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PostPosted: Mon Jun 07, 2010 11:54 pm 
Pumpy's Bear
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Joined: Mon Oct 10, 2005 10:03 pm
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Location: Hereford
Executive Summary
Brutal


For those wanting a little more, this is the second in an increasingly egocentric set of ride reports (next up is my visit to the corner shop for a newspaper. And possibly a loaf of bread) so.....

Long winded version

Outside of the Grand Tours, the One Day Classics hold centre stage. And of those, the five 'Monuments' (Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Giro di Lombardia) are king. And separating out further are the cobbled classics - the Tour of Flanders (or Ronde van Vlaanderen if you want to go all Flemish) and Paris-Roubaix. And lets throw in Gent-Wevelgem for good measure.

But the one that has always stood head and shoulders above the others, for reasons I'm not sure I can fully articulate, is Paris-Roubaix, 'Queen of the Classics', first raced in 1896. Why does it stand out? Images from the 70s, 80s and 90s and impossibly filthy riders covering incredibly rough ground in appalling weather? Perhaps. The fact that Belgium has almost twice as many winners as any other country? Probably. For whatever reason, the names Roger de Vlaeminck, Johan Museeuw and latterly Tom Boonen, the Beckham of Belgian cycling, have always been synonymous with Paris-Roubaix.

So when fellow forum member Gareth, based in Brussels, asked if I was up for the Paris-Roubaix sportive, run every two years, I didn't hesitate. Here's what happened.

The first dilemma was what distance to do - the 255km that the pros cover, the 177km 'Essential' that includes all the pavé (note that it isn't cobbles but pavé) or the shortest route that is charmingly described as for the least trained? For me 110 miles with all the cobbles was enough - I suspected I wouldn't need a 50 mile warm up on Northern French roads.

The next question was what bike. Seeking advice from here and looking deep into my soul I selected a early 90s Zullo SLX with Chorus throughout and the concession of some gel under the tape on the tops and 28c tyres. I overlooked that I had never ridden it for more than 5km at a time, had fitted a different freewheel and was using Look pedals for the second time in 20 years. With new cleats. And second hand shoes that I had never previously worn.

Arriving in Brussels after a tortuous 11 hour train/Eurostar journey I was feeling ready - nervous, excited, scared. Having reassembled the bike I took a quick 10km spin. The cleats were in the wrong place and my brief experience with capital city cobbles did not inspire confidence. Still, too many Belgian beers on the Friday night and the potential to score some Pot Belge made me hopeful. However the Pot Belge proved elusive and all I was offered was the promise of some 'mystery meat' post race.

All too soon it was the night before with a pizza to carbo load and oh, just one more port please. The temperature on the drive to Northern France was 30C which didn't bode well.

All too soon it was Sunday morning at 6 a.m. The weather was cool but my stomach was rumbling worryingly and this was more than pre-match nerves, the anchovies from the previous nights pizza had rallied in the valley in my gut and were on the move. I purged myself before we left the hotel, twice, and by the time we arrived at the sign on I was at fighting weight. Sad to say I then disgraced myself at the squat toilet facilities at the sign on and started the event wooden legged and shame faced.

After a 15km warm up we hit the first section of cobbles. I'm not sure how to sum it up but my vision was so blurred after 300m that I was sure that the dire warnings my mother gave me in my teens were coming true - I was sure I was going blind. Exciting the first set of cobbles was no mean feat either as it was downhill, although only about 6%. Sounds easy? But where to put your hands - on the drops isn't an option as you can't get a decent grip, on the hoods will batter the webbed part of your hands and on the tops offers no hope of braking. Fortunately I'm a brave descender and had single pivot brakes so I breezily bounced down. Excellent, only 27 secteurs to go and my stomach was feeling very settled.

We now settled into a rhythm of undulating smooth tarmac before rattling through cobbled sections in as big a gear and as fast as we could. The longest section was 3,700m which doesn't sound too bad until you try it. At least it was dry though and the biggest challenge was plumes of dust. Just as I hit a road section however it started to rain. At first I was pleased as this fed into my Patis-Roubaix fantasies and I imagined I was a Belgian hardman, hammering along. But the rain continued and got harder and harder until it was biblical complete with thunderclaps and lightening and the roads were awash. Fortunately it only lasted for two and a half hours.

We were now at the second checkpoint and the awfulness of the Arenburg Forest awaited. Luckily although the cobbles were as slick as a mole it had stopped raining and the sun was at least out to dry us if not the pavé.

On we trundled, with the awful realisation that we weren't yet half way through. At the third checkpoint I marvelled at all the Colnagos and tried not to think of the awfulness that awaited in the next 40km. I also realised that I'd not changed out of 53x17 in over two hours.

Rolling out of checkpoint 3 I was actually starting to feel a bit chipper, no doubt fortified by some rather slices of tasty sausage and some strange green drink on offer (was this Pot Belge?). I did reflect however that although we'd done 13 sections of cobbles in 110km, we had 15 sections left in only 67km and I feared that the worst was being saved for last. Hitting the first section of pavé was a literal jolt as my forearms felt as if they were being hit with red hot pokers - I literally couldn't hold the bars tight enough to steer a straight course. After the first couple of minutes it eased though and I continued to effect what I liked to think was a British Cancellara pose. However the cobbles came so thick, fast and brutally in this section that it's best to gloss over it but I must confess that at one point I did change gear amid audible obscenities, repeated mantra like.

Arriving at the last checkpoint with 'only' 27km to go I was feeling hopeful but my legs were tingling from the bumpy progress and my palms were blistered, again as my mother had warned me. Still, it was only 15 miles so it was surely in the bag? Over the next couple of hours my upper body was battered although there wasn't a mark to be seen, almost as if I had been beaten up by the Romanian secret police in the mid 80s. I emerged from each section of pavé with hands shaped like claws and with a sore throat from my Pavlovian swearing. What had been 25kph over the cobbles was now a sorry 14kph. And finishing one 2km stretch only to start another 1.7km section with only the width of a tarmac road for respite didn't help. Still, nearly there.

And then, almost as if by magic, we were at the velodrome after 7 hours of riding. The relief was palpable and the Stella Artois offered at the finish was very welcome. Sadly the queue for the legendary showers was too as I'd been looking forward to soaping up in de Vlaeminck's immense shadow.

So what did I learn?
- an old bike can stand up well to the rigour of riding on cobbles with the only problem a dry and squeaking chain at the end
- an old rider, less so
- it's a great event, steeped in history
- it's best to ride the cobbles in as big a gear as you can turn and avoid freewheeling whenever possible
- those doing it on full suspension mountainbikes are missing the point
- beer afterwards has never tasted so sweet

In summary, a great day out that will linger long in the memory. I never did get that mystery meat though.


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PostPosted: Tue Jun 08, 2010 7:42 am 
Old School Grand Master

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Location: New Forest, UK
Ed, a fabulous report. Well done, it sounds horrible :D


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PostPosted: Tue Jun 08, 2010 7:43 am 
Pumpy's Bear
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Location: Hereford
Oh, and if you fancy it in 2012 then entries will be up here www.vc-roubaix-cyclo.fr/site/


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PostPosted: Tue Jun 08, 2010 8:08 am 
Gold Trader / PoTM Winner / RB Rider
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congrats . :D


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PostPosted: Tue Jun 08, 2010 9:02 am 
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Location: Staffordshire
Every now and then I contemplate going long to Ed's little ride round Herefordshire. Then I read something like this excellent report and I decide not to!

Well done Ed!! It really is one of sport's epics.


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PostPosted: Tue Jun 08, 2010 9:05 am 
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Great report.


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PostPosted: Tue Jun 08, 2010 9:13 am 
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Another fantastic report ed :D This should be a series, Ed's Sportive Adventures. Whats next?


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PostPosted: Tue Jun 08, 2010 9:36 am 
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Just to echo pretty much everything Ed said, this ride is a brute. After finishing up at the pizza restaurant we got chatting to a bunch of guys who'd driven over from Plymouth and I ventured the opinion that the ride wasn't quite as tough as the media make it out to be. They must have thought I was a complete tool! Respect to the postie in their group who had to be on his bike at 5am on Monday for his round! They also had a guy in their group who looked like he was a serious racing snake but who'd only ridden twice in the past year due to finishing off his doctoral studies - I hope he got through ok.

I had the opposite experience to Ed - started very (ie, too!) strongly, faded towards the middle, and perked up at the end. Due to the combination of work and a crash I hadn't ridden as much as I wanted to during the past months, but I've lived in Belgium for a few years now and actually quite like riding over pave. So the first few sectors were a bit of a hammerfest with just the sand and dust kicking up to 'trouble' us. On the fourth section, the 3.7km one Ed mentioned, I had to swerve to avoid some guy who wobbled in front of me so I shouted at him to mind out as I passed on his left. As I rolled by he said sarcastically, "Allez, Cancellara", which left me thinking where he thought I'd hidden the motor. Around this time Michiel was passed by a German guy constantly yelling " Achtung! Achtung", which kept us amused!

Then at the first checkpoint the rain started to fall, rapidly becoming the deluge that Ed mentioned. Fortunately it only got really heavy after we'd cleared the pave after the checkpoint and the worst of the weather was during a 20-odd km stretch over to the 2nd checkpoint, at Wallers-Arenberg. At this stage I was starting to get cold and was feeling the combined effects of the rolling hills in the early stages - I was expecting it all to be flatter. On the approach to Wallers the idea of bailing out had crossed my mind as we had our driver there, but next up was Arenberg so I decided to ride that and see how it went after.

Perhaps perversely, as we rolled out and towards the dreaded stones, the clouds opened up to reveal clear blue skies and bright sun, which lightened everyone's moods including mine. Words alone cannot describe the feeling of riding the pave here, it's completely surreal. I started off laughing at the shear madness of it all, which rapidly turned into a fixed grimace for the rest. During the race the gutter on the left and footpath to the right are closed off by barriers, but they're open for the ride and I would say most riders tried a bit of the pave, then bailed to the footpath. I mixed and matched a bit - at one point I took a lousy line and ended up in the gutter, then go back on, then dived off to the path for a break, then rode the rest. I'd say I rode 3/4 of it and the experience will live with me forever - it certainly lived with me for the next 10-odd km!

The next sector passed just fine, but the one after was another 3.7km beast and I started to really feel the effects of my generally low fitness level and the cumulative effects of pave and hills. By the time of the next control after another three sectors I was cramping in both legs, so I had to decide on the best course of action. I knew that the passage to the next control was the toughest of the whole ride, with 8 pave sectors totalling 12km and including the 3km-long 5-star Mons-en-Pevele sector. The sectors here come in rapid succession and I didn't think I'd hold up - so I bailed out and rode directly to the next control on the roads. I covered about the same distance, but on tarmac rather than pave. I rested up a bit before leaving and got lost on the way over so I actually arrived at the next (and last) control, at Cysoing, around the same time as Ed and Michiel.

It turned out that this was the smart thing for me to do. The combination of loads of food, drink and rest, plus a gentle spin afterwards, meant I felt relatively fresh at the last stop, so I (sheepishly) had my card stamped and got back on the parcours. The last 27km up to Roubaix are much less demanding than the 40km that preceed them, and of course there's the huge psychological boost of knowing that you're on the home stretch. There were three flat sectors, then the iconic Carrefour de l'Arbre - which I really enjoyed riding, bizarrely - and two last sectors before the run in to Roubaix. My efforts towards the Carrefour finally tipped me over the edge though, and my arms could not cope with any more sustained punishment. I rode most of the last two down in the gutter, occasionally gamely trying to get back on but giving up soon after and diving off to the side. Ah well, no shame in defeat at the hands of a superior enemy!

Once off the pave for once and for all, at Hem, the road to Roubaix was in pretty good condition. Ed was already up the road, but I'd passed Michiel before Carrefour as he replaced a tube, and he caught me as we entered the city of Roubaix. We got into a group and managed to miss the final decorative pave in the centre of the dual carriageway, but Ed was waiting for us at the entrance to the velodrome so we all rode in together. I've raced on the track a bit in the past so once on the 'drome I picked up enough speed to get around the banking comfortably, but to the others down on the blue apron it must have looked like I was taking the pi$$ and sprinting away at the end having tailed them all the way in! There's many a Roubaix that's been won like that (Frederic Guesdon, anybody?) ...

One of my biggest and most surprising challenges still remined though - I can confirm that Speedplay pedals can be damn near impossible to disengage in muddy conditions. As I rolled to a halt I tried to clip out my favoured right foot ... no chance! No problem, switch to the left ... err, try again ... err, wobbling ... make a desperate lunge for the barrier railing on the side and manage to avoid crashing in the middle of the track! I eventually disengaged my left foot but I had to leave the right on the pedal in order to dismaount, then yank like hell at it to make it release! They're great in dry weather, but that's not really guaranteed here in Belgium, so I think I'll switch back to Look.

Anyway, as Ed has said a fantastic but gruelling day. After two days to recover and reminisce I have a slight feeling of unfinished business, so maybe I'll be back ... or perhaps common sense will reign supreme.

No pics yet, will try to get them from Emily - our driver to whom the three of us are indebted, and deeply grateful.

Cheers,
Gareth.


Last edited by garethrl on Wed Jun 09, 2010 11:04 am, edited 2 times in total.

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PostPosted: Tue Jun 08, 2010 9:50 am 
Old School Grand Master
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Brilliant reports, most entertaining. :D


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PostPosted: Tue Jun 08, 2010 9:52 am 
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Now that you've got a road bike, do we take it you'll be lining up in 2012, Carl?? ;-)


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