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