No riding the sportive for me this year, instead a last minute (one star) hotel booking in Villeneuve d’Ascq, and a flexible ferry ticket back to see my favourite race.
Don’t mention the journey on Friday to me, M25 hell bound. But it did mean a late arrival and empty French roads with Verity, my oldest and best friend, for company.
I’d offered to be neutral support for Phil Booth who was riding the 145km mid distance route, with the first section of cobbles being the erratic, bone shuddering Arenberg. An early drive in misty weather with the promise of a beautiful day ahead, saw us with a prime parking spot just off the Arenberg finish.
The first few fast riders were just starting to trickle past in one’s and twos as we headed down the dolled off path. Metal barriers for quite some way limited access of cyclists to the much friendlier path, as much as keeping the public off the exit.
We wandered down, watching the rope barriers being set up, and kicking the odd bottle off the middle of the cobbles. A few people were walking about, the odd ‘bonjour’ and us two ‘allez’ing the riders on. A very French ‘Yes. It’s rock and roll’ in reply (pronounced Yace. Eets rack and wrol) had us in giggles for a while.
I warned Verity a bridge would eventually appear – although neither I or Phil had even noticed it last year when we rode it – but the fog kept it hidden until the last minute.
Punctures and dropped chains were order of the day if you didn’t get through unscathed, although I failed to see the guy fall off his bike in the plough behind me as we finally saw the bridge.
I honestly couldn’t believe how high and out of place it looked in the spring greenery of the surrounding forest. A 15 strong mountain bike peleton was strangely quiet as the shock absorbers did their job over the rough, jilted cobbles.
A total mix of bikes, it really makes the mind boggle. From full suss, brand new mountain bikes (Scott the leading brand by a mile) to road bikes who’s glory days had been 15 years ago. Most popular road bikes were all types of Specialized. Several Venge Vias and even a couple of candy coloured Cruxs. Castelli and Rapha the unbranded kit of choice, and the huge variety of club colours and makes.
We removed all the bottles dropped on the ancient cobbles that we saw, and collected the spare tubes and tools that we found – giving the tubes to those who had punctured.
Phil managed to spot my very unsubtle gilet, and waited for us at the end.
Arenberg was very very dry this year, the only damp from shattered and split bottles.
We saw Phil safely on his was before heading to my favourite section of pavé, the ever degrading Carrefour d’Larbe. Reckoned this year to be worse than Arenberg.
A long wait on the side of the pavé in the sun, a lot of encouragement from us both to the riders both flying and weary. The wait was starting to get worrying, so much so that a song was made up…
‘We’re Really Quite Worried About Phil.’
A WhatsApp let us know that all but one of his chainring bolts had come out, and the mechanics had done a bodge job worthy of GCN hacks. One other bolt and cable ties held it together
I offered my Scott Addict, sat redundant in the car, and even got it out to be ready.
A random meeting with Jon Dibben’s mum, massively proud of her son and trying to find a better place to park the campervan they had took up some time, until finally a white, green and red jersey snagged my attention.
A dusty dry day was taking its toll, and Phil decided to finish on the patched up Felt after he’d got himself together.
L’enfer du Nord
Sunday saw a car pool and a trip to Compiègne to see the start from the Medway Veloians cafe of choice. A table in the sun, coffee and banter. The colourful parrot like flock of the peleton as they passed
Then it was off to Saint Python for the next bit. Chasing the race for the love of it.
Fair play to the Astana bus rocking the Tom Boonen mask in the front window as we drove past!
The heat was cranking up as we made our way into the village and out on to the cobbles. A high bank and narrow verge granted excellent views, as I chose to stay low for a photo or two.
The arrival of motorbikes and the distant helicopter heralded the arrival of the race. Dust driven up in clouds that a sandstorm would be proud of as the vehicles sped onto the cobbles.
The race was already breaking up. Riders barely glimpsed amid the cars. Terpstra abandoned. Punctures and team cars too far away.
Then it was a trudge up the field and back into the car. Air con a luxury the peleton could wish for. A long drive to Cysoing and a lucky parking spot. Twitter refreshed and the race really starting. Crashes reported, breakaway and a peleton thinning by the minute. Mostly French around us, radios and flags abundant as the temperature rose. A trek up section 7, memories of timed sections surfacing from last year as we found a place to stand.
Rodonia sang again as I downed the last of the Orangina. Vehicles approaching, Daniel Oss still in front, yellow dust clouds gathering like the storm of the chase behind. Grim, dirty, silent, streaks of brown marring the rainbow hued men as they hurtle past.
A race split to pieces by those errant blocks of stone, seemingly thrown together by a joker. A dry, hot day ridden at ridiculous speeds that we can only dream of. The main pack is gone. But every couple of minutes another whistle screeches, the crowds roar and part and another one or two or three come streaming through. Faces are strained, there’s not another lot left, and yet still more than 25km to go. The Carrefour awaits not far ahead, and yet they still don’t stop. A ten minute gap, the gendarmerie still vigilant for riders alone.
Outgunned, unlucky, not their day, as we wait in the sun, envious of the hard men of Roubaix flashing through as Twitter once more is refreshed as they near the end.
A van towing a flatbed loaded with bikes gives pause for thought. Is that Rowes bike?
A shock as the three slow and become five, can Stuyven sprint? No. The day is for GvA, a whoop from me and as I look up the road is reopened. But not all riders are through? Of 199 starters, it feels like maybe 40 have gone through.
Suddenly it’s all done for another year…