At the end of year 2016, three of my friends, Pascal, Marc and Patrick, decided to register for the Paris-Roubaix race, which was to be held Saturday 8th of April, the day before the famous pro event. I was very attracted by this mythical race, but, in a general manner, I have difficulties to make plans like that months ahead. Furthermore the distance to the start line appeared to me quite important for a one-day event, so I didn’t follow them, but with some regrets.
Months went by, and a few days before the date, I suddenly realized that the Lille-Nice football match was scheduled the same week-end. I wouldn’t have crossed the whole France for just Paris–Roubaix, or for just the football match, but a combination of the two was sure not to miss. What’s more, it was the beginning of school holidays, so I was freer at home, and another colleague, Fabrice,who was going to Paris on the Thursday proposed to take me in his car. So all the stars were aligned and I couldn’t do anything else than go.
The journey started with an early ride, as my driver lived 30 km away from my home and gave me a meeting hour of 6am for the start. After that, I had time to relax in the car, and we arrived in Paris in the afternoon. I then went by bike to the Gare du Nord and took a TGV (high speed train) that had a space for bikes (with a 10 € extra fee). So the Thursday night I joined the three others in the flat they had hired in Roubaix.
I had of course targeted the surrounding BIG, in Hainaut and Flanders. The day after my arrival, I then went for a ride, alone because the others had already climbed all these BIG, having raced De Ronde van Vlaanderenthe year before. I started with Mont Saint-Aubert, then Mont de l’Enclus that I climbed down on a forest track, and the famous “berg” of the Ronde: Vieux Quaremont, Paterberg, Koppenberg and some other ones I had added when designing my route at home. At. But the brutal death of Mike Hall, organizer of the TCR, just a week before had made the holding of the event much questionable (in fact it took place, but it was all but certain at the time). So I finished my BIG collection with Mur de Grammont, then turned back to Roubaix, with Kruisberg on the way, to get my package for the race (queue on the picture aside).
In the evening, as promised, I wenttothe Stadium, where I was happy to see my favorite team win with two goals of the famous Italian player Mario Balotelli. The match finished at 23 pm, and I had to be at 5am in the morning at the meeting point for the coaches that would take us to the start line in Busigny, 100 km from Roubaix. As I didn’t want to disturb my friends with such a late come back and early leave, I went into a hotel in Roubaix, where I was not the only cyclist of course.
The departure of the coaches was very delayed, as we were still waiting in the buses at 7am. Finally, we left for Busigny that we reached after more than one hour of driving. So I was at the start line at about 9pm (there was no group start, except at 7 pm for those who were there at this time). This late start didn’t bother me too much as this two hour delay allowed me to benefit from less cold and wet conditions at the beginning of the ride.
I finally discovered the famous cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix, and I have not been disappointed!Compared to the cobbles I had ridden the day before, the contrast was brutal. The cobbled stretches are little paths between the fields, used by tractors, with very big and bad joining pavés. When you discover that, you think that the idea to ride a bike here is weird, so a pro race!
As more as I could, I rode on the tiny dirty part of the road, between the cobbled part and the field aside (sometimes visiting the field aside). At each cobbled stretch’s beginning, there was a sign telling which color it was, from blue the least, to black the most difficult. A special mention to Trouée d’Arenberg, as here the cobbles are bigger and shake more than anywhere else. And all along the 2 km cobbled track, there’s a nice, smooth and very inviting cycle lane, but what would be the use to come here if it was to cycle this lane?
At the end of the first cobbled sector, I wanted to drink and I realized that my bidon was gone away, but it was not a problem as every 10 meters bidons were lying on the ground. So I picked one which luckily stood better on my bike and that I kept to the finish. I was less lucky with my multi-tool, because I realized when I arrived that I’d lost mine, so I had to buy a new one, after having neglected all the ones I saw on the road.
The arrival at the Vélodrome de Roubaix was the last great moment, to ride on this track I have seen so many times when watching race arrival on television. Having never ridden on a track like this, I was surprised by the inclination in the curve. At a momentI rode too slowly and I was too high on the track to feel secure, so I came back soon at the bottom of the track, strange impression.
All in all, Paris-Roubaix appeared to me even harder and more mythical than before I saw it from the inside. As a cyclist races watcher, I have been in awe of what the riders were doing, but now I am even more admiring. And it was a sunny day! I still wonder how it can be ridden under the rain, with all the mud on the tracks.
The day after, the four of us moved to Bailleul by car to ride the Gand-Wevelgem BIG of this area.My friends had hired a small van, with three seats at the front and an empty space at the back. So I travelled to Bailleul in the dark, among the bikes, holding them in the curves. It was not a long way anyway and we were soon on our bikes.
First it was a flat part to Mont Cassel, and then we began the climbs. The ride we had planned was not very long, but the tendency of my friends to climb every side of the BIG lengthened it a little. Furthermore, we added the climb to Mont des Cats before going to the next BIG, Mont-Noir. After Mont-Noir, we wondered with my friend Pascal why we had both a trace that made a detour before going to Rodeberg (I was happy because Noir was black, and Rode was red, and red and black are the colors of the OlympiqueGymnaste Club de Nice that I saw winning in Lille two days before). We then realized that the summits of these two BIG are very close to each other and we wouldn’t have climbed anything if we had gone directly from Mont Noir to Rodeberg. So we went down and climbed Rodeberg from the official BIG NW side.
We then just had the Kemmelberg to finish. I was happy to reach the war memorial at the top, as it was the last of this fructuous 10-BIG weekend (even if here again, we climbed it once more from the north-east side). After Kemmelberg, we just had to get back to the car, but as we were some 30 km from the house, I said I’d rather go back by bike than at the back of the van. I was joined by Patrick for this ride back home. At a moment, we were fooled by the GPS that led us to a dead-end, so we asked a local cyclist, whose advices lengthened our route of no more than 10 km, but we were finally back in Tourcoing.
Then, I left my friends, as they had a plane back home later in the evening, and they wanted to go to see the pro race meanwhile. In Lille station, I was told that, due to the beginning of school holidays, I couldn’t expect to take my bike in the TGV. So, I had to take six different trains to get back to Nice, passing by Arras, Paris, with a stop for the night at my sister’s home, Dijon, Lyon and Marseille before finally reaching Nice in the evening of the Monday.