Coffee & Cycling

Coffee is synonymous with cycling. It’s the perfect accompaniment, whether it’s a quick pre-ride shot of espresso to get the legs pumping, a mid ride indulgence with a slice of cake, or a warming mug to welcome you home from a cold winter ride. And coffee companies have over the years been quick to associate themselves with cycling, right back from Faema’s sponsorship of the all conquering Eddy Merckx team in the 1970’s (coffee machine manufacturer) right through to modern day incarnations such as Trek-Segafredo (coffee roaster & distributor). The two things are intrinsically linked.

It could be argued that both coffee and cycling have one other thing in common. Both have become cool. Both have stepped out of the shadows over the years. Coffee shops are the mainstay of British High Streets the length and breadth of the country, with 2.25 billion cups being drunk worldwide per day, overtaking tea in recent years (2.16bn). Whilst cycling … well it’s the new golf! British interest has grown exponentially since the Beijing Olympics through to present day, with a production line of role models of both genders trailblazing the way for others to follow. Dominant track performances, and Grand Tour victories have taken over the British consciousness, and cycling has grown from what was a niche sport to the mainstream.

Caffeine does give clear and obvious benefits. It’s a mild central nervous system stimulant, proven to make us more alert and perk us up when feeling tired or lethargic. It enables us to exercise harder for longer. It encourages our bodies to burn fat as fuel. It can even reduce feelings of pain and fatigue. Research has shown that drinking coffee helps to reduce blood pressure and reduce blood fats. All in all it’s a pretty impressive substance. No wonder then that cyclists and the cycling industry have been drawn to it for decades. The benefits of caffeine are now widely promoted by sports nutrition manufacturers with caffeine now a staple part of energy drinks and gel supplements. We just can’t get enough.

But can too much be a bad thing? Well technically yes – 400mg a day is the recommended safe amount. To put that in context, an espresso is approx 185mg, whilst a brewed coffee is 100mg, and if you have to reach for the instant (please don’t!) then that equates to approx 70mg. Calorie content is another consideration, especially if you are working on improving performance. It’s worth remembering that the benefits come from the caffeine, not the 200ml of milk, or the sugar, syrup, cream or marshmallows we add along the way. Many of the milky frothy style coffees popular today are high in calories – they may be a reward for some hard earned miles but a poor choice when faced by your local Barista and your whole ride could be in vain. The typical flat white would constitute 140 calories, a cappuccino about the same, whilst a latte would be approx 220 calories, and a mocha approx 290 calories if you skip the whipped cream! You might want to go easy on the cake too!

Different coffees suit different stages of the ride. Pre-ride it’s best to keep it black – a single or double espresso – a kick start of caffeine at a very low calorie level (espresso contains only 2 calories). Mid ride a bit of sugar and extra water may help with hydration and energy levels. And at the end of the ride – well that is the time for a more milky coffee. Not only will the caffeine perk you up but the proteins and fats in the milk will help your muscles’ recovery from the days exertions. Follow the above as a guide and you won’t go far wrong.

Not only is coffee consumption growing but coffee culture is also. Cyclist specialist coffee shops are en vogue. A haven for cyclists to meet, join group rides with designated leaders, share stories and routes, watch the latest racing, indulge in a bit of retail therapy or even get running repairs to their bikes. The best of them push the boundaries of experience – film nights, quick-fire dating, quiz nights and special guest appearances from cycling celebs. They become the go-to coffee stop for a broad spectrum of cyclists, young and old, amateurs and pros alike. They build strong loyalty among their local scene. It’s a business model that works. The loyalty means these coffee shops can successfully extend into other product categories. An enviable proposition.

More traditional coffee shops have started to embrace the growth of cycling too. Gone are the days when owners wince at the sight of cyclists precariously cleat walking across their spotless floors, or moan at us for parking our bikes in a haphazard manner. It’s a word of mouth thing. Cyclists talk – a lot. We share our experiences, both good and bad. If we find a good cafe that makes us feel welcome, we’ll spread the word. And that’s good for business. Them and us can live in harmony, both enjoying the Sunday social as much as each other. One counting the calories, whilst the other counts the pennies.

So why not venture out and support your local coffee shop? Stretch out your rides to include a stop off. Indulge in a cuppa and relax. Enjoy your own brief moment of ‘tranquillo’.

Rain & Rainbow Stripes – World Championship Men’s Elite Road Race, Yorkshire 2019

Ever since the hazy summer of 2014 Yorkshire has been the epi-centre of cycling within the UK. Christian Prudhomme, Race Director of Le Tour, called Yorkshire the grandest of Grand Departs – and with good reason.  The region totally embraced the arrival of the tour and Yorkshire showcased a carnival atmosphere and fantastic racing.  It was an overwhelming success for ASO, the Tour’s owners.  From then cycling in the region has gone from strength to strength. The Tour De Yorkshire has grown into a highlight of the UCI calendar with fevered local support and challenging punchy roads. The UCI were certainly not taking any chances when they announced that Yorkshire was set to host the 2019 World Championships, the first in the UK since 1992 in Goodwood. I guess the only gamble was… the weather.

I write this on the eve of the World Championship Men’s Road Race. I’ve travelled up from Leicester into God’s Own County.  Not to Harrogate though – that was booked up months ago. I’ve settled for a bed in a male dorm at YHA Haworth, about 20 miles from Harrogate. I’ve actually stayed here before – in 2018 when I came up to see the Tour de Yorkshire. That year the Tour went up the cobbles of Haworth’s Main Street, just like the Tour de France had done in 2014. I’d watched the breakaway and peloton tackle the cobbles before heading cross country to the KOM at Otley Chevin. I remember the day fondly. The sun shone and there was hardly a breath of wind. It was a perfect Spring day. I’ve been watching the rest of the weeks Worlds racing from my armchair, but perfect weather hadn’t been a recurring theme this week. The standout moments for me had been the clips I’d seen online of the junior time trial event, where riders surfed atop a tsunami of standing water, quickly followed by a wet slide across the Tarmac. The weather was becoming the biggest story of the week, rather than the racing itself. I was beginning to feel a little apprehensive of my grand day out tomorrow.

YHA Haworth is a splendid old building – a Victorian gothic mansion, once the family home of a local mill owner. It stands proudly on the edge of the wild Pennine moors. Haworth itself has a rich literature background – this is Bronte country. The Bronte sisters, Emily and Charlotte, lived and wrote at the village parsonage (now a museum). I’m reliably informed that the local farm was believed to be featured in Emily’s classic novel, Wuthering Heights. I checked in, collected my keys, and headed up to the shared dorm. I heard voices as I approached so knew I wouldn’t be alone. I entered and introduced myself to the three gentlemen chatting in the room. They were all here for the cycling too. They’d all travelled further than I had – Brighton, Southend and Swindon. They had all come at different times throughout the week so were already hardy to the Yorkshire weather. Their waterproof jackets were drip drying at the end of their beds. This surely wasn’t a good sign. We talked weather forecasts and the general consensus was that Sunday was going to be apocalyptic – heavy rain ….. most of the day. Gulp. I picked a spare bunk – only top ones left, then unpacked a few essentials. I was here now – there was no going back.

YHA Haworth, my overnight digs.

My plans were laid out many weeks ago. I had booked to join the Rapha Cycling Club’s ride out. Rapha and Canyon Bikes had joined forces and based themselves at The Starling cafe on Oxford Street in Harrogate. I had booked myself a Canyon Ultimate CF SL Aero, a lovely bit of kit for the day. The plan was to drive from Haworth to the car parking I’d booked in Harrogate, pick up the Canyon bike and join the ride out.  The ride was to be a social pace 50km to test ourselves on some of the grippy Yorkshire roads before basing ourselves at the Rapha mobile clubhouse on the Harrogate finishing circuit for beers, BBQ, and big screen. On paper it sounded a perfect day. 

I checked my emails whilst sat on my top bunk. I had received an email earlier in the morning advising that a decision on the ride out would be made by end of day Saturday. Clearly the organisers were as worried about the weather as I was. Sure enough my inbox had the bad news lined up for me.  The ride out was cancelled. The word ‘biblical’ was used in the email to describe the weather forecast. So my plans were instantly halved – no early morning meet at The Starling now, just a 1pm meet at the mobile clubhouse to watch the riders take on the 7 laps of the finishing circuit. The morning was mine to do with as I pleased. I studied the route map and made a shortlist of potential places to catch the race go by – Otley, Ilkley or Skipton came to mind. No rush to decide. I’ll sleep on it. I would need to be out the hostel for 8:30ish to get in position. So it’s 11pm now and I’m ready for lights out. A few back in the room now. Let’s hope the rest are quiet when they return.

I had a decent nights sleep. Better than I was expecting given the shared dorm experience. The only noise keeping me from my slumber was the sound of the rain drumming on the window. The only thing of note was that at some point during the night I must have turned over clumsily and in doing so jettisoned my mobile phone from the top bunk against the wall and then waking just as it hit the floor. The phone was wedged between the rail of the bottom bunk and the wall. A young lad, probably aged 9 or 10 at a guess, lay sparked out on the bottom bunk, curled up in the foetal position. I couldn’t wake him, it would be too cruel. So I had to wait for the first riser at just before 7am before I could establish whether I’d smashed my screen or not. The suspense! Anyhow, once the young lad stirred and sat upright I told him of my misfortune and he helped to recover the phone. Thankfully no damage done.  I showered, dressed, and packed up. By 7:45am I had dropped my keys in the box on the reception desk and loaded the car. I was soon on my way to Skipton.

It’s a short drive to Skipton, so after refuelling – the car with petrol, and me with a McDonalds bagel and flat white – I arrived at 8:30ish. I was immediately concerned that there wasn’t a whole lot of life in the town of Skipton. I appreciate it was early, but the World’s best were just over an hour away from descending on their sleepy town centre. I took a stroll up Sheep Street, a cute little cobbled street that ran adjacent to the High Street. I wandered onto the High Street expecting more people, but I could count the number of cycling fans on one hand. We were outnumbered by the Yorkshire Tea(m) of helpers and the police. A very clever bit of marketing – the team of volunteers, dressed in red jackets with the Yorkshire Tea logo on the front with an ‘m’ added for good measure. The words ‘proper volunteer’ on the back. Those words just about as Yorkshire as you can get. I was worried that the weather was keeping the crowds at home. It was raining the proverbial cats and dogs. The side of the road had become a stream each side, with fast flowing water whizzing down the shallow gradient. I took refuge in the Gregg’s back on Sheep Street, ordering another coffee to try and defrost my fingers.

Once I had thawed out a little I ventured back out onto the streets to try and find a suitable place to watch from. I tried the grounds of the Holy Trinity Church at the top of the High Street but it felt too far away from the action. So I settled on the edge of the roundabout where the riders would bear left. A Yorkshire Teamer walked passed and advised the roundabout gathering that the course had been changed due to the poor weather. The climb of Buttertubs had been removed due to the risk of standing water, so an additional two laps of the Harrogate circuit had been added to make up the mileage. I also overheard that the Fan Park in Harrogate would be closed. One of my fellow boarders at the hostel had regaled that it was like Glastonbury earlier in the week – I’m sure he meant this in a mud bath kind of way. The days forecast was enough to leave the organisers with little or no option. A costly move for all the cycling brands in there that were expecting to make a tidy sum out of the thousands of spectators due to descend on Harrogate. It was approaching 10am now and the roads were shut much to the disapproval of the odd car that came down the A6131 to be stopped and met with this spectacle. The crowds had been building steadily and whilst it wasn’t rammed, there was enough people to line the whole street at least one or two deep.

The view from Holy Trinity Church, Skipton.

Within 10 or 15 minutes the first of the motorcycle outriders had come through, followed by a 2nd and a 3rd. Each one trying to whip the crowd up more with encouraging hand gestures. A Yorkshire Teamer armed with a whistle and yellow sign (to flash at the riders to warn them of road ‘furniture’ eg, traffic islands etc) was leading a Mexican Wave along the length of the crowd. The atmosphere was jovial despite the constant barrage of heavy rain overhead. The commissaire’s car passed and we knew the riders were nearly upon us. No helicopter however that so often accompanies a road race – the weather so bad that all camera helicopters were grounded at the time being. The TV pictures coming solely from the motorbike cameramen. Then the TV bike passes us, quickly followed by the first riders. A breakaway group of maybe a dozen. The bad weather makes it almost impossible to identify the riders. They all have their rain jackets on, covering up their national jerseys. Their jackets displaying the logos of their trade teams rather than their country in many cases. The breakaway group have an advantage of just over a minute by the time the peloton whirl passed. It’s a huge group. 192 riders started, and they’d only done 25 minutes of racing by this point so I’m sure they were pretty much all still there. Heaven knows how many are likely to climb off before the 280km of racing are through. I do manage to pick out a few of the Brits as they pass – Adam Yates showing his true Northern grit (although Lancastrian, rather than Yorkshire) by being one of the only riders not wearing a rain jacket. The last of the riders bear left passed me and onto Mill Bridge, followed by team cars, neutral service vehicles and lastly the infamous Broom Wagon. First viewing complete, it was time to dash back to the car and head to Harrogate.

I peel off my soaking wet outer layer and jump in the car. I have five layers on my top half and I’m pretty sure I’m damp down to the 3rd layer already. I’m out of Skipton and on the A59 in no time. The traffic is heavy. Clearly I’m not the only one heading towards Harrogate. The road is a cracker – very scenic rolling up hills and down dales. A nice road to ride – if half of Yorkshire wasn’t clogging it with their cars. The rain was an ever- present, with water running across the road as it drained from high fields to low. I pass a few hardy soles that have decided to cycle over to Harrogate. There’s so much standing water and spray from the cars. I can’t help but feel sorry for them, but also have respect for them in equal measure. It takes a brave person to Lycra up knowing the weather forecast is so horrific. I give them a wide berth as I overtake, just my small gesture of respect. Chapeau to them. It takes a good 45 minutes to cover the 20 miles to Harrogate.

I’ve pre-booked my parking at the Yorkshire Showground on the outskirts of the town. This is the official UCI spectator parking. Probably safest as I’d imagine parking restrictions elsewhere would be widespread and eagerly enforced. I turn into the entrance to the Showground and join a queue that stretches for what looks like miles. One single entrance in and all cars filtering through a narrow entrance. We queue bumper to bumper. The road is nothing more than a farm track. Pot holes that could swallow the family pet. The Showground has a significant slope to it, the water draining away across the road. The road so deep in water at some places that I thought I’d see it come through my car door as I edge slowly through the river. The car in front worries me every time it sets off as it has a habit of rolling back two feet before chugging forward. Finally I get to the point where two bedraggled ladies are scanning the pre-paid tickets. I try and make a friendly weather related joke but my attendant is not in the mood. Who can blame her?  I’m passed and directed to a parking position. I tiptoe the car over the sodden grass and park up. It’s taken nearly an hour from entering the car park to actually putting my hand brake on. I leave wondering whether I will ever get the car off this sinking surface. It could be Thursday by the time I dig myself out with my bare hands.

I head over to the Park & Ride buses that are trawling us from the Showground into the town centre. I queue – obviously, this is England isn’t it? I pay the £2 return and head to the back of the top deck. A bad decision as I find out when the bus starts to move. The rainwater seems to be flowing along the bus’ roof and then finding its way through the metal and rivets to create a constant drip just above my head. Fantastic. I don’t think double decker buses usually frequent this route – the bus blasts its way through the overhanging trees, bumping every inch of the way. It creates a cacophony of noise. The children on board think it’s great fun. Blissfully the journey is short and we disembark on the edge of the circuit just a short walk from the finish line on Parliament Street. It’s taken so long to get into Harrogate and park that it’s now 12:45and the riders are due to hit the first lap within the next few minutes.

I shuffle amidst the crowds, already 4 or 5 deep around the finish straight. I stare across to the deserted Fan Park, a ghost town in the centre of this swarm of people. It’s a very strange juxta-position. I’m heading to the Rapha mobile clubhouse at the top of Cornwall Road. Rapha have taken over the grounds of a property up there. As I edge my way through the crowds the loud speaker announces the arrival of the breakaway onto the town centre roads. The break consists of 12 riders most notably three Grand Tour winners – Primoz Roglic from Slovenia, winner of La Vuelta A Espana in mid September, and Richard Carapaz from Ecuador, winner of the Giro D’Italia in May, and Colombian Nairo Quintana, winner of both the Giro & Vuelta in an illustrious palmares. A strong group. I manoeuvre myself into a gap along the barriers and bang the boards as the riders pass me. Their first time onto the circuit. The pace is high despite the perilous wet roads. I sit tight on the barriers as the peloton follow perhaps two minutes or more behind. Their numbers markedly less than there was in Skipton. The GB team still with good numbers – Tao Geoghegan Hart, and Yorkshireman Ben Swift at the front of the group. The circuit is only 14km so they’ll be back round in 20 minutes or so. I move on – still heading for the Rapha pop up. I turn onto Cornwall Road and the crowd begins to thin out. The road turns right onto Hereford Court, but my Google Map tells me to keep going up Cornwall Road. I’m now ‘off-course’ but I can see a gathering at the top of the road. To correct myself I can ‘hear’ a gathering at the top of the road. I trudge my soaked body up the incline, squelching in the puddles on every step. I’ve reached full saturation by now. My waterproof outer layer has waved the white flag. I can feel dampness 5 layers down against my skin. As I get closer to the bend in the road the music gets louder and the atmosphere builds.

I reach the top and it’s like I’ve stepped onto ‘Dutch Corner’ at the famous Alpe d’Huez. The party is in full swing. There’s a cluster of gazebos. One housing a huge sound system which blares out Europop. Another stashing the beer that has been lubricating the crowd gathered. The group of DJ’s are elaborately dressed – a few in full wetsuits with swim hats and goggles (quite appropriate for the deluge we’ve had), the others wearing a custom Yorkshire cycling jersey that resembled a tweed jacket, check shirt and tie, the look finished off with a flat cap for added authenticity. To my left are banners supporting the Dutch favourite Matthieu Van Der Poel, his face painted on the road multiple times with the words ‘King Matthieu’ above. It strikes me as both bizarre and wonderful that someone has made a perfect stencil of this so it can be replicated up the length of this climb. To my right there are Norwegian flags tied into the trees, and a cluster of elderly men wearing tall wobbly hats in the colours of the Norway flag, most likely out to support their man Alexander Kristoff. There’s a broad mix of other nationalities too – Colombians, Italians, Spaniards, and a whole lot of Irish, mostly living up to their caricature with green hats and ginger beards, looking every part the Lepricorn. There’s plenty of drinking going on all around. Everyone has a can in their hand. I feel stone cold sober in comparison. I’m no drinker though, and I’ve finally accepted that. I drink so little that only a few go straight to my head. With the long drive back later this evening I’m happy to stay off the booze on this occasion. I spy the Rapha gazebos in the gardens of the house on the corner. I head over hoping to get myself out of the rain, if only for a short while. I receive my entry bracelet and wander down the driveway towards some sanctuary.

Julian Alaphilippe

There’s two big shelters, one containing the pop up coffee shop complete with uber cool barrista (aren’t they always?); the other with trestle tables full of food and cool boxes full of beer and soft drinks. There’s a van parked on the drive too with the awning stretching out to meet the coffee shop gazebo. There’s plenty of standing room to get fifty or so guests out of the rain. A real Godsend in these conditions. The van cleverly has a wide screen TV on the side showing the race live on Eurosport. So there’ll be no missing the action now. The perfect strategy for the monsoon we are suffering – dash out roadside when the riders approach, and charge back under cover to catch the action on the big screen. It’s mid afternoon now and I am due some nourishment. I fill up on a sandwich and a fistful of crisps. Whilst heartily munching away I hear the motorbike outriders on the roadside. The dry sanctuary was soon emptying faster than a school at end of term. We all muscle in on the awaiting ensemble. The crowd are right across the road with barely a gap to be seen. And we don’t have long to wait. The group are upon us and the crowd splits just in time to allow the riders through. The pack appear to all be back together. The Dutch team are on the front driving the pace, much to the satisfaction of our DJ’s and their woozy followers. The riders get a rapturous support as they pass. We step back again as the team cars follow. I swear their wing mirrors miss me by inches. The whole thing is exhilarating but terrifying at the same time. Once all are passed the music starts up again. I’m loving the atmosphere. This feels like the best place to be watching this unfold. Enough room to move about (unlike the hoardes on Parliament Street), some shelter, a TV, an eclectic mix of cheesy singalong music, an entertaining brood of dancing Lepricorns, and a nice challenging incline for the riders to take on – 9 times.

And so the pattern begins. Keeping dry briefly underneath the assembled shelters, then dashing back roadside each time the race approaches. Whilst watching the TV we see that one of the pre-race favourites Philippe Gilbert (fresh from two stage wins at La Vuelta) has withdrawn. He crashed on the first Harrogate circuit. His room-mate and super talented teenager Remco Evenepoel had waited for him to try and pace him back, effectively putting them both out the race. The Belgians will be all in now for Classics specialist Grey Van Avermaet. The next trip roadside sees the first major move since the race entered the circuit. American Lawson Craddock and Swiss rider Stefan Kung have got a gap. The crowd shout U S A, U S A as Craddock goes over the top – if you close your eyes you could have been at the golf at Augusta. Craddock launches an empty bidon from his bike. It bounces and slides across the Tarmac. I stick my size 8 out and halt its progress. My first memento of the day. The peloton are chasing hard, with the favourites all jostling for position at the front. I’ve lost count of how many laps have gone now, but the riders have been shedding their rain capes, more national jerseys now showing so we must be getting to the pointy end. The DJ’s take over again. I don’t recognise the song but I do the dance that follows. There was much hype about The Beefeaters that enlivened the Tour De France’s Alpine stages this Summer. A group dressed head to toe in aforementioned outfits that choreographed some high jinx on the Alpine mountain stages. It went viral on social media. Maybe these Beefeaters have switched outfits to wetsuits and tweed jerseys. The same action ensues, but this time acted out on a suburban road in a spa town in Yorkshire. The crowd huggle with arms around their neighbours shoulders, then to the beat of the music and on cue from the DJ sidestep left left left , then back to the right right right. The sight is wonderful to behold, all nationalities linked together in a shared passion for cycling, alcohol, and dodgy Europop music. The wobbly tall hats perched precariously on their drunken owners’ temples add to the entertainment.

On the next passing there’s more action. Craddock has dropped away, Kung remains at the front but some key riders have bridged over – two Italians, Gianni Moscon and Matteo Trentin; a Dane, Mads Pederson; and the Dutch superstar Matthieu Van Der Poel. The Italians are making their numerical advantage count as Gianni Moscon is on the front trying to soften up the group, keeping Trentin fresher for any sprint. I’m roadside opposite a camper van that has green, white and red balloons tied to the awning – Italian fans that must be enjoying how this is playing out. The leaders are passed us again and I count back to the peloton. The gap is up to around 40 seconds. This could be the race winning move. Only a couple of laps still to go. The peloton are stretched out, a sign of the pace being made at the front. There’s some key riders that have missed the split. They are all visible at the front as the peloton comes through – Van Avermaet, 3 time World Champion Peter Sagan and Aussie favourite Michael Matthews. They have lost a lot of team mates so have no choice now but to commit to the chase.

Greg Van Avermaet & Peter Sagan.

Before long we hear an unfamiliar noise. A helicopter! The rain hadn’t stopped, but it certainly had eased. Finally the camera crews had been released airborne. The noise was met with cheers from the masses. The noise also indicated the leaders were close by again. I find my familiar position and watch as the motorbikes zoom through followed by the front group again. This time Moscon has dropped off, feeling the effects from his time driving the group on. That left just four with Moscon in no mans land between the leaders and the pack. Three would surely be walking away with a medal. Who was going to be the unlucky one? The peloton were next through but the gap didn’t feel like it had come down by much. There was 19km to go when they passed us this penultimate time. I dashed back to the TV screen again. There are more withdrawals – the reigning World Champion, Alejandro Valverde, has climbed off. No rainbow stripes for him next season. The kilometres are ticking down. 11km to go. Then a big surprise Matthieu Van Der Poel sits up. He can’t hold the wheel any more. The camera focuses on him and he shakes his head. The Dutch fans under the gazebo look visibly shocked. They were pretty confident he could bring this home. He drops like a stone, Moscon soon passes him, and he sinks into and through the back of the peloton. That leaves three out front, a guaranteed medal for each of them. Trentin, Pederson and Kung. Italy, Denmark and Switzerland. On paper this is Trentin’s to lose.

Gianni Moscon.

The helicopter is back and so are the crowds. One final time the motorbikes pass. The leaders are on us again. Trentin is on the front taking his turn. No cat and mouse yet, they’re working together to keep them away from the chasers. The rain is finally easing off. Too late for us all now, I couldn’t possibly get any wetter. Just 5km for the leaders now. I stay roadside and cheer through the peloton. Sagan is on the front. He hadn’t given this up yet. The crowd are dispersing – some to the TV, some back down Cornwall Road to get closer to the finish line. I decide to stay where I am. I wanted to see Van Der Poel. His bright orange jersey comes into view up the hill. His shoulders and head are down, he’s rolling in his saddle. Every pedal stroke looks like a painful challenge. He gets a push from a Dutch fan as he passes. He barely looks up from his stem. I give him my biggest cheer of the day. I love his attitude to racing. It’s a Go Big or Go Home kind of ride. Today it didn’t work, but one day it will. Once he disappears out of sight, I jog back to the TV. The front three are 1km out. Kung looks spent. Trentin starts the sprint early, maybe too early. Pederson stays in the drag then pulls out and edges alongside and in front of Trentin. The Italian has no reply. Pederson lifts his weary arms aloft and crosses the line. He can’t believe what he has achieved. The first Danish elite men’s World Champion. Chapeau young man, what an epic ride. I can not imagine a more hard earned world title. Nearly 300km of hard racing on grippy roads in biblical conditions.

Matthieu Van Der Poel.

The rain has ironically now stopped. Typical. I say my farewells to the Rapha crew and begin making my way back towards the town centre. As I proceed the final few riders and the Broom Wagon head passed me in the opposite direction. Much respect to these final riders for taking this to the finish line. Only 46 of the 192 riders made it up Parliament Street for the 9th and final time. The biggest rate of attrition since 1996. Just proves what a challenging day out this had been. I meander amongst the crowds back passed the finish line. The presentation is occurring – I witness the team award as I pass. This was won by the Dutch. A strange presentation in that the stage was positioned facing the Fan Park – but remember this is closed, so there is no adoring public directly opposite the winners, just a collection of photographers and journalists. I’m relieved to have missed Pederson’s presentation. I would have been embarrassed for him.

I join the snaking queue for the Park & Ride bus, and before long we are buffeting our way through the overhanging branches once again back to the sodden car park. I disembark and trudge nervously back to the car. I turn the corner and breathe a sigh of relief as the cars still there. It hadn’t sunk without trace or slid down the wet grassy bank. I stripped off my soaked outer layers, popped on a warm hoodie and started up the engine. My adventure was coming to an end. I joined the traffic departing the Showground and started my long journey home. It had been a grand day out. What a spectacle. It had been 37 long years since the UCI last brought the World Champs to England. I have a feeling they’ll be heading for sunnier locations in the years ahead. We’d sure had a lot of rain but it hadn’t dampened the spirit of the rainbow jersey. Bloomin’ well done Yorkshire.

Steve Carter

1st October 2019

Tour De France: Brussels Grand Depart 2019

It was hard not to get swept away in the emotion of Geraint Thomas’ Tour De France win in 2018. He was so personable. He was relatable. It was a feel-good Tour and I lapped it up. And so it proved too much for me as within two weeks of ‘G’ mic dropping on the Champs Elysees. I had flights booked to Brussels for the Grand Depart of 2019. I hadn’t seen the Tour De France roadside before. Unfathomably, I had missed Le Tour when the grandest of Grand Departs had been in Yorkshire in 2014. It must have been marriage or children related I’m sure. Those are the two things that tend to clip my wings. Not that I’m bitter – much.  This however seemed too good an opportunity to miss.  It was clear early on that this was to be an important Tour De France. I guess they all are but this one felt special.  More of a celebration.  Two major things coincided in this years Tour and one of them nailed it to Belgium unashamedly.  Firstly, 2019 represented 100 years of the fabled yellow jersey.  The maillot jaune worn by the race leader, introduced so that fans could easily identify the leader as he whirred through amidst the peloton. The yellow jersey is the symbol that transcends cycling. Most non-cyclists wouldn’t know their Coppi, Anquetil, Pantani et al, but they would recognise the symbolism of the yellow jersey.  And secondly, 2019 would be 50 years since a young Eddy Merckx won his first Tour De France stage.  The greatest ever cyclist was born in Sint-Pieters-Woluwe on the outskirts of Brussels.  That stage in July 1969 finished on the streets of his hometown.  Eddy’s first Tour stage win and his first maillot jaune witnessed up close by the cycling crazed Belgian public. It was the start of a period of unparalleled dominance – The Cannibal, as he later came to be known (suggested by the daughter of a teammate upon being told by her father how Merckx would not let anyone else win) went on to win a record 34 stages, wear the yellow jersey for a record 108 days, and win outright 5 times. Brussels had been selected for the Grand Depart to honour Eddy. It promised to be quite a party.  I therefore made sure I was on the guest list.

I announced my intentions to my mates and before long 1 became a merry band of 5. Three of my oldest and best school mates and one more recently acquired but equally good ‘village’ friend. I’d done a tiny bit of research in accommodation and plumped for a hostel – always risky. I booked us a 6 bed dorm in the Jacques Brel hostel. It seemed to be a good location, only 10 minutes walk from the centre. I didn’t know anything about the significance of Jacques Brel at the time. I had never heard of him. It turns out he was a jazz singer, from Brussels. He must have been a good one too as I later found out his name was everywhere on street signs, his photo in shop windows, and a bronze statue in his honour. He was like Merckx in some ways. Belgium is a split country, and Brussels is the epicentre, the melting pot. Half Flanders (Flandrien language) and half Wallonia (French language). Both sides passionate about their own identities and traditions.  Both Merckx and Brel bridged this divide. They were unifying figures of their eras. Both sides took a pride in the success of these individuals in a way that the nation has not experienced since. Both are synonymous with Belgium and Brussels. So the hostel seemed to be the perfect choice. It was booked in late August and so the waiting game began. It was to be a long 11 months.

It was a stupendously early start on Saturday 6th July. Our flight from Birmingham to Brussels was a doze defying 6:05am.  So four out of our merry five, jump in my Mini and we wheeze our way down the M69 and M6 towards Birmingham. The motorway God’s however had different ideas throwing an M6 road closure at us to wake us to our senses. We follow the diversion through the sleepy Coventry suburbs and spew out onto the M42 just before Birmingham airport. Our first logistical challenge complete. I drive to the pre-booked parking, up to the barrier smugly. The barrier doesn’t rise. Why does this always happen to me? A shirky conversation with a half-asleep car park attendant through the intercom later and we were in and parked up. We ghost our way through departures and head straight for a coffee and breakfast. I was expecting the airport to be relatively quiet due to our departure time but unfortunately it was rammed. The coffee queue was long and snaking its way onto the corridor beyond. I could smell the coffee and see the pastries but had to endure the snails pace queue before I could indulge. I resisted the burning temptation that consumes me at a coffee shop –  to give a fake name….sometimes I go foreign, sometimes public schoolboy, but always a challenge for the Barrista. In case you are interested Ptolemy is a good one. This time I just needed coffee so standard true name given. Coffee quaffed, pastry scoffed, and we head off for boarding. We jump on the bus and drive…then drive…then drive some more – way out to a deserted corner of Birmingham airport. The bus stops at what looks like a miniature plane. It’s really very small. No branding anywhere. We board, find our seats and before long our toy plane is heading over the channel towards Belgium. 

We barely seem to be in the air for half an hour and we start the descent, landing in Brussels on schedule. We offload and head down to the train station under the airport. We buy tickets to Brussels Midi where we are to meet our 5th companion who is somewhere underneath the channel on the Eurostar. The train pulls in and we board. We chit chat during the short train journey. We pass Brussels Zuid which we correctly assume to mean South. Then we arrive at Brussels Centrale. That must be the same as Midi right? So we jump off and head up to the train station concourse. We have an hour and a half before our No. 5 arrives. Again coffee seems a good idea so we head out onto the streets. Leaving Centrale you know the Tour is in town. The top of the street is lined with barriers, obviously part of the route. We follow the barriers for a short walk until we quite unexpectedly arrive at the start line. There are crowds already gathered several deep around the start, but we are comfortably three hours from the roll out. The streets are bustling. Everyone seems to be wearing a yellow cycling cap with EDDY on the upturned peak.  I love a cycling cap. To be honest it’s more than that, I kind of collect them. This EDDY one is damn cool and I want one.  I take a photo of the start line, thinking how the riders will cope with the demands of the 21 stages and 2162 miles that follow. Neutral service Mavic cars line the street each with numerous bikes hoisted on their roofs. Press motorbikes are everywhere too. We wander around taking in the sights until we see our next coffee stop. We sit outside and order, watching the buzz all around us. It’s close to No. 5’s arrival so I text him where we are. What could possibly go wrong?

Time passes and No. 5 should now be in Brussels.  I call him and he’s off the train. We talk as he leaves the station. I explain what he should see but strangely No. 5 can’t see the land marks I’m describing.  No matter, we agree to head back to the station and wait underneath the huge arrivals/departure board. It should be easy for him to find us there. We wait but no arrival. Something odd is going on. We are beginning to get a bit of time pressure too – we have a train pre-booked from Brussels to Geraardsbergen, a great place to see the Tour pass (more of that later). We only have 10-15 minutes now before the train. I call again and No. 5 is walking towards the concourse. It’s big, but not really really big. He should be here by now. I call again. Last resort… our train for Geraardsbergen leaves from platform 5. Change of plan, we’ll meet there. So we head down and find platform 5. We are definitely in the right place – lots of EDDY caps are already there. I have a feeling we won’t be alone in Geraardsbergen. Still no sign of No.5. I call again but he says he’s on platform 5. But he isn’t, because we are. Very strange. Train now only minutes away. It’s no good, we tell No. 5 to find a Tour Maker (they are everywhere in Brussels, wearing bright red with a fistful of leaflets) and ask for assistance. I look up at the departures board. Our train has switched to Platform 6. It’s due in one minute. I blurt out ‘follow me’ and we leg it up the stairs, over the bridge, and down the stairs to platform 6. My heart is pumping. We had so much time to catch this train but Lady Luck is testing our metal right now. No. 5 calls – the whole confusion now becomes clear. No. 5 is at Midi. We are at Centrale. They are not the same. Whaaaaaat? Logic dictates you have a South, a Centre (or middle), and a North. Brussels has all four. How can you have a centre and a middle?  Let our misadventure forewarn any future Brussels tourists. Please don’t make the same mistake we did. Some hasty internet searches reap rewards. Our train to Geraardsbergen passes Midi next. We call No. 5 again and tell him to stay put. Our train arrives and we hop on. Within minutes we roll into Midi and eureka – No.5 boards! We are united, confused and relieved in equal measure. But united. On to Geraardsbergen.

It’s a short 40 minute journey out to Geraardsbergen. The train arrives and everyone, and I mean EVERYONE on the train disembarks. No need for a map, we just follow the masses. As we hit the Grotestraat the crowds are already 2-3 deep. We want to get onto or close to The Muur so we keep walking through the town. The Muur De Geraardsbergen is the infamous cobbled climb used in the Tour of Flanders each year. It’s in all the iconic photographs – the one with the chapel on the top. We know this will be a favourite spot for spectators so we appreciate we are pushing our luck to get a good spot.  It should also be an interesting part of the race too as the first King of the Mountains points will be awarded at the top, so whoever crests the climb first will be on the podium and wearing the polka dot jersey at the end of the day. As we keep walking up the hill the ‘caravan’ arrives in town. The caravan is the publicity parade where free tat is thrown at the overly excited and rowdy revellers lining the streets. It’s a cacophony of noise – beeping horns, pumping music, and loud speakers fight for attention. It really is an assault on the senses. We keep walking through the town square. There’s a big screen TV and lots of bars and cafes. The party is in full swing here. On we continue up the gradient when at last I spot a gentleman with a big bag handing out EDDY caps. The five of us bowl over to him to collect our booty. One more for the collection. We keep following the road up, passed the VIP tented area, and around the corner onto the cobbles. We can see the foot of The Muur now, but there’s a strange gazebo erected right on the middle of the road. There are a few gendarmes patrolling the area. We head up to investigate. This is a checkpoint, they are stopping anyone who has a rucksack. The Muur is apparently already rammed (we expected that) but they aren’t letting anyone else through who’s carrying a bag. We therefore have to settle for a point on the barriers just short of the gazebo. It’s a great spot though – we can see them come around the corner to our right, then follow them up and onto the foot of The Muur to our left. Even better there’s a bar in the corner. It’s hot now, mid 20’s, and we could do with a beer to cool us down. No. 5 takes one other and within minutes we are sipping our first cold one whilst staking out our barrier space. We are in situ and the leaders should be here in less than an hour.

We watch the live action on a mobile phone. There is a 4 man breakaway who have a lead of 3 minutes to the peloton. Interestingly Belgium’s classics specialist and Olympic champion, Greg Van Avermaet is in the break. He will be looking to lead the breakaway over The Muur to claim the polka dot jersey, and there’ll be no shortage of support for him in these neck of the woods. As we sip beer and watch the action, the crowds fill out all around us. There’s not a spare millimetre of uncovered barriers now. The crowd several deep all around us. It makes it harder work for the beer run to the pub on the corner, but I go nonetheless. One last one before the riders arrive. I reclaim my spot and the anticipation is building. We can hear the helicopters approaching indicating the breakaway is close. Within minutes they are overhead. A few motorbikes turn off left on the corner (to our right). Only the TV bike and neutral service will follow the riders up The Muur, all other vehicles will veer left and re-join the other side of the climb. It’s too narrow for them to safely follow the riders up. We look right and the red commissaire’s Skoda follows the left diversion. Then we hear the cheers of the crowd further down the hill. The crowd cheers get louder heading in our direction, and then around the corner they come. Still four of them but now strung out in a line. Van Avermaet is in 2nd wheel following the Katusha rider closely. The crowd is in full voice with GVA the beneficiary. He’s spurred on by the support and we see him strike out at the bottom of the climb. He was looking good to take the KOM points and the polka dot jersey. The noise coming from The Muur was extraordinary. What an atmosphere it must have been up there. When watching races roadside there’s always a trade-off – in the best location, enjoying the best atmosphere, but overwhelmed with spectators and likely a pretty poor view ….. or not so great location, but a superb view. The only rule I make though is never stand on a downhill, always stand on uphills or corners where the riders will come passed you slower. Today not quite sure we got the trade-off right, but it was the best we could do.

We don’t have long to wait before another helicopter circles overhead. The peloton are approaching. In a blink of an eye they are round the corner and upon us. The big GC (general classification) teams have positioned themselves well. Always best to be at the front when the road narrows, especially on cobbles. Out front is out of danger. Ineos are there in force – Geraint Thomas, Luke Rowe, Egan Bernal and Dylan Van Baarle all within the first dozen or so riders passed. I’m watching with my eyes (rather than through my phone) whilst randomly taking photos. Clicking every second. Amidst the whir of carbon wheels I pick out some of the big names – Quintana, Valverde, Nibali and the Yates brothers all pass on our side riding very close to our barriers. The pace is steady rather than blistering. The breakaway noticeably quicker through this section, driven by the KOM points. The whole peloton is through in 30 seconds. The obligatory Steve Cummings at the back of the pack signals the end of the line. Again The Muur greets the riders with a deafening roar. Before long the crowd around us begin to disperse. Our band of 5 have two choices. We head back to the station and try to catch the sprint finish in Brussels or we stay in Geraardsbergen and chill out watching the finale on the big screen. We choose the latter. Better to have a bite to eat and a few beers here, than fight amongst the crowds for a fleeting glimpse of the expected sprint. I take a few moments to check my photos. I’m shocked with how lucky I’ve been – some really clear photos of big name riders. A total fluke, but a welcome one nonetheless.

We slowly wander back down the hill towards the main square. It’s really hot now and I’m keen to get out if the sun for a while. On top of that I’m starving. We arrive in the square. There are bars and restaurants all around, many of them full to the rafters with EDDY cap wearing enthusiasts. We scan around and can only see empty seats in one café. It’s called Best Grill, a rather bold claim. However, we are out of the sun and the menu is massive. We all order a beer and a Coke – the waiter must have thought us very odd indeed. Perhaps thinking we were weird English people that might mix the two. The food is ready quickly and I devour a Falafel and salad pitta. All was good until I bit into it and a dollop of mayo deposited itself on my denim shorts. I’d travelled light on this trip, very light – so I was stained for the rest of the weekend. We paid up and moved back into the square in front of the big screen. A trailer was parked up serving beer which we made good use of for the rest of the afternoon. To our left was Bar Gidon. This was the centre of the party. Full of locals, playing Euro pop through loud speakers into the square. A crowd of hammered Belgians sung every word although sung may be a strong statement. The bar had a banner outside declaring that it was the base of the Remco Evenepoel fan club. Remco is cycling’s hottest young prospect, who went from Juniors straight to a world tour team this season, skipping the U23 stage. I checked and Remco isn’t riding the Tour De France this year. Can you imagine Bar Gidon if he was….? I’d rather not. We watch the action on the big screen whilst all around us teams of workers clear away the remnants of the Tour’s passing. The stage does end in the sprint finish we were expecting, although there was a crash in the final couple of kilometres resulting in some sprinters being AWOL at the pointy end of the race. One absentee was Dylan Van Goenewegen from Jumbo-Visma, one of the favourites for the stage. This though only freed up his lead out man Mike Teunissen to sprint for himself, edging out Peter Sagan and Caleb Ewan to take the victory and the first maillot jaune of this years Tour. Teunissen was to become the first Dutchman to wear the yellow jersey for 30 years. After the stage had finished, we drank up and walked back to the train station. We caught the next train back to Brussels – Centrale this time, not Midi!

Back in Brussels we head to the hostel. It’s a short walk and we check-in and head up to our room. It’s a 6 bed dorm so we all shotgun the bed we want. Bottom bunk for me…. I don’t like heights! After a quick freshen up we head out for an evening meal. Thankfully pretty close to our hostel we settle upon Garden City, a cool looking restaurant on the corner of a pretty square. Tables fill the street in front of the restaurant. We pick one and rest our weary legs. The beer menu is exhaustive. I pick one purely based on a sensible alcohol content. There wasn’t much choice based on this criteria. We are in Belgium after all. One of our group opts for a beer with coke. This was legitimately on the menu. A beer with a coke – in the same glass. No wonder the waiter from Best Grill didn’t bat an eyelid. I ordered a basil and tomato pasta dish with dauphinois potatoes. Double carbs. It was tremendous. I normally get food envy when eating in groups, but not on this occasion.  I sat back very content with a fine first day. We paid up and decided to head on to find another bar for a night cap. We walk around locally, but everywhere seems to be either shut or shutting. We stumble across an obelisk monument which we cross over to inspect. It’s Congress Column, the tomb of the unknown soldier. In front of the column is a fire urn which is kept lit constantly. We watch as a middle aged man approaches it, looks closely at it, then bizarrely puts his hand just above it. He quickly whips his hand away, shaking it fiercely. I wonder whether this could be a contender for the Darwin awards (awarding individuals that have contributed to human evolution by removing themselves out of the gene pool by death by ridiculous incident), although I guess ‘death’ is the key word here. Anyhow, we were all impressed with this guy’s incredible stupidity. We carry on but decide the only local place where we can guarantee a drink is back at our hostel. We return then to the Jacques Brel and order more beers. The only downside was that we had to suffer a big screen showing reggae music for our last waking hour of what had been a very long day.

After a restless night sleep we awake with hungry tummies. Restless for two reasons. Firstly, with five grown men sharing a room you can guarantee one is a snorer. Statistically that was correct. And secondly, we were treated to someone shouting and singing at 4am just in the square below our bedroom window. It seemed to go on for ages too. So I was wide awake by 7am. I showered then left the rest of the guys to get ready. I went for a walk. I was trying to hunt down a newsagent. I wanted to buy L’equipe, the French newspaper. I thought it would make a nice memento, full of photographs from the opening day of the Tour. I found supermarkets, hotels, cafes, but no newsagent. I returned back to the hostel to find the rest of the gang ready. We head downstairs for breakfast. We greedily fill our boots on the buffet and chat through the days plans. Today’s stage is a Team Time Trial, first team due to roll down the ramp at 2:30pm with teams then following at 5 minute intervals. It meant that we had the morning to please ourselves before heading off to get a good spot roadside. We decided to spend the morning seeing some of the sights of Brussels – being a regular tourist, rather than an EDDY cap one. We finish our coffees and return to the room to pack up. By 10am we had checked out and we were heading into the city to explore.

The first stop was the Grand Place (or Grote Markt), a stunning town square surrounded by opulent guildhalls including the immaculate Town Hall. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and was the location for the teams presentation the previous week. What a setting it must have been for that. We snap photos from every angle we can. The square is already very busy. We spot a pop up Tour De France shop in the corner of the square. A few of us attempt to browse but it’s shoulder to shoulder in there, like a London tube at rush hour. You can’t get close enough to see the items on sale so I leave and my wallet breathes a sigh of relief. Our next stop is the Mannequin Pis statue. This is probably the best known symbol of the people of Brussels. It’s a bronze sculpture of a naked boy urinating into a fountain’s basin. The original statue was put in place in 1618. The current statue is a replica dating back to 1965. There are numerous legends about this statue from the boy putting out fires to urinating on invading troops. He’s a popular tourist attraction, swarms of people mill around the streets trying to find him. All stop for a photo – as we do. The little statue is currently dressed in his own maillot jaune, cycling cap and sunglasses. He looks quite the part for the Tour. I didn’t realise they dressed the statue. Up the street from the boy there’s a museum to him that shows some of the outfits he’s worn over the years. He’s been a fireman, a priest, a knight, and all sorts of other roles. We carry on with the intention of sampling the delights of a real Belgian waffle. It doesn’t take long before we are sat in a sunny street with a huge rectangle slab of calorific waffle with cream and chocolate sauce for good measure. It’s absolutely devine and I savour every mouthful. It’s late morning now and time to get back to our cycling. We pour over the map and decide we should head to Place Des Palais, the large square where the team buses are based to get our fix of shiny top end bikes. So off we head back into the crowded streets. Enough culture for one trip.

We’re not the only ones with the idea of walking through the team buses. We are soon in a scrum of people meandering our way around the back of the line of team buses. The crowds are noticeably bigger around the French and Belgian teams. Ineos though appear to be the only team with security, two burly gentleman staring blankly into the crowd. Media people walk between the buses trying to find a rider or DS for a sound bite they can use. Turbo trainers all set out in lines for the riders to warm up on in due course. Mechanics busily prep bikes, checking gears, wrapping new bar tape on. It’s a frenzy of activity. We are over 2 hours away from the start time though. The crowds get suffocating so we decide to head out and onto the Team time trial (TTT) course. We shuffle passed the starting ramp and out onto the streets. We veer off the course and wander down an adjacent street to avoid the crowds. We inadvertently pass a newsagents and I dash in to buy L’equipe. The cover price states 2.70 Euro, but the gentleman on the counter asks for 2.90. I politely point to the 2.70, thinking smugly that I ain’t falling for that one sunshine. He then advised 2.70 Euro in France, 2.90 in Belgium. How does that work? I thought this was a single common currency. I pay up and admit defeat. Once far enough down the adjacent road we turn left and head back to the course to stake our position. We cross under the subway to get on the left side of the road. Rumour has it this could be a record breaking course for average speed. Certainly looks like it from here. It’s a long straight road and slightly downhill. We estimate we are just over 1km from the start. It seemed a good position. We’d see all 8 riders here (later they may be done to 7, 6 or 5 – the minimum they need to collect a time), and they’d be absolutely flying. Setting agreed we make ourselves as wide as possible along the barriers as the streets will soon be bursting once again.

Not long after we’d arrived we saw flashing lights and heard loud speakers coming around the corner to our right. It was the caravan again. One by one the procession comes passed us. Freebies are thrown from each passing vehicle into the crowds. I had a particularly successful time with four direct catches including a second EDDY cap. Those years of playing cricket clearly not wasted. I also caught a green Skoda cap but a young boy next to me tried to catch it too. I gave it to him much to his obvious delight. Now I’m not trying to come across as uber generous but my ‘village’ friend did witness a woman stand on the hand of a young child as they reached for a key ring tossed onto the pavement. The lady apologised, but I’m not sure that really suffices in that situation. How can you want a key ring so much you’d be willing to stand on a young ones eager hand? Shameful really. By the time the last vehicle was through, we had just under an hour before the first team would be off down the ramp. It was now or never for lunch. From our position we see a Spar on the underpass road below us. We dash there and grab what we can. Once again we are not alone, but we time it tight. As we queue to pay the queue gets longer and longer snaking around the store. The staff look horrified. Maybe they didn’t know the Tour was in town and thousands would be lining the streets 200 metres from their door. We nosh roadside and wait, not long now.

The clock ticks 2:30pm. Team Ineos are off first – usually a disadvantage as you have no comparisons at each time cut. However, Ineos were placed last in the team classification after several of their riders were caught behind yesterday’s late crash. They are one of the favourites for today, but have never previously won a TTT despite their Tour De France success as previous incarnation Team Sky. Within seconds of the 2:30 start we see lights flashing around the corner again. This is it. We watch them come down the long straight towards us. They are really motoring. They zoom passed us in a flash, just a blur of skin suits and aero helmets. It’s incredible to see this up close. Eight riders each just millimetres from the one in front, rotating the lead so they share their time with their nose in the wind. I record Ineos in slo-mo and it is honestly poetry in motion. We have 5 minutes before the next team are through, Arkea-Samsic who are noticeably slower than Ineos; then Astana with their hotly tipped Jakob Fuglsang; then Groupama FDJ with big French hope Thibaut Pinot. I’ve never seen a TTT roadside before but it’s a good spectacle. Unlike a usual road stage we will get to see all 22 teams over a two hour period, but each passing is gone in a flash due to the fast nature of this course. Next up are AG2R with France’s other big GC hope Romain Bardet, then Movistar with their much heralded trident of Quintana, Valverde and Landa. The first time is in and Ineos have set a superb marker of 29:17 for the 27.6km course, averaging a mind boggling 56.5kph. The teams continue to zoom pass us – we give Katusha an extra cheer as they contain British time trial champion Alex Dowsett in their line up, and Mitchelton Scott also for the Yates brothers. The early teams continue to finish but Ineos retain their lead. Katusha go fastest at the half way split but can’t maintain it finishing just 6 seconds down on Ineos. We’re getting through the 22 teams now, not many still to go. Deceuninck-Quickstep absolutely fly past us, they could be on for a good time. And finally it’s Jumbo Visma, the team of the yellow jersey, the last team to speed passed us. We’ve got just 28-29 minutes till we find out who’s won the stage. No point staying roadside. We need a pub, and quick.

Thankfully we are only a short distance from The Wild Geese Irish pub on Avenue Livingstone where we find at least a dozen TV screens showing the final moments. We order 5 beers and claim bar stools in front of a TV.  EF Education First are just finishing – they’re close but miss out by 8 seconds. Deceuninck-Quickstep are next through. They’ve smashed the course and were up on Ineos until the last kilometre, but finish an agonising 1 second slower. By this time the Ineos boys had been sat in the hot seat for approaching two hours. Only one team can now knock them off that spot. Jumbo-Visma have been up at each time cut. They finish in front of the iconic Atomium with a time of 28:57, 20 seconds faster than Ineos. A fantastic time. 20 seconds clear from 28km time trial, when places 2 to 10 were separated by 21 seconds in total. There’s a few Dutch guys in here and they chant Mike Teunissen’s name like he’s a footballer. The yellow jersey will stay on his shoulders for another day. We order another beer and congratulate ourselves on a memorable weekend. 

Our time in Brussels is coming to an end. No.5 is the first to leave. Hugs all round. He heads to Midi for his Eurostar train back home. The rest of us take a leisurely stroll back to Centrale. The sun is still shining but the streets are quieter now. Brussels seems to be getting back to normal. A lot less EDDY caps around now. We re-trace our steps through Centrale and onto the platform. The train rolls in and takes us on our merry way back to the airport. Our return leg passes without incident and we finally arrive back home at 11pm. Our weekend was over and what a weekend it had been. Just the right mix of city break and bike racing. Just the right mix of good food and great beer. Just the right mix of banter and laughs. Thanks to the four guys that made it happen. And let’s get Nice booked asap for The Grand Depart 2020. See you on the Promenade Anglaise!

Steve Carter, Brussels 6th/7th July 2019

A trip to Paris-Roubaix 2018

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

A First Timer To Ghent 6 Day

It’s become customary as a keen cyclist to create a ‘bucket list’.  I’m not entirely sure why the cycling fraternity do this but I’m not one to break ranks nor shirk tradition.  In my case the fabled ‘bucket list’ has taken two different routes.  Firstly, the path most widely trodden – eulogising over the famous climbs that I will tick off whilst there remains an ounce of strength left in my legs.  You know the usual ones – Mont Ventoux, Alpe D,Huez, Galibier, Tourmalet, Stelvio etc.  The second avenue is one perhaps less obvious and that is the travails of a spectator.  I am a regular on the UK cycling scene.  I can often be spotted at the roadside in the Tour of Britain, Tour de Yorkshire, and The Women’s Tour, most probably shouting ‘allez allez’ to the peloton as it rushes past in a blink of an eye.  But until now I hadn’t ventured off shore in pursuit of spectator pleasure.  This all changed last weekend when I ticked off my first spectator bucket list entry by enjoying the historic, wacky and downright brilliant Ghent 6 Day.

I have immersed myself in cycling over the past 5 years, unashamedly a ‘Johnny come lately’ that can pinpoint my return to cycling as a pastime during the joyous summer of 2012 – the year when a lad from Kilburn did good.  I watched with interest during those 21 days in July, and by the time the Union Jack was being raised on The Mall the following weekend I was hooked.  One hastily agreed bike purchase later and I had joined the legions of Brits out on the road in full Lycra.  Some five years later and to paraphrase our least favourite Texan ‘it’s all about the bike’ for me.  I’ve ditched the car for a scenic carbon neutral commute, I’ve filled my wardrobe with more high-end kit than I know what to do with, I’ve chosen family holiday destinations based on how good the parcours might be, and I’ve even considered going the whole hog and reaching for the razor – surely I could save 10 seconds on my commute with shaved legs?  I’ve read widely too.  My holiday reading is now Boardman, Obree, Wiggins et al.  The more I read about the history of cycling, the more I read about a small city in the Flanders region of Belgium – Ghent.  This seemed to me to be the epicentre of cycling.  The roads around honed the illustrious careers of Mercx, Museeuw, Boonen, and even our very own Tommy Simpson, his daughter Joanne still resident there.  The famous boards of the t’Kuipke has been welcoming the greats of the sport for generations.  I’d looked on enviously when Wiggo rounded off his career palmares with victory in last years Ghent 6 Day.  The Brits were out en masse to see him & Cav competing.  I knew then that I had to go next year.

So our day started a little too soon to the end of the last one.  The alarm woke me from my slumber at 3am.  The day was Saturday 18th November and my brother Ady (also subject to the same cycling affliction as me) and I were Ghent bound.  We arrived at Birmingham airport at 4:30am, knocked an espresso back to try and charge up the batteries, and then boarded our flight.  There’s a lot to like about our flight to Brussels.  Firstly, it was cheap – less than £90 return, making a weekend of cycling excess within the reach of most pockets.  And secondly, it only takes an hour – just as soon as you get to cruising altitude you are descending again.  The second point of key importance to my brother…a nervous flyer.

We arrived at Brussels airport 8:30am local time, headed down to level -1 and caught the train from Brussels airport to Ghent St Pieters station.  Well to say caught the train isn’t entirely true – we caught 2 trains…the first of which was a local branch line train that was seemingly going to stop at every station in Belgium before arriving in Ghent.  We had waffles to eat and beer to drink so this train wouldn’t do.  We duly hopped off at Brussels Sud station and crossed to the next platform for the direct train.  This one was heaving – ah everyone off to the 6 Day we thought.  However under closer scrutiny the majority were Bruges bound, not Ghent.  Being foreigners we sat ourselves down in the First Class carriage with our Second Class tickets.  Quite pleased with ourselves that we had managed to get most of the way to Ghent before our tickets were checked, we only had to stand for the last 5 minutes before arrival at St Pieters.

If ever you needed the reassurance that the bicycle is King in Belgium then you should visit Ghent’s rather grand St Pieters station.  In front of the station there is a large roundabout that I can only presume has grass or pavement on it somewhere.  I can not be sure as every square inch is covered in bicycles.  All leaning against each other, all locked to something.  It is quite a sight to behold.  Goodness knows how your average Ghent commuter finds, untangles, and eventually rides off on his steed at the end of his working day.  The other thing I like is the practicality and sturdiness of the bikes locked up there.  This is not a place for expensive, lightweight, pristine racing bikes.  There isn’t a man or woman in Lycra to be seen.  These are ordinary bikes for ordinary people.  People who go about their daily lives preferring a mode of transport that is as old as their fair city.  It gives you a warm comforting feeling inside or am I just an old sentimental?

From the station we jumped on a no. 1 tram destined for the old town area of the Kornmarket.  Trams are no. 2 in the Ghent transport system.  Cheap and convenient, they far outweigh cars and buses.  My only words of advice …. Don’t stand on the shifting centre floor of a bendy tram.  The trams turn left and right as they weave through the old streets of the city.  Standing central will leave you at best a little nauseous, at worst on your backside desperately grasping for the dignity that you have left on the tram floor.  I went for the former option so was pretty relieved to hop off the tram at the Gravensteen stop.  You can’t miss the Gravensteen.  It’s a beautiful medieval castle with a fine moat and plenty of history.  The Lion of Flanders flag flys majestically from the ramparts.  The castle acted as a good landmark for us as our overnight digs was in St Widostraat just behind the castle.

We arrived at the Hostel De Draeke a little apprehensive to be honest.  I am a big fan of hosteling, my brother less so.  I like the relaxedness of hostels, rather than hotels.  There is a friendliness that doesn’t exist in generic hotel chains.  A comeraradie that can be shared whilst washing up your coffee cup.  We’ve adventured before in this manner and Ady was a little underwhelmed with a previous shared dorm experience he ‘endured’.  To be honest our fellow guests probably were also – no doubt dazed by Ady’s full throttle bed shaking snoring.  However this time we’d gone all middle-class and booked a twin room with ensuite.  This decadence cost us just 55 Euro for the night.  We had really lucked out.  The room was spotlessly clean, modern in its décor, and toasty warm to boot.  I rejoiced in the fact that Ady was surprised, even pleased with the accommodation.

After dropping off our bags, we headed out into the city again. First stop was back to The Gravensteen for a look around.  The castle has a one way system self guided tour and costs 10 Euro entry.  The fee is worth it for the stunning views of Ghent.  The rooftops and church spires, the canals and grand courtyards.  The castles inner halls showcase an array of medieval weapons and implements of torture.  I left pondering how fortunate I was to have been born in the 1970’s.  If you are a history buff you could while away a good few hours here.  I tend to glaze over after a while so an hour was good enough for us.

By now it was early afternoon and we were Hank Marvin.  There is no shortage of fooderies in Ghent.  Cafes and restaurants line the streets with a vivacious al fresco atmosphere, chairs and tables spilling out onto the pavements.  This was November however and despite the multiple gas burners tempting us to stay outside we dashed inside a canal side establishment to warm up and refuel.  A quick Panini and we were off again, mostly just wandering around the pretty city centre enjoying the intoxicating smell of waffles in the air.  When the biting cold air got the better of us again we visited a coffee bar that had been recommended to me.  This was Mokabon.  The bright neon lights welcoming us.  The smell of the coffee beans displayed in the front windows hits you like a wall as you step inside.  This really is how a coffee shop should be.  It is not pretentious, nor overpriced.  A warm welcome awaits and a cosy atmosphere.  I had a Chocespresso which was just devine.  Somehow I enjoyed it even more when I walked outside and noticed that it’s neighbour was a faceless Starbucks.  The rest of the afternoon involved a short boat trip, 7 Euro for 45 minutes of buzzing around the canals.  There is a serenity to watching the world go by as you pootle around the picturesque canals.  The boatsman proved to be a fine tour guide speaking fluently in Flemish, French, English and German and appallingly in Spanish.  The boat trip ended with both Ady and I unsure as to whether our jean backsides were just cold or indeed wet.  Unfortunately the latter was true.  The boats seats capable of absorbing days old rainfall and releasing it to unsuspecting passengers.  Thankfully the walk back to the hostel was short to limit our wet bottomed embarrassment.

After a quick freshen up and drying off, we ventured out for an early tea (pizza…. I know not exactly Flemish local delicacies).  Early as we had the t’Kuipke on our minds.  Doors opened at 6:30pm with the race card opening from 6:45pm.  We hopped back onto the No. 1 tram to St Pieters and had a brisk 5-10 minute walk to the Citadel Park, home of the t’Kuipke velodrome.  

Walking through the doors to the t’Kuipke is like stepping back in time.  You can feel the history of the place all around you.  I’ve been to a few velodromes over the years and I’m pretty regular to Manchester, but this place just feels different.  You can imagine this place through the ages and it wouldn’t look any different.  From Coppi in the 50’s, to Mercx in the 60’s, right through to Wiggo last year  The concourse surrounding the velodrome is littered with memories of the past.  There are stalls selling retro posters and postcards, and a photographic wall showing all the 6 Day winning partnerships over the years.  I pause to photo Wiggo & Cav.  True Brit me.  There are small booths scattered all around the concourse.  Each with their own snaking queue of likeminded cycling fans.  As a first timer I have no idea what they are queuing for.  I therefore continue on my merry path towards the bar.  Bar found I duly ask for 2 pints.  Novice schoolboy mistake made.  I’m then informed that you buy tokens which you can then spend on beer or food.  I briskly turn around to join one of the snaking queues behind me embarrassed by my naivety.  Tokens purchased and swapped for the first (of many) Belgium beers we head up the steps and into the velodrome itself.

The first thing that hits you is the heat.  The air is breathless.  It’s the kind of temperature that your parents’ thermostat is set to when you visit at Christmas.  All around me people are peeling off the layers from a November evening.  Coats and jumpers stripped off the minute people get to the top of the velodrome stairs.  I understand that this may have something to do with the speed of the track.  A warm environment makes for quicker racing.  It also makes for faster drinking.  So I guess that’s a win-win for the organisers and fans alike.

The cycling is already under way.  The race card includes an U23 Men’s and an Elite Women’s category.  The young bucks are on track and riding a Madison.  I love the Madison.  It’s a whirlwind of slingshots and accelerations.  You can’t look away for a moment for fear of losing thread of who’s leading.  The sheer number of racers on track can be hard to fathom.  Thankfully the suited guy standing trackside seems to be following better than most as he points knowledgeably each lap to the front rider.  I’ve never ridden on the track.  It’s another thing on the bucket list.  But it does fill me with fear.  The steepness of the banking and the closeness of the wheels.  You could bring down the whole bunch with a twitchy front wheel.  Unfortunately the U23 race is cut short after such an incident.  One rider worse for wear after a nasty fall.  I’m in no rush to tick this one off the list just yet.

At 7:30pm the Elite Men come out on track for the Team Presentation.  They sort themselves out into number order and trawl around lap after lap.  The announcer presents each pair in turn, giving each a huge build up (in Flemish), probably going through every detail of each palmares.  The presentation itself looks exhausting.  I’m sure by the announcement of the 12th team, the guys must have done well over a 100 laps.  There is no Wiggo or Cav of course this year.  One retired, one on a team training camp where schedule wouldn’t allow.  The main draw of road racing pedigree this year is the enigmatic Elia Viviani.  He draws a sizeable cheer from the crowd.  I have a penchant for all things Italian so I have my Italian flag in my pocket – waiting for a race victory to launch up enthusiastically.  I have even google translated Go Go into Vai Vai so I can sound suave and continental by shouting ‘Vai Vai Viviani’.  The Biggest cheers of the team presentation however seem to go to anyone from Belgium mainly, but Flanders most importantly.  The crowd do love to back one of their own.

The Flying Lap is a crowd pleaser.  Each pair cycle around the track building speed for one fastest lap.  The chosen rider being hand slung across the line to start off the frenzy.  The crowd cheer each rider around, then a pause for the time to appear on the big screens.  Each rider seems to go faster than the one before to rapturous applause.  No track record tonight though – that was broken 2 days earlier.  Imagine that – breaking the track record at one of the most heroic tracks of all time.  That gives you pretty good bragging rights I’m sure.  Think of the names you’d have beaten against the clock.

The racing is thick and fast.  The race card gives very little time for riders to recover.  No sooner they finish a Madison, then they are back out on track for an Elimination Race.  This may be end of season to most pros, but these guys are really earning their appearance money.  It’s clear that the riders are loving it though.  There’s plenty of showmanship.  Riders cup their ears as they cycle past the baying crowds.  Even the Derny riders are playing up to the masses.  The atmosphere builds as the evening gets later.  The music certainly helps to create a jovial, fun-loving ambience, a feeling unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in a velodrome before.  The DJ skilfully ghosting between MC Hammer’s ‘Can’t touch this’ and Neil Diamond’s ‘Sweet Caroline’. Both to much raucous singalong.  But I guess the other thing that helps the atmosphere is the Belgium beer.  The beer is really flowing.  The concourse a well trodden route for all nationalities.  Seat to token booth to bar to seat.  Enjoy, drink, repeat.  The seated masses sedate in comparison to the huge volume of people track centre.  The Mexican wave attempts of the seated proves nothing compared to the latest track centre entertainment.  There’s a defined narrow clearing appeared in the heaving swirl of people.  Dead centre of the clearing is a stack of empty plastic beer glasses, a wobbly 4 foot high.  The nearby crowd sense the anticipation as one by one intoxicated people run at and attempt to jump over the leaning tower of plastic.  Each contestant protected by the beerish invincibility that they possess.  Time after time somehow the jumper gets clear.  Maybe there is something special in the Belgium beer?  Unfortunately as could have been predicted it ends in tears as one jumper falls awkwardly.  The First Aiders are on site in a flash and the empty beer glasses are confiscated to a round of boooo’s.  Still, no bother, the crowd just need to drink more to start the stack again.  It doesn’t take long.

The Derny races prove to be the most popular.  An exquisite example of the quirkiness of cycling.  6 riders at a time on track, each paced by a Derny motorbike.  The racers riding within an inch of the Derny bike, barking instructions to the driver – faster, faster.  The crowd get louder as the laps tick down.  Viviani times this one to perfection taking the lead some 6-7 laps out.  The speed is so high that nobody can come past him.  The G-force on these elderly Derny riders is unimaginable.  How do they keep control at such speed on such tight bends?  And why do they all look comfortably post 60?  Viviani clinging onto the back wheel.  Everyone’s up on their feet as he takes the win.  Here’s my moment.  I dig inside my jacket pocket for the Italian flag.  I shake it out and wave it proudly.  For a moment thinking I have the inhibitions of a native Italian.  I quickly however realise I’m British and sit myself back down again.

By the time the last Derny race finishes it’s gone 1:30am and my brother and I are slowing down after our earlier 3am start.  The track centre revellers are still singing, dancing, and occasionally watching the cycling that is going on around them.  But our time has come.  We drink up, layer up, and head back out into the cold.  A sharp intake of breath as we go from heated velodrome to sub zero Ghent.  We decide to walk back to the hostel.  We sway through the streets, warmed by the beer, following our Google Map trail back to our digs. By the time our heads hit the pillow we’ve done a 23 hour day.  Now that’s what you call a full day.  I’m only glad I wasn’t wearing a pedometer.

Our first t’Kuipke experience now behind us.   Before we leave the hostel the following morning we’ve already agreed that it won’t be our last.  The Lottto 6 Day website enticingly states that they would like to bring Cav back next year.  Maybe he could team up with fellow Manxman Pete Kennaugh as they successfully did for a very creditable 2nd place in the earlier London 6 Day.  Now that would entice a few more Brits over to Flanders I’m sure.  Quite simply it’s been a great weekend in the home of cycling.  If you like cycling, and we are now mainstream, then you really do have to go to Ghent.  Don’t take my word for it though, come and see for yourselves.  Tick it off your bucket lists.  Just one thing though – If you do go next year look out for a couple of grey haired mid 40’s guys.  One of them will probably have an Italian flag in his jacket pocket.

Steve Carter 24/11/17

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