3.45am Banging Euro pop. Craig’s alarm. Very effective. Leap from bed like a startled deer, assemble kit. Breakfast.
4.30am Driving through a proper pea-souper. Thank the stars for GPS. Thank the stars for foglights. Thank absolutely no-one for demented early morning Belgian drivers.
5.00am Arrive at velodrome. There are lots of shuttle buses. Lots. Chap in the car behind has locked his bike to the car and is in full panic mode. He has 30 mins to release it. He asks John for a tool and John roots around his stuff and amazingly produces a hacksaw. Ungraciously he bites his hand off for this potential means of escape and later, fails to return it. That car clearly had a tool within it, albeit the wrong type.
5.30am Queue for buses. Just like at the supermarket counter, each queue is going quicker than yours. We pick another. And another. And another. Eventually the bikes are taken by a Belgian driver who has no right to be this jolly so early in the morning. He’s our hero.
7.10am Arrive at Busigny. We take the bikes off and stand in the cool, foggy, early April air. Its quite serene.
7.15am It is no longer serene. More banging Euro pop. This time at ear drum busting decibel levels. I bet the locals didn’t expect that when they retired on Friday evening, full of red wine and the effects of social whirlwinds.
7.16am We cross the line. A green echelon. 4 garden variety Jif riders and a guest jiffie. There’s something about being in club colours at the start of a Spring classic.
7.40ish. The first cobbled section – Troisvilles à Inchy. 2.2km of little hovis loaves. I remember these bad boys from Flanders. They jar and rattle. Your fingers go numb. Your teeth swing like a newton’s cradle. I take it easyish. I need to trust these tyres before I embrace them. Craig revels. Donald punctures. This could be a long day.
8ish. Water droplets are forming on my race cap. I look down the length of my nose and watch them drop on my top tube. Drip. Drip. Drip. This fog clings on.
9ish. We’re in our swing now. We ride as a group taking turns on the front. At the cobbles we ride to our own rthymn. At the end we regroup. The gap is never large.
9.15ish. I can’t remember which cobbled section set me off. We were regrouping when it happened. A rider complains about his line as he smashes onto the cobbles. I sprint. Catch him up. ‘Think we’re in your way? Use the sides. Like everyone else’. The unnecessary attitude has riled me. I go up two gears, batter ahead and put two minutes on him. I want these cobbles now.
10.15ish. Haveluy à Wallers. This is the last thing any of us wants, needs or expects. A rider crashes right in front of me. Right in front. I hit him, fly, clatter, moan. The pain in my shoulder shifts to my leg. Julian arrives and takes a look. ‘Oh. Ok. That’s easy. We’ll need an ambulance’. The crashed rider gets up. ‘I’m so sorry, I didn’t see it’. An apologetic Dutchman. No need for him to stay. His event continues. It looks like someone’s scooped a hole above my knee. There’s a less nasty gash to the hand. A motor-cycle marshal arrives. Help is summoned.
11.00ish. More help arrives. First responders. They look, wince and go ‘ooooh’. An ambulance is summoned. I send the lads on their way. They’ve been stars, but you can’t hang around all day. Before they leave they ensure that my bike will be removed and looked after.
11.45ish The ambulance arrives. Three firemen. Again, They look, wince and go ‘ooooh’. I’m popped on a trolley and slotted in the back.
12.30ish At the hospital. Wheeled into a room. 4 nurses arrive. En-masse, they look, wince and go ‘ooooh’. This is a theme.
13.00ish The Doctor arrives. Guess what? He looks. He winces. He goes?…….‘ooooh’. I type ‘Can it be stitched?’ into google translate on my phone. He nods. ‘Yes, but…….surgery’. Pulling on a blue glove, he mutters ‘Lets get this party started’.
14.00ish Job done. The doctor is evidently pleased with himself. He whistled in appreciation at his work. I’m certainly grateful. Vive la France.
17.30ish I’m rescued. The hospital was about an hour away from Roubaix and after enduring 3 hours of barely a phone signal and a battery on 5% charge, the cavalry arrive. Well done fellas.
Not the Paris-Roubaix I’d expected, but an amazing trip nonetheless. It is a privilege to ride the cobbles. You can feel cycle history coursing through your veins. You feel part of the landscape. You feel blessed. I didn’t want to cartwheel over an apologetic Dutchman, but accidents happen of course. While it was a wee bit painful, cut my ride short and caused some hassle, it could have been a lot, lot worse and I was – very – pleased that my buddies finished successfully and earned their medals.
This event has reignited a forgotten love of road cycling. I’ll be back next year to experience the Trouée d’Arenberg, the velodrome and the infamous showers. Combine a Spring Classic, with good company and Belgian beer and its a surefire winner. Heck, I might even pack some plasters.
With thanks to Jules Carter for the pictures…..the top and bottom ones, anyway (I’m rather envious of Jules’ excellent Olympus TG-2 outdoor camera). With thanks to Craig, John, Jules and Donald for ferrying me around post event.