The Collective 021: Roubaix, Flanders and everything in between.

I’ve been sat for about 20 minutes trying to work out how to convey the feelings, atmosphere and shock to the senses that watching the pros come past on the Carrefour de l’Arbre. It seems that I can’t. Which is why it is such a special experience because you have to be there. In a world where everything is within a few clicks, these experiences cannot be replaced or replicated. It’s easy to forget they exist, but when they happen, it blows your mind. And I don’t mean that for effect, I mean that it really is too much for your mind to take in. Blink and you miss it. Everything is crystal clear, yet impossible to take in. You so desperately want to, and I guess that is why lots of people try to video and take pictures- to savour that moment. But just being in the moment is special in itself, not for the specific memory of the moment, but the feeling. The feeling cannot be replicated through picture or video. Something I feel many people now miss out on, in desperation to ‘remember’ the time.

As the helicopter flies above the riders in the distance, the tension and expecation of the crowd heightens, people move closer, ready to edge into the ‘road’ to get the best view of the oncoming group- everyone has an idea of what has been going on, however from where we are, anything could have happened from the entrance of the final 5 star sector to where we stand. As the commisaire and lead cars pass, everyone edges closer as the roar of the spectators approaches along with a cloud of dust and low flying helicopter. Every sense in on overload by the time the riders come, everyone by now is stretching their bodies to the max to get that extra glimpse of the lead riders. It’s a sport in istelf though as you need to get out the way of their following team cars and also if any of them are properly in the gutter.

We were stood at the exact point Gilbert attacked and brought about the winning move- but I missed it. You watch the approach, then dart your head back towards the chasing riders. There’s no time to take it in, and within seconds, they’re gone. You’re left with shouting encouragement at the chasing pack, who know there’s nothing left but finishing for them now- something of a brilliant achievment in itself.

To try and get a feel for that excitement, I recorded it all for the Podcast- click below to check it out- I feel it gets the closest you can to being there. But I throughouly recommend you join us in 2020. It’ll be in Part 4 or 5.

From the beginning

The Roubaix trip was simple- drive over Friday, ride the Sportive Saturday, ride some Flandrian bergs Sunday morning and then watch the pros in the afternoon.

My day began at 6am on Friday morning, driving down to pick up Ed before Seb grabbed us in the van. We managed 8 bikes, 16 pizzas, 30 bags and a hammock all in the back of a small Transit. Not bad. We drove down to Folkestone for an afternoon train and even managed a photoshoot whilst in the tunnel of some of our new kit and tees. Always hustlin’

The ‘villa’ we were staying at was in Pecq, which is actually in Belgium, right on the border with France and only 14km away from Roubaix. As we drove, the temperature continued to drop and thoughts of using our new summer kit faded quickly. So quick in fact, that I bought a newspaper to chuck in my shorts and jersey. For maximum Euro points, it was a Gazetta Dello Sport.

A few drinks and pizzas later and it was time for bed. All the gear was set up and ready for an early start to get down to Roubaix and get going. 145km plus 14km of canal path either side.

How cold?

6:20am. -3 degrees once you factor in the Belgian crosswind. The summer kit is well and truly put away for another day and the winter kit is chucked on- including La Gazzetta.

As I come downstairs and grab the bike, I’m greeted with a flat tyre after we switched over my CX tyres to file treads. Sadly something burst the tube and we didn’t notice.

Finally we set off, albeit a bit late. And then 1km in… Ed gets a flat too. Absolute nightmare and the day seems to be getting longer and longer. Ed also has a thru-axle and we don’t have the tool for it. So Seb rides back to get it and then I ride back to get some more tubes, all about that extra mileage.

After 30 minutes of extra faff, we finally get onto the beautiful canal paths and head towards Roubaix. I don’t think I’ve had dry hands as cold as I did that morning. Winter gloves, doubled up with liner gloves, stood no chance and it was actually painful. The thought of riding cobbles was looming larger as any feeling from my hands turned to just pure pain. Oh joy.

We got to the start and I decided to get ride of a set of gloves as I find that sometimes the extra pair restricts movement and worsens the problem. I went inside and warmed them up and we set off. There were 12 of us riding together and there are plenty of groups to join with to save yourself from the wind. The key is save as much energy as possible for is to come. The sun by now was out and it was slowly warming, but never enough to lose my paper!

We made it to the Arenberg Forest which is the first sector and the first of three 5 star sectors- with 5 being the hardest and 2 being the easiest and lowest we encounter. If you read the blog from last year however, I point out that actually some 2 and 3 star sections are low because of their modest length, rather than surface.

The entire experience was different this year, mainly due to my fitness. Last year I hadn’t ridden much in over a month due to a knee injury. Ironically, this year I’ve done the most training I’ve ever done since I really hurt my knee back in October. To compare, 2018 was 2 hours of Zone 4 and 2019 was 30mins. We may have been going slightly easier but over the cobbles it was the same effort as you can’t really go easy on them. I spent two hours cramping hard last year wheras I had no issues whatsoever this time- and with some big efforts and max heart rate moments, I gave it a good dig.

Ed was very apprehensive in the build up to this ride, having had a very busy year indeed with children, family jobs and houses, he didn’t train as much as wanted and as we neared the start- he was eerily quiet. However as the ride went on, he built in confidence and did brilliantly. It is so easy to sit in the wind or go to hard on the cobbles- but he found the perfect balance and kept a pace beyond my expectations. Huge kudos to him! Now it is time to keep building on that- add him on Strava to give him some inspiration: ED STRAVA.

All the team worked really well together and we had zero punctures on the actual ride- testament to the preparation and equipment choices made by everyone! As we rode round the Velodrome, I fulfilled the promise to myself to ride at the top which I couldn’t manage last year due to imminent leg expiration (ILE). We then waited for Seb and his brother to finish as there was a slight wheel mechanical- more of that on the Podcast as I’m not writing the entire saga out here!

Once home, everyone was absolutely shattered after a long day out but spirits were high and we were ready for our next adventure.

FLANDERS

When we mentioned the plan to anyone who knows Roubaix and Flanders, they thought we were slightly mad to try and ride The Koppenberg and Kwaremont the day after riding 175km around Roubaix. But we were only there for 2 days and wanted to make the most- plus waiting around in a French field for 5 hours with the occasional Cofidis truck with a French fella singing and shouting didn’t appeal.

The original route included going across to the Muur from Ronse but we decided it’d be cutting it too fine- and to miss the pro race would be pretty catastrophic! So that was taken out but all the main ones were there.

The key takeaway is that the Koppenberg is without doubt one of the biggest “Oh wow” moments as you turn the corner and see it. Pictures don’t even get close to conveying the sheer face you’re faced with. It really is incredible and was great to ride up- thinking about all the riders that have done the same over the years. I had way too little pressure in my tyres so rode the first, rougher section, on the rims pretty much, but managed to get through and up. Ed absolutely smashed it and got up in one go, massive respect for that!

The Pros

Sean Kelly made a good point during the television coverage of the pro race- that doing the sportive still doesn’t give you any real idea of what the pros have to do. I can understand that, and trying to comprehend the pace and ferocity at which they hit the cobbles (and all the bits between) is mind blowing, because doing it at 20mph feels like a blur, let alone 30mph- in a bunch, after 120 miles. Seeing them skip over the cobbles is such a visceral experience, you can hear their bikes over the screams of the crowd- the riders stare seemingly 1000ft away, unaware and not caring about any real danger infront, as the speed will carry them over, just keep the power on.

Like I said at the start- it is such a worthy trip to make, to really understand that feeling that cannot be replicated through anything other than your own senses.

TCC Roubaix/Flanders 2020 is already in planning, bigger and better than ever. If you’d like to be involved, give us a message.

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