Credit Jojo Harper for all the pics, apart from my cobble and images in Ypres….
I don’t know if I was more excited or nervous, when I learnt I’d got one of two places given to Sigma Sport from Cervelo, who are one of the official ‘Teams’ of Dunkerque Roubaix as well as being one of the Hot Chillee Ride Captain sponsors.
It’s been something I’ve really wanted to do since last year, and only further enhanced by the fact that it included cobbles. Wait. Did I tell you I liked cobbles? Oh, yeah, maybe I did. Once or twice.
This is what they have to say about it:
‘This intimate 165km ride takes place two weeks after the iconic Paris-Roubaix.
The event is restricted in numbers and follows the HotChillee event format of flagged pavé race section, rolling road closures, full service corp and small seeded speed groups.
This is the closest experience amateur riders can get to a pro Spring Classic with participants riding alongside cycling legends on a route which takes in the last 40km of Paris-Roubaix.
Previous riders include Team GB rider Geraint Thomas, Tour de France winner Stephen Roche and Paris-Roubaix winner Magnus Bäckstedt.
Riders experience an iconic finish in the velodrome with use of the original pro rider showers and drinks reception in the velodrome bar.
The event is preceded by an exclusive dinner on the Saturday night with cycling legends where they share some exclusive insight into the pro peloton.’
Rereading the confirmation email, I tried rather hard not to get too excited at the prospect of riding a brand new 51cm Cervelo C5 with DI2. Why a 51cm? Looking at actual top tube length, a 54cm would be a little on the large size. Although I didn’t know it was DI2 until I got there.
I’d been checking and double checking the rather crap forecast in the preceding week, and it looked cold and rather wet. An impulse buy at the last second from work, Castelli Nanoflex Pro Bibtights would prove to be the best last minute buy ever.
As usual, I agonised over what to pack, deciding that at the last minute, taking too much was better than not taking enough. And hey, I was driving my own car, plenty of space and all that.
I had a nightmare Friday night, when it took me nearly two hours to get my pedals off. More my fault than anything! They might not look the coolest on a road bike, but I think they are perfect for CX, and happily rode Paris Roubaix in them without issue! I have both CX bikes fitted with them, and absolutely love them. Crank Brothers Eggbeater 2 in case you are wondering.
I had a late morning slot on the Eurotunnel on Saturday, and had a last mintue detour to Ypres (Ieper), which was beautiful but chilly.
I arrived at the hotel in Dunkerque a little earlier than expected, but there was plenty of people there already, all setting up for the next day. I was quickly pointed to the Cervelo mechanic, an absoultely lovely guy, called Detlef (a Germanic mechanic, who according to Sven Thiele, famously finished first and second at the best German Mechanics awards at the Alpine Challenge). After a quick chat, he suggested I get changed and take the bike for a quick spin to check the set up. A quick check in, and a hello to Andy Hawes, Matt Stephens (sorry, Kenny!) and Sven, a change of clothes, and I made my way back out to ride the bike.
All I can say is that I did not have to change a thing, saddle height and reach were perfect. It’s only the second time I’ve ridden DI2, and it took a few minutes to get used to it again. I did debate using my Colnago saddle – but after using the Fizik Antares (I think!) – I thought it would be perfect. Perfect tyres with Continental 4 Seasons too, not a moment of doubt with grip.
A lovely evening was spent, with a rider briefing, then first of all with Kenny van Vlaminck and then with Stephen Roche. It was great to have some of the other Sigma Staff along, Will Bridgman, James Brewer and Callum Clarke, as well as both bosses, Ian Whittingham and Jason Turner.
A fairly early night was had, I’d already packed a day bag, and the musette we were given. And I knew I wanted to be up early for breakfast, which was available from 06.00. Our group was the first to leave at 07.30.
I was quite worried before the start, having never ridden the distance before, worrying as always about being too slow and getting dropped, and slightly excited about trying out a super sweet bike over some pretty rough terrain. It was raining steadily as I took my bike outside, and felt rather cold to say the least. I gave my end of day bag to Detlef, and my musette to our lead car, and was ready to roll.
Not many people in Group 3, the *social paced* group. And actually that was something to be thankful for. It was easier to remember names, and easier for the Ride Captains too. We were quickly introduced to each other, and set off.
We roll out behind John, Credit: Jojo Harper
Ride Captains Rider briefing, Credit: Jojo Harper
Ride Captains Rider briefing, credit: Jojo Harper
I set off at the front, a place I quite like to be, with John who was to stay at the front of the group for the whole ride. We chatted away as the miles rolled by, sat side by side with the group in a good compact form behind us. It rained and rained, but I was doing enough to stay warm, and it was a long while before the rain started to soak through. With the rolling road closure around us, and a good tempo (well above the advertised average of 23km/h for the first 3 hours), it was easy to while away the miles as the rain got heavier, and the wind picked up incrementally. Our out rider motos were excellent, herding us on to bike paths on the main road, and waiting at every junction, keeping safe distances as they rolled past us, and the odd thumbs up from one of them.
John mentioned we would see the first hill with the mast on top of it soon, and we did. I mentioned, as I like to do, that they would probably drop me quickly as I was no climber. I believe in being honest at the end of the day. Ironically I climbed a lot better, but it woke up my legs and lungs, and I soon called out for them to pass me out as I was holding some of them up. I think about six of them did, John took a quick loop to come back and check on me, but I was ok just blowing like a train. And we carried on up and up. Nothing too steep or long, just a bit of a shock after a fair few miles of mostly flat road. Eventually I got myself to the top where they were waiting, and only then did I realise there was a couple still behind me. More food to be had quickly, and we set off again. The next hill I climbed a hell of a lot better, pacing myself but spinning quicker, and soon caught up with the ones that had gone ahead. We spotted the one thing I wish I’d taken a picture of – a chairlift the opposite side of the road, and a few of us mused what it was for and where it had come up from.
The rain still kept coming down, but with constant grazing on food, and still on the front, I was doing fine. My legs felt good, and I felt more confident the further we went.
However the first section of cobbles came up on us quicker than expected, John and I turned on to them upsides, and I had to let him get in front. He’s faster and quicker than me, and soon pulled away. Honestly riding with 100psi over cobbles is a pretty bad idea, but one that I knew was only going to last until lunchtime, when I planned to let a bit of air out.
However this was the first time I had ridden a carbon bike on cobbles, and it took most of the first section to adjust as the bike was bucking around so much. No chance of hitting the sweetspot when the tyres are too hard!
Soon enough we were all through, and after the 3rd/4th pee stop (I had none) – we set off again. The rain still falling, and if it wasn’t falling, it was already on the road and being picked up by us as road spray. Then we had hail. It hurt a bit. And suddenly we were at the lunch stop.
Food was excellently provided, but as I’d been grazing away, I only had a bit of cake, half an orange, and a bit of coke. Then as I was cold and soaking wet, took the opportunity to change into my Sigma Winter jacket which is pretty warm, and a proper rain cape which was another thing I’d borrowed from @cyclingfiction (Jesse you are a superstar). I left my damp baselayer on as I needed the long sleeves, but despite being damp, it did work. Soon I was freezing from stopping, and plaintively asking to get going again, just as Group 2 and Group 1 rolled in. A refill of my pockets with food, and we got our stuff to get ready to go again. Guess who forgot to refill their water bottle? Yep. Me, despite telling everyone to hurry up. (Slightly embarrassed to say the least!)
Then, the next section. It rained harder, we rode into more and more wet roads, and it hailed again (that actually stung like mad), and still I sat on the front. I tried riding in the group a couple of times, but I was at my happiest on the front with John. Coming up to the cobbles, I had dropped back and said to Dave that I’d be happier on the front going onto them, he said to make my way back up there, so I did. I started recognising places we were going through, and a church here and there that me and Phil had ridden past two weeks ago, but still the first section took us by surprise. I led onto them, with John behind me, hard on it along the crown. Assembling all the split second sights, mud, corners, narrower sections and just riding as straight and as hard as possible and then an oh fuck….. Lead car had slowed right down and the motos were flagging us to slow down. however I know cobbles and did not want to brake. Instead slowing the turning of the pedals, it still nearly caused chaos, one of the guys riding off the crown and into the mud by the side of me. Luckily we got through it ok. I was still feeling good, surprisingly, and carried on my thing of eating every 20/45 mins, and making myself drink. Especially before each section of cobbles!
Suddenly we were at the GC section, I told John to go in front of me and I tried to power away behind him. The first section was hard, and Tom over took me just after and went off just ahead with John. I buried myself trying to keep the pace high through the next section, and just before the third section I knew I was on my limit. A quick glance around showed Dave and a couple of others just behind me, and I felt a crushing sense of disappointment that I was going to get thrown out the back. Somehow I stayed in front but I felt crushed, so completely knackered. I knew if they got in front, I’d never pull them back. But I kept going somehow, barely able to breathe, or turn the pedals when I hit the tarmac the other end. Finally realising I had probably needed the sports drink I hadn’t yet touched. As I reached for it, first one then another rider came past. The crushing weight of defeat hit me hard, and I downed half the bottle in one go. Managing to then get three Shot Bloks down as well before I turned onto the Carrefore de L’arbre. Then, literally magic. I had legs again. I stormed after the two that had gone past me, passing first one, then the other. Having to dodge up on the bank, then choosing the worst place to get back onto the cobbles. I so nearly stacked it, the bike hit a massively uneven section and I nearly let the bars go. The back end went one way, the front another. But somehow I wrestled it back into control, turned the corner, and just rode straight up the middle as hard as I could for the timing section at the end. I got through, and managed to unclip and stop. And stood there trying very hard not to cry. It was unbelievable, that I’d managed to pull two fairly strong riders back, after I’d sat on the front of the group for the majority of the ride so far. The emotional shockwave hit me so hard I could barely breath. And it was a a few minutes before I could turn around to see the others.
We left the Carrefore as one huge group, all riders mixed in. I managed a quick chat with all the guys from work, Rich Earkins from edco/Continental, and a few other faces I knew before we hit the last section of cobbles at Hem. I just followed Callum to start with, then dropped onto the side behind some guy that wasn’t riding fast enough. I overtook him on the last stretch, avoiding the guy who had gone down. When we stopped for a regroup, I felt so knackered, I had a gel just to get me to the velodrome.
Can just see me in grey as we enter the velodrome. 2nd time for me in two weeks that day! Credit: Jojo Harper
Me, second from left, credit; Jojo Harper
It was slightly surreal to make it, and ride that last lap and a half around the velodrome. By the time I’d given my bike back to Cervelo, and collected my bags, my brain had fried. Only when I got upstairs to the showers did I realise I’d forgotten my towel. One of the PMR girls lent me hers… I’d never been so glad to get washed and changed ever.
I couldn’t see the TV for the end of LBL, and was so tired, I just tried to eat a baguette. They then called the awards in the little backroom, woman’s winner, masters, grand masters. Then they called the ‘spirit’ awards. When they said my name, I just stared at them. It didn’t compute until Andy Hawes looked at me. A complete oh my god moment when presented with it from Stephen Roche, and we all stood on the podium for a picture.
With Stephen Roche, credit Jojo Harper
The ‘Spirit of’ awards, credit: Jojo Harper
But when they called Cervelo as the Team winner… my brain had enough… I made sure that we had James up there with us before they took pictures!
Winning – the Cervelo dream team… the lads are a *lot* quicker than me! Credit: Jojo Harper
What a day. I have no idea how I got through it, but it was an amazing event. So well looked after, and so well prepared. And to ride a dream bike like that was fantastic. I never thought I’d finish the route, let alone be able to sit on the front of our group the majority of the ride.
It was seriously hard work, in rather wet conditions, but I looking back on it, I loved every second of it.
Superbly well organised, the Ride Captains are brilliant, massive kudos to Dave who got so cold and wet he was shaking at one point and John who was happy to tailor his pace to stay with me at the front.
Huge thanks to Sven too – belief is a strange thing. You’ve no idea how much stronger I feel having done that.
Thanks to both bosses, Jason and Ian, for letting us have the opportunity to do this #keepsmiling
Cheesiest grin ever Will? Credit: Jojo Harper
Jason, Callum, James, Will. Credit Jojo Harper
Cervelo dream team with Stephen Roche. Credit Jojo Harper
Ride Captains, poor John had to ride next to me most of the day! Credit Jojo Harper