Paris Roubaix – I Do Not Despair experiences the “Queen of the Classics”

Paris Roubaix 2014 Arenberg dust Arenberg Paris Roubaix 2014

“I didn’t really understand the point. Putting a race over all these all tracks just so they can race over cobbles. But now I have seen all this I know it has to be preserved.”

The words of my father as we joined the crowds to watch the Paris Roubaix bike race at the legendary Trouée d’Arenberg, the Arenberg Trench.

Occasional observers of cycle sport probably know that the way the fans watch cycling is to set off for the big hills so you can see the decisive moments and the riders spread out over a distance, just like I did last week at the Tour of Flanders. At Paris Roubaix there are no hills, their symbolic place in the race is taken by notorious stretches of old cobbled farm tracks and minor roads in the north of France. A hundred years ago when the race was founded they were the standard road surfaces but today sections have to be discovered or “restored” to retain the integrity of the route. Restored means “made lumpy, muddy and brutal to cycle on”.

Today the Arenberg is one of the stars of the show. This was a former service road to the old mines of Wallers-Arenberg, discovered hidden in forest by a former rider who not only lived nearby but had worked in the mines. When local roads were improved and made too easy Paris Roubaix diverted over this section and a legend was born.

The route is traffic free all year round and shaded by trees so moss grows on the stones creating havoc in wet conditions. The closeness of the fans and the trees gives it the appearance of a tunnel, heightening the impact. It was actually kicked off the race route for a few years because it became too dangerous for even Paris Roubaix but the local community rallied round and paid for the stones to be restored.

It isn’t the decisive moment in the race because there is still 100km to go but it is known as the place where the main action starts. So when I was choosing a place for us to watch our first Paris Roubaix I had no doubt at all where I wanted to be, I have seen it on TV so many times I wanted to be part of that atmosphere.

When my research found that there is also a fan village run by the community with the obligatory food, drink, hospitality area and big screen the decision was confirmed, we could watch the race come through and then follow it through to the finish on the screen. The backdrop is the mining museum which celebrates the heritage of the area.

Watching Paris Roubaix at Arenberg

We parked about an hour’s ride away and pedalled our way around and through the forest on some delightful car free roads and tracks until we popped out of the trees onto the course.

Foret de rasmes France

entrance to the Arenberg paris Roubaix

From here the spectators walk along the 2km of arrow straight road that form the route, or as we did they thread their way through the surrounding forest on foot and on bikes.

Paris Roubaix 2014

Almost by luck we found a great spot. Almost 2km from the fan village there are slightly fewer spectators and the line at the barrier was not as deep, plus we came out by an official service area which meant there was a bend in the barriers.Waiting for Paris Roubaix 2014

By standing on the corner of this bend we had an almost unobscured view right down the course which was great in itself, but what we realised was that desperate riders being battered by cobbles will seek any sort of refuge and even 20 metres of smooth path is a huge temptation so they would actually be riding straight at us for a few seconds.

And then the atmosphere built up rapidly to an explosion of colour, noise and yellow dust.

First a few service cars slewing sideways on the cambered cobblestones, then the police outriders on special trials motorbikes used only for this event. The arrival of the TV helicopter overhead says the race is upon us and the first three riders in a breakaway group hammered by, grimacing as their bikes bounced and clattered over the stones.

This is however just an hors d’ouvre. Two minutes behind the breakaway comes the peloton and there are 100 riders going flat out, probably over 45km per hour despite the cobbles, the dust, the slight uphill. At the front the leaders’ team riders were grim faced, spread across the road hammering out an incredible pace each hoping that the centre ridge or one of the gutters is marginally smoother.

Paris Roubaix Peloton 2014 Arenberg Close up Paris roubaix cyclists

And at the back of the string the body language was one of complete desperation with riders going through hell just to follow the wheels of the hard men while being hammered by the surface. Noticeably many of the long tail were the small riders who suffer horribly in these conditions compared to the big power men at the front.

Paris Roubaix 2014 Arenberg

And all the time the dust, made worse for the later riders by the team cars trying to get through to people with punctures and mechanical failures caused by the terrain.

Within minutes it was over and the noise subsided to the excited chatter of the crowd as they melted back into the woods to trudge to their cars and head for home to watch the final two hours on TV. We expected a huge crowd to gather at the big screen however we were going completely against the flow as most French people left, having had their moment and knowing that there was still over an hour to go to find a place to watch. This meant that the crowd down at the fan village had a strong international flavour with the Belgians loudly cheering “Mr Paris-Roubaix”, Tom Boonen, and even a lot of Brits giving a shout when Bradley Wiggins featured in the final kilometres. Final shout of the day was left to the Dutch when their man Niki Terpstra broke away to win the race.

A lovely and unexpected feature was when Terpstra crossed the line our whole crowd just broke into applause. A huge appreciation of what we had seen, and knowledge that Paris Roubaix has never been won by a poor rider.

And then my final treat, if you can call it that.

With the forest quiet except for the service crews clearing the barriers and bagging the rubbish the Arenberg Trench was going back to sleep for another year. The crowd were clearing off towards their cars and I realised I had the whole road to myself. Time to ride the Arenberg!

Arenberg Trench Paris Roubaix

Dad made it very clear that he wasn’t going to ride the cobbles, but the side path was now open so he could ride on the smooth section while I went for it.

What a ride. I stuck it into the biggest gear I could turn and just hammered down the centre ridge as hard as I could, which was not very hard at all. More of a wobbly plod in fact. I could say I have ridden worse cobbles in Belgium. I could say I know some roads round my home with bigger potholes. But kept up for 2km, slightly up hill much of the way, funnelled into a relatively narrow width it feels unrelenting. I was puffing and sweating like I had just climbed a mountain for ten minutes.

Cycleottignies a Paris Roubaix

Then I imagined the riders doing 45kmph, after 150km, with another 17 sections of pave to come. They are super-human at times.

On 9th July Tour de France fans will see these roads in a special 1st World War commemorative stage from Ypres to Arenberg. The occasional watchers of the TV coverage may wonder what all the fuss is about but those who have seen the “Hell of the North” will know that they are witnessing something special. The favoured Tour riders who hate these hard roads of the north and spend these weeks of the cobbled classics riding in Spain and Italy could suffer a lot on a day like this.

For my part I will be glued to the coverage because I can say “I was there”. Another unique cycling experience added to my collection.

What an extraordinarily diverse machine the bicycle is. I do not despair!

Watching the Tour of Flanders by bike – great day out

Kevin and Vincent at the Koppenberg

Tpor of Flanders riders Haaghoek

I was not sure how to watch the Tour of Flanders this year. As I was going on my own I had concluded that this was probably a good day for a long spring ride from home. I would then rest at a vantage point and ride home, making perhaps my first 100 mile ride for a long time.

But with a couple of days to go Vincent from Ghent was on the email – “any plans for Sunday? I will probably bike from “hotspot” to “hotspot” between Oudenaarde and Ronse. In this way I can work on my personal condition and watch the race.”

I probably should have looked a bit more closely at the “work on my personal condition” part of the invitation as Vincent is a faster rider than me, but the prospect of company and somebody to map out a route between vantage points was too good to miss. I also knew that it would be great to ride with real fans, local riders with a passion not only for the Flemish riders but “their race”, the culmination of a season of Flanders mini-classics on their roads which build up over several weeks and culminate in the Ronde.

The arrangement was quickly made that I would go by train to Ghent, meet the guys and we would ride down to the course. This is relatively easy in Belgium because once you have bought your 24 hour bike ticket you have unlimited access to the rail network for the bike, it is not the lottery experienced in many countries. So I could plan to jump on a train home from any number of stations in the area without hassle.

Watching the race

The Tour of Flanders is one of the most spectator friendly races in the professional cycling calendar. Many of the great bike races flash by from place to place and the only way to watch is to chase the race by car or soak up the atmosphere and watch the rest of the race in a bar.

Official Route Map (from Flanders Classics)

Official Route Map (from Flanders Classics)

With the Tour of Flanders the organisers give flat West Flanders a taste by sending them off into the flat country for 100 or more kilometres, then they bring the race into the Flemish Ardennes and pack 150 km of racing into a small range of steep sided hills just 20km long by 10km wide. This is done by a complicated set of loops and laps which mean that cars find it hard to move almost anywhere in the network of lanes but by bike it is easy to plot a route to see the race several times if you have some local insight.

The organisers also cater for the spectators brilliantly by running shuttle buses up to three spectator villages with food, bars and big screens at the main vantage points. It is quite unique in sport, the crowd encouraged away from the towns into fields beside tiny villages. And instead of grumbling about the inconvenience and the intrusion the local communities fill many of the gardens with their friends, get out the beer and the barbeque and welcome their race.

Tour of Flanders

(I published several posts last year from the Paterberg that can be found under the Tour of Flanders tab below)

Our route

Our ride was a bit of a mini version of the race route which I have crudely sketched on to the map below (Blue line) By starting from Ghent we would mirror the elites by riding straight into the stiff south westerly breeze. Near to Oudenaarde we swing south into the hills to the Molenberg. From there apparently there was just enough time if we hurried to catch them again on the cobbled section at Haaghoek before a 10-15km ride to the Oude Kwaremont where we should see them twice and watch the race unfold on the big screen. About 80km/50miles I estimated for that part, my whole day was around 75miles/120km.

Tour of Flanders our route

Tour of Flanders Molenberg

This route was really good because I would never have chosen the Molenberg or Haaghoek to watch, I just didn’t have the knowledge of what to expect and they come early in the action. As it turned out they gave me some new experiences because the top of Molenberg was a tiny lane with the bunch funnelled down right in front of people’s gardens whereas the section at Haaghoek was a wider cobbled road across a shallow valley with a great view of the whole race cavalcade rattling down the stones and sweeping up in front of fans two deep on the railings.

The Oude Kwaremont is at the other end of the spectrum, one of the famous and decisive climbs with just 20km to go in the race. I have ridden it and it is nowhere as steep as the Paterberg or the Koppenberg but it just seems to go on for ages, all cobbled. It is ridden 3 times and at the end it is a great place to see the favourites impose themselves. For that reason it is of course popular, with a big spectator village at the top and you have to fight for a view at the roadside, but then we can all watch the finale.

Oude Kwaremont summit

Our ride.

Cyclists Suspension bridge GhentTo get out of Ghent we nipped through the suburbs and then up and over a superb new cyclists suspension bridge which has been built over the motorway as part of the access to a new football stadium. The stadium itself has an impressive mobility plan which encourages local fans to come by bike with lots of cycle routes and cycle parking.

We quickly joined the flat car free route beside the Scheldt river (hope of the infamous ribbelstroken) and soon knocked off the kilometres towards Oudenaarde. I was already grateful for the company given the surprising strength of the wind, especially when I realised that my original plan would have seen me riding 50 miles into this on my own.

IMG_4018Leaving the riverside we were quickly zig-zagging through a maze of lanes that I would never have found on my own and relatively rapidly came up a tiny side road to the top of the Molenberg. Everything seemed very quiet, then suddenly the final climb was covered in parked cars, telling us the race route must be nearby. Great navigation because we popped out right at the top of the village and joined a mix of locals and visitors by the roadside, all being handed flags with the black lion of Flanders.

The next part of the ride was the hardest because after standing around for half an hour we suddenly had to dash across several small folds in the landscape and by the time we reached the top of the final one my legs were groaning and my lungs gasping to keep up with Vincent and Wouter. We actually got to ride a very short stretch of the course just ahead of the race as we cut through but we were mainly on some lanes which looked lovely with the spring blossom everywhere, a year ago I watched under snowflakes and spring seemed quite distant.

A good crowd was gathered at Haagenhoek because of the excellent views and the extremely well placed bar where the party of Dutch cargo bikers were refuelling.

Tour of Flanders Haaghoek

We weren’t there long before the race came through so this time I didn’t stiffen up so much before we were back on the bikes to ride a longer section to the Kwaremont. Again the benefits of local knowledge were apparent, would I have gone down an apparent footpath between two houses without Vincent leading? No chance!

Short cut to Tour of Flanders

Cycle touring path near OudenaardeThe stiff wind was still in our faces but by now it was clear that Wouter is a strong rider into the wind so I was happy to be tucked up behind them when we cleared the lanes and joined an excellent cycle route that ended up on an former railway line that sliced across the open fields in the flat valley of the Scheldt. This was a good way of taking in the topography of the area because as we rolled west the hills of the Flemish Ardennes were lined up to our left and we could look across and spot the bergs, knowing the riders were out there somewhere sweeping up down and around the fiendish final 100km of the race. Our route cut right across the foot of the awesome Koppenberg that completely defeated me earlier in the year so we stopped for a photo-call to prove we were there, but maybe another time for the climb.

Shortly after the foot of the Koppenberg we were into Berchem, the small town below the village of Kwaremont which looks down over the valley. We were running a bit tight for time to get up the climb before the riders so the suggestion was a detour to watch the field come down the new main road which bypasses Kwaremont. This turned out to be inspired because again we saw another aspect of the race that none of us had seen before. The bunch was jockeying for position before the key climb which means that they spread out across the whole road and descended past us at just extraordinary speed. (80kmph/50mph at least) Given that they were only a few metres from a road narrowing and a sharp right hand bend the sight was even more terrifying. As bike riders ourselves we appreciated how much skill and confidence in each other the pros must have to do that. The day was dark, gloomy and threatening rain so the lights of the cars and motorbikes only emphasised the impression.

Tour of Flanders Kwaremont

Once they were past us Wouter suddenly suggested that if we were quick we might actually catch them again at the top of the hill because they had to go down, through Berchem and up the long cobbled climb while we “only” had to go up the main road to the top. My legs were aching again from the combination of riding and standing so the other two soon left me behind even though the slope was not steep. However I was soon bumping my bike across the field with the big screen to get to the barriers and see the bunch in time.

We were then able to hang out, refuel (essential frites) and watch the race unfold on the big screen. Then with just 20km to go it was a rush to get a great spot by the barriers and hopefully see the decisive moment, then back to the screens to watch them climb the Paterberg and then the run in to the finish at Oudenaarde.

Tour of Flanders on the big screen

The race

The race itself was a cracker. For the first time in three years the two strongest riders of recent years were both fit and the Flemish were very excited about Tom Boonen’s prospects. There were also a host of strong riders from what might be called “the new generation” sniping at the heels of the favourites and several of them are Belgian.

The break of the day went away early and held on for a long time but it was clear that on home soil Boonen’s Omega Pharma Quickstep team meant business, they were massed at the front every time we saw them and the crowds were getting very excited.

Look its Tom Boonen at Tour of Flanders

In the final 30km it was the new generation that appeared charge and home fans were excited to see Greg van Avermaet of BMC pulling away in front of us on the Kwaremont with his Quickstep shadow Stijn Vandenbergh, also Belgian, and more excitingly for the locals he was from a village nearby.

Belgians attack on the Oude Kwaremont

But ominously a pair of riders came up just behind them and one of them was Spartacus, Fabian Cancellara towing Sep Vanmarcke who had pushed him so hard in last year’s Paris Roubaix.  In the final 20km we almost saw Van Avermaet get away on the Paterberg and the other Belgians took it in turns to attack but they could not shake off the Swiss master. Every Belgian attack was greeted by cheers and shouts, but to a huge groan from the crowd Cancellara took the sprint from the three Flemish young pretenders.

However what I liked is that even as we walked away the talk turned to what a great race it had been and respect for Cancellara. Not only because he is a great rider but because it is clear he respects the race and its traditions. One press report I saw said that he even apologised to the host Belgian broadcaster in his post-race interview for beating three Belgians! A real nice guy by all accounts and one of my favourite riders. (Click here for a video of one of his greatest descents – awesome stuff)

In summary?

I am sure I had something complicated to say, but it’s all here. Put simply – every bike fan should come to the Tour of Flanders at least once. And if you can do it riding in the company of knowledgeable Flemish bike fans you will enjoy it all the more.

Thanks Vincent and Wouter – great day out.

Many ways to watch the Tour of Flanders

There are many ways to watch the Tour of Flanders.

Stand in your garden and go “Oh look, its Tom Boonen”

Look its Tom Boonen at Tour of Flanders

Or

Watching the Tour of Flanders

There were even the Dutch guys who brought a lorry load of delivery bikes to cycle between bars.

Tour of Flanders Bakkiefietsen Tour

I was invited by Vincent Meerschaert and friend Wauter to join them on their 100km dash between the bergs, which is almost certainly why my legs ache so much this morning.

So we got to take in some superb Flemish cycling infrastructure such as the brilliant new suspension bridge near Ghent,

Cyclists Suspension bridge Ghent

Arrow straight touring routes

Cycle touring path near Oudenaarde

And to hang around the legendary spots like the Koppenberg and the Oude Kwaremont to take in the atmosphere and see the race unfold.

Kevin and Vincent at the Koppenberg

I will post a few more photos and a more about the ride, but it is fair to say I had a great day out once again with the Belgian cycling fans. It is an amazing sport that we have which lets everybody feel so close to the riders and become part of the race. Surely Flanders is one of its spiritual homes.

Tpor of Flanders riders Haaghoek

 

Into the heart of Flemish cycle racing – Centrum Ronde Van Vlaanderen

OudenaardeRonde Van Vlaanderen CentrumAnother week, another cycling fans’ café.

This week I am sipping a coffee surrounded surrounded by memories of Flemish cycling. Perhaps fittingly it is grey and raining outside which matches the grainy black and white photographs which decorate most of the walls.

Tour of Flanders centreThis is the Brasserie des Flandrians, the nice bar and restaurant in the Tour of Flanders Centre in the town of Oudenaarde. I had been expecting to write you a rant about how the Belgians were stupid enough to close a tourist attraction on a public holiday Monday because their web site said the museum was closed. But when I arrived to meet some friends who are cycle touring across Belgium to spend a few days with us I was delighted to see the lights on and I could immerse myself in a hundred years of history while I waited.

No need to write much, the pictures and images do most of the talking, but a few of my personal picks are underneath this pictorial homage.

Tour of Flanders Museum Oudenaarde

Centrum Ronde Van Vlaanderen

Centrum Ronde Van Vlaandren

Ronde Van Vlaanderen CentrumCentrum Ronde Van Vlaanderen

Centrum Ronde van Vlaanderen

The museum guide is a familiar face to local fans, former Tour of Flanders winner and world champion Freddie Maertens was putting on a very animated performance to a coach party of adoring fans who doted on every word and anecdote, I only wish I spoke Dutch because it sounded like fun. Here he is today and in the 1970s.

Freddie Maertens Ronde Van Vlaanderen

For British fans and old bike geeks Tommy Simpson is remembered, both by his 1962 Gitane with its Brooks saddle, and by a bust next to his Flandria cycling shirt.

1962 Tour of Flanders Museum

Tour of Flanders Museum

Breaking away from the impression that this was as much about Flanders as it was about the race was hard, the introductory film was great for atmosphere but its roll call of double and treble winners managed to ignore anyone who wasn’t Belgian! Similarly buried in a corner was a small section which acknowledged to a small extent that women exist with some photos of the recently introduced women’s Tour of Flanders. I was delighted that its principle star was Nicole Cooke, I have a feeling her “all or nothing” riding style endeared her to local fans.Nicole Cooke Tour of Flanders

The interactive elements were popular with kids large and small, especially a static bike mounted on some asymmetric rollers which were supposed to simulate riding on the cobbles. Very funny expressions, lots of noise and plenty of cheering and egging on when the coach party got to that section.Cobble simulator

And I have to say there was a gentle sense of humour running through the place with plenty of cartoons and a rather delightful drinks menu at the café which made me smile.Brasserie des Flandriens drinks Menu

Flanders BelgiumOudenaarde itself is not a town known for much else but it has an attractive market square and a very impressive church towering over the centre. For the cyclist it is however at the heart of a massive network of cycle touring routes, not least the three Tour of Flanders waymarked routes which if done as a complete set would give any of us a good workout. The steady stream of riders through the brasserie obviously thought so too, although the number of bikes on cars in the market square rather suggests that the weather was playing havoc with riding plans on this particular day.

Oudenaarde MarktClick on the links for my previous posts about the Tour of Flanders and riding in the Flemish Ardennes.

A frozen spring for Belgian cycling? The nation still waiting for a hero at Liege Bastogne Liege

Metro

Friday’s back page in Metro, the free newspaper for commuters. Says it all really.

Translation “A frozen spring for Belgian cycling”. The article says it is a barren time after two years when Tom Boonen and Philippe Gilbert delivered wins in the classics for the host nation in these major races.

Last chance today in Liege Bastogne Liege, the oldest of “The Monuments” at the end of the Ardennes week which has included Amstel Gold, Fleche Wallonne and now Liege Bastogne Liege.

I have still got my Fleche Wallonne photos to post but today we are off for a day’s sightseeing in the Ardennes and then up to one of the final climbs to join the crowds.

Belgium is waiting!