We are riding on mythical roads owned by gods and legends, but today I’m not worshipping. Instead, I’m being sacrificed on their cobbled altar, a dish of the day served battered and numb. This is what it feels like to ride the pave – welcome to Hell…
I’ve been invited to join William and Alex from Pavé Cycling Classics on a weekend that covers the Ronde de Vlaanderen sportive, a ride across the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix and climaxes with watching the professionals ride the Ronde. All with full support, expert local guides and a rather spiffy customised steel Cyfac to ride.
William collects me from the Eurostar. He’s an affable Irishman gone native, which makes him sound like a Frenchman with a brogue, except that not many Frenchmen use the word eejit. The gîte they are using as a base is in the Arenberg forest so we fettle up the bikes and take a short spin to the Arenberg Trench. It’s my first glimpse of the pavé and the view down the Trench is incredibly atmospheric. It looks like the road to another world or, even more exotic, the cover of a Rapha catalogue. We can’t ride it as the cobbles are covered with weeds which makes them too dangerous. Secretly I’m relieved. They look terrifying.
Back at the gîte we carb load with pasta and settle down to watch A Sunday In Hell, the classic 1976 film of Paris - Roubaix. I’ve brought a Pedro’s Beverage Wrench with me on test, so we put it through its paces by opening several bottles of the special beers that their friendly local brewer has produced for them. It would be far too easy to stay up, drinking beer and yarning but Alex needs kip, I’m old and we’ve got 90 miles of razor-backed hell waiting for us tomorrow.
Saturday dawns bright, fresh and far too early for my taste. I’m not too worried by the distance, I’ll be riding the 140k route, but the legendary bergs have been haunting my dreams for weeks. In bad weather even Eddie Merckx was reduced to walking up the Koppenberg. Luckily it’s hot, dry and sunny, which may upset purists in search of the true Belgian experience, ie mud, rain, wind and more mud but I’d rather have sunburn than spend three days picking grit out of my teeth.
The Ronde sportive is one of the biggest there is with getting on for 25,000 people taking part over a variety of distances. Despite this, the start is very civilised. We park up by a bike shop called Willy Sport, which amuses my inner seven year old and Alex nips ahead to sign us in while William and I get ready. I’ll be riding while they take turns to ride with me and drive the support van. Having a support van feels distinctly luxurious compared to a Carradice full of spare kit, tools and malt loaf but it’s a luxury I could get used to. I could get used to the bike too. It’s a custom steel frame, built by Cyfac to an exact specification – slightly longer chassis, short stem and a sturdy wheelset with Vittoria tubular tyres. Without any point of reference I can’t say for sure if it was better over the cobbles than a regular bike, but it is a very smooth and comfortable ride.
Leaving town there are plenty of big groups and it’s a good chance to observe Homo Sportivus in his natural environment, clad in ceremonial team kit and wandering all over the road like a bewildered moose. We do our best to blast through in search of clearer road and some good wheels to follow. William is stronger than me so he takes the lead and we hammer along behind a bunch of guys in Quickstep kit. It’s fast and very satisfying.
We bowl along happily until we hit the Paterberg. It’s busy but I get up in one piece, albeit with a brief pause to watch grown men hurl themselves into each other’s wheels. However, if the Paterberg is busy, the Koppenberg is completely mad with a huge queue just to get onto the climb.
Shuffling slowly forward we find ourselves waiting alongside a burly American. On the off chance I ask if he’s a chap I know from the Cycling News forum. Amazingly he is! We exchange pleasantries and he disappears into the crowd. He’s on the full length 268km route and seems to be enjoying himself. Eventually we get to the bottom of the climb, which is narrow, incredibly steep and heaving with bodies, bikes and amused spectators watching the carnage.
There are basically two ways to get up. Either steam up the middle bellowing at lesser mortals to get out of the way or walk. I’m too slow for steaming and too British to shout so when a chap in front of me grinds to a halt and falls sideways, I walk. It’s a shame to have to walk up such an iconic climb, but the madness is all part of the experience and no-one seems to mind too much. The descent is a hoot, with no hedges or verges to obscure your view through the corners so we give it the full Cancellara. One chap has seriously overcooked a bend and has ended up in a field, he looks hurt and his mates are standing round looking worried as an ambulance slowly works its way through the crowd. For the umpteenth time that day I remind myself that the brakes on my bike have been setup Continental style and are therefore reversed.
We regroup at the bottom and set off to meet Alex at the team car. William works his charm on a lady with a plate full of cakes and we munch delicious rice pudding tarte while we wait for Alex to arrive with fresh water and a huge baguette. With backup on the road we’ve managed to avoid the feeding stations, which look like something from a wildlife documentary on the African savannah, only instead of wildebeest crowing the waterhole there are thousands of MAMIL’s and no crocodiles. At least none were visible, which doesn’t necessarily prove that they weren’t there. Presumably the bright spring plumage of Homo Sportivus indicates that he doesn’t taste too good, hence the lack of attacks by predatory reptiles. In the bright sun I’m sweating my nuts off, so I’m damn sure I must taste pretty foul. Alex and William swap places and we head off once again.
At the half way point I’m feeling cooked and starting to understand just why the Ronde is regarded as one of the toughest races in the calendar. The bergs are actually ok, the bike has a 50/34 compact with a 25t sprocket on the back and I’ve been practising on some of Devon’s finest. No, the bergs aren’t the problem. It’s the cobbles that are gradually draining the life from me. Nothing prepares you for your first time on pavé. There is nowhere to hide and if you have any delusions of grandeur, the cobbles will rapidly strip them away. I thought I was in pretty good shape but after a few sections I’m dying on my arse.
The stretches vary in horror. Some have dimpled craters, others have huge gaps to snag a wheel and others have loose cobbles lying at angles to each other like a heap of abandoned Lego. None of them are more than a couple of kilometres long, but on cobbles every metre feels like a lifetime. All of them make your bars vibrate like an Anne Summers special plugged into the mains and they all scare me to death. I want to change gear but I’m afraid to move a finger, I can feel my hands heating up from the friction and going round bends induces squeaks of utter terror. Momentum is a thing of the past, your wheels go square, every pedal stroke feels like you’ve dropped into a pothole and even a level surface is like riding uphill into the headwind from Hell. Apparently these cobbles are easy and the French versions, as featured in Paris – Roubaix, are far worse. It’s hard to imagine but I’ll get a chance to find out tomorrow when we go out to ride part of the route. Oh joy.
Somehow I hang on until the Muur – again the crowds make it almost impossible to ride without doing a human steamroller impression and at the top there are clumps of blokes doing that thing that blokes do when they get to the bar in a crowded pub, ie standing there and blocking the way for everyone else. Even I am reduced to tutting under my breath while trying to force a path. The Muur is where Cancellara turned on the afterburners and vanished up the road in 2010 and having ridden up the damned thing, well, mostly ridden, I am filled with awe, he can’t be human and the sooner we clone him and stuff the clones into giant hamster wheel generators, the sooner we’ll solve the world energy crisis.
From the Muur it’s an easy run down to the Bosberg – by now I’ve caught a second wind and the crowds have thinned out a bit, so I belt up it, grinning like a fool. The last 10k are a blast, hammering along at nearly 40kmh and there’s even a primé on offer at the end – a bottle of cold beer, so I raise one last sprint. It’s nowhere close to being my longest day on the bike, but it’s been one of the toughest. The beer vanishes in seconds and we head home for showers, frites, more beer and an evening watching Hell On Wheels. Alex has plenty more cycling films, but there is no time. Tomorrow we tackle the cobbles of Paris – Roubaix before watching the Ronde, so again I have to force myself to go to bed.
Sunday – wake up sore and tired. My head feels fine but my legs have a hangover. This time Alex rides, while William is our DS for the day. Alex strolls along while I grimly try to hold his wheel. He’s ridden Paris - Roubaix on fixed and did L’Eroica on a 1910 vintage racer that Maurice Garin would have recognised. I haven’t. It shows. I could ask him to slow down, but I need to salvage some pride after yesterday’s beating. The pavé is brutal and William tells me that I should ride on the tops or the drops, not the hoods. It doesn’t make much difference, on the tops I get vibrations so bad that the inside of my elbows starts to go numb. At least the stretched steel frame of the beautiful Cyfac allows for some give, which spares my backside from a battering.
When we hit the first stretch Alex compresses space and time and drops me for two hundred metres before I’ve even gone a bike length. Riding the cobbles is as hard as anything I’ve ever tackled on a bike but I’m determined to get the hang of it. I plod along but start to lose some of my fear and try attacking the cobbles. If you were out for a nice Sunday morning stroll and were disturbed by a red faced Englishman in a Foska Beanz top, hurtling along while swearing and bellowing like a bull with its balls in a beartrap, I’m very sorry. But it helped and I felt better for it. Slightly…
Between stretches of pavé we motorpace behind the team van – it’s great fun, especially as the French roads are almost empty. They show me the spot where Schleck Snr broke his collar bone last year and we finish at the iconic Carrefour de L’Arbre. As I slump over my bike, utterly spent, I manage one phrase of schoolboy French – jamais encore. Never again! At least, until the next time.
After a quick shower we head out to catch the race. Watching the Ronde from the Muur is incredible, it seems that the entire town has turned out, not just blokey sports fans. Alex is apparently the local alleycat champ and deploys his traffic jamming skills to get us right to the most evil part of the climb, the bit where Cancellara dropped Boonen like a hot potato last year. We don’t know what the race situation is, but every other fan seems to be clutching a pocket radio and amid the crackle of static we can hear the names Cancellara and Chavanel. We expect a two man express, we get a thundering great goods train, with Fabulous Candelabara on the front and the likes of Nuyens, Chavanel, Flecha and Ballan tagged on behind. Geraint Thomas is in the mix too, and a bellow of GO ON GERAINT! rises above the clamour. We hang on to applaud the brave stragglers, caught in no-man’s land between the elite group and the labouring peloton. Hushovd comes past, alone and forlorn. At least riding like this means he gives the jersey a good showing, it would be so easy to miss it in amongst the leading pack and I admire his professional commitment to airing this most precious piece of laundry. I’d admire him more if he showed it at the head of the race, but who am I to criticise a man with thighs thicker than my chest?
Our duty to the world champ complete we leg it down to the big screen to catch the finish. William had picked Chavanel for the win and Alex is shouting for him too. I’m shouting for Geraint, but more in hope than anticipation. It looks like he’s riding for Flecha but as William points out, Geraint is going like a steam train this year and really should be riding for himself. Boonen isn’t having his best race, so the huge crowd in front of the screen aren’t going completely mental, but they appreciate the final result, which sees Cancellara doubled over his bike, weeping like a child. Lucky they don’t make frames out of steel anymore, because the tears of Spartacus would rust granite.
I’ve had the weekend of my life – this is the kind of trip that you bore friends with for years to come. The kind you start saving up for the moment you get home. William tells me that the reason behind the enterprise is to give people like me a chance to ride the pavé and experience riding in the heartland of one day bike racing. I can’t argue, the passion and enthusiasm that he and Alex put into every aspect of it is extraordinary. It’s as much a labour of love as a business, with everything customised to enhance the experience, right down to the beer bottles with their cycling themed labels and the table covered in bike books. You don’t have to limit yourself to sportive or race weekends either, the boys will take you out for guided rides across the pave and up the bergs throughout the year, when it’s a bit quieter and you don’t have thousands of other riders to contend with.
If I was reviewing what Pavé Cycling Classics offer it would be an easy 10/10. It isn’t cheap, at €599 for the package that I was on, but that’s the Billy-No Mates price. If you can get a few mates along it gets cheaper. Everything was first class, the accommodation, the food, the bike, the beer and very definitely the company. Thanks chaps, I’ll be back. To find out more about Pavé Cycling Classics visit their website www.cyclingpave.cc