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. This is the final of four parts, covering the last awesome weekend of the Tour. There are more articles of thanks and reverence coming soon.
Everyone was sure the first weekend of riding the Paris-Roubaix course and watching the Ronde really couldn’t be topped but weekend #2 was going to do just that. A Saturday of riding the business end of the Ronde and meeting Freddy Maertens followed with an epic day of Paris-Roubaix Easter Sunday. At the gite, it was sounding more like a tuberculosis ward than ever with much coughing from lungs that had been worked hard and put away with Malteni. At mid-week we were scolded with a weekend weather report of SNOW but Saturday dawned not too cold and dry. There was reason for hope.
Friday afternoon Alex and William brought us to visit AG2R-La Mondiale at their hotel. We watched one of the mechanics gluing on tires while another methodically washed all the bikes just back from the Roubaix recon. The first mechanic didn’t waste time letting glue in the rim dry before he mounted anything and the second mechanic used a power-washer on every bike. OK, that’s how the pros do it. We were introduced to the long time director of AG2R La Mondiale, Vincent Lavenu. Alex and William became friends with him when Decathlon (Alex and William’s employer) sponsored Ag2R and supplied their bikes. Two english speaking riders, the Belgian Kristof Goddaert and Frenchman Steve Houanard were hauled out of the hotel and they patiently answered our questions. When asked who would win, they never mentioned the team leader of AG2R, these guys are realists, Paris-Roubaix is on their schedule and they were there to do their best. It was a privilege to meet Vincent, talk to some riders and see the mechanics doing what they do day in and day out.
Saturday morning the multi-vehicle caravan rolled across the Belgian gray landscape toward our start in Oudenaarde, and once again I really had no idea where we were. The wind turbines told of wind across the landscape and the windshield wipers came on; we were in for the full Belgian experience today. The route was to be the last 140km of the real Ronde course, ending with the iconic Muur van Gerardsbergen and the Bosberg. Everyone but me seemed quite psyched for a day of cobbled climbs. We rode from Oudenaarde under very low clouds and wet roads. A long preamble of narrow roads and paths warmed everyone up. In Belgium I found it hard to know what was a road and what was a bike path. Paths that seemed too narrow for a car had cars on them and the paths seemed to have cow manure on them- did that just go in my mouth?
The first few climbs were tame and paved and soon enough I was so far off the back I relegated myself to the team car; my week-long battle with a disease I picked up from dirty French cobbles was not done with me yet. William led the healthy on an incredibly complicated route through the Belgian (and French?) landscape.
The climbs started coming fast and furious; the lads were on the Oude Kwaremont climb soon, riding up the cobbles where we had watched the Ronde six days ago. It’s not a steep one at 11% maximum and an average of 4% but it is a long one. Then the Paterberg and suddenly to the right, straight up, the Belgian escalator, the Koppenburg. To me this is The Climb in Belgium. If pros have to push and carry bikes up this, it must be tough. The Koppenburg has had a wee facelift in recent years and we had left the rain behind so it was full gas. Alex and I walked down from the top of the climb and it dropped away so one couldn’t see the steepest part but no fear, dear reader, the hearty Spring Classics riders danced up. There was a touch of wheels, some cursing, dismounting, remounting, but everyone rode up and some dared to say it wasn’t so tough. Really?
The Steenbeekdries, the Taaienberg, the bergs kept coming and the riders kept climbing them. Then it started to sleet. Frozen rain was pelting down as the route took us through yet another Belgian red brick town. The weather improved as we came into Gerardsbergen, an approach so familiar from years of watching this race on TV. Alex and I sneaked around the side and took photos as the riders came up to the oh-so-familiar chapel at the top. Mein Gott in Himmel, William, @Rigid. Fair enough, then @roadslave came sailing around the corner, too fat to climb? I think not! Roadslave is the revelation of the Muur, showing most everyone the back end of his Ti Serrota.
There was much chatter in the months leading up to this about Museeuw’s big ring antics on the Muur so after the group made it to the top, the chance to re-ride the end in the 53 was irresistible. But these were staged photos, maybe to impress Frank’s grandchildren thirty years from now: “You little puke, come over here and let Pappy show you again how I did the Muur in the Big Ring.”
The afternoon was wearing on, so the route was truncated. No one would be the Boss of the Bosberg today; it was time to let William reset his internal GPS for Oudenaarde and head for the barn. On the route back, Roadslave’s rear tire couldn’t stand the punishment he had been dishing out so we stopped for a wheel fix. Whilst this was going on, G’rilla was nodding off on the sidewalk, never a good sign. We re-infused him with Coke and caffeinated gels but a few kilometers later he climbed into the team car too, a broken rider. The lack of recovery at the git every night, the red wine, Malteni, the need to discuss the day’s fun until all hours and the eventual snoring, it was too much. You can’t keep a Strackian pace all week- few can.
Our route back intersected the under-23 Ronde race so we stopped to watch them ride through. Amazing, in a word. The under-23 race looked like a full-on professional race in the USA. The riders were extremely strong and fast, another reminder of why we were civilians playing at being pros. And who is that guy with the the East German buzz-cut? It’s Zabel! With spare wheels!
The Belgians have at least two amazing bicycle museums. The Ronde Museum in Oudenaarde has free showers for cyclists, a gift shop full of jerseys and books and a damn bar. What the hell? Is there any further proof necessary that Belgium is the heart of cycling? I rest my case. Like Eddy, we were not to meet Freddy, but it mattered not as the day had already been a heavy dose of Belgian cycling. As we explored the basement level of the museum I half-expected Freddy to appear on the other side of a scrim in a confessional booth, so we could murmur our sins and maybe be absolved. “Forgive me Freddy, I climbed off my bike after two climbs today because I am weak American pussy.” The Pave Boys had already pulled off untold miracles, they conjured up Museeuw, why not this?
Sunday, Paris-Roubaix, a promise of rain: if everyone was not shagged out from Saturday’s ride, the excitement might have ruined a fanatic’s sleep. @Bill made the tactical error of inviting his wife to join us for P-R, which meant we were supposed to behave, which we didn’t. Within two seconds of her appearance in the git Frank made her regret her decision and if she had any doubts, William quickly reconfirmed them. Apologies were made but luckily she is married into the US military so she hears worse. Ha, it was so beautiful, a memory of the week.
It didn’t take much herding to get us in the caravan, in coolers three Maltenis per person and enough baguette sandwiches to get us through the day. The Pave boys know their stuff and they proved it this day. We hit P-R three different places; each site required a complicated combination of highways, secondary roads, shortcuts and cursing. You have to leave this to the pros, trust me.
We arrived at the first sector of pave at Troisvilles with minutes to spare because the field had a tailwind and was running ahead of its fastest schedule. Frank and the Banner were to be inseparable, this was Frank’s day. The break came through and a few minutes later the main field, gutter to gutter at warp speed and they disappeared in a cloud of dust. As we walked back to the vehicles a few Velominati waved to a beautiful women by a parked car, and she smiled and waved back, what the hell? That never happens. It was Johan Van Summeren’s fiancÃ© and of course we remembered her name.
Alex and William led us into the Arenberg Forest and we found our little spot just past the trestle bridge, a front row view on the most feared stretch of Paris-Roubaix cobbles. Before any racers appear there is a stream of police motor, photo motos, team cars, ambulances, press cars all ripping by at high speed, most cheered by the crowd for no particular reason. Eventually, as the helicopters get closer, the excitement meter gets pegged. More police motos, then, the red race director’s car in amongst other vehicles. The crowd roars as the break, then the field, pass by at high speed. It’s a cacophony of weird sounds as the bikes bounce over the cobbles. Two Quick Step riders are right at the front of the field, Boonen second wheel, and Frank gets an unbelievable photo of Boonen’s loose bottle spinning next to him as he passes, and they are gone. Riders continue to come by in groups and solo, they are riding just to finish, there is no catching the main field now.
We pack up again and head for our third rendezvous at Carrefour de l’Arbre, a wide open, windswept area with the singular Cafe de l’Arbre sitting alone at a crossroads. As we caravan there we hear Boonen has ridden off the front with twelve chasers, disconcerting news for all of Belgium.
Carrefour de l’Arbre is an amazing scene. It’s well policed to avoid the lack of drunken crowd control of other years. The organizers have installed a massive screen with the live feed. Frank and The Banner, snapping in the headwind, leads the Velominati to a long straight before the Cafe. Boonen has opened a minute lead and his power on the cobbles has left his chasers in disarray. This is his race; only very bad luck will spoil it now. Again it’s the helicopters advancing above the fields that raises the excitement level to a fevered pitch. This is possibly the best place to be on the Earth right now! Boonen goes by full gas, in the drops, no gloves, a big vein bulging on his neck. Sweet Jesus, there’s a man. A long time later Lars Boom, then a group of five containing Ballan and Flecha pass, they are racing for second place.
Helicopters and TV motos both find Frank and the Banner irresistible. All eyes go to the big screen, everyone is willing Tommeke on to Roubaix.
And then it’s over! It can’t be over. We roll to Lille with a caravan full of Velominati and their bicycles, some to the train station, some to a hotel. Goodbyes all around but it’s hard to believe this eight day ride-a-thon is done. Vive La Vie Velominatus.
We can’t thank Pavé Cycling Classics enough. Alex, William and Genevieve are the best at what they do and have made this trip something to remember forever.