Needless to say, the day was epic. After a very hearty French breakfast that included croissants, granola, fruit, toast, eggs, and Nutella, we left the hotel at 9am and drove out to a small village, Valenciennes, near the 21st section of cobbles. It took about an hour of driving deeper into the French countryside to unload and click in - the cobbled sections totaled 40 miles (67 km), about 80 miles (134 km) in total for the day. To describe what it was like to hit the first section, well, I really don't know what to say. I would certainly admit that I was a little nervous - we all were a little quiet and jittery with excitement. On one hand, nearly all of us were heading into the unknown - like a bunch of soldiers walking into a battle that we've heard and read about most of our lives. It was like a war reenactment except this time there were real bullets flying through the air.
The cobbles were just as we've seen and heard, except much worse. They looked like they've always looked - square and uneven - uneven in every way. The first thing to go for me was my hands. I tried my best to do as I've read in the past - hit 'em fast and stay loose. The big ring was the only answer - you had to stay loose, letting the cobbles play "catch" with the front wheel as you lightly held the bars, changing hand position very, very often. And if you allowed yourself to slow even slightly, the cobbles would almost immediately slow you to a crawl, eventually swallowing you up like a box full of quicksand in the middle of a jungle. The trick is to keep going and then try to go even more. The faster you pedal, the less the beating. We found ourselves slowing during each paved section and accelerating through the cobbles. The smoothness gave us a reprieve.
Our hands and forearms immediately began to tingle and go slightly numb. I was able to keep a light hold as I charged each section - up until just before we arrived into Roubaix. The section, Carrefour de l'Arbre, where the race is often decided near the end, was where I not only couldn't keep a solid tempo, but also could not open my hands from the hold they had on the bars. The pain was truly to the bone. My hands were no longer mine. The pave also tried to consume my bike as well. It began first just after the Arenberg section, where I found my non-drive crank arm loose as a goose. A few sections later, my rear tire gave way to a stone and flatted. And finally, the cobbles then tried to loosen the cogs right off of my rear wheel. Even one of the guys lost his seatpost to the pave - snapped right off! These were just more proof of the incredible amount of abuse inflicted on both man and machine. Cobbles seem to win every time.
The emotion of finally arriving to the velodrome in Roubaix was truly surreal. I was sure to ride in with Jeff as this was the moment we had been waiting for, the moment we had dreamt about for months, in fact, more like years and year prior. I was so happy to have Jeff with me - such a good friend, such a good man. After our momentous two laps around, just as they do before finally cross the finish, I simply stood in the center, imagining all the life-changing moments in cycling that took place at that very spot every single year. It is a magical place, and you can feel it, just standing there, with throbbing hands...or at least I thought I still had hands. I also ran into a group of Euro Product Managers from Trek - they were giving the new Trek Dolmane a go out on the Flanders cobbles, rolling into the velodrome just for fun. Cool to see a new bike before most everyone else out there. Nice guys, cool bike.
We then wandered into the showers to view where the wounded and victorious washed and began the slow road to recovery. Names of all the greats are engraved and posted at each concrete section. We all were in a strange state of awe and excitement - this was not any shower room. It was probably one of the most respected shower rooms out there.
The tour was cut short, and after the velodrome manager change his tune from letting us shower there to not, we loaded up and headed back to the hotel to clean up. Holding silverware and breaking bread was not easy, to say the least. And as before, the hospitality of William, Alex, and Genevieve, William's mother-in-law, was exemplary and so delicious! The evening came early as we all passed out - dreaming of floating over the pave towards our own, heroic victories in Roubaix.
Here are the photos and video - ENJOY!