit obsessive.) There were years when it was a slog though the mud, and years where it was a dust bowl. This year was to be fast, dry and warm. Our race was the day before the pro race. We would do 140k of the pro race and it would include 18 sections of cobbles.
Friday was bib pick up day and sign up at the expo etc… After that, we went for a ride. Last year at the TDF, I ran across Liam and his dad Bill, as they were riding a bunch of the stages at the tour and documenting it all. They are big Livestrong supporters and have done an amazing job documenting their riding exploits while they are fortunate enough to live in France. You can check out their stories at www.fathersontour.com.
They were up in northern France for the Challenge as well, so we all went out for a little shake down ride in the fields of the St Quentin area.
After a nice little shakedown ride, we had some dinner and all retired to our rooms to try to get ready for the next day. I was left to myself to struggle with trying to remember how to change a sew up if I flat (have not done that in a long time), how do you manage across the cobbles, how fast would it be, do I have enough miles yet… It was not a good night of sleep.
My steed for the ride. Leopard Trek cobbles set up.
Huge phat tubular wheels and tires.
After a nearly sleepless and nervous night, I can tell you this much – the cobbles are indescribable. There is nothing like it, and I mean nothing. I cannot even begin to describe just how rough they are. It is not like riding a rough dirt road. It is not like a piece of bad pavement that I think I have on one of my routes. There really is no way to prepare yourself for just how rough it is. At kilometer marker 50, we entered on a fast left hand turn into the first cobbled section. Section 18 of 27 for the pro race.
Immediately, your whole body starts to rebel against the beating it is taking. Your head shakes, your arms convulse almost uncontrollably. The pain coming through your wrists, feet and but is felt immediately. The sound coming out of your bike is frightening. Your mind tells you that surely the bike is going to shatter at any moment. You find yourself terrified that your wheels are going to just crumble at any moment. When that pack entered that first section, there were bottles flying everywhere, bodies on the ground, riders careening off into the grass and fields - chaos.
All the advice that I had gotten, flashed through my head – stay on the tops, do not slow down, ride the crown in the middle of the road, stay loose, do not slow down… Of course, 25 meters in, I failed and went for a down shift. With the loss of just 2kph, the bike starts to buck and shake so violently there is no way to hold on. looked for the path on the side and became dejected and sucked the gutter. We all learned to love the gutter in that first section.
More than one person told me afterward, that they did not think they would be able to make it after that first section. Then the advice began to come back to me. “Rest during the smooth parts, go like hell during the rough". A funny thing happens during the race, you start to figure it out after the first few sections. By the 3rd or so section, you are able to ride the tops and stay loose and pedal like hell when your in it.
Here I am doing a much more credible job getting over the top. You cannot imagine how rough that is at speed. This is the only picture that I have that I do not look like I am in horrible pain.
Of course there is a big chunk of time in the middle where you actually start to enjoy the brutality and pure beauty of it all. I can tell you right now that the guys that do this for a living are absolutely nails. This is not for the faint of heart. The penalty for getting it wrong is really really high, as in this years pro race there were alot of pro - some that had even won the day before - who did not finish the race due to crashes. In our race, the ambulance was out on course a lot.
Here is a really good description of all the cobble sections that I saw, from Podium Cafe.
Our group all finished. One busted up head from a crash, one broken wrist from a crash a few flats – it was the most incredible day any of us had ever had on a bike.
Pro Race Day
The next day we watched the pro race. We got up early, and made our way to Compiègne, north of Paris. (I know, it is called Paris-Roubaix, not Compiègne-Roubaix, why doesn't it start there? Trust me, it is ok that it does not start any farther away.) There is the usual pro race circus at the start, and the race really doesn't officially start anyway until they get out of town.
The pros go fast, really fast. They average more than 45kph for the first couple of hours, and then they hit the cobbles. You cannot believe how violent a pack of riders is when they go across the cobbles together at nearly 50kph. The video below tries to show that, but only does a mediocre job of that.
This is the pack coming by on section 15. Still all together, the race had not blown apart yet.
On another section of race, I watched a bottle bounce out of someone cage and then bounce along on the road in the middle of the pack. It was basically a huge rock bouncing along, just waiting for someone to hit it and take the whole peleton down. Magically, no one did. They are all pounding away in a pack like the video, they cannot see past the rider in front, there is dust everywhere, they are fatigued and yet no one went down. Wow.
If you watched the race, you know the results. It is hard for that result to tell the whole story. Fabian Cancellara is the most amazing athlete ever to ride this race, or any other spring classic for that matter. But, one of the great things about racing is the strongest man doesn’t always win. There is more to racing than that.
Paris-Roubaix is such a spectacle. It is the most beautiful race ever. I hope it never changes. After the race, I asked Ben King what he thought of it. His answer, “That is the most amazing thing ever. I cannot wait to do it again.”
That is why "Hell", is actually quite beautiful. I will definitely be back.
Ben King after the race.
I spent the day with Francesco Moser in the car chasing the race. He is no longer a racer, but he is still a hero. He does not speak much english, but his French is a bit better so we communicated that way. He was one of my childhood heroes, so that was amazing all by itself.