As a keen cyclist and enthusiast I always look forward to Spring. Usually the weather is on the up which has instant benefits for a commuting cyclist like me, although this year could be the exception! Have we ever had a colder & more miserable March? And secondly the pro cycling season takes off in spectacular fashion. Gone are the drab and dull races hosted in Feb and March in the Arab states – the ones with no atmosphere and no spectators held on straight, mainly flat roads through deserts. Each stage won by sprinters. They always make me feel like cycling is selling out – the rich Arab states using Eurosport as a tourism shop window. I can’t imagine these races do anything to promote cycling. The intent seems to be to promote themselves. Then BOOM – we hit late March / early April and attentions turn back to real road racing, back in the heartland of Northern Europe. For this time of year is the Classics season.
I love all the classics. The monuments in particular. They are just epic. The monuments are book-ended by two great Italian races – Spring’s ‘La Primavera’ of Milan-San Remo and Autumn’s ‘Race of The Falling Leaves’ Il Lombardia. Both fantastic races with stunning backdrops. However, the epicentre of the Classics season are back to back weekends in April. First comes Ronde van Vlaanderen (The Tour of Flanders), then next up is Paris-Roubaix. These are the highlights of my cycling year. These races are brutal yet beautiful, both steeped in history and true to their origins. Cobbles … lots of cobbles, short, sharp, strength sapping climbs, inclement Northern Europe mid April weather. These races define ‘the Classics’ and they are won by the hardmen of the sport. Get one of these on your palmares and you’ve joined the elite. Get both and you’re a legend. It’s hard to pick a favourite but if I had to I’d say Paris-Roubaix edges it. Roubaix has the velodrome finish. 750 metres of smooth concrete which so often sees the cat and mouse track style finale. It’s amazing that the race victory often comes down to that after 260 kilometres. So Paris-Roubaix, the ‘Queen of the Classics’ is my ultimate cycling fix. A trip to see it first hand has long been on my bucket list.
I love a cycling trip. I’ve travelled around the UK lots to see our own UCI races – the Tour of Britain and Tour De Yorkshire, but I’m pretty new to venturing off-shore. My brother and I went to the frankly splendid Ghent 6 Day last November. This was the start of it. We’d been given a pass out by our long suffering wives and we’d made the most if it. We needed to get another booked at the earliest opportunity! But where to….? The original mumblings were to travel over to France to see stage 9 of the TdF – a stage from Arras to Roubaix covering twenty odd kilometres of cobbles. This was the closest stage to UK with relatively easy travel. However the more we pondered this the more we thought – wouldn’t it just be better if we went and watched the Spring Classic instead? It was a no brainer really. The TdF stage could prove pivotal but it would be a watered down version of the classic race – less cobbles, probably ridden more defensively, and not due to finish in the historic outdoor velodrome. The decision was made and plans began in earnest.
The only question was whether to travel independently or go on an organised trip. I’m generally speaking an independent traveller. I tend to shy away from organised trips, more willing to bumble my way around. It’s more fun that way right? But this was different. A potential logistical minefield. It was hard to imagine how we would get to see the race more than once if we travelled independently. That might feel pretty disheartening to travel to France and see the pros whir past in 30 seconds, leaving us relying on a dodgy Internet and an astronomical phone bill to keep apace with the race developments. After a bit of research we found a 1 night trip to the race with Baxters Cycling Trips promising a potential of 4 sightings – the start in Compiegne, two cobbled sectors, then the velodrome finish in Roubaix. That sounded much more appealing. The cost £190 including coach, one nights accommodation in Saint Quentin, evening meal and even a packed lunch thrown in. Our credit cards were out in a flash. It was booked.
And so the weekend began with another early alarm clock, 5.30ish. Ouch. I tiptoed as quietly around the house as possible grabbing my bag and heading downstairs. Why is it that the quieter you try to be the louder you actually are? Maybe it’s just that your senses are heightened and everything just seems louder – door creaks, footsteps on stairs, fridge door etc. Unfortunately my two boys are the lightest sleepers ever – one creaky floorboard enough to wake them both. My wife on the other hand compensates as she has slept through an earthquake amongst other things. My brother Ady arrives just after 6.00am and we set off for our coach pick up point at Watford Gap southbound on the M1. The 20 odd miles are eaten up in no time and we park up and head inside the services to sample the breakfast delights of McD’s. A quick sausage and egg bagel and coffee and we leave to meet up with the coach. We wait a while by the coach as one by one our fellow travellers return, unbeknown to us they’d also been tucking into a McD’s breakfast. There’s currently only 7 others on the coach, having joined at Knutsford and Stoke already. So it seems our ‘early start’ is relatively sedate compared to our new companions.
We are back on the road with further pick ups on outskirts of London and in Kent on M20. After our final pick up we are a merry band of just 16. That equates to nearly 4 seats each so plenty of room to spread out and relax. The drive down to Dover is relatively painless. Only one moment of incident when a motorist didn’t quite see the moving bright white 60 foot long huge coach when filtering onto the motorway, driving straight into our rear side. One broken wing mirror, one bent front wing, and a 20 minute interlude for exchanging details later and we were on our way again. The bump had certainly livened up the coach, and in a weird kind of way got everyone talking. Barriers broken down, the atmosphere is very convivial as we join the queue at Dover for our ferry over to Calais.
I’m not a fan of ferries. I don’t have the best sea legs to be fair. I’ve never actually barfed on board, but sometimes I have to concentrate too hard on not barfing if you know what I mean! Ady and I find a comfy sofa and I head off for an unsatisfactory over priced sandwich. The sailing is surprisingly calm. No ministry of silly walks on show as people meander around the boat. Shame really, we had the perfect seat to watch the chaos ensue. I’m always surprised how much people drink on board a ferry, especially as it was only early afternoon. It’s a very British thing. The ferry symbolises the start to the holiday for some. Maybe they just top up the alcohol from then on. I buy a bottle of water. I’m hardcore me. Before long France is in sight and we get the tannoy announcement to return to our vehicles. We re-board and are soon back on the road.
The first few miles out of Calais don’t shout welcome to the newly arrived visitor. The road is surrounded by high fences topped with barbed wire. Not even Steve McQueen could get over these bad boys. I’d seen TV reports months ago about heightened security at Calais as the infamous ‘jungle’ (the shanty town created by would-be immigrants trying to enter the UK) had been dismantled. It does make you wonder where all these immigrants went – I can’t imagine that after weeks and months of trying to cross the channel they’d just give up and seek asylum in France. Maybe they are busy setting up Jungle 2 somewhere else. Anyhow we keep rolling out of Calais and we are quickly back on the motorways heading for our first stop French side in Roubaix. A couple of things strike me on the way. Firstly, just how damn big France is – suddenly the countryside looks vast, uninterrupted views of rolling fields as far as the eye can see. It’s agriculture everywhere. Secondly, a rather sobering thought – rather too frequently we pass the most immaculately presented war grave cemeteries. It’s wonderful to see how well these patches of land are kept, clearly a pride taken in their appearance. It reminds you that this part of France was the front line in WW2, indeed Dunkirk is only a few miles further down the coast.
You might be wondering why our first stop is at Roubaix, the finish line in tomorrow’s epic race. Well it’s because today is the Paris-Roubaix sportive – three different distances on offer to the amateur cyclist, all of them finishing on the same velodrome just 24 hours before the pros. It transpires that Baxters have also put on a 3 night trip for sportive riders. Now we begin to understand why we have 4 seats each on the coach. We are picking up some of the sportive riders en route to our overnight digs in Saint Quentin. We park up in Roubaix, next to a supermarket. The car park thronging with Lycra clad middle aged men. There’s an air of celebration, lots of banter and a few tinnies being opened. I bet the supermarket gets through a lot of Kronenburg this weekend! A few weary folk make their way up the steps and onto our coach. They ooh and aah on each step clearly fatigued from their grand adventure. They instantly become the Alpha Males as they share stories with us. We are the softies, the unadventurous Paris Roubaix spectators. They are the hardmen, the get up and have a go kings. Up until this point it hadn’t even registered to me about riding the sportive. Only idiots would do that. But now sat beside these guys I’m feeling bullish. They don’t look any fitter than me. They probably ride a lot less miles than me. Maybe, just maybe next year……
The coach now 2/3rds full departs again and we set off on the final leg of today’s journey, an hour and a half to Saint Quentin. We are staying at a Campanile hotel. The car park is small and already has a fair few cars parked up. There’s clearly no room for our coach. The coach driver pulls in, and confidently reverse parks the 60 foot coach into a 61 foot gap. Waiting for impact my eyes are partly shut. Once opened again I thought they’d be a round of applause. But nothing, either we are all too Brutish for that, or our sportive riders are fast asleep. We disembark, check in (speaking English in a slightly French accent, a la Allo Allo), and trudge off to find our room. The hotel is more of a motel. It’s basic but we’re not bothered. We’ve been travelling 14 hours now and frankly I’d sleep in a hedge tonight. I am relieved though that we are staying just the one night, ah hah that’s one to us against the sportive Alpha Males who will be staying three. No time to rest though. A quick spruce up and we are back out again. This time to assemble in the hotel/motel restaurant for our evening meal.
I’ve survived today on nothing more than a McD’s breakfast (was that actually today, feels longer!), a Panettone at Dover’s Costa (an Italian Christmas favourite the weekend after Easter), and the aforementioned unsatisfactory over priced sandwich on the ferry. I am therefore by now very close to eating my own arm. Luckily everyone gathers promptly and we sit down to eat at 8:30. No grand menu though. A choice of salmon or salmon. In fact the only choice is what to accompany the salmon – rice, green beans or chips. I choose rice. No matter I like salmon anyway, and the starter is a buffet. Time to fill my boots. I indulge in hams, pickles, bread whilst we wait for the main. One beer down and a bottle of red wine opened, Ady and I are in full shmooz mode. We chat to our companions left and right. Thankfully the conversation is about cycling trips and bike adventures, rather than rear cassette choice and calliper v disc brake pros and cons. These aren’t a nerdy bunch of cyclists. Well if they are they are hiding it really well. Conversation is easy and we’re all enjoying ourselves. Our mains come out and I’m horrified to see that some people have ordered rice AND chips. What the….? I didn’t know you could choose two. Dessert is mercifully buffet also, so at least I won’t misunderstand my options again. I fill up and drink up satisfied. Shortly after we say our turrahs and retire to our cell (I mean room) ready for a long peaceful sleep.
Now unfortunately I didn’t get much of that. The room was small and echoey. The beds were only separated by a minuscule bedside table. And my brother snores. Lots. And loudly. I have suffered this before so came prepared with ear plugs. However the proximity of him to me outweighed the two bits of foam wedged in my ears. I don’t recall actually being awake and there bring a silence in the room. Whenever I was awake I could hear him. Occasionally he woke himself up with the din and I got a moment reprieve before normal service resumed. I was very close to recording him, just to prove my woes in the morning. I was tired and knew I had another long day tomorrow. I needed to sleep. But the more you tell your self to sleep, the more you can’t. You get anxious counting down the hours/minutes until you need to get up. I finally drifted off. Relaxed. Yes this is better. Then BOOM the light was on – bright as can be, my eyes straining. Ady had managed to catch the touch light switch when stretching. He panicked and grasped for the switch again. It was off, then on again, then off. God knows what anyone walking passed must have thought. It was the sleep equivalent of water boarding! Before I knew it I was awoken by first Ady’s, then my alarm going off. A cacophony of noise. That was it, the ‘sleep’ torture was over. I wouldn’t be back in bed (my bed) for another 20 hours.
The alarm is set for 6:30am. Got an awful lot to cram into today. So it’s up and on. Thankfully the shower is good and I’m slowly beginning to feel normal again. We’re out the door on time for our 7:30am breakfast. Breakfast is buffet style. We encourage each other to eat heartily as it could be a long time until our next sustenance. Ham, cheeses, bread, croissants and pancakes (with Nutella!) sort me out. I always prefer a continental to a full English. Especially a full English outside of England. They’re just not the same. A generic ‘sausage’ that tastes of anything but meat, and bacon so limp the rind looks and tastes like rubber bands. Once we’ve woofed down our continentals with a coffee we’re back to our rooms to pack up, ready for bus departure at 8:30am prompt.
It’s just over an hours drive to Compiegne. This is the current start to Paris-Roubaix. It’s been 52 years since the race actually departed from Paris itself. It was moved in 1966 to start in Chantilly, then in 1977 to Compiegne. I guess Paris itself got too big and busy along the way. As we approach the town centre it becomes obvious that we are at the centre of the cycling world, for one day only. The small roads are full of team cars and team buses. It’s like a procession. We salivate from our coach windows looking at the top end bikes hoisted on the car roofs. Would they really miss one….? We arrive at a roundabout on the edge of the main thoroughfare into town. Incredibly we go part round the about and then reverse up the road everyone is queueing to go down. We park up on the roadside and we all spill out onto the grand boulevard. The nifty reverse park should allow us quick access out of Compiegne. First coach out of here should help us get to the first section of cobbles in good time. We wander down the wide street towards the action. Compiegne is a charming town. Large wide avenues, grand buildings crumbling away. It has a certain faded elegance to it. The kind of place where you can tell its history may be more important than its present.
We head into the main square where the signing on ceremony will soon take place. On stage there are two French presenters ‘filling’ time chatting to spectators and introducing VT’s on the key riders and cobbled sectors. We wander around the start line, accompanied by dozens of motorbikes readying themselves for the start. Camera bikes, TV bikes, neutral service bikes carrying spare wheels. It puts in perspective the vast scale of this race. The actual sign-on is a bit underwhelming. We only have half an hour before we need to be back at the bus. That only gives us about 10 minutes of actual sign-on time. During that time a few pros cycle precariously up the ramp, sign their names on the Perspex and head off to warm up. No big stars though. They’ll all come out of their air conditioned pampered team buses right at the last minute. We cut our losses and head back towards our coach. En route back we pass a few Team Katusha Alpecin riders on their way to sign-on. I shout encouragement to Tony Martin (four World Time Trial champion and Katusha team leader today), and Marcel Kittel (fourteen times Tour de France stage winner and perfect pin up for Alpecin hair products). We then walk passed Team Sky’s troubled leader Sir Dave Brailsford. He is chaperoned by 4-5 people. It’s hard to work out if they are Team Sky staff or his own personal security. He is deep in chat. Now would not be a good time to request a selfie…. although I did consider it for a second or two.
As we head back to our coach we pass more team buses. Their bikes now all lined up and ready to go. Drinks bottles in, Garmin’s taped on (taped because the cobbles tend to shake them lose otherwise), parcours stickers on the top tube. The sticker indicating each cobbled sector, the distance and rating of each. I pause for some cycling porn photographs of Team Sky’s Pinarello F10’s, and BMC’s gold Team Machine with the No.1 number on – to be ridden by last years winner Greg Van Avermaat. The biggest spectator scrum though is around Bora Hansgrohe’s bus. Everyone wanting a glimpse of Peter Sagan, the rock star of the peloton. You could even here loud music coming from the coach. Sagan getting in the zone no doubt. We jump back on board the coach and with military precision we head off right on schedule. We are getting a head start on the race, setting off now should make it easier for viewing at the first cobbled sector, and that after all is what this race is all about.
We head off to the very first sector of pave on this years race, the sector from Troisvilles to Inchy. This sector is rated 3 stars, so medium difficulty. The race organiser, Jean-Francois Pescheux grades the cobbles by length, irregularity, their general condition and their position in the race. Only three sectors get the maximum 5 star rating. These are the legendary brutes of Trouee d’Arenberg, Mon-en-Pevele, and Le Carrefour de l’Arbre. The cobbles last 2.2km at this section. Long enough. The drive there seems long and tedious, plenty of traffic choking the smaller roads. Someone on the coach has done the maths and reckons the riders should cover the 97km to Troisvilles in about the same time as us. Whispers abound the coach that we might have to run for it. We arrive in the Troisvilles area, three gendarmes stand on the main road which the cobbled sector crosses. They love their whistles these gendarmes. A frenzy of whistles and flailing arms and we are waved across. By some miracle we park about 50 metres up the main road from the cobbled sector. This place is rammed. Cars abandoned on the roadsides. Spectators lining the pave both sides. How on earth did we manage to get parked here in our mahoosive coach? Well it turns out Baxters are quite an organised bunch. Their main man Jonathan had skipped Compiegene to get here early and like a dog mark out our territory, only with traffic cones rather than urine. A stroke of genius. Before we disembark our driver advises us that packed lunches can be collected from the luggage bay. Sod that we think. We’re not missing the peloton whir through here. We hurtle out of the doors and sprint down to the cobbles. They should be here any minute.
We stand on the corner of the sector. We are on the Rue de Jean Stablinski, named after the four time French national champion. This sector of road was proposed for Paris-Roubaix by Stanlinski, who knew the area well, a former wine worker under the woods of Arenberg. What first strikes you is the size of the cobbles and the camber of the road. The centre certainly looks like the best place to ride, less battered by the tyres of generations of farm machinery. The cobbles are smoothed by the weather and traffic, but very uneven, highs and lows making it difficult to pick an easy route through. I kneel for some arty cobble photography, these would look good and moody in black and white! Opposite us is the Arnaud Demare fan club. Arnaud is a French cyclist riding for FDJ. He’s an outside bet at best for today’s race, much more at home on smooth, even asphalt. They have two large banners, one each side of the road. I’ve read about these weird kind of fan clubs. It’s pretty common for a local bar to ‘adopt’ a cyclist, sometimes a big star, other times an absolute rank outsider. This matters not. The fan club then follow their man across Europe, waving banners and drinking heavily. The guys get very animated when any FDJ team cars zoom down the sector. The driver no doubt feeling obliged to toot their horn enthusiastically to these inebriated fans. Just to the right of the fan club there’s a gaggle of French elderly chaps. They are drinking some clear liquid straight. It must be damn strong stuff by the faces they pull after a sip. They have a cool box which has been keeping the liquor cool. Judging by how wasted they now are I assume the cool box would have been brimming full a few hours earlier. Sadly now they are on their last bottle. They are good humoured drunks, happily putting on a show for the crowds. God knows how they’ll be in the morning. It’s becoming more and more obvious that our coach mathematician might have got her sums wrong. We could have crawled to our vista point at snails pace and had time to not only eat a hearty meal, but make one, maybe even grow one! We wait and wait. My tummy rumbles yearning for that packed lunch. The crowd is a huge throng of people now. The atmosphere building as more team vehicles whoosh passed us, some clearly aiming for the puddle at the cobbles edge, sending us and many others darting for cover. There are team soigners in amongst us now. They are walking up the road carrying spare wheels and bidons. This is a sign that the riders are close. These guys are essential here. In a race like this it’s quicker to have guys positioned at key cobbled sectors roadside, than waiting for the team car in the convoy. Wait for that and you might never get back on the line. It could be game over.
Finally we can see and hear the approaching helicopter. Motorcycle outriders zoom through. The gendarmes are on high alert now. Anyone stepping onto the cobbles gets a shriek on the whistle and an earful of French insults. The commissaries car is passed us now and we await the riders. Sure enough here they come rumbling over the cobbles making a cloud of dust behind them. There’s a lead group of 6 or 7. We cheer and shout as they come passed us. The noise is deafening. They cross the main road, and wind up the slow gradient and out of sight. I don’t recognise anyone in the break. The peloton happy to let them go as they don’t perceive them to be a threat. They’ve got a healthy gap to the group. Minutes pass and still nothing. Then we hear excitement and fervour from further up the road. The peloton is approaching. A fast moving mass of over 150 cyclists come into view. The guys on the front riding four abreast on the narrow cobbled road. Each rider being shaken to the core, arms wobbling as they grip the handlebars tightly. Their faces already dirty from the sweat, dust and mud. Some already showing the scars of a fall, ripped bib shorts and bloody arms. Each front wheel millimetres from the rear wheel they’re chasing. No time to look up and see where you are. Eyes fixed on the wheel in front. It’s astonishing how quick they are passed us. I pick out some of the big names and greet them with a ‘chapeau’ – Philipe Gilbert, Greg Van Avermaat, Geraint Thomas. But I don’t see Sagan. How could I miss the rainbow stripes of the World Champion’s jersey? As soon as the peloton passes we make a run back to the coach. No time to see the team cars. We are under strict instructions – the quicker we get back the easier we get to the next sector. Ady and I enquire about our packed lunch to the driver. No time, luggage doors are closed and we need to be off. Whaaaat? My packed lunch therefore is under deck getting warmer and less edible. I will be acquainted with it later when we arrive at our next stop, sector 15 from Tilloy to Sars-et-Rosieres.
Back on the coach we chat as a group. Apparently Geraint Thomas crashed just the other side of the main road along with twenty or so others. Some of our group had been right next to it, one helping to push him off again as he remounted. The crash had caused a split. Some of the big names had been caught up and delayed by the crash. They would have to chase hard to bring it back together. Not good. Nobody wants to burn their matches too soon. This race is a war of attrition, those freshest in the final kilometres tend to take the cobblestone home (the prize awarded to the winner). Everyone on the coach is busy using up their 4G data allowance, trying to track the action. Whether it’s live streaming from Eurosport or more piece meal updates via social media, we are all at it. Unfortunately, G (Thomas) is out and there’s been another crash on the 2nd sector at Viesly. It sounds nasty – a young Belgian rider airlifted to hospital. Our coach is making good progress as we cut through idyllic French villages unaccustomed to being on the high road as one by one cars, team vehicles and coaches squirm their way through the tight streets. We meander out and onto the motorway, edging closer to my belated packed lunch. Before long we pull off the motorway taking an A road until we reach a roundabout, straight ahead closed off by more gendarmes. Beside the Rozzers we see Jonathan again. Once more he has driven ahead and secured us a parking space. We reverse into a cul de sac and we pile out into the pavement. The weather has really warmed up, perfect for spectating, less perfect for our sandwiches. I leave my coat on the coach, as the temp is now low twenties (back home it’s less than 10 degrees and has been raining all day).
Ady and I hastily sift through the boxes of baguettes once the luggage door re-opens. I grab one although I can’t make out the filling with the naked eye. Crisps and a can of coke too, then off we march down the empty A road towards the village of Sars-et-Rosieres. As we get to the village there’s a party in full swing. There’s an Oompah band playing on the street corner, and a bar set up in a farmers field. The crowd are singing along to the band and the atmosphere is tremendous. The sun is shining and I’m feeling splendid. The only thing that dampens my mood (temporarily) is the fishy baguette. I’ve downed my coke in record speed and I need to wash away the fishy taste. We head over to the field bar. It’s perfectly rural. There are bottles of beer and water sat in a cast iron bath filled with water and ice. Being the hardcore drinkers, I order two bottles of water. In the corner of the bar area there’s a TV. How ingenious – we are outside in a field in Northern France and yet we can watch the race on Eurosport. The French commentator is getting animated, shouting ‘Stybar attaque’. This could be the first meaningful move of the race by one of the big favourites. He’s attacked off the front of the peloton, trying to bridge over to the dwindling lead group.
We wander up the cobbled sector, just a hundred metres or so from the end. This sector is 2.4km long, also graded level 3. The riders will have covered 185km and 14 cobbled sectors totalling 33km by the time they get here. The sun is really beating down now. It feels like mid Summer, rather than early April. The anticipation is building. The roadside is filling up. A fancy dress lookie likie Peter Sagan walks passed us. He has a crazy mop wig, and a hand drawn and coloured in rainbow stripe jersey. He is carrying a 6 pack of lager limply. He’s only minutes away now from seeing the world champion up close. Once again soigners position themselves strategically along the sector. The field bar begins to empty. The circus must be fast approaching now. Sure enough we can hear the helicopter approaching again. Then a handful of team cars and motorbike press gangs are passed us. Next up comes the timing vehicle and the commisaire’s red Skoda, a symbol that this race is ASO owned – the organisation behind Le Grande Boucle, the Tour De France. Seconds later the leaders are upon us again, only three out front now. The pace much higher than before. The day taking its toll based on the grimaces of these lead riders. No time to pause as the next group are following closely now, the lead cut to just over a minute. It’s Stybar up next with one accompanying rider. He’s being brought back by the next group. Sagan, Gilbert, Terpstra and Van Avermaat all close together. The race is really ripped apart now. There isn’t much of a peloton left. Riders are in groups of 3’s and 4’s, no more shelter behind the mass of the peloton. They are riding in the gutter on the edge of the cobbles. The spectators have to take a step back to let them through. It looks scary as hell with the crowd parting at the last minute, but no doubt easier on the arms and ass than riding the cobbles. It’s electrifying to see the stars of our sport in these surroundings. This is real racing. There’s no team orders here, the teams are shot to pieces. Riders split everywhere, impossible to co-ordinate a team to lead a chase. It’s each for themselves from now on. We cheer on Team Sky’s riders Dylan Van Baarle, Luke Rowe and Ian Stannard. Each of them cut adrift from the leaders though. It’s not looking like Team Sky will add to their one monument today (Wout Poels success in Liege- Bastogne- Leige in 2016). As soon as the main bunch are passed we start heading back to the coach again. We clap the stragglers through as we walk. A team car drives so fast through the cobbles that it’s airborne and lands with a crunch, the sump smashing into the road, leaving a trail of black oil in its wake. I’m not convinced that car will make it the final 70km to the velodrome.
We’re back on the coach and heading off again. Attention is still fixed on the race. Sagan has made a move 55km from the finish, bridging over to the three leaders. Only Silvan Dillier, a Swiss rider from AG2R La Mondiale, can keep on his wheel. The other two breakaway riders lose contact. By the time they are at Le Carrefour de l’Arbre they have a minute over the chasers. A minute seems a lot with just 16km to go, but there’s some big guns chasing behind. Sagan and Dillier have been seen talking. Perhaps they are doing a deal. They are working well together, each taking their turn at the front. They have to be fully committed to keep the chasers at bay. We are winding our way through the traffic into Roubaix. The gendarmes have closed the main route into town, diverting traffic away. Our driver skilfully takes us through housing estates and one way streets until we park up at the same supermarket we were at yesterday picking up the Alpha Males. This really is going to be a race. We hop off the coach. We have a 10 minute walk to the velodrome. Sagan and Dillier are only 15km away. We stride fast, almost breaking into a run, following the mass of people heading down the boulevard street to the velodrome. We pass the team cars and coaches parked up waiting to pick up their weary riders. We hussle through a narrow gate and take a run up at the steep earthed embankment on the near side of the velodrome. We climb over the tree stumps and through the bushes and we are on the grassy area at the top with a view down onto the concrete track. Needless to say the place is teeming with folk, barely a spot of land free to stand on. I still can’t believe that it’s free just to walk in here and witness this spectacle. If this was England we’d be charging £100 a ticket and half would be for corporate bystanders, more interested in their vol-au-vents than the cycling. There’s a big screen with live pictures of the race. Sagan and Dilliers are maintaining the gap. They are only a few kilometres away now. Nikki Tersptra, who won The a Tour of Flanders the previous week, has jumped clear from the chasers, perhaps aiming for a podium.
The French commentator is at fever pitch now. The big screen showing that Sagan and Dilliers are in the town of Roubaix. Moments later you can hear the crescendo of noise as they are in the boulevard outside. And in a flash they enter the velodrome, still together. The crowd roar. It’s almost gladiatorial, witnessing this. The pair have a lap and a half of this fabled old track to compete for victory. Dilliers is in front, Sagan no longer willing to come past. The pace drops as this turns into a track cat and mouse sprint. Sagan ominously on Dilliers wheel, he rises up the banking with just over half a lap to go. Dilliers rises too, then in a blink of an eye Sagan uses the speed of the banking and undercuts Dilliers to take the lead. Only one winner from here. Sagan raises his arms and crosses the line to become the first World Champion to win Paris-Roubaix since Bernard Hinault in 1981. He waves triumphantly to the raptured audience, and nobily takes Dilliers’ hand to acknowledge the work he’d done to keep them away from the chasers. Next into the velodrome is Terpstra to complete the podium. More and more riders hurtle through the velodrome gates, each group sprinting for the minor places. Gilbert, Van Avermaat, Stybar all come through. They’ll be coming through for a good while yet. This race, more than any other, is one to say you’ve finished. Just getting through the 257km is a feat in itself, and something most cyclists are immensely proud of. Today though belongs to the rock star of our sport, Peter Sagan. A truly well deserved victory and an epic race.
As ever we are tight on time. We have just 15 minutes to savour Sagan’s victory before we need to be back at the coach. We slide back down the embankment and queue through the narrow gate. Riders covered in mud and looking harrowed, cycle their last few revolutions passed us and back to the sanctuary of their team coaches. We follow the throng out of the velodrome and back towards our own team coach. We gather in the car park and swap stories with the rest of the group. It has been a stupendous day. You can almost feel the relief of the Baxters guides and the coach drivers. They had done it. They’d managed to navigate us to witness this amazing spectacle four times. No mean feet given the traffic and roads. We step back on board and before long we are queuing out of Roubaix, everyone heading for the motorway. We of course are heading for Calais, and eventually back home to Leicester. It had been a long, long day. Now was time to catch up on some sleep. I could feel my eyes wanting to close. I rested my head against the coach window using my coat as a pillow, and the sleep that had resisted me so much the previous night came quickly to me this early evening.
It was well over an hour later, our coach in the Calais suburbs, when I woke and heard of the tragic passing of Veranda’s Willems-Crelan rider Michael Goolaerts. This was the guy who had crashed on the 2nd cobbled sector, airlifted to hospital in Lille. The poor young man, just 23, had died after suffering a heart attack. He was a young rider in his prime, enjoying a good season with some promising results. He was doing the job that he loved. This incident has shaken cycling. It reminds us all of the inherent risk of our sport and the demands that it places on our bodies. It makes us remember that these riders are more than just that. They are someone’s son, brother, father. We should do what we can to keep them safe. Tributes poured in from riders and teams, each one expressing the shock and grief that we shared on our once jolly coach. No matter how good our weekend had been, watching the best bike race in the World, unfortunately the final hours were spent in sombre reflection. I wish there was a happier ending. RIP Michael Goolaerts.
Steve Carter, 23.04.18