For me a bike ride is almost always a transport of delight. But when I am privileged to ride for kilometre after kilometre on deserted, almost car free roads then a bike ride becomes a magic carpet ride. A special occasion, a joy of carefree travel with time to look at views and smell the emerging spring.
This Sunday was just such an occasion, when I was privileged to ride through Northern France on country roads that were almost closed for the day, and even the population seemed to have mysteriously vanished.
What I was doing was riding the final 35 kilometres of the legendary Paris-Roubaix cycle race on race day, getting onto the course some four hours before the race was due to arrive, when sleepy gendarmes and stewards were still putting up the crash barriers and straw bales, but cars were already cleared from the area.
The route was perfectly open for a stray cyclist and it was joy to be swept through with clear signposting and a countdown of kilometres all the way into the town of Roubaix.
There were not even many cyclists, because thousands of enthusiasts could ride the course the day before in the open Challenge rides and so they were probably nursing their aches and pains before emerging for the race.
Aches and pains? Yes, because that’s the catch. Any readers of this blog who know their cycle racing will know that Paris Roubaix has another name, “The Hell of the North”. So called because of the hellish scenes that met race organisers in 1919 when they returned to the area after the battles of World War 1, but surviving to modern times because this race has the most legendary cobbled sections of any bike race, enshrined as cultural monuments and preserved by local volunteers.
The paved sections are now mostly old farm tracks which would be lost but for this race, but because of the pancake flat terrain of the area each iconic stretch is just as visible as a hill on the horizon, a bright banner and a gaggle of camper vans signalling the entry of each section from a long distance down the deserted roads.
Riding the final 35k of the race route let me try out the last 9 sections of the course, but without the deep cheering crowds in was a sort of personal meditation as I bounced, bumped and wobbled my way across the landscape.
With the experience of riding Belgian cobbles I didn’t find them too bad, but I had taken the precaution of padding my handlebars with thick insulation just in case, and I needed it. I did get a few cheers which was really nice, the occasional “Bravo” from early spectators who had camped overnight along the way.
But mostly they were occupied with an early beer or breakfast and setting up their individual fan zones to cheer on the teams, with the Belgian teams clearly best supported.
I never expected to be allowed to ride into the famous Velodrome at Roubaix, that was a step too far, but I could treat myself a selfie outside the gates before I rode back to my starting point using the route of the previous day’s 70km challenge ride to avoid the race arriving in my face.
The really great thing about riding these race routes is not only being out there on the course and feeling the terrain, it is also watching the race later on TV because it brings the route truly to life, understanding just how easy the winners make it look after 250 kilometres of fierce racing.
And a great result for the fans from just over the border, because regional hero Phillipe Gilbert became the first Walloon winner since 1963. I was cheering with everyone else, my cycling loyalties are becoming very Belgian these days!
Fantastic day out, incredible race, An experience I would recommend to anyone, get out to a bike race early and experience your own magic carpet ride. You don’t have to chose one with brutal cobbles, but I have had this on my “to do” list for some time, and I loved it. Box ticked!