A DREAM FULFILLED
it's been a dream of mine to someday watch a spring classic, a grand tour, and a world cup cyclocross race. well, as of yesterday, i can cross one of those off my list. yesterday was the 112th edition of Paris Roubaix, also known as the Hell of the North and the Queen of the Classics. This unforgiving 257km race that includes 27 sectors of cobblestones, has been one of my favorite races to watch over the years (the other being the Giro d'Italia -- okay, i love all bike races, but if i had to pick a classic and a grand tour, these would be them, respectively).
Paris Roubaix is my favorite race because it's probably the one race where it isn't about pure preparation. Sure, Paris Roubaix demands it but the Queen herself throws a lot of punches and her bag of tricks includes weather, fans, and her partner in crime, Lady Luck herself. it's also a race that requires riders to be tack sharp in terms of mental focus. one inattentive moment can mean the difference between finishing and riding in the caravan the rest of the day or worse, a trip to the hospital. Paris Roubaix can be -- and has been -- incredibly cruel to even the best riders and everyone who finishes in my book, is truly a winner. lastly, it's a race with incredible history and oozes with character. it's romantic and it's harsh, often at the same time.
when work took me to Paris for the week leading up to Paris Roubaix, it was a no brainer to extend my stay. i was a little -- okay a lot -- nervous as i'm not experienced when it comes to travel. i mean it. my first international trip was last year -- to Paris -- and i was lucky enough to have my boss with me who is extremely well traveled. this time, i'd be going it alone. and not just doing Paris alone, but venturing to Northern France...alone. never one to shy away from a challenge, i wasn't going to let my inexperience get the better of my self-doubt.
going into sunday i was feeling confident. over the previous few days in Paris, i had mastered the metro and am proud to say i didn't miss a transfer or get lost once. i woke up early sunday, having stared at the ceiling for a couple of hours before my alarm was supposed to go off out of fear i'd sleep through it and miss the train. i decided to just get up and little did i know this nervous energy would prove fortuitous. I grabbed an espresso, and began my journey while most of Paris was still sleeping, save for a cyclist or two riding the champs. i made it to the train station early and was feeling good.
however, this is where things took a turn for the worse. upon trying to retrieve my pre-paid ticket, the automated terminal kept giving me an error. i was going to have to find customer service it replied in angry red font. this was my nightmare. as i went from help desk to help desk, i was finally directed to the ticket purchase counter for the train operator. but there was a line. and time was ticking. no longer early, i started to sweat. counting the number of people in line and the average time it was taking to process a transaction, i was either just going to make my train or just miss my train. begin full on panic mode. engaged! i did the math again and i was convinced i was probably just going to miss my train. i kindly and meekly got the attention of the person in front of me and in my best broken french quickly discerned he did not speak english. but thank goodness for technology. i pulled out my phone, opened up google translate and typed in my message and had google translate it to french. i showed it to him and he laughed and signaled for me to go in front of him. in his best broken english, he told me his train didn't leave for another half an hour. i could have hugged the guy. i made it the counter, but the counter did not have an english spoken symbol. i gulped. again, using my token french phrases, i was able to retrieve my tickets with little drama and ran, literally, towards my platform. i had made it. two minutes later, the doors closed and i was off. thank goodness for technology. and a nice, understanding french guy.
as we left Paris, the train picked up speed and soon enough we were blazing through the french countryside towards Lille, 250 or so kilometers away. now THIS was a nice way to travel! a little over an hour later we arrived in Lille. i disembarked and walked to a tram that was going to take me the rest of the way to Roubaix. a long 20 or so minutes and countless stops later the line ended in Roubaix. but it didn't look a bike race was going on here. as i struggled to figure out where i was, i figured the best solution was to employ technology again. i pulled out my phone and mapped a route to the velodrome...2.7 km away. on the map, it looked much further than 2.7km away but with no other option, i headed out and made my way through deserted streets as kids on four-wheelers and motorbikes were riding in the streets...braaaappp braaapp!
a long time later (at least that's how it felt), all of a sudden (literally) i found myself walking on some cobbles. but this wasn't just any section of cobbles. it was the last sector (though more ceremonial vs. the punishing sectors that riders would face before this last one). and as i looked right and then left, there was the 1km-to-go banner.
i had made it! i took a spin around the perimeter checking out all the team buses and then made my way into the velodrome. it was a little after 1p. four hours after i left my hotel, i had made it. i was here! i was at paris roubaix. I WAS AT PARIS ROUBAIX!
THE MAIN EVENT
arriving after 1p, i thought the velodrome might have been packed but lucky for me, it turns out i was early. i was able to walk right up to the velodrome barrier and secure a front row spot for the day.
other early birds filled in around me. on my left was a nice family from essex, here after spending the last few days in belgium as their kids were on easter holiday. and to my right were a crazy, and i do mean crazy, group of belgians. i haven't seen beer disappear so quickly since my fraternity days.. but they were fun, harmless, and quite entertaining. as we all waited under the sun, we watched the race unfold on a giant TV at the opposite end of the velodrome and french commentary from the belgians' radio supplied the soundtrack when it wasn't tuned to some rock station blaring the stones, hall and oates, etc.
in our limited way, we all discussed who we thought might win. the general consensus was Boonen or Cancellara (with my Brit friends hoping for a team sky coup). it was also clear that no one in our little area wanted Sagan to win.
and then while we were talking about who might surprise the favorites, a sudden a burst of cheering erupted and the juniors were finishing. after their finish, things started to pick up. fans started really filling in the velodrome and the announcers in the velodrome started doing play-by-play. the energy level and decibel level was rising steadily. it wouldn't be long now.
when we saw helicopters getting closer we knew it was game time. we'd been following along on the TV and knew Niki Terpstra was out front but the favorites were not far behind. there was tension. you could feel it. and just like that there was Terpstra. he made the final right hand turn off the final sector of pave and wove his way into the velodrome. the cheers were deafening. but seconds later, there were the favorites! the cheers and energy could be felt in your chest. we had just seen Magnus Bak Klaris narrowly hold off a surging group to win the junior race. would Terpstra be able to the same? when he got to my vantage point, Terpstra took a few glances back over his shoulder. did he have enough? could he hold off the group?
we watched with breath held as he rounded turn two, entered the final backstretch, turn three, turn four and then we saw him raise his arms in victory, a "comfortable" 20 second victory over a charging pack that included pre-race favorites Cancellara, Boonen, Sagan, Vanmarcke, Thomas, and dark horses Wiggins, Stybar, Degenkolb, and Langeveld rounding out the top 10.
but even though the winner of the 112th edition had been decided, every time a rider entered the velodrome, he was welcomed to cheers from the crowd, a nice sign of respect.
i was elated and exhausted. while some riders dream of winning Paris Roubaix and others just dream of being able to finish, my dream was to see Paris Roubaix in person. mission accomplished. it was as good and far better than i could have ever imagined. in other words, it both lived up to my expectations, and managed to blow them out of the water at the same time.
i won't bore you with the details of getting back to Paris safely, but let's just say i had plenty of time to absorb the day's events and commit them to memory. and no doubt it will go down as a legendary experience. I definitely have some great memories and took home a couple of souvenirs - some dirt from the velodrome (yes i was that guy), and a water bottle i got from the Garmin Sharp team.
HOW TO: Paris to Roubaix (and back) in one day
- Take metro to Paris Nord (aka Gard du Nord) station [time depends on where you're coming from within Paris]
- Take a train from Gard du Nord to Lille Flandres (price varies; book early for best price at raileurope.com) [~250km; ~68min]
- Take the tram from the Lille Flandres station to Roubaix Euroteleport [~11km; ~20-25 min]
- Walk to Velodrome [2.7km; 35 min]