A Quest for Cobbles (Part 2)
We woke up the next morning just as the bakeries opened in Paris. After kitting up and prepping our bikes, Ms. Goguely took a photo of us together in front of the apartment. We pedaled down the Paris streets to the train station about 6 miles away. Dodging traffic and pedestrians in Paris is one way to wake you up. After some time buying tickets for the train (I can’t remember why this was such a long and difficult process, but it was. We almost missed our train…), we finally hopped on board, stowed our bikes, took a cabin, and snoozed away.
The struggle is real...off to a good start.
After making one French local extremely uncomfortable by being surrounded by the six of us in spandex and in a small train cabin and speaking English for an hour, we arrived soundly at the town of Saint Quentin a little before noon. We got off the train, clipped in, and started our 6–8 hour journey to Belgium.
The six of us pace-lined out of the town and up a long stretch busy speedway through the French countryside. Farms and villages set the scene on both sides of the road. After a fast 10 miles (like “I can’t breathe” fast), we finally figured out a pace the six of us can all hold, and a rotation to keep us moving and rested. Usually, RISD Cycling is overall trouble on the road, but I think we started to look like we knew what we were doing.
My memory of the first 20 something miles is foggy, but that might be because were so in the zone with our pace line. There were a few vivid moments: handing off taking bites of the pork liver sandwiches that Ms. Goguely made for us, one of us almost crashing into Nikolas’s wheel on countless occasions (this will be a recurring theme over the next two weeks), and Jules pulling the group for a minute — dropping everyone behind him — and riding by himself for another good minute (also a recurring theme). It took us a bit to reacquaint ourselves with riding with each other. It takes time to remember each of our riding styles, get comfortable with it, and understand where all of us are in fitness. We eventually came up with a system to make sure we all drink every 20 minutes, and ate every hour to keep us in good condition. I would set my Garmin to beep at these intervals, and like a drill sergeant or a coach, yell at everyone to follow these rules. Around mile 30, the GPS took us off the busy streets, through a few small towns, and straight into what we have been anxiously waiting for…cobbles.
Boom. Without any time to think, our bikes are rattling, bags are bouncing, and hands are vibrating on the handlebars. After a brief exclamation of surprise, we were hammering it down our first stretch of one of the real Paris-Roubaix secteurs. By the end of it, and at the start of the second, we had our first flat with Emile (another reoccurring theme).
Yet, it wasn’t a bad thing that he did! For the first time we finally had some time to enjoy the surroundings and take in the French countryside…and pee. We whipped out the cameras and took photos of everything around us. We all had completely no clue where we were. After everyone took care of their business, we continued down these cobbled roads that went on for close to 10–15 miles maybe.
We followed the spray painted “PR” on these cobbles to guide us, and on this short cobbled descent as we picked up speed, I could feel my hands losing feeling and losing control of the handlebars. Through my gloves I was getting blisters on my palms, and yet there was still this sick pleasure in the whole experience. Looking up, there was a storm ahead of us and we noticed that it had just past through where we were. Deeper into farm lands we went, and the properly maintained cobbles became dirt, overgrown grass, mud, and puddles of water.
Cross is coming.
We were all playing each other, pushing the pace, attacking, and watching each other ride through mud sections. It was pretty brutal — Nikolas crashed on a technical cobble section that was wet and I came close to running over his head, but instead rode into the tall grass and back on the cobbles. Lukas unfortunately got caught in the mud, and Brian got a flat somewhere in the mix. We were really getting the full Paris-Roubaix experience. All we needed was race support to hand off wheels or bikes. By mile 40, we rode out of the farm lands and back onto paved roads. It wasn’t long until we eventually got caught in the rain and allowed ourselves to kick it at the local town’s small soccer stadium to wait it out and refill water bottles.
Around mile 55 we reached a familiar site seen on TV, the Arden Forest. I used to watch the Paris-Roubaix with my dad growing up and it gave me goosebumps riding on the same road and passing the buildings that led up to the secteur. We stopped at the foot of the road, took pictures to prove we were here, slapped a RISD Cycling sticker on the gate, and went on to KOM the Strava segment.
Oh my god.
It isn’t surprising for one of us to get a flat less than a quarter mile from the gate. If you look at the segment on Strava, you’ll notice all of the RISD Cycling boys chilling among the lantern rouges (ranked like…~1390 of ~1400 people). While Brian was changing his flat, Jules and Emile went back to the gate to race each other flat out. There’s a video somewhere of the two in slow motion. You could see their bikes and their bodies vibrating to each cobblestone they ride over.
This stretch of cobbles was so fucking long. It was a straight road, but you just couldn’t see the end of it. Around 2 miles, I debated riding on the side of the road to spare my body from these terrible French cobbles. It was worse than most because each cobble stone was spaced out and it made the ride almost unbearable. Emile and I were riding through it together, yelling at each other to hold on because we were “almost” to the end of the road. Jules meanwhile was minutes ahead of us, and the Bentels and Brian — being much wiser than us — were riding to the side on the paved road. I couldn’t pass up this opportunity to ride these infamous cobblestones, given that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity!
Once the “fun” was over, and when we crossed the border over into Belgium without even knowing it (so why did I have to bring my passport?) It was around mile 70, about 4 or 5 hours in, and all of entered survivor mode. We’ve been eating sandwiches that were quickly depleting, our backs were aching from these bags, our form getting sloppier, and the talking and laughing became silence.
Around mile 80, we had to stop by this small church and take a break. We were getting testy with each other. There were no more smiles and we all had either faces of misery or annoyance on. Almost every other mile we would miss a turn on our Garmin, cross wheels, or drop off the back of the group. Boys gotta eat.
Looking at Nikolas’s legs, he’s been having a tough day.
I was onto my last gel and a couple of Shot Bloks, and the crew was also almost out of food. It’s amazing how much more energy it takes out of you to be wearing a backpack on a century ride. Adding 20 pounds on your back can make a 10 miles feel like double, especially when climbing. And for some reason, what looks like a flat country, Belgium has a surprising amount of steep kickers. Like, serious power climbs. We wouldn’t realize this until we ride again the next day…
Are we there yet?
At mile 90, we basically made it. It was starting to drizzle, we were continuing to make a ton of wrong turns, and the last 10 miles really did become the slowest part of the trip. We were covered in mud, riding through cyclocross trails on our road bikes (I’m honestly so surprised that Strava Routes was taking us through these obscure side roads that cut through the woods), leaving each other behind without giving a fuck (we lost Emile who took a wrong turn, and we literally watched him climb up this one road over in the distance), and I’m just cracking up at how much of a mess we were. We were so close to our destination, and we can’t seem to make it.
We literally rode past our Airbnb host house 5 times. It was in Ronse, Belgium, in this tiny town that happens to be at the center of the race classic Tour of Flanders course. We originally had trouble finding it mainly because there were no street signs or visible house numbers. When we took a guess and arrived outside the home we would be staying in for the next two weeks, we were greeted by the friendliest Belgium couple. They were English speaking, thank god. Their home was an Ikea model house, in a good way. They had a dog and a vegetable garden in the back. They lived a lovely and simple life. The two showed us around the back where we could stow our bikes in their garage specific for cyclist guests. They had bike tools, a cleaning station, a drying rack, and other goodies to keep our cycling necessities in good shape. It was good to be here.
After taking showers, starting our laundry, and making our way into town to get groceries, at dinner we talked about riding around the area to acquaint ourselves. I couldn’t really fathom having to ride again after all that we just did today, but #yolo, am I right?