The previous day, I had ridden over the 29 cobblestone roads of Paris-Roubaix in northern France. Today, it was the turn of the professionals. The plan was to go and watch the cyclists on the Carrefour de l’Abre, the fourth section of cobblestone roads from the finish line in Roubaix. But first, Jacqueline and I needed to fuel up on some food, so we cycled again down the long, straight road from our hotel into the city centre of Lille. We parked our bikes in the centre of the old town, and headed to a boulangerie that was open early on a Sunday morning. Even though we had to wait in line behind a pair of men in business suits purchasing several dozen baguettes, we collected ourselves some pastries and bread. We took them out to eat under the cathedral in the middle of the city, before Jacqueline wanted to go and check out a macaroon shop nearby.
Now with our fast broken, it was time to head out to the race course. We rode our bikes back to our hotel and changed into our cycling gear, and proceeded to ride through the outer suburbs of the Lille-Roubaix conurbation. The last village on the edge of the suburbs was Hem, it was here that we joined onto the course that I had ridden in on the previous day. We briefly stopped to pick up some lunch supplies from another boulangerie, putting the pastries into our respective bags and jersey pockets. Just outside of Hem, we hit the cobbles for the first time of the day, the secteur Willems á Hem. For me, it was a cruel reminder of the pain of the previous day, but as this was now the first, and not the twenty-eighth secteur of the day, it wasn’t as rough as I had remembered. Jacqueline, who had not ridden any cobblestones yet, found it a rude and bumpy shock to her system.
After the first secteur, we had a few kilometers of relatively quiet, rural French roads to negotiate until we came to the secteur at Gruson. Fortunately, this secteur had a gravel side wider than the cobbled roads themselves, and was relatively short, so we were able to negotiate it fairly easily. Straight off these cobbles, was the end of the Carrefour de l’Abre, the second most famous and most decisive secteur of cobblestones of the entire race, and where I was hoping to watch the race from. We walked our bikes among the crowds of people to the right hand bend about two thirds of the way through the secteur, and found ourselves a nice piece of grass by the side of the road to sit and relax in until the race came through.
Over the course of the afternoon, we relaxed and people-watched the hundreds of people coming by on their bikes and on foot. Some people had thousand dollar road bikes, others were cycling by on their mountain bikes or their town bikes. There was a huge mix. Eventually, I started streaming the race on my phone, following the updates as the peloton raced through and split up through the earlier cobblestone secteurs on the course.
The first piece of entertainment came with the junior Paris-Roubaix race, which I don’t think a lot of the crowd were necessarily aware was coming through. Only a few race cars and gendarmerie motorbikes preceding the first riders. The cyclists were from national teams from all over Europe, and being so young, nobody recognised who anybody was. The first few through seemed eager and confident, but the middle of the group was rather timid on some of the corners. One Russian rider came around our corner too fast, hit a jarring cobblestone and toppled head-over-handlebars into the ditch. He was okay and remounted and continued. Finally, the team cars following the race seemed to be driven by mums and dads rather than proper director-sportives.
With the junior race through, our attention drew back to the seniors who were still out on course. The racing was made bittersweet after Michael Goolaerts, one of the professional riders, suffered a cardiac arrest and fell from his bike in the early stages of the race. Nonetheless, the racing continued, with three-time world champion Peter Sagan breaking clear from his rivals and continually dropping followers as the finish approached. By the time the race started to approach where we stood, they had around a minute’s advantage.
The usual commotion associated with the oncoming of a professional bike race was no different at Paris-Roubaix. About an hour before the race arrived, we were treated to the Tour Caravan, a parade of marketing vehicles throwing out freebies and collectables. Many of the vehicles were the same that I had seen at the Tour de France the previous year, though the size of the caravan was much reduced. I attributed this to the lower profile of the race, and the difficulty driving promotional trucks over narrow cobblestone roads. Then, as the race proper approached, dozens of gendarmerie motorcycles rode through, closing off the road, and the gendarmerie officer stationed on our corner yelled at people to clear off the road. In the distance, we could see the television helicopter circling over the riders as they approached.
The unique moment for this race came barely minutes before the race itself. Suddenly a score of motorcycles carrying photographers and photojournalists all stopped on our corner of the cobblestone road, with photographers jumping off and lining up on the side of the road trying to get a picture of the riders coming around the corner. However, after the motorcycles dropped off their photographer, they were trying to get off the road, which meant trying to go slowly through the crowd, but eventually getting bogged in the mud. Each of the bikes encountered this problem, which wasn’t helped by the gendarmerie officer yelling at them to get off the road. They all made it off eventually, but the crowd had barely time to settle from the commotion before the first cyclists in the race came through.
The pros seemed to have infinitely more confidence on the cobblestones than any of the amateurs we had seen earlier in the day. Instead of bouncing from stone to stone, their bikes seemed to glide effortlessly over the rough surface. The race had split up, with riders coming through in dribs and drabs over the next half hour, including some that would end up coming through much much later. After the initial riders had come through, everyone seemed to rush over to a campervan that had a television attached to the back to watch the rest of the race. Jacqueline and I stayed put and watched the stream on my phone, with the world champion sprinting to victory on the Roubaix velodrome.
The end of the race vehicle had not yet come through, but already much of the crowd was packing up and leaving, and so we decided to join them. It was a slow ride along the rest of the Carrefour de l’Abre with all of the crowds, occasionally being parted by a gendarmerie bike leading a lone pro who had been dropped. The crowd thinned along the Gruson cobbled section, but after that we were once again on smooth country roads riding back towards Lille. The roads were still closed to cars, and gendarmerie still protected all of the intersections, but were happy to let us ride through. At some point, I stopped on the side of the road to pick up some abandoned race signage as a souvenir, but when we rode along the Willems á Hem secteur for the last time, we could see someone riding through the field on a bike with a 10 ft promotional sign attached to their back.
Soon enough, we finally were caught by the last rider and the end of the race vehicle, and the roads were opened to cars again. But the roads had been closed for well over an hour, and the traffic had built up a long, long way. Fortunately, we were riding against the heavy flow, and had a relatively traffic-free ride back into our hotel, where we showered and changed. Our day ended by riding back into Lille to head to a restaurant in search of one final bite of French food. I had a selection of tartines, while Jacqueline opted for a stroganoff-like dish.
The following morning started very early, well before dawn, checking out of the hotel for the last time and cycling into Lille Europe train station. We had booked an early morning train back to London. However, we hadn’t been able to book our bikes in advance on this train journey, and instead had to book them on the day on the next available train. However, the booking office for bikes on the Eurostar at Lille train station was not obvious, and the station staff didn’t seem to know what was going on. Eventually, we had to go to a third party office inside a third party office which gave us tags for the bikes. Instead of taking our bikes and handling them as checked luggage as an airline would, we were instead told to take them through security and check-in ourselves. So we had to go through the rather unique experience of a confused French security guard getting us to put our undismantled, unpacked bikes through an airport-like security x-ray machine. Even then, we didn’t know if we could take our bikes on our train until about 15 minutes before the train was due to arrive, when the customer support agent came around to tell us that we could do so. We had to take the bikes to the platform ourselves, alongside several other cyclists who had also been at the bike race, and struggled to load our bikes into the end carriage of the train, before going and finding our actual seats. When our train eventually did pull into London, the announcement apologised for the fifteen minute delay in service due to “bike-loading issues in Lille”. Oops.