Formed in June 09, Here Come the Belgians is a non-elite anti-team celebrating all things cross, cobbled and Belgian.
Seeking a different experience to the traditional cycling club, its aim is to harness the energy of a vibrant internet cycling community with grass roots racing and riding based around Cyclocross and Spring Classics. There is no race programme in the style of a racing team, more a collection of individual experiences through rides and racing, in whatever location a member may be, that all can share in and contribute toward.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Follow The Young Flesh: Paris-Roubaix 2012

Follow the young flesh. This was Nick's rather amusing take on 'Suivre les fleches jaunes' (follow the yellow arrows) his French is more broken than mine! A simple instruction for a brilliantly organised event. Following the young flesh for 210km would just add to the fun! The Queen of the Classics, Hell of the North or just Paris Roubaix. Neither the Pro's version or the somewhat shorter sportive event actually start in Paris but both finish at the iconic Roubaix velodrome. Al has written previously on his crossjunkie blog  that his experience of the Paris Roubaix pavé was underwhelming, feeling the route to be contrived. Having ridden this abridged version of it I can see Al's point but by contrast I found the experience fantastic. Perhaps this is part and parcel of doing it as an event where you're sharing the artificially imposed suffering with others.

The route is undoubtably contrived but so much of modern cycling is, mountain top finishes, prologues in a different country, trail centres and obviously cross! The course has evolved since 1896 and today many of the sections are included to add to or maintain the 'character' of the race rather than a logical link up from point to point. Many of the original roads were tarred over in the intervening years (in the name of progress), in fact by the 1965 edition there was only 22km of pavé. By the late 70s the shortage of pavé was threatening the whole character of the race and the local mayors were petitioned with a view to reclaiming and protecting the ancient cobbles. Today there is even a 'Friends of Paris-Roubaix' organisation who repair and maintain sectors in some cases going so far as to exhume previously 'buried' sections! The landscape that it passes through is not the most interesting visually but historically is incredibly rich. With battlefields dating back to 1214 (Bouvines at Carrefour de l'Arbre) and numerous WWI and WWII connections. The L'Enfer du Nord monica was supposed to have originated from the post WWI editions of the race traversing the then blasted landscape.

We arrived in Cambrai near to the start in Bohain on the Friday evening, Jo, Nick, Wayne and myself. The plan was fairly simple, dump one vehicle in Roubaix on Saturday, drive the other to the start on Sunday, ride to Roubaix drive back to Cambrai collect other vehicle (and the ever patient Jo) then drive home for work on Monday! The F1 in Cambrai was an ideal base and we dropped the car off in Roubaix finding a parking slot literally 50 metres from the velodrome entrance in the cobbled central reservation of the D760. Whilst in Roubaix we visited the velodrome and its attendant clubhouse/cafe 'Au Pavé', not the souvenir shop one, which was obviously the meeting place for Lille cyclists. You can just ride in and do a lap of the velodrome it would appear, like popping in for a quick knock about at Lords!
Now that's a clubhouse!

Saturday evening we drove into Bohain to register and beat the imagined rush. No need, it was unbelievably low key and slick, we parked almost at the door walked in and had got our carnet within a couple of minutes. Ace! On the Sunday we just rolled up got our carnet stamped and then headed off. The organisational excellence form Vélo Club de Roubaix Cyclotourisme continued with amazing feed stations (jelly sweets, dark chocolate, bananas, pastries, cakes, sandwiches, crepes, drinks etc) complete with mechanic and first aid.
Mons en Pevéle
I'll not reiterate all the advice I avidly devoured before the event but yes riding fast helps enormously, the crest of the camber is a good place to be but everyone else is there as well, some of the verges are good too. To begin with I had delusions of riding all the pavé and eschewing the verges for the 'experience'. This lasted until the Arenberg (less than 100km!). For the next 110km I took whatever seemed the most expedient route, rationalising that this is what the real racers did. To actually race on this terrain seems insane, the effort required to pass a rider, losing the good line, was enormous. As soon as you lost momentum it was demoralisingly hard to get going again, riding like the proverbial frog on a matchbox. You gain a whole new level of respect for the pros weaving around on those cobbles. We were incredibly lucky weather wise too, totally dry, if it had been wet it would become exponentially harder. We had originally opted for a three musketeers approach of riding together but this quickly dissolved a little into Wayne and I riding together and regrouping with Nick at the feed stations our pitiful excuse being the pavé forced you to ride at your own pace.
The Other Two Musketeers
Hardest sector, Pavé de Mons en Pevéle, severely cambered and a bit broken 3km of it at about the 100 mile mark. Luckily for me this came just as I recovered from a little défaillance (I blame my experiment with eating a tuna sarnie) and I was chasing to regain contact with Wayne and the Mons en Pevéle sector took my mind off things. Most embarrassing moment, realising I'd ridden past the cafe de Carrefour de l'Arbre without noticing it! Best bits, any sector of pavé that I was going well on and entering the velodrome to the ring of the bell. Following and then overtaking a farmers van on the pavé gave a flavour (literally) of the dust thrown up by the real race 'caravan' for a touch of authenticity.

G & T ready to go.

 Equipment notes for the gear freaks out there. I rode a Van Dessel Gin and Trombones CX bike which was perfect for the job. Wheels were home built 32h 3X Velocity A23 clinchers on Ambrosio Zenith hubs which remained perfectly true. Tyres were Challenge Paris Roubaix 27mm lovely and puncture free. Gearing was 53/39 X 12-25 but I only changed down to the 39 a couple of times and a 42 (or pro 44 would have been good). Handlebars had a second wrap of tape and I put a precautionary zip tie around the Garmin but this probably wasn't necessary. Spares went in a saddlepack, two tubes, patches, multitool, CO2 cartridge, and magiclink. Minipump in back pocket together with phone, cape and 5 gels. Two bidons were probably unnecessary with feed stations every 40km, Wayne got by with one.
Desperate Repairs

Looking at the the bike litter along the way I'd say the most commonly 'lost' items were: bottles, pumps, saddlepacks, and bottle cages in that order. The broken bits we saw (excluding the punctures) were mainly bottle cages, there were a couple of saddles/seatposts, one set of handlebars, couple of mech hangers/mechs and a few wobbly wheels. Generally bikes of all ages and materials survived it without any obvious issue including a trio of quite nippy gents on period perfect 1930s single speeds! I lost count of the number of beautiful steel Colnagos, including a gorgeous late 70s Mexico with pantagraphed stem etc, being abused.

A fabulous event - it would be great to get a big HCTB contingent over to ride it en-masse!


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Excelent write up Rich.

    Sounds brill - Nick was telling me a little about it on Wednesday...

    Speaking of The Waggo, and one of the above photos, is he just 'happy' to be riding the Paris-Roubaix Sportive, or is he clutching a t'water bottle between his knees?


  3. I'd be up for that Rich! After struggling through the Tour of Flanders a few years ago (boy oh boy - felt that one), Paris Roubaix still holds a stange fascination.