It’s spring, the sun is giving ‘shining’ a go, legs that have been dragged out in the foul weather of winter are just beginning to return some strength and the first buds of bike racing are beginning to bloom.
Of course, you don’t want to just tear those tender shoots of legs apart by throwing them straight into massive endurance races, so something like crossjunkie’s now-near-famous Ronde van Oost Lancashire would be just the ticket. All the fun of a social gathering (until the obligatory sprint for the cake stand halfway round), with a few extra tricky sections to give you something to think about. You can feel the warmth of the spring sun on your back as you pound some industrial north cobbles, chat about plans or the up coming season as the breeze wafts you across the views of Calerdale (or batters you in the face as you creep your way back over towards Colne, ahem) and eminate the tough men of the sport as you fight your way up super steep inclines, bouncing over Lancashire’s finest rough stuff, all with a grin on your face.
If you haven’t done it before, do it next time. It’s awesome.
With the cobbles of the north west suitable tamed, the first Roadtrip of the year loomed into view. Myself, Jase and Phil shoehorned our bikes and a small amount of kit into the back of the car, got up at some ungodly hour of the night, dark-o-clock, if you will, and hammered our way across the country to Dover, to catch the ferry over to France for a bit of cobble prestige on the Paris Roubaix.
The race we’d entered took place on (part of) the same course the full time international pro’s would be using the day after. The same mix of tight, twisty towns and villages, barren, headwind infested open sections acros the rolling north France plains and – of course – those cobble sections that fill up youtube each year as racers smash themselves and their bikes to pieces in persuite of glory. It was to be Awesome. Even the flapping of the organisers in the final weeks, loosing bits of the course, downgrading the event from a closed road race to an open road sportive (yeah right, like no-one would be racing) couldn’t stamp out our enthusiasm as we hurtled down the empty A roads to our campsite in St Quentin.
We set up camp surrounded by duck ponds in the quaint little village and rode back to the town centre some 8 miles away in glorious sunshine. With the race village easily located, we set about overcoming the language barrier with the use of vigorous pointing, gesticulating and randomly ignoring things when it appeared we’d done something wrong. It seemed to work and by mid afternoon we found ourselves sat outside a nice American styled pub (that specialised in Welsh food, oddly), drinking les grand bieres, soaking up the warmth and sun and generally feeling like the term “Hell of the North” didn’t really apply.
Pre-race laziness saw us stay put for some carbo loading with massive bowls of pasta (and frites) before rolling back through the countryside, past hundreds of war memorials (our campsite being located only a few feet away from The Somme), to grab a decent night’s kip.
That didn’t happen.
The lovely duck ponds we’d set the tent up next to were home to the most anto social ducks in the world, quacking away frantically right through the night and the local church bells insisted on waking us up to tell us the time on the hour, every hour until various alarm clocks told us to give up trying and get up for breakfast.
Being in France, we kicked off with croissants and pain au chocolat, before cooking up big bowls of porridge and then finally realising we’d eaten too much as our race kit clung tightly to overstuffed bellies…
Riding back into town through the sunrise, shivering as thin race wear failed to protect us from the “it’s not summer yet” chill of the air, we drew plans despite not being sure the race (it’s still a race, of sorts, right?) would unfold.
The start proved to be the first stumbling block. On our applications, we’d been asked to provide details of prevous race results, to help the organisers seed us appropriately and despite us all having pretty decent palmares we found our place on the long start grid quite far back. Oddly far back. Just in front of us were two immaculately turned out germans – with matching, personalised helmets and race radios – but alongside us were what I can only politely describe as a couple of fairly portly, older gentlemen, complete with camelbacks!
I say “alongside us”, what I mean is “alongside two of us” as Phil’s determined place in the queue was, for some reason, further back down the grid. We tried pestering the overly official officials to get him up with us, to no avail and even offered to move back down the grid so we could all start together, again only to be turned down in no uncertain terms. Not that it mattered as, as often happens, everyone started to bunch up as wave after wave of riders were sent off and somehow Phil accidently-on-purpose found himself back next to us just in time for our Grand Depart.
The pace in our peloton was fairly sedate for the first 40mins or so as everyone got to grips with the dynamic within the pack. The efforts of the organisers to seed people according to their abilities hadn’t really worked and there was a lot of jostling and inexperience showing through as we cruised through the first miles, in fact mid pack wasn’t all that nice a place to be.
Phil decided to do something about it by powering up to the front, followed by Jase, myself and another British guy on a nice Specialized and building up the pace.
The next hour or so saw our average speed increase dramatically as the four of us, occasionally joined by someone else, took our turns on the front. It was great fun, flowing through the first few towns on the head of the group as spectators cheered us by, hammering a big gear and glancing backwards to see how the group had begin to fracture, shrink and then swell again as we began to pick up stragglers from groups set off earlier.
Over the next hour or so the pace grew steadily as more ‘workers’ from the first few waves of riders also began to put some effort in up front until we were having to sprint full-on out of every corner to keep together, even when right up near the front of the group.
Overeagerness saw several breakaways scream off down the road, only to be dragged back, while further back a moments hesitation from anyone in the pack meant that a split would form. It felt like all out war. It was Awesome.
Phil was buzzing, chasing down the breakaways, learning the fine art of where to be in the group and how to work within it and move around in it, all with a flying heart rate as he thrashed his bike flat out along the course. I was too. Totally immersed in keeping in the fast moving group, avoiding any potential crashes, taking turns up at the front to try and wring the peloton apart. Every corner was hit as hard and as fast as we dared, bikes leant at near impossible angle inches away from each other as the ground roared underneath us. No brakes, to go near the brakes would instantly have you out the back and off the group, if you were lucky – it was more likely you’d cause an almighty crash as everyone behind you would instantly pile into the back of you, so every turn was done with blind faith in your tyres and the people around you before straightening up and throwing yourself forward out of the saddle, tearing at the bars and absolutely caning your legs to hold your position…
Not a race my arse!
Unfortunately, Jase got caught, as it was so easy to do, behind someone who missed an acceleration in the front of our peloton and before anything could be done saw a gap open up in front of him. Around him riders started to look at each other, rather than work together to try and bridge across and within the space of a few seconds he was stuck well off the back away from Phil and me. something neither of us noticed or had a chance to check as we kept our concentration on the raging group around us.
With all the melee within the pack, I’d pretty much forgotten about the main draw of the race – the cobbles. The pave secteurs don’t start until well into the route, but our average speed over the first hour or so saw us hit the first set of cobbles, with a cheer, flat out earlier than I expected.
There was no time to think back through all the advise and warnings I’d been given, in fact there was no time to do anything except keep the same speed and hold my position as chaos began to rain down around me.
Early punctures saw riders darting off to the sides pretty much straight away as I remained in as big a gear as I could and hovered lightly in the saddle, letting the bike dance over the stones, trying to ignore the hammering it was taking and work my way past riders slowing as the tough going ate away at their speed. I hunted for the best lines across the uneven surface as the tyres fought for grip in the dust, watching riders hitting huge potholes and sharp cobble edges as I tried to keep some ‘flow’ about me. I skipped onto the tarmac at the end of the section grinning. One down, with no mechanicals or crashes. Just in front of me Phil was doing exactly the same as we regrouped ourselves and, after a momentary lull as shellshocked riders found their legs again, got back into the fast rhythm.
We ignored the first food stop, still feeling fresh, with plenty of water and food stowed on the bikes/jersey pockets and found that much of our fast group from the race so far had burnt themselves out and had paused at the feed station.
The next twenty or so miles saw us work our way though groups further up the road until a couple of the motorcycle marshals spotted our progress and gave us an escort through the tricker sections in the now busy towns and villages. It was fantastic, we could remain utterly devoted to racing, taking turns on the front, heads down while giving it everything, getting the riders who would stay with us to work to keep the pace high, as off in front the motorbikes would clear the path of cars, block junctions and generally let everyone in the vicinity know we were hurtling through.
Not a race my arse!
Before we knew it we were on the next length of pave, braver this time we hit it as fast as we could, dust flying up from wheels as we tore across the slabs, blurred eyes locked on the pave in front, seeking out the smoothest route across the cobble as we found ourselves dropping the group we’d been working with. Still being protected by the motorbikes ahead we found a pattern of catching groups in front of us, working together on the roads before dropping them as secteur after secteur was flown over. Each one brutal in it’s own way, each one taking energy out of us and everyone who hit them.
We reached the final feed station as the warmth from the sun really bagan to kick in and after a brief toilet-stop pause (didn’t want to risk the ‘on the fly’ method while bouncing all over the cobbles!) and photo opportunity
we sprinted off in search of the final, famous section, the Carrefour d’Arbre.
En route, now with far fewer riders to catch and drop, but still guided through the winding streets by our motorbike escort I got a phone call from Jase, explaining how far back he was and how he was trying to work his way back to us, but wasn’t having much luck getting people to work with him, so wasn’t making much headway. It was good to know he was OK and still riding, though flying flat out through sharp corners with one hand on the bars – the other holding the phone to my ear, while trying to describe where we were was fairly exciting!
A quick glance at my watch told me that we’d been riding for 4 ours as Phil pointed off to our left, at a long row of campervans and motorhomes, seemingly lined up in the middle of a field, with flags from numerous countried flapping in the strong breeze. “Do you reckon that’s it then?!” he shouted, grinning.
Spectators pointed cameras at us as we got our heads down for one last blast across the famous stones, screaming past tired looking riders. Bikes buzzing underneath us as we drove hard towards the finish banner as the cobbled lane turned, giving us first a tailwind, then a cross wind then a headwind as we fought our way up to the finish and the well documented “Carrefour d’Arbre” street sign.
Ride over we waited for Jase, who’d pretty much ridden the whole route on his own, before cruising down to the official finish for some free post race grub (unsuprisingly consisting of dry bread, cheese and suspicious sliced meat, as is the continental way).
It’s been a great event, but having only taken us 4hrs 10mins, meant we had the whole afternoon to lay with, so after catching the shuttle bus back to St Quentin we headed back out for another few hours in the rolling countryside to make the most of the summer-like weather and quiet roads. A brief pause in one of the little towns, to rehydrate with a few beers meant we got back to the campsite just after sunset and set about drinking much local wine and wolfing down weird local pizzas with names like “the mega mammouth” until the threat of quacking ducks and ringing church bells wasn’t an issue…
A quick recovery ride on Sunday morning, after realising we wouldn’t be able to watch the pro race due to the return ferry times (and those lazy pros not setting off until 10.30am, sheesh!) seemed in order as the sun once again shone brightly. The car was once again packed to the rafters in double quick time and the return journey seemed to fly by as discussions of how to make the trip even better next year cemented the weekend as a success.