Three days prior to the start of Paris Roubaix the team drove to the Arenberg forest to ride the course. From Arenberg it is roughly 100 km to the finish. Each of the 17 remaining cobbled sectors is separated by less than 10 km of tarmac. In Arenberg the race becomes relentlessly difficult—the 100 km that follow the forest are perhaps the hardest 100 km in professional cycling. The vibrations beat the cyclist’s body, his muscles are torn from the effort and his eyes burn from the dust.
The cobbles were relatively dry when we rode them although there were a few muddy sections where puddles had formed or tractors muddied the road. In the video, you can see the riders slipping and sliding on the slick sections. The crowds were already gathering in anticipation for Sunday’s race and the media was out to photograph the protagonists testing their legs and their equipment on the cobbles.
The countryside the course crosses is grim but comes alive for on race day. The video captures the fields that are open to the wind. The grey clouds which blow in from the North Sea look ominous. The spring air in northern France is damp and cold.
In an ironic twist we ended up finishing our ride with Saxo Bank, as we were both out on the parcours at the same time. There are few sports where rival teams will chat in training three days prior to the big event. In cycling, rivals are friends and there is a shared respect that somehow transcends the race. And, despite those friendships we will battle with them until the bitter end on Sunday.
While training on the Tour of Flanders course last week I rode with a helmet camera and captured some of the cobbled sectors. The camera came loose a few times so my teammate Juan Antonio Flecha edited the segments on his computer and we put together a short film . The team riding on the cobbles was: Juan Anotonio Flecha, Kurt-Asle Arvesen, Edvald Boasson-Hagen, Mathew Hayman, Greg Henderson, Ian Stannard and G’ Thomas. You can make out a few of the faces in the film. The rider who takes off on the cobbled section, the Holleweg, is Flecha–we rode the section quite quickly which the camera captures.
The camera doesnt come close to capturing the gradient of the cobbled climb though. It was neat to see commuters riding the cobbles in the other direction on their way to work–you can see a woman riding her city bike along the smooth bit of stones on the left side of the road coming towards us. Riding the course is something unique even when we are not racing. The history, the culture and difficulty brings out an excitement in the team not felt elsewhere.
My teammate Juan Antonio Flecha filmed the descent off the Cipressa with a helmet camera while we were out pre-riding the racecourse. The Cipressa and the Poggio are the two decisive climbs in Milan Sanremo where the descents are as important as the ascents as position and a rider’s ability to handle his bike often determine the outcome of the race.
Yearly, a rider crashes in the one of the numerous hairpin turns coming off the climb. The road surface is smooth and the climbs are in the final hour of the race so the speed will be high. Every rider is tired and on his limit from the distance and the intensity of the race so errors are made and splits in the peloton occur. When the peloton reaches the coast road after the descent off the Cipressa the peloton will be in a long thin line and will often split near the back of the group as riders are unable to maintain the speed.