With Keepers Tour: Cobbled Classics 2012 stitched up and in the history books, the challenge of documenting the trip became immediately obvious; how do you take the myriad impressions, experiences, and perspectives and put them down in a meaningful way – let alone in a way that can somehow be digested. Surely, to document even just the Keepers’ view on these goings-on would result in an article much longer than anyone would be prepared to read and would be a far cry from comprehensive.
We have decided that the best approach is to split the report into four Articles, one authored by each Keeper, and each covering a different section of the trip. We also look forward to the contribution of additional photos and stories through the posts from those who joined us and those who witnessed the goings-on from afar. Today, we present you the report from the first weekend which covered the Roubaix ride and watching de Ronde van Vlaanderen.
It took the five months since announcing Keepers Tour: Cobbled Classics 2012 to prepare myself both physically and mentally for the beating I would surely take riding the hardest and most sacred roads in Northern Europe. It took five seconds on the first cobbled secteur for me to realize that there is no way to prepare for it, assuming you don’t regularly operate two jackhammers at once – one with your hands and one with your butt.
Immediately after arriving at the Gite in Westouter, Heuveland, it had become obvious that the group had a chemistry that seemed as though it were guided by the very hand of Merckx. Everyone, from our guides, William and Alex of Pave Cycling Classics, to the Keepers (whom had never all met in person until earlier that week), to the attendees got along instantly like long lost friends with boisterous laugher lubricated by more than a few glasses of Malteni Beer and wine.
We set about unpacking and preparing our bikes in the nervous manner customary of people who anticipate something they don’t understand: advice was given to people who didn’t ask for it by people unqualified to provide it; justifications were assertively made for decisions not understood by those justifying them; adjustments were made to equipment that required neither adjustment nor attention.
I arose Saturday to the disappointment of a gloriously sunny dawn; my secret hope had been to ride the pavé in the muddy tradition of those who have ridden it before me, though it was difficult to be disappointed with the beautiful sight of an early morning sun flooding the hills surrounding the Gite. We kitted up, ate breakfast, and prepared to drive to Valenciennes, the site of our route’s start.
For me, to feel my wheels roll over the cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix was a dream which I had held since I was 8 years old. Ever since I started riding a bike seriously, I had sought out any cobbles I could find in the various places I’ve ridden; either in the oldest American towns or in Dutch, Belgian, and French villages I visited. Through this, I had cultivated a confidence that I knew what to expect; that the French pavé couldn’t be significantly different than the stones I’d found elsewhere.
We rolled out and quickly arrived at the first secteur. Words can’t describe the flood of emotions that run through your mind the moment you hit the cobbles. The first and most obvious is an acute realization that you are riding in a group over a road so rough your back wheel is jumping a half meter from left to right as you jar over the cobbles. You then realize your eyesight lacks something in the way of clarity due to the associated scrambling of your brain and senses as you try to adjust to this new style of riding. As your vision wavers somewhere between “blurry” and “blind”, you realize that there is what seems like a significant downhill section coming up and your hands are fixed to the tops of the bars as though they were conducting an electrical current that locks your hands in a tight grip, like grabbing an electric fence with both hands. There is no possibility of braking, and only a phantom sense of steering.
Somehow, we all managed to safely navigate the 2.5 kilometeres to the divinely smooth tarmac at the other end and rolled to a stop. Excited conversations and exclamations erupted from the group as we came to terms with what had just transpired; I checked my wheels for trueness – assuming they had come to pieces – only to find they were in the same state as they had been prior to entering the secteur. The excited chatter turned more tame as we collectively realized we had 20 more such sections to navigate, with the hardest and most renown coming at the end of the ride.
A few secteurs further on, we arrived at the entrance to the legendary Forest of Arenberg where we stopped to pay our respects to this most hallowed stretch of cobbles before submitting to its 3000 meters of hell. These were indeed much more difficult than the previous sections, with huge gaps between the stones, and an unmerciful uphill finish. The thing that makes riding cobbles so hard is not the jarring of your bones nor the lack of control over the machine; its the fact that each stone you hit slows your momentum – from the very moment you hit the cobbles, they are dragging you down and its only a matter of time until you run out of power and succumb to their cruelty. One can only hope to reach the end of the secteur before your strength leaves you entirely.
Again, we regrouped before continuing on to the rest of the secteurs, which vary in length, difficulty, and brutality. As we put more and more secteurs behind us, we gained confidence riding the stones, but also became much more fatigued. The fatigue is one unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. While my saddle gave the impression of making unwelcome advances throughout each of the sections, my hands, forearms, and biceps took on an aching that significantly compromised my ability to hold the bars or steer my machine. Trying to pee made me wonder how I had caught venereal disease.
The cobbles themselves vary from area to area; some are fairly smooth, while others seem as though they had been dumped from a moving truck and left there; yet all of them made me glad we rode them in the dry. It seemed that by and large, the best place to ride them was on the crown and out of the gutter. This was not always the case, however, as the crown was in bad shape in some places. On the crown or in the gutter, the only way to ride the stones was Ã¡ bloc, or full gas. The faster you go, the more your bike hovers over the gaps between the stones which in most places are significant. Ride the cobbles slowly, and you feel each and every bump.
We did have a few mishaps along the way. First was Marko’s seatpin, which cleft in two on one of the early secteurs and forced him to ride the remainder of the route on a borrowed bike. We also had the small matter of a certain Keeper of Dutch descent leading the group through a town and misunderstanding the traffic patterns. Coming around a bend, I plowed sidelong into a car and left @ChrisO to avoid it only by dodging to the right and crashing over the curb. Thankfully, no one was injured and we managed to continue on our way after replacing his damaged front wheel. If there’s one thing that makes you feel Pro, it’s having a support car with a mechanic jumping from it to replace a broken part. If there’s one thing that makes you feel like an idiot, its causing an accident because you’re – well – an idiot.
We finished the ride covering all the remaining secteurs including Mons en Pavelle and Carrefour de l’Arbre and rolling into Roubaix and onto its famous track, before touring the legendary showers. This day was a realization of a dream I have held for almost 30 years, and it did not disappoint.
Many thanks go out to William and Alex from Pavé Cycling Classics for their masterful work; you were more than guides and hosts, you have become our friends. Similarly, we are forever indebted to Belgian photographer Jesse Willems and his friend Tom who accompanied us and generously photographed us on our journey. Please see below for his masterful photographs.
Jesse Willems’ Keepers Tour Roubaix Gallery (view in Full Screen for best results)
With one dream sorted, we arrose the next day to watch de Ronde van Vlaanderen on the famous cobbled climb of the Oude Kwaremont. The controversial new route had the riders doing three circuits, covering the climb in each one. We conducted our selves in the traditional Flandrian way by consuming enormous quantities of beer, eating frite met (fries with mayonaise) and screaming our lungs out. The atmosphere is indescribable at these races, with friendship and camaraderie between total strangers.
One of the interesting things about being at the roadside is that you have very little idea of what’s actually happening in the race, though the large TV screens nearby did help lend some notion as to what was going on. The biggest contrast of the day was Fabian Cancellara’s pre-race interview being aired moments before his fateful crash; the interviewer asked him of what he was afraid during the race and Fabian looked at him quizzically, asking him to restate the question a few times before finally understanding what this “fear” business was all about and answering, “Oh, nothing.” Sadly, it appears even a stray bidon can change the course of a race.
If you haven’t been to watch a major European bike race, put it on your list to do as soon as possible. It involves a lot of waiting, drinking, and eating. A lot of chatting, a lot of excitement. The anticipation as the race comes close can be cut with knife; it mounts gradually until you hear the television helicopters hovering nearby. Then the race official cars come by, and finally the races woosh by in an instant. Try to pick a climb so the bunch is spread out a bit, otherwise it will be over in a flash. But you’re there for more than seeing the riders; being at the races helps you understand there is much more to racing bikes than crossing the finish line – there is an entire world that surrounds it and that world is one worth being a part of.
Vive la Vie Velominatus.