A first timer to Ghent 6 Day
It’s become customary as a keen cyclist to create a ‘bucket list’. I’m not entirely sure why the cycling fraternity do this but I’m not one to break ranks nor shirk tradition. In my case the fabled ‘bucket list’ has taken two different routes. Firstly, the path most widely trodden – eulogising over the famous climbs that I will tick off whilst there remains an ounce of strength left in my legs. You know the usual ones – Mont Ventoux, Alpe D,Huez, Galibier, Tourmalet, Stelvio etc. The second avenue is one perhaps less obvious and that is the travails of a spectator. I am a regular on the UK cycling scene. I can often be spotted at the roadside in the Tour of Britain, Tour de Yorkshire, and The Women’s Tour, most probably shouting ‘allez allez’ to the peloton as it rushes past in a blink of an eye. But until now I hadn’t ventured off shore in pursuit of spectator pleasure. This all changed last weekend when I ticked off my first spectator bucket list entry by enjoying the historic, wacky and downright brilliant Ghent 6 Day.
I have immersed myself in cycling over the past 5 years, unashamedly a ‘Johnny come lately’ that can pinpoint my return to cycling as a pastime during the joyous summer of 2012 – the year when a lad from Kilburn did good. I watched with interest during those 21 days in July, and by the time the Union Jack was being raised on The Mall the following weekend I was hooked. One hastily agreed bike purchase later and I had joined the legions of Brits out on the road in full Lycra. Some five years later and to paraphrase our least favourite Texan ‘it’s all about the bike’ for me. I’ve ditched the car for a scenic carbon neutral commute, I’ve filled my wardrobe with more high-end kit than I know what to do with, I’ve chosen family holiday destinations based on how good the parcours might be, and I’ve even considered going the whole hog and reaching for the razor – surely I could save 10 seconds on my commute with shaved legs? I’ve read widely too. My holiday reading is now Boardman, Obree, Wiggins et al. The more I read about the history of cycling, the more I read about a small city in the Flanders region of Belgium – Ghent. This seemed to me to be the epicentre of cycling. The roads around honed the illustrious careers of Mercx, Museeuw, Boonen, and even our very own Tommy Simpson, his daughter Joanne still resident there. The famous boards of the t’Kuipke has been welcoming the greats of the sport for generations. I’d looked on enviously when Wiggo rounded off his career palmares with victory in last years Ghent 6 Day. The Brits were out en masse to see him & Cav competing. I knew then that I had to go next year.
So our day started a little too soon to the end of the last one. The alarm woke me from my slumber at 3am. The day was Saturday 18th November and my brother Ady (also subject to the same cycling affliction as me) and I were Ghent bound. We arrived at Birmingham airport at 4:30am, knocked an espresso back to try and charge up the batteries, and then boarded our flight. There’s a lot to like about our flight to Brussels. Firstly, it was cheap – less than £90 return, making a weekend of cycling excess within the reach of most pockets. And secondly, it only takes an hour – just as soon as you get to cruising altitude you are descending again. The second point of key importance to my brother…a nervous flyer.
We arrived at Brussels airport 8:30am local time, headed down to level -1 and caught the train from Brussels airport to Ghent St Pieters station. Well to say caught the train isn’t entirely true – we caught 2 trains…the first of which was a local branch line train that was seemingly going to stop at every station in Belgium before arriving in Ghent. We had waffles to eat and beer to drink so this train wouldn’t do. We duly hopped off at Brussels Sud station and crossed to the next platform for the direct train. This one was heaving – ah everyone off to the 6 Day we thought. However under closer scrutiny the majority were Bruges bound, not Ghent. Being foreigners we sat ourselves down in the First Class carriage with our Second Class tickets. Quite pleased with ourselves that we had managed to get most of the way to Ghent before our tickets were checked, we only had to stand for the last 5 minutes before arrival at St Pieters.
If ever you needed the reassurance that the bicycle is King in Belgium then you should visit Ghent’s rather grand St Pieters station. In front of the station there is a large roundabout that I can only presume has grass or pavement on it somewhere. I can not be sure as every square inch is covered in bicycles. All leaning against each other, all locked to something. It is quite a sight to behold. Goodness knows how your average Ghent commuter finds, untangles, and eventually rides off on his steed at the end of his working day. The other thing I like is the practicality and sturdiness of the bikes locked up there. This is not a place for expensive, lightweight, pristine racing bikes. There isn’t a man or woman in Lycra to be seen. These are ordinary bikes for ordinary people. People who go about their daily lives preferring a mode of transport that is as old as their fair city. It gives you a warm comforting feeling inside or am I just an old sentimental?
From the station we jumped on a no. 1 tram destined for the old town area of the Kornmarket. Trams are no. 2 in the Ghent transport system. Cheap and convenient, they far outweigh cars and buses. My only words of advice …. Don’t stand on the shifting centre floor of a bendy tram. The trams turn left and right as they weave through the old streets of the city. Standing central will leave you at best a little nauseous, at worst on your backside desperately grasping for the dignity that you have left on the tram floor. I went for the former option so was pretty relieved to hop off the tram at the Gravensteen stop. You can’t miss the Gravensteen. It’s a beautiful medieval castle with a fine moat and plenty of history. The Lion of Flanders flag flys majestically from the ramparts. The castle acted as a good landmark for us as our overnight digs was in St Widostraat just behind the castle.
We arrived at the Hostel De Draeke a little apprehensive to be honest. I am a big fan of hosteling, my brother less so. I like the relaxedness of hostels, rather than hotels. There is a friendliness that doesn’t exist in generic hotel chains. A comeraradie that can be shared whilst washing up your coffee cup. We’ve adventured before in this manner and Ady was a little underwhelmed with a previous shared dorm experience he ‘endured’. To be honest our fellow guests probably were also – no doubt dazed by Ady’s full throttle bed shaking snoring. However this time we’d gone all middle-class and booked a twin room with ensuite. This decadence cost us just 55 Euro for the night. We had really lucked out. The room was spotlessly clean, modern in its décor, and toasty warm to boot. I rejoiced in the fact that Ady was surprised, even pleased with the accommodation.
After dropping off our bags, we headed out into the city again. First stop was back to The Gravensteen for a look around. The castle has a one way system self guided tour and costs 10 Euro entry. The fee is worth it for the stunning views of Ghent. The rooftops and church spires, the canals and grand courtyards. The castles inner halls showcase an array of medieval weapons and implements of torture. I left pondering how fortunate I was to have been born in the 1970’s. If you are a history buff you could while away a good few hours here. I tend to glaze over after a while so an hour was good enough for us.
By now it was early afternoon and we were Hank Marvin. There is no shortage of fooderies in Ghent. Cafes and restaurants line the streets with a vivacious al fresco atmosphere, chairs and tables spilling out onto the pavements. This was November however and despite the multiple gas burners tempting us to stay outside we dashed inside a canal side establishment to warm up and refuel. A quick Panini and we were off again, mostly just wandering around the pretty city centre enjoying the intoxicating smell of waffles in the air. When the biting cold air got the better of us again we visited a coffee bar that had been recommended to me. This was Mokabon. The bright neon lights welcoming us. The smell of the coffee beans displayed in the front windows hits you like a wall as you step inside. This really is how a coffee shop should be. It is not pretentious, nor overpriced. A warm welcome awaits and a cosy atmosphere. I had a Chocespresso which was just devine. Somehow I enjoyed it even more when I walked outside and noticed that it’s neighbour was a faceless Starbucks. The rest of the afternoon involved a short boat trip, 7 Euro for 45 minutes of buzzing around the canals. There is a serenity to watching the world go by as you pootle around the picturesque canals. The boatsman proved to be a fine tour guide speaking fluently in Flemish, French, English and German and appallingly in Spanish. The boat trip ended with both Ady and I unsure as to whether our jean backsides were just cold or indeed wet. Unfortunately the latter was true. The boats seats capable of absorbing days old rainfall and releasing it to unsuspecting passengers. Thankfully the walk back to the hostel was short to limit our wet bottomed embarrassment.
After a quick freshen up and drying off, we ventured out for an early tea (pizza…. I know not exactly Flemish local delicacies). Early as we had the t’Kuipke on our minds. Doors opened at 6:30pm with the race card opening from 6:45pm. We hopped back onto the No. 1 tram to St Pieters and had a brisk 5-10 minute walk to the Citadel Park, home of the t’Kuipke velodrome.
Walking through the doors to the t’Kuipke is like stepping back in time. You can feel the history of the place all around you. I’ve been to a few velodromes over the years and I’m pretty regular to Manchester, but this place just feels different. You can imagine this place through the ages and it wouldn’t look any different. From Coppi in the 50’s, to Mercx in the 60’s, right through to Wiggo last year The concourse surrounding the velodrome is littered with memories of the past. There are stalls selling retro posters and postcards, and a photographic wall showing all the 6 Day winning partnerships over the years. I pause to photo Wiggo & Cav. True Brit me. There are small booths scattered all around the concourse. Each with their own snaking queue of likeminded cycling fans. As a first timer I have no idea what they are queuing for. I therefore continue on my merry path towards the bar. Bar found I duly ask for 2 pints. Novice schoolboy mistake made. I’m then informed that you buy tokens which you can then spend on beer or food. I briskly turn around to join one of the snaking queues behind me embarrassed by my naivety. Tokens purchased and swapped for the first (of many) Belgium beers we head up the steps and into the velodrome itself.
The first thing that hits you is the heat. The air is breathless. It’s the kind of temperature that your parents’ thermostat is set to when you visit at Christmas. All around me people are peeling off the layers from a November evening. Coats and jumpers stripped off the minute people get to the top of the velodrome stairs. I understand that this may have something to do with the speed of the track. A warm environment makes for quicker racing. It also makes for faster drinking. So I guess that’s a win-win for the organisers and fans alike.
The cycling is already under way. The race card includes an U23 Men’s and an Elite Women’s category. The young bucks are on track and riding a Madison. I love the Madison. It’s a whirlwind of slingshots and accelerations. You can’t look away for a moment for fear of losing thread of who’s leading. The sheer number of racers on track can be hard to fathom. Thankfully the suited guy standing trackside seems to be following better than most as he points knowledgeably each lap to the front rider. I’ve never ridden on the track. It’s another thing on the bucket list. But it does fill me with fear. The steepness of the banking and the closeness of the wheels. You could bring down the whole bunch with a twitchy front wheel. Unfortunately the U23 race is cut short after such an incident. One rider worse for wear after a nasty fall. I’m in no rush to tick this one off the list just yet.
At 7:30pm the Elite Men come out on track for the Team Presentation. They sort themselves out into number order and trawl around lap after lap. The announcer presents each pair in turn, giving each a huge build up (in Flemish), probably going through every detail of each palmares. The presentation itself looks exhausting. I’m sure by the announcement of the 12th team, the guys must have done well over a 100 laps. There is no Wiggo or Cav of course this year. One retired, one on a team training camp where schedule wouldn’t allow. The main draw of road racing pedigree this year is the enigmatic Elia Viviani. He draws a sizeable cheer from the crowd. I have a penchant for all things Italian so I have my Italian flag in my pocket – waiting for a race victory to launch up enthusiastically. I have even google translated Go Go into Vai Vai so I can sound suave and continental by shouting ‘Vai Vai Viviani’. The Biggest cheers of the team presentation however seem to go to anyone from Belgium mainly, but Flanders most importantly. The crowd do love to back one of their own.
The Flying Lap is a crowd pleaser. Each pair cycle around the track building speed for one fastest lap. The chosen rider being hand slung across the line to start off the frenzy. The crowd cheer each rider around, then a pause for the time to appear on the big screens. Each rider seems to go faster than the one before to rapturous applause. No track record tonight though – that was broken 2 days earlier. Imagine that – breaking the track record at one of the most heroic tracks of all time. That gives you pretty good bragging rights I’m sure. Think of the names you’d have beaten against the clock.
The racing is thick and fast. The race card gives very little time for riders to recover. No sooner they finish a Madison, then they are back out on track for an Elimination Race. This may be end of season to most pros, but these guys are really earning their appearance money. It’s clear that the riders are loving it though. There’s plenty of showmanship. Riders cup their ears as they cycle past the baying crowds. Even the Derny riders are playing up to the masses. The atmosphere builds as the evening gets later. The music certainly helps to create a jovial, fun-loving ambience, a feeling unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in a velodrome before. The DJ skilfully ghosting between MC Hammer’s ‘Can’t touch this’ and Neil Diamond’s ‘Sweet Caroline’. Both to much raucous singalong. But I guess the other thing that helps the atmosphere is the Belgium beer. The beer is really flowing. The concourse a well trodden route for all nationalities. Seat to token booth to bar to seat. Enjoy, drink, repeat. The seated masses sedate in comparison to the huge volume of people track centre. The Mexican wave attempts of the seated proves nothing compared to the latest track centre entertainment. There’s a defined narrow clearing appeared in the heaving swirl of people. Dead centre of the clearing is a stack of empty plastic beer glasses, a wobbly 4 foot high. The nearby crowd sense the anticipation as one by one intoxicated people run at and attempt to jump over the leaning tower of plastic. Each contestant protected by the beerish invincibility that they possess. Time after time somehow the jumper gets clear. Maybe there is something special in the Belgium beer? Unfortunately as could have been predicted it ends in tears as one jumper falls awkwardly. The First Aiders are on site in a flash and the empty beer glasses are confiscated to a round of boooo’s. Still, no bother, the crowd just need to drink more to start the stack again. It doesn’t take long.
The Derny races prove to be the most popular. An exquisite example of the quirkiness of cycling. 6 riders at a time on track, each paced by a Derny motorbike. The racers riding within an inch of the Derny bike, barking instructions to the driver – faster, faster. The crowd get louder as the laps tick down. Viviani times this one to perfection taking the lead some 6-7 laps out. The speed is so high that nobody can come past him. The G-force on these elderly Derny riders is unimaginable. How do they keep control at such speed on such tight bends? And why do they all look comfortably post 60? Viviani clinging onto the back wheel. Everyone’s up on their feet as he takes the win. Here’s my moment. I dig inside my jacket pocket for the Italian flag. I shake it out and wave it proudly. For a moment thinking I have the inhibitions of a native Italian. I quickly however realise I’m British and sit myself back down again.
By the time the last Derny race finishes it’s gone 1:30am and my brother and I are slowing down after our earlier 3am start. The track centre revellers are still singing, dancing, and occasionally watching the cycling that is going on around them. But our time has come. We drink up, layer up, and head back out into the cold. A sharp intake of breath as we go from heated velodrome to sub zero Ghent. We decide to walk back to the hostel. We sway through the streets, warmed by the beer, following our Google Map trail back to our digs. By the time our heads hit the pillow we’ve done a 23 hour day. Now that’s what you call a full day. I’m only glad I wasn’t wearing a pedometer.
Our first t’Kuipke experience now behind us. Before we leave the hostel the following morning we’ve already agreed that it won’t be our last. The Lottto 6 Day website enticingly states that they would like to bring Cav back next year. Maybe he could team up with fellow Manxman Pete Kennaugh as they successfully did for a very creditable 2nd place in the earlier London 6 Day. Now that would entice a few more Brits over to Flanders I’m sure. Quite simply it’s been a great weekend in the home of cycling. If you like cycling, and we are now mainstream, then you really do have to go to Ghent. Don’t take my word for it though, come and see for yourselves. Tick it off your bucket lists. Just one thing though - If you do go next year look out for a couple of grey haired mid 40’s guys. One of them will probably have an Italian flag in his jacket pocket.
A trip to Paris-Roubaix 2018
As a keen cyclist and enthusiast I always look forward to Spring. Usually the weather is on the up which has instant benefits for a commuting cyclist like me, although this year could be the exception! Have we ever had a colder & more miserable March? And secondly the pro cycling season takes off in spectacular fashion. Gone are the drab and dull races hosted in Feb and March in the Arab states – the ones with no atmosphere and no spectators held on straight, mainly flat roads through deserts. Each stage won by sprinters. They always make me feel like cycling is selling out – the rich Arab states using Eurosport as a tourism shop window. I can’t imagine these races do anything to promote cycling. The intent seems to be to promote themselves. Then BOOM - we hit late March / early April and attentions turn back to real road racing, back in the heartland of Northern Europe. For this time of year is the Classics season.
I love all the classics. The monuments in particular. They are just epic. The monuments are book-ended by two great Italian races - Spring’s ‘La Primavera’ of Milan-San Remo and Autumn’s ‘Race of The Falling Leaves’ Il Lombardia. Both fantastic races with stunning backdrops. However, the epicentre of the Classics season are back to back weekends in April. First comes Ronde van Vlaanderen (The Tour of Flanders), then next up is Paris-Roubaix. These are the highlights of my cycling year. These races are brutal yet beautiful, both steeped in history and true to their origins. Cobbles … lots of cobbles, short, sharp, strength sapping climbs, inclement Northern Europe mid April weather. These races define ‘the Classics’ and they are won by the hardmen of the sport. Get one of these on your palmares and you’ve joined the elite. Get both and you’re a legend. It’s hard to pick a favourite but if I had to I’d say Paris-Roubaix edges it. Roubaix has the velodrome finish. 750 metres of smooth concrete which so often sees the cat and mouse track style finale. It’s amazing that the race victory often comes down to that after 260 kilometres. So Paris-Roubaix, the ‘Queen of the Classics’ is my ultimate cycling fix. A trip to see it first hand has long been on my bucket list.
I love a cycling trip. I’ve travelled around the UK lots to see our own UCI races – the Tour of Britain and Tour De Yorkshire, but I’m pretty new to venturing off-shore. My brother and I went to the frankly splendid Ghent 6 Day last November. This was the start of it. We’d been given a pass out by our long suffering wives and we’d made the most if it. We needed to get another booked at the earliest opportunity! But where to….? The original mumblings were to travel over to France to see stage 9 of the TdF – a stage from Arras to Roubaix covering twenty odd kilometres of cobbles. This was the closest stage to UK with relatively easy travel. However the more we pondered this the more we thought – wouldn’t it just be better if we went and watched the Spring Classic instead? It was a no brainer really. The TdF stage could prove pivotal but it would be a watered down version of the classic race – less cobbles, probably ridden more defensively, and not due to finish in the historic outdoor velodrome. The decision was made and plans began in earnest.
The only question was whether to travel independently or go on an organised trip. I’m generally speaking an independent traveller. I tend to shy away from organised trips, more willing to bumble my way around. It’s more fun that way right? But this was different. A potential logistical minefield. It was hard to imagine how we would get to see the race more than once if we travelled independently. That might feel pretty disheartening to travel to France and see the pros whir past in 30 seconds, leaving us relying on a dodgy Internet and an astronomical phone bill to keep apace with the race developments. After a bit of research we found a 1 night trip to the race with Baxters Cycling Trips promising a potential of 4 sightings – the start in Compiegne, two cobbled sectors, then the velodrome finish in Roubaix. That sounded much more appealing. The cost £190 including coach, one nights accommodation in Saint Quentin, evening meal and even a packed lunch thrown in. Our credit cards were out in a flash. It was booked.
And so the weekend began with another early alarm clock, 5.30ish. Ouch. I tiptoed as quietly around the house as possible grabbing my bag and heading downstairs. Why is it that the quieter you try to be the louder you actually are? Maybe it’s just that your senses are heightened and everything just seems louder – door creaks, footsteps on stairs, fridge door etc. Unfortunately my two boys are the lightest sleepers ever – one creaky floorboard enough to wake them both. My wife on the other hand compensates as she has slept through an earthquake amongst other things. My brother Ady arrives just after 6.00am and we set off for our coach pick up point at Watford Gap southbound on the M1. The 20 odd miles are eaten up in no time and we park up and head inside the services to sample the breakfast delights of McD’s. A quick sausage and egg bagel and coffee and we leave to meet up with the coach. We wait a while by the coach as one by one our fellow travellers return, unbeknown to us they’d also been tucking into a McD’s breakfast. There’s currently only 7 others on the coach, having joined at Knutsford and Stoke already. So it seems our ‘early start’ is relatively sedate compared to our new companions.
We are back on the road with further pick ups on outskirts of London and in Kent on M20. After our final pick up we are a merry band of just 16. That equates to nearly 4 seats each so plenty of room to spread out and relax. The drive down to Dover is relatively painless. Only one moment of incident when a motorist didn’t quite see the moving bright white 60 foot long huge coach when filtering onto the motorway, driving straight into our rear side. One broken wing mirror, one bent front wing, and a 20 minute interlude for exchanging details later and we were on our way again. The bump had certainly livened up the coach, and in a weird kind of way got everyone talking. Barriers broken down, the atmosphere is very convivial as we join the queue at Dover for our ferry over to Calais.
I’m not a fan of ferries. I don’t have the best sea legs to be fair. I’ve never actually barfed on board, but sometimes I have to concentrate too hard on not barfing if you know what I mean! Ady and I find a comfy sofa and I head off for an unsatisfactory over priced sandwich. The sailing is surprisingly calm. No ministry of silly walks on show as people meander around the boat. Shame really, we had the perfect seat to watch the chaos ensue. I’m always surprised how much people drink on board a ferry, especially as it was only early afternoon. It’s a very British thing. The ferry symbolises the start to the holiday for some. Maybe they just top up the alcohol from then on. I buy a bottle of water. I’m hardcore me. Before long France is in sight and we get the tannoy announcement to return to our vehicles. We re-board and are soon back on the road.
The first few miles out of Calais don’t shout welcome to the newly arrived visitor. The road is surrounded by high fences topped with barbed wire. Not even Steve McQueen could get over these bad boys. I’d seen TV reports months ago about heightened security at Calais as the infamous ‘jungle’ (the shanty town created by would-be immigrants trying to enter the UK) had been dismantled. It does make you wonder where all these immigrants went – I can’t imagine that after weeks and months of trying to cross the channel they’d just give up and seek asylum in France. Maybe they are busy setting up Jungle 2 somewhere else. Anyhow we keep rolling out of Calais and we are quickly back on the motorways heading for our first stop French side in Roubaix. A couple of things strike me on the way. Firstly, just how damn big France is – suddenly the countryside looks vast, uninterrupted views of rolling fields as far as the eye can see. It’s agriculture everywhere. Secondly, a rather sobering thought – rather too frequently we pass the most immaculately presented war grave cemeteries. It’s wonderful to see how well these patches of land are kept, clearly a pride taken in their appearance. It reminds you that this part of France was the front line in WW2, indeed Dunkirk is only a few miles further down the coast.
You might be wondering why our first stop is at Roubaix, the finish line in tomorrow’s epic race. Well it’s because today is the Paris-Roubaix sportive – three different distances on offer to the amateur cyclist, all of them finishing on the same velodrome just 24 hours before the pros. It transpires that Baxters have also put on a 3 night trip for sportive riders. Now we begin to understand why we have 4 seats each on the coach. We are picking up some of the sportive riders en route to our overnight digs in Saint Quentin. We park up in Roubaix, next to a supermarket. The car park thronging with Lycra clad middle aged men. There’s an air of celebration, lots of banter and a few tinnies being opened. I bet the supermarket gets through a lot of Kronenburg this weekend! A few weary folk make their way up the steps and onto our coach. They ooh and aah on each step clearly fatigued from their grand adventure. They instantly become the Alpha Males as they share stories with us. We are the softies, the unadventurous Paris Roubaix spectators. They are the hardmen, the get up and have a go kings. Up until this point it hadn’t even registered to me about riding the sportive. Only idiots would do that. But now sat beside these guys I’m feeling bullish. They don’t look any fitter than me. They probably ride a lot less miles than me. Maybe, just maybe next year……
The coach now 2/3rds full departs again and we set off on the final leg of today’s journey, an hour and a half to Saint Quentin. We are staying at a Campanile hotel. The car park is small and already has a fair few cars parked up. There’s clearly no room for our coach. The coach driver pulls in, and confidently reverse parks the 60 foot coach into a 61 foot gap. Waiting for impact my eyes are partly shut. Once opened again I thought they’d be a round of applause. But nothing, either we are all too Brutish for that, or our sportive riders are fast asleep. We disembark, check in (speaking English in a slightly French accent, a la Allo Allo), and trudge off to find our room. The hotel is more of a motel. It’s basic but we’re not bothered. We’ve been travelling 14 hours now and frankly I’d sleep in a hedge tonight. I am relieved though that we are staying just the one night, ah hah that’s one to us against the sportive Alpha Males who will be staying three. No time to rest though. A quick spruce up and we are back out again. This time to assemble in the hotel/motel restaurant for our evening meal.
I’ve survived today on nothing more than a McD’s breakfast (was that actually today, feels longer!), a Panettone at Dover’s Costa (an Italian Christmas favourite the weekend after Easter), and the aforementioned unsatisfactory over priced sandwich on the ferry. I am therefore by now very close to eating my own arm. Luckily everyone gathers promptly and we sit down to eat at 8:30. No grand menu though. A choice of salmon or salmon. In fact the only choice is what to accompany the salmon – rice, green beans or chips. I choose rice. No matter I like salmon anyway, and the starter is a buffet. Time to fill my boots. I indulge in hams, pickles, bread whilst we wait for the main. One beer down and a bottle of red wine opened, Ady and I are in full shmooz mode. We chat to our companions left and right. Thankfully the conversation is about cycling trips and bike adventures, rather than rear cassette choice and calliper v disc brake pros and cons. These aren’t a nerdy bunch of cyclists. Well if they are they are hiding it really well. Conversation is easy and we’re all enjoying ourselves. Our mains come out and I’m horrified to see that some people have ordered rice AND chips. What the….? I didn’t know you could choose two. Dessert is mercifully buffet also, so at least I won’t misunderstand my options again. I fill up and drink up satisfied. Shortly after we say our turrahs and retire to our cell (I mean room) ready for a long peaceful sleep.
Now unfortunately I didn’t get much of that. The room was small and echoey. The beds were only separated by a minuscule bedside table. And my brother snores. Lots. And loudly. I have suffered this before so came prepared with ear plugs. However the proximity of him to me outweighed the two bits of foam wedged in my ears. I don’t recall actually being awake and there bring a silence in the room. Whenever I was awake I could hear him. Occasionally he woke himself up with the din and I got a moment reprieve before normal service resumed. I was very close to recording him, just to prove my woes in the morning. I was tired and knew I had another long day tomorrow. I needed to sleep. But the more you tell your self to sleep, the more you can’t. You get anxious counting down the hours/minutes until you need to get up. I finally drifted off. Relaxed. Yes this is better. Then BOOM the light was on – bright as can be, my eyes straining. Ady had managed to catch the touch light switch when stretching. He panicked and grasped for the switch again. It was off, then on again, then off. God knows what anyone walking passed must have thought. It was the sleep equivalent of water boarding! Before I knew it I was awoken by first Ady’s, then my alarm going off. A cacophony of noise. That was it, the ‘sleep’ torture was over. I wouldn’t be back in bed (my bed) for another 20 hours.
The alarm is set for 6:30am. Got an awful lot to cram into today. So it’s up and on. Thankfully the shower is good and I’m slowly beginning to feel normal again. We’re out the door on time for our 7:30am breakfast. Breakfast is buffet style. We encourage each other to eat heartily as it could be a long time until our next sustenance. Ham, cheeses, bread, croissants and pancakes (with Nutella!) sort me out. I always prefer a continental to a full English. Especially a full English outside of England. They’re just not the same. A generic ‘sausage’ that tastes of anything but meat, and bacon so limp the rind looks and tastes like rubber bands. Once we’ve woofed down our continentals with a coffee we’re back to our rooms to pack up, ready for bus departure at 8:30am prompt.
It’s just over an hours drive to Compiegne. This is the current start to Paris-Roubaix. It’s been 52 years since the race actually departed from Paris itself. It was moved in 1966 to start in Chantilly, then in 1977 to Compiegne. I guess Paris itself got too big and busy along the way. As we approach the town centre it becomes obvious that we are at the centre of the cycling world, for one day only. The small roads are full of team cars and team buses. It’s like a procession. We salivate from our coach windows looking at the top end bikes hoisted on the car roofs. Would they really miss one….? We arrive at a roundabout on the edge of the main thoroughfare into town. Incredibly we go part round the about and then reverse up the road everyone is queueing to go down. We park up on the roadside and we all spill out onto the grand boulevard. The nifty reverse park should allow us quick access out of Compiegne. First coach out of here should help us get to the first section of cobbles in good time. We wander down the wide street towards the action. Compiegne is a charming town. Large wide avenues, grand buildings crumbling away. It has a certain faded elegance to it. The kind of place where you can tell its history may be more important than its present.
We head into the main square where the signing on ceremony will soon take place. On stage there are two French presenters ‘filling’ time chatting to spectators and introducing VT’s on the key riders and cobbled sectors. We wander around the start line, accompanied by dozens of motorbikes readying themselves for the start. Camera bikes, TV bikes, neutral service bikes carrying spare wheels. It puts in perspective the vast scale of this race. The actual sign-on is a bit underwhelming. We only have half an hour before we need to be back at the bus. That only gives us about 10 minutes of actual sign-on time. During that time a few pros cycle precariously up the ramp, sign their names on the Perspex and head off to warm up. No big stars though. They’ll all come out of their air conditioned pampered team buses right at the last minute. We cut our losses and head back towards our coach. En route back we pass a few Team Katusha Alpecin riders on their way to sign-on. I shout encouragement to Tony Martin (four World Time Trial champion and Katusha team leader today), and Marcel Kittel (fourteen times Tour de France stage winner and perfect pin up for Alpecin hair products). We then walk passed Team Sky’s troubled leader Sir Dave Brailsford. He is chaperoned by 4-5 people. It’s hard to work out if they are Team Sky staff or his own personal security. He is deep in chat. Now would not be a good time to request a selfie…. although I did consider it for a second or two.
As we head back to our coach we pass more team buses. Their bikes now all lined up and ready to go. Drinks bottles in, Garmin’s taped on (taped because the cobbles tend to shake them lose otherwise), parcours stickers on the top tube. The sticker indicating each cobbled sector, the distance and rating of each. I pause for some cycling porn photographs of Team Sky’s Pinarello F10’s, and BMC’s gold Team Machine with the No.1 number on – to be ridden by last years winner Greg Van Avermaat. The biggest spectator scrum though is around Bora Hansgrohe’s bus. Everyone wanting a glimpse of Peter Sagan, the rock star of the peloton. You could even here loud music coming from the coach. Sagan getting in the zone no doubt. We jump back on board the coach and with military precision we head off right on schedule. We are getting a head start on the race, setting off now should make it easier for viewing at the first cobbled sector, and that after all is what this race is all about.
We head off to the very first sector of pave on this years race, the sector from Troisvilles to Inchy. This sector is rated 3 stars, so medium difficulty. The race organiser, Jean-Francois Pescheux grades the cobbles by length, irregularity, their general condition and their position in the race. Only three sectors get the maximum 5 star rating. These are the legendary brutes of Trouee d’Arenberg, Mon-en-Pevele, and Le Carrefour de l’Arbre. The cobbles last 2.2km at this section. Long enough. The drive there seems long and tedious, plenty of traffic choking the smaller roads. Someone on the coach has done the maths and reckons the riders should cover the 97km to Troisvilles in about the same time as us. Whispers abound the coach that we might have to run for it. We arrive in the Troisvilles area, three gendarmes stand on the main road which the cobbled sector crosses. They love their whistles these gendarmes. A frenzy of whistles and flailing arms and we are waved across. By some miracle we park about 50 metres up the main road from the cobbled sector. This place is rammed. Cars abandoned on the roadsides. Spectators lining the pave both sides. How on earth did we manage to get parked here in our mahoosive coach? Well it turns out Baxters are quite an organised bunch. Their main man Jonathan had skipped Compiegene to get here early and like a dog mark out our territory, only with traffic cones rather than urine. A stroke of genius. Before we disembark our driver advises us that packed lunches can be collected from the luggage bay. Sod that we think. We’re not missing the peloton whir through here. We hurtle out of the doors and sprint down to the cobbles. They should be here any minute.
We stand on the corner of the sector. We are on the Rue de Jean Stablinski, named after the four time French national champion. This sector of road was proposed for Paris-Roubaix by Stanlinski, who knew the area well, a former wine worker under the woods of Arenberg. What first strikes you is the size of the cobbles and the camber of the road. The centre certainly looks like the best place to ride, less battered by the tyres of generations of farm machinery. The cobbles are smoothed by the weather and traffic, but very uneven, highs and lows making it difficult to pick an easy route through. I kneel for some arty cobble photography, these would look good and moody in black and white! Opposite us is the Arnaud Demare fan club. Arnaud is a French cyclist riding for FDJ. He’s an outside bet at best for today’s race, much more at home on smooth, even asphalt. They have two large banners, one each side of the road. I’ve read about these weird kind of fan clubs. It’s pretty common for a local bar to ‘adopt’ a cyclist, sometimes a big star, other times an absolute rank outsider. This matters not. The fan club then follow their man across Europe, waving banners and drinking heavily. The guys get very animated when any FDJ team cars zoom down the sector. The driver no doubt feeling obliged to toot their horn enthusiastically to these inebriated fans. Just to the right of the fan club there’s a gaggle of French elderly chaps. They are drinking some clear liquid straight. It must be damn strong stuff by the faces they pull after a sip. They have a cool box which has been keeping the liquor cool. Judging by how wasted they now are I assume the cool box would have been brimming full a few hours earlier. Sadly now they are on their last bottle. They are good humoured drunks, happily putting on a show for the crowds. God knows how they’ll be in the morning. It’s becoming more and more obvious that our coach mathematician might have got her sums wrong. We could have crawled to our vista point at snails pace and had time to not only eat a hearty meal, but make one, maybe even grow one! We wait and wait. My tummy rumbles yearning for that packed lunch. The crowd is a huge throng of people now. The atmosphere building as more team vehicles whoosh passed us, some clearly aiming for the puddle at the cobbles edge, sending us and many others darting for cover. There are team soigners in amongst us now. They are walking up the road carrying spare wheels and bidons. This is a sign that the riders are close. These guys are essential here. In a race like this it’s quicker to have guys positioned at key cobbled sectors roadside, than waiting for the team car in the convoy. Wait for that and you might never get back on the line. It could be game over.
Finally we can see and hear the approaching helicopter. Motorcycle outriders zoom through. The gendarmes are on high alert now. Anyone stepping onto the cobbles gets a shriek on the whistle and an earful of French insults. The commissaries car is passed us now and we await the riders. Sure enough here they come rumbling over the cobbles making a cloud of dust behind them. There’s a lead group of 6 or 7. We cheer and shout as they come passed us. The noise is deafening. They cross the main road, and wind up the slow gradient and out of sight. I don’t recognise anyone in the break. The peloton happy to let them go as they don’t perceive them to be a threat. They’ve got a healthy gap to the group. Minutes pass and still nothing. Then we hear excitement and fervour from further up the road. The peloton is approaching. A fast moving mass of over 150 cyclists come into view. The guys on the front riding four abreast on the narrow cobbled road. Each rider being shaken to the core, arms wobbling as they grip the handlebars tightly. Their faces already dirty from the sweat, dust and mud. Some already showing the scars of a fall, ripped bib shorts and bloody arms. Each front wheel millimetres from the rear wheel they’re chasing. No time to look up and see where you are. Eyes fixed on the wheel in front. It’s astonishing how quick they are passed us. I pick out some of the big names and greet them with a ‘chapeau’ – Philipe Gilbert, Greg Van Avermaat, Geraint Thomas. But I don’t see Sagan. How could I miss the rainbow stripes of the World Champion’s jersey? As soon as the peloton passes we make a run back to the coach. No time to see the team cars. We are under strict instructions – the quicker we get back the easier we get to the next sector. Ady and I enquire about our packed lunch to the driver. No time, luggage doors are closed and we need to be off. Whaaaat? My packed lunch therefore is under deck getting warmer and less edible. I will be acquainted with it later when we arrive at our next stop, sector 15 from Tilloy to Sars-et-Rosieres.
Back on the coach we chat as a group. Apparently Geraint Thomas crashed just the other side of the main road along with twenty or so others. Some of our group had been right next to it, one helping to push him off again as he remounted. The crash had caused a split. Some of the big names had been caught up and delayed by the crash. They would have to chase hard to bring it back together. Not good. Nobody wants to burn their matches too soon. This race is a war of attrition, those freshest in the final kilometres tend to take the cobblestone home (the prize awarded to the winner). Everyone on the coach is busy using up their 4G data allowance, trying to track the action. Whether it’s live streaming from Eurosport or more piece meal updates via social media, we are all at it. Unfortunately, G (Thomas) is out and there’s been another crash on the 2nd sector at Viesly. It sounds nasty – a young Belgian rider airlifted to hospital. Our coach is making good progress as we cut through idyllic French villages unaccustomed to being on the high road as one by one cars, team vehicles and coaches squirm their way through the tight streets. We meander out and onto the motorway, edging closer to my belated packed lunch. Before long we pull off the motorway taking an A road until we reach a roundabout, straight ahead closed off by more gendarmes. Beside the Rozzers we see Jonathan again. Once more he has driven ahead and secured us a parking space. We reverse into a cul de sac and we pile out into the pavement. The weather has really warmed up, perfect for spectating, less perfect for our sandwiches. I leave my coat on the coach, as the temp is now low twenties (back home it’s less than 10 degrees and has been raining all day). Ady and I hastily sift through the boxes of baguettes once the luggage door re-opens. I grab one although I can’t make out the filling with the naked eye. Crisps and a can of coke too, then off we march down the empty A road towards the village of Sars-et-Rosieres. As we get to the village there’s a party in full swing. There’s an Oompah band playing on the street corner, and a bar set up in a farmers field. The crowd are singing along to the band and the atmosphere is tremendous. The sun is shining and I’m feeling splendid. The only thing that dampens my mood (temporarily) is the fishy baguette. I’ve downed my coke in record speed and I need to wash away the fishy taste. We head over to the field bar. It’s perfectly rural. There are bottles of beer and water sat in a cast iron bath filled with water and ice. Being the hardcore drinkers, I order two bottles of water. In the corner of the bar area there’s a TV. How ingenious – we are outside in a field in Northern France and yet we can watch the race on Eurosport. The French commentator is getting animated, shouting ‘Stybar attaque’. This could be the first meaningful move of the race by one of the big favourites. He’s attacked off the front of the peloton, trying to bridge over to the dwindling lead group.
We wander up the cobbled sector, just a hundred metres or so from the end. This sector is 2.4km long, also graded level 3. The riders will have covered 185km and 14 cobbled sectors totalling 33km by the time they get here. The sun is really beating down now. It feels like mid Summer, rather than early April. The anticipation is building. The roadside is filling up. A fancy dress lookie likie Peter Sagan walks passed us. He has a crazy mop wig, and a hand drawn and coloured in rainbow stripe jersey. He is carrying a 6 pack of lager limply. He’s only minutes away now from seeing the world champion up close. Once again soigners position themselves strategically along the sector. The field bar begins to empty. The circus must be fast approaching now. Sure enough we can hear the helicopter approaching again. Then a handful of team cars and motorbike press gangs are passed us. Next up comes the timing vehicle and the commisaire’s red Skoda, a symbol that this race is ASO owned – the organisation behind Le Grande Boucle, the Tour De France. Seconds later the leaders are upon us again, only three out front now. The pace much higher than before. The day taking its toll based on the grimaces of these lead riders. No time to pause as the next group are following closely now, the lead cut to just over a minute. It’s Stybar up next with one accompanying rider. He’s being brought back by the next group. Sagan, Gilbert, Terpstra and Van Avermaat all close together. The race is really ripped apart now. There isn’t much of a peloton left. Riders are in groups of 3’s and 4’s, no more shelter behind the mass of the peloton. They are riding in the gutter on the edge of the cobbles. The spectators have to take a step back to let them through. It looks scary as hell with the crowd parting at the last minute, but no doubt easier on the arms and ass than riding the cobbles. It’s electrifying to see the stars of our sport in these surroundings. This is real racing. There’s no team orders here, the teams are shot to pieces. Riders split everywhere, impossible to co-ordinate a team to lead a chase. It’s each for themselves from now on. We cheer on Team Sky’s riders Dylan Van Baarle, Luke Rowe and Ian Stannard. Each of them cut adrift from the leaders though. It’s not looking like Team Sky will add to their one monument today (Wout Poels success in Liege- Bastogne- Leige in 2016). As soon as the main bunch are passed we start heading back to the coach again. We clap the stragglers through as we walk. A team car drives so fast through the cobbles that it’s airborne and lands with a crunch, the sump smashing into the road, leaving a trail of black oil in its wake. I’m not convinced that car will make it the final 70km to the velodrome.
We’re back on the coach and heading off again. Attention is still fixed on the race. Sagan has made a move 55km from the finish, bridging over to the three leaders. Only Silvan Dillier, a Swiss rider from AG2R La Mondiale, can keep on his wheel. The other two breakaway riders lose contact. By the time they are at Le Carrefour de l’Arbre they have a minute over the chasers. A minute seems a lot with just 16km to go, but there’s some big guns chasing behind. Sagan and Dillier have been seen talking. Perhaps they are doing a deal. They are working well together, each taking their turn at the front. They have to be fully committed to keep the chasers at bay. We are winding our way through the traffic into Roubaix. The gendarmes have closed the main route into town, diverting traffic away. Our driver skilfully takes us through housing estates and one way streets until we park up at the same supermarket we were at yesterday picking up the Alpha Males. This really is going to be a race. We hop off the coach. We have a 10 minute walk to the velodrome. Sagan and Dillier are only 15km away. We stride fast, almost breaking into a run, following the mass of people heading down the boulevard street to the velodrome. We pass the team cars and coaches parked up waiting to pick up their weary riders. We hussle through a narrow gate and take a run up at the steep earthed embankment on the near side of the velodrome. We climb over the tree stumps and through the bushes and we are on the grassy area at the top with a view down onto the concrete track. Needless to say the place is teeming with folk, barely a spot of land free to stand on. I still can’t believe that it’s free just to walk in here and witness this spectacle. If this was England we’d be charging £100 a ticket and half would be for corporate bystanders, more interested in their vol-au-vents than the cycling. There’s a big screen with live pictures of the race. Sagan and Dilliers are maintaining the gap. They are only a few kilometres away now. Nikki Tersptra, who won The a Tour of Flanders the previous week, has jumped clear from the chasers, perhaps aiming for a podium.
The French commentator is at fever pitch now. The big screen showing that Sagan and Dilliers are in the town of Roubaix. Moments later you can hear the crescendo of noise as they are in the boulevard outside. And in a flash they enter the velodrome, still together. The crowd roar. It’s almost gladiatorial, witnessing this. The pair have a lap and a half of this fabled old track to compete for victory. Dilliers is in front, Sagan no longer willing to come past. The pace drops as this turns into a track cat and mouse sprint. Sagan ominously on Dilliers wheel, he rises up the banking with just over half a lap to go. Dilliers rises too, then in a blink of an eye Sagan uses the speed of the banking and undercuts Dilliers to take the lead. Only one winner from here. Sagan raises his arms and crosses the line to become the first World Champion to win Paris-Roubaix since Bernard Hinault in 1981. He waves triumphantly to the raptured audience, and nobily takes Dilliers’ hand to acknowledge the work he’d done to keep them away from the chasers. Next into the velodrome is Terpstra to complete the podium. More and more riders hurtle through the velodrome gates, each group sprinting for the minor places. Gilbert, Van Avermaat, Stybar all come through. They’ll be coming through for a good while yet. This race, more than any other, is one to say you’ve finished. Just getting through the 257km is a feat in itself, and something most cyclists are immensely proud of. Today though belongs to the rock star of our sport, Peter Sagan. A truly well deserved victory and an epic race.
As ever we are tight on time. We have just 15 minutes to savour Sagan’s victory before we need to be back at the coach. We slide back down the embankment and queue through the narrow gate. Riders covered in mud and looking harrowed, cycle their last few revolutions passed us and back to the sanctuary of their team coaches. We follow the throng out of the velodrome and back towards our own team coach. We gather in the car park and swap stories with the rest of the group. It has been a stupendous day. You can almost feel the relief of the Baxters guides and the coach drivers. They had done it. They’d managed to navigate us to witness this amazing spectacle four times. No mean feet given the traffic and roads. We step back on board and before long we are queuing out of Roubaix, everyone heading for the motorway. We of course are heading for Calais, and eventually back home to Leicester. It had been a long, long day. Now was time to catch up on some sleep. I could feel my eyes wanting to close. I rested my head against the coach window using my coat as a pillow, and the sleep that had resisted me so much the previous night came quickly to me this early evening.
It was well over an hour later, our coach in the Calais suburbs, when I woke and heard of the tragic passing of Veranda’s Willems-Crelan rider Michael Goolaerts. This was the guy who had crashed on the 2nd cobbled sector, airlifted to hospital in Lille. The poor young man, just 23, had died after suffering a heart attack. He was a young rider in his prime, enjoying a good season with some promising results. He was doing the job that he loved. This incident has shaken cycling. It reminds us all of the inherent risk of our sport and the demands that it places on our bodies. It makes us remember that these riders are more than just that. They are someone’s son, brother, father. We should do what we can to keep them safe. Tributes poured in from riders and teams, each one expressing the shock and grief that we shared on our once jolly coach. No matter how good our weekend had been, watching the best bike race in the World, unfortunately the final hours were spent in sombre reflection. I wish there was a happier ending. RIP Michael Goolaerts.