Keepers Tour 2012 Update, Part I: Roubaix & RVV

Keepers Tour 2012 Update, Part I: Roubaix & RVV

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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.

Keepers Tour: Cobbled Classics 2012 Updates: Part I // Part II // Part III // Part IV

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 á 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.

Attendee Gallery

@Frank’s Strava on the ride:

// Cyclotourism // Defining Moments // Keepers Tour // The Hardmen // Unforgettable Rides

  1. @Chris
    Nice shots Chris. That B&W one is worthy of VVallpaper.

  2. @Chris
    Outstanding Belgian aerobar form. Strong work, lad.

  3. @Chris
    VVoVV great photos Chris, lookin’ fantastic.

  4. @Chris
    Damn Man! You look the proper Hardman there, esp in the B&W photo! Great shot!

  5. Love the shot!

  6. @Chris
    Yeah, that B&W version was worth the trip over right there. Killer photo.

  7. @Chris

    Fuck, Chris those pics are fantastic. If I were you I’d get them printed and framed and hang them in your office or right by your rollers set up or something like that. Fantastic. I’d don’t think I’d have the balls to do the phantom aero bars on the pave!!

    Quick q or two for you if you don’t mind. a. how tall are you? b. What size is that sacred garment?
    (We look similar see and I want to order some sacred garments for myself. I’m pretty sure from all the discussions last time on here but I’m just having a last minute faff!)

  8. ah..just re-read your post. Between secteurs! I still wouldn’t do it but I guess that’s the best way to give the hands a break eh?

  9. @Chris

    Jesse Willems is an absolute god. Finally a picture of me on my bike that I actually like.

    I may still look like a little round man compared to the the other guys on the tour but as far as i’m concerned I look magnificent in these.

    These were taken on the D935 not long after the 14th secteur Tilloy à Sars et Rosières which I hadn’t negotiated with quite the same panache or speed as the rest of the guys – I was trying to hang onto to the fist group to ensure arriving at the velodrome in roubaix before it closed for the day.

    I was chasing hard at this point but without making ground – that was the first point I remember there being any wind. It’s a long straight and there was no traffic in sight so I was also trying to zone out a bit and fall into a rhythm. Jesse took these before I noticed that he’d drawn along side me.

    From memory I caught up with everyone after the 13th secteur when they stopped to regroup. I think that was the secteur on which @Marko’s seat post called it quits.

    Black and white photo is David Lynch meets Pavé (good thing). Speaking of.

  10. The B & W shot is my favorite as well but there’s something about the colour shot that I like too. I don’t remember there being much colour on the day.

    The phantom aerobars pose wasn’t a conscious effort to give the hands a break (hand relief!), more an attempt to get aero, get my head down and let my mind go blank rather than spend time watching my target along a long straight road. A bit like not watching the clock when your on the rollers. I find that’s when I come closest to souplese. If you look at the full res colour version, it almost looks like my eyes are closed.

    @paolo I’m a shade over 5’9″ with short legs, 32″ waist and 30″ leg but a somewhat chunkier torso, the jersey is an xl (but casteli kit is euro tight) and the bibs are large (not sacred garments – old school black – but casteli and the roughly the same cut).

  11. The B&W pic just has more romance to it.

    Thanks Chris. I have a lot of Castelli kit and the shirt sizes are all over the place dependant on style. I’m almost the same as you, a tad chunkier but I’m currently working like an SOB to get it off. 320+ K a week the last 4 weeks which is a lot for me. I figured xl and l going off whats been said and what I already have.

  12. FWIW, I’m 6’02’ and weigh 160 lbs. I ordered the Zwarte jersey in large. When it arrived, it was so tight the fabric was bunching up around my armpits to the point of being uncomfortable. I send it back to Frank, and in exchange he sent an XL, which fits much better. Buying cycling clothing over the Internet is always a crapshoot, as each manufacturer cuts their clothing a little differently.

  13. @doubleR

    Even amongst the same brand it can be infuriating. I spotted a sweet deal on a black Castelli wind gilet the a few weeks back, so I purchased it in the same size as my V-Kit jersey (which fits perfectly). Only I was swimming in the gilet. Had to return it. It was probably a “club cut” rather than race cut.

    For my FWIW, I went to a local shop and tried on the most top-of-the-line Castelli stuff they had (rather than the cheap stuff), which helped me get a better idea of how the V-Kit would fit.

  14. Wow, through a little communication error, we missed the second half of the album from Jesse – I’m updating it right now with the latest photos. A few highlights:

    Gianni has got the cannons firing on full tilt here:

    And check out the look of glee on @Bill’s face, countered by the compression of his tires as he’s ripping over the Pavé. We are a sick breed.

  15. @paolo

    The B&W pic just has more romance to it.Thanks Chris. I have a lot of Castelli kit and the shirt sizes are all over the place dependant on style. I’m almost the same as you, a tad chunkier but I’m currently working like an SOB to get it off. 320+ K a week the last 4 weeks which is a lot for me. I figured xl and l going off whats been said and what I already have.

    This is the Castelli race stuff – sized smaller than the stuff you get off the rack for the most part. Look deep into the size chart posted on the gear page, but if you’re on the line between sizes, go up, not down. This stuff is tight.

    I wear a large V-Jersey, and XL V-Bibs, FWIW.

  16. @frank

    Yeah cheers Frank I recall you mentioning that on the last order. I think I know what I need but anyhow this weekend I will be sneaking into LBS’s and trying stuff on before I order like the Bodypaint and Aero race stuff.
    I’m not concerned in the long term about getting it wrong and swapping stuff out or losing money on it..I AM concerned about looking resplendant at the July SF cogal.

  17. @all
    Have another look through Jesse’s photo album at the top; there are about 150 new photos in there, and they are ALL worth looking at.

    The guy is a serious genius for making us look so good!

  18. @Chris
    Love the CAAD rep.

    seems like we had a good representation of frame materials and they all made it in good shape.

  19. @frank
    does Brett ever smile?

  20. @frank
    You all look properly grizzled. Jesse’s photos are great. In particular he does a really nice job converting color to B&W — it’s not a simple matter of pressing a button.

  21. There’s an HD version of the RVV that has a few frames of us on the Kwaremont. You can see William’s face quite clearly, even his arm gestures as he throws his arm up and tells Boonen to fook off to the front of the race!

  22. @frank

    And check out the look of glee on @Bill’s face, countered by the compression of his tires as he’s ripping over the Pavé. We are a sick breed.

    Ha. That was one comment that Jesse kept saying throughout the day – “you’re still smiling!”.

    How could I not? It was painful and difficult. But it was fun.

    Even though it was so rough that my arm warmers kept heading for my wrists.

  23. Fellas – the RVV story all tied up

    Boonen meets the field kid.

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  25. Here is my pitiful strava data from riding Paris Roubaix.  I was soooooo dead by the end I was barely moving.

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