Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Hell, 4.8.12

This is the last post, and I have to apologize as it has taken me weeks to finish and publish!  Aside from being inundated with a truckload as soon as I landed, I guess I also feel like procrastinating in hopes of somehow making the trip last longer.  This whole epic adventure still has me stunned.  And, I would say to you, if you can and are able, DO IT!  Go!  You'll thank me dozens of times afterwards.  Ok, so here it is, the last entry in Cruising the Cobbles.  Enjoy and thank you, again, for taking all this time to read my jibber-jabber.  Thank you!

Sunday arrived in a bittersweet way - on one hand, it was the morning of Paris-Roubaix, the race we'd been talking about all week long, yet on the other hand, it was the last day of our pursuit of the pave.  I guess it's better to go out with a bang than quietly, dragging your heels, no?  

The weather was not quite the same as yesterday, with the rain, hail, and more rain; however, the forecast was promising some rain later in the afternoon - perhaps just in time for the race, after they've entered the cobbles?!  We were all hoping for a textbook, Belgian day, but for now, blue skies and sunny.  We had a bit of driving to do ahead of us, so we quickly packed all of our gear into the van/car and headed for Troisville - the very first secteur of pave.  Considering this was the first secteur, the race should still be together at that point, with the possible exception of a breakaway group.  It's from Troisville northward, that the cyclist will then have to deal with the most difficult parts of the race, all 27 secteurs of pave, taking them to the velodrome in Roubaix.  So, Troisville is where the "hell" begins!  

We arrived just in time - parked behind all the backed up cars along an intersecting road and ran to the cobbles - at this point, there was already hundreds of fans lined up along side the cobbles.  This was the spot to be at this very moment!  Troisvilles is just the first stop of at least three, so, our visit was going to be brief.  The dust was everywhere, revealing how dry the pave were, even still after yesterday's rain.  As you can imagine, I was stoked, even a little nervous, as I waiting alongside the road.  We ended up running across the field to grab a spot - Frank, the Velominati founder, was waving the "V" banner, ready to catch everyone's attention as cyclists rushed past.  Smart - the flag allowed us to "show our colors" and make it easier for friends and family back home to hopefully spot us on the TV coverage.  It worked at the Ronde the weekend before, should work again! 

Let's see, how can I best describe what it felt like when they finally arrived? Simply put, we were basically standing in the path of wild horses!  It was incredible - they were flying over the cobbles! What pavé!?! Yet, we all knew at this point, that they were feeling every single stone.  I struggled to get a good shot, leaning over with my arm extended, keeping my balance, hoping for that one, clear shot, all while trying to not fall into the dusty cloud of the peloton. The cyclists took the entire width of the road - finding a smoother line isn't an option at this point - just keep the pace and don't go down! Big ring all the way! As Stephen from AG2R told us, everyone accelerates into the pave secteurs, racing, fighting for a good position in order to avoid getting boxed in.  Much like what we experienced first hand, the faster you can ride over the pave, the better.  If you don't fly or float over the cobbles, they will rush you and your bike, bringing you down like a pack of wolves on their prey.  Every cyclist in the race knows this - some will find a tempo and be allowed to keep it, and some will lose their precious tempo and spend the majority of the time trying fend off the hungry cobbles.  

I was able to get some great shots right away, including a Farnese rider who flatted right in front of us!  Right in front of us! He got a quick change and a fan ran out to get him a solid push.  This type of experience was really challenging my camera - faster, shutter, faster! If you look at the photos below, you'll see Popovych from RadioShack, Taylor Phinney from BMC, and Stuart O'Grady from GreenEdge.  I was shooting in the dark - as if my eyes were closed - I had no idea of what was going to show up on my camera as they sped past.  Like reaching in a bag of goodies, actually.  

After most of the race rushed past, we ran back to the cars in order to get to the forest of Arenberg, the next key spot in our day's spectating.  On our way, we ran into the fiance of Van Sumeren, last year's winner.  She was kind enough to take a photo with Bretto.  Arenberg was far enough away that we'd be able to make it in time.  Arenberg was going to show us a completely different kind of race then what we just experienced in Troisville.  In the Forest of Arenberg,  the peloton will likely be spread out as well as beaten up.  Many of the teams' domestiques call it quits at Arenberg.  Their jobs will end and they can call it a day or if they feel so inclined, continue on even further.  Everyone wants to finish Paris-Roubaix.  Many know they may not be able to win it, but to finish it in one piece is a victory in and of itself.  

We, again, parked along a road that winds around the forest, and hiked into the forest towards the cobbles, carrying our Malteni beers, sandwiches, and cameras!  There were many more fans here - hundreds and hundreds all lined up along one side - sometimes 3 deep - leaning against the barriers with flags, newspapers, and clown outfits - all waiting to cheer the cyclists through what is considered to be the hardest secteur of pave in the race.  For some reason, these cobbles are especially rough and inconsistent - sticking out here and there, with varying gaps in between.  This makes for a very nerve-racking experience, especially when you're going flat-out in a race with a dozen other guys crowding you. The secteur drops slightly and then climbs before reaching the other side.  Yes, it's a straight shot with no turns, but a very painful, enduring one to say the least.  Richard, a Kiwi from New Zealand, and I found a spot against the barriers just past the bridge, in between a couple from Spain and a family from Germany.  I quickly hopped the barrier and got a couple shots of everyone from the other side.  Frank and the rest of the gang were a little further down with the flag planted, waving for all to see.  I couldn't believe I was actually standing in the Forest of Arenberg, waiting for the legendary Paris-Roubaix to pass right before my very own eyes!  Almost asked the Spainish alongside to pinch me!  The cars and motorbikes buzzed past and eventually, with the helicopter right above us, the lead group approached.  The field had indeed spread apart giving us more time to cheer.  I noticed a quicker tempo - even quicker than Troisville.  We heard a pretty nasty fall just before the bridge - two hitting the barriers, and shortly after, close by, an ARGOS rider completely blew out his Shimano wheel - exploded on one of the cobbles!!  Another example of how powerful those sunken stones truly are!  Just when you think you may survive this madness - that all is well and you're in the clear - boom!  You get bitten. 

Once the most of the race had passed, we decided to make our way back to cars and race north to Carrefour de l'Arbre, another treacherous section - another secteur thought to be as treacherous, if not worse still!?  Many affectionados seem to think so.  Alex and William knew exactly where to park, as expected.  We drove past l'Arbre - just north a bit - into a small community called Gruson.  There we found a couple road blocks sending folks away from Gruson, but again, Alex and William knew better and continued past the signs anyhow!  The parking was plentiful and we quickly took a short hike towards l'Arbre.  On our way, walking along the pavé, Alex spotted an older couple reading some newspaper.  I wasn't really paying much attention, but he and William stopped and asked the couple if they could take a peek.  What they had found was a fantastic surprise - a three page spread in the the Nord éclair Sunday Editionon on our adventures in Belgium - in the Édition de Roubaix!  My interview and our ride with Johan Museeuw right there in print!  Yes! Exactly, the very same interview that I had 3 days ago, along with more photos and interviews from our ride with Museeuw earlier in the week!  The premise of the article was simply trying to figure out why we were doing this - why we had chosen to travel all this way only to beat ourselves up on the old, cobblestone farm roads.  Ha!  Incredible - more proof of how this trip just kept getting better and better and better with each passing hour!  More importantly, the article gave Pavé Cycling Classics a healthy plug.  They deserved a tremendous amount of attention and accolades for all their work!  They truly made sure that no stone was unturned.  It was beyond red-carpet service - it was attention and care fit for a king!

Once we arrived at l'Arbre, Frank and the gang took up positions just south of the bar - ready to catch Boonen fly by.  At this point, Boonen had managed to slip away from the lead group and put about a minute's time between himself and the chase group,  made up of Ballan, Flecha, and Lars Boom.  Actually Lars was ahead of Ballan and Flecha, attempting to bridge up to Boonen.  Carrefour de l'Arbre has a 5-star rating, the most difficult, and is about 2.1 km's long.  It's plumb full of those darker, harder cobbles, or "blue bastards," as I affectionately called them.  For some reason, the "blue bastards" were harder than the rest and spaced further apart.  I felt like I gained a certain sensitivity to the pavé.  I felt like I could tell the difference - clearly, this was a sign that I had become brainwashed at that point.  

l'Arbre's reputation precedes itself - even the race organizer's knew it was popular enough to plant the big screen monitor at the big right turn towards Gruson.  I wasn't sure where to get a few good shots, but I quickly conjured up a plan to try and see the cyclists from two different perspectives.  Since the route took a sharp right, followed another sharp left, I could see the race pass twice, if I wanted.  It meant that I had to sprint across field and jump a ditch.  No problem!  After all, I was AT PARIS-ROUBAIX!  Boonen finally made it, riding up the side so close to the fans, he had to worry about fan mishaps?!  Fans were stepping in front of him for a just a second before backing away - hoping to get that golden shot!  I think I got a couple.  I then managed my sprint across the field with the helicopter hovering directly above and took shots from the other perspective.  Everyone was going bonkers!  I stuck to the cobbles for a while, trying to capture as much as I could without getting hit by cyclists or team cars.  It was exhilarating!  They were completely consumed and focused on making it to the velodrome in Roubaix - it was as if the thousands of people along the sides of the roads were not even there.  

I walked back to find Frank, Marko, Johnny, and the rest of the gang watching the monitor as Boonen rode into the velodrome - waving at the camera, showing 4 fingers to celebrate his 4th Paris-Roubaix victory, matching the great Roger de Vlaeminck, who also dominated with four victories back in the 70's.  

The Belgians all around us went nuts - beer and arms thrown in the air!  Boonen had accomplished the impossible - two back-to-back victories - a double double!  What a day to remember.  

It finally began to rain, as was forecasted for hours earlier, but we stayed a bit longer to watch many of the remaining cyclists who were determined to make it to Roubaix and complete the race.   

After the dust had settled around us and the race had essentially passed, the pavé switched back to its normal, everyday role of rough, ol'farm road, leading us back to the cars.  Next stop, the Lille train station for Brussels.   At this point, the trip was unofficially over - so sad.  Alex and William dropped me off at the Lille train station, where we said our good-byes.  I enjoyed one last beer with Greg before heading back to Brussels.  My flight was the next morning at 11am - unfortunately, there was no early morning train out of Lille to Brussels, so I didn't get a chance to spend that last evening in Lille before leaving. Thanks to the Velominati site, I'll be able to keep in touch with my new friends - stay connected until next year's trip!  On the train back to Brussels, I enjoyed meeting Maud from Lyons, France, who kindly translated the newspaper interview for me.  My hotel for the evening was Hotel La Madeleine, a very clean, charming hotel with the best continental breakfast I have ever had, well, since the last time I was in Belgium.  

I have to admit, heading home was hard - very difficult as I really, truly felt a connection with Belgium.  The people, the language, the architecture, the history, the food, the cycling - it all hit home for me.  The only way I could deal with this sudden, reversed homesickness was to vow to return sooner than later.  I will, I promise, and until I do, there will be a part of me still sitting in La Grand Place, in Brussels, waiting for my arrival.  I can see it now.  Soon, Belgium, soon.

Merçi, Alex and William! Merçi, Belgium! And thank you, my friends and family, for all your support and for reading all these babbling words!  I did all this in hopes that you, too, would be able to enjoy the adventure, every step of the way.  Thank you!  

Until next time, make every cobble count!