Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Roubaix, Part 1

Once upon a time, about a month ago, I went to Paris Roubaix with my friends Kelly and Joey. Now, nearly a month later, a report on that trip. I guess this proves that I don't get paid to write a blog. Also, I was on the road for three weeks as part of this trip, and only had my work laptop. Media editing on a PC is not so easy.

I must start by giving a shout out to my friend Pennie. Without her taking me to the airport, getting me from the airport when I missed my flight, letting me sleep on the sofa, and then taking me back to the airport, this trip never would have happened. Holla.

Kelly and Joey had flown into Brussels a few days prior to me, but I arrived on Sunday morning, Easter Sunday, and race day. Back when I had a post paid AT&T phone, it worked in Europe, albeit at a price. Now that it's a prepaid, not so much. So immediately, the plan to SMS Joey when I was on the train to Brussels Midi was shot. Also not helping was it being 1) Sunday in Europe and 2) Easter, so most stores were closed. Internet access at the airport was 20 euros, so I went on without contact.

Once at Brussels Midi, I tried and failed to make an international call to his phone, failed to find a way to buy a SIM for my cell, and failed to get on the (more expensive, 26 euro) wifi hotspot. After about an hour of screwing around with this, I happened to stand up and see Joey. Praise.

I went to the hotel for a shower while he got the car. Once regrouped, it was onward to France. We had considered going to the Arenberg Forest, then trying to beat the race to the Roubaix velodrome, but that seemed most unlikely, so we parked between cobble sections 4 (Carrefour de l'Arbre) and 3 (Gruson). Note that the sections count backwards from 27 in this year's running.

We arrived at about 12:30, and the place was pretty much already packed. Fans had been camping out clearly overnight (at least) and many more had arrived earlier in the day. Juplier was clearly the beer of choice for the drunken Belgians. There were food and drink vendors, VIP areas, bands, rider fan clubs, and cobbles.

The energy at the race was amazing. I've never been to a race like it. Everyone is having a great time. It's one big party. Flags everywhere, people playing instruments, singing, and generally cavorting. Fun is the name of the game, until race time. And it's clear that people are there just for the race. Unlike your downtown crit that gets random spectators, this is in the middle of farmland in absolute nowhere. Picture it - a million race fans spread out over the French countryside. You've got to want it to get there for this.

We walked about two thirds the length of section four and all of section three, just to see the people and the condition of the roads. I can't imagine riding fiftysomething km of cobbles in the middle of a 260 km race. Those men are hard. We saw some parts of the road that were just horrible, and some that were sort of not bad, but still big cobbles with big gaps between them. The roads typically had a rise in the center, and many riders opted to ride almost in the ditch. This worked I suppose because it was dry, despite a bit of rain in the morning. On the one hand, it was dry, and crashes were at a minimum (which is always good), but frankly, I was hoping for epic rain.

Before the main event, the juniors race came through. And let me tell you, some of those kids are fast. Amazingly fast. And even though the fans weren't quite as thick as for the main race (still three deep or so off the road) they let the juniors know they had the full support of beer swilling race fans. And we were part of that madness. We stood on the side of the road drinking Duvel for a couple hours before the race came through. Pretty cheap Duvel, too, all things considered.

And while we were drinking in the field, we met an American standing in the same field. Joey and I think that his name was Greg. He was recently laid off and had been in Europe for about a month, and had gone to Gent Wevelgem. He had also walked from Roubaix to where we were at the 15k to go banner, and I think he had a bit to go before the finish line. He walked something like 20k to get to the race. Previously he had a car or a bike, but now had nothing. He was a pretty nice guy, and when we went to Roubaix to check out the velodrome, we gave him a lift. That said, even if we weren't planning on going to Roubaix, I think we would have taken pity on him. He walked for something like five hours.

After a little downtime, the publicity caravan came through, followed shortly by the main race. Where we were, Tom Boonen had just broken away, and his Flemish countrymen let him hear it. I've never heard a race crowd so loud and energetic. It was nothing short of amazing. Getting to this race was one of my "life list" items. I'm thrilled that I had the chance.

I opted to take video during the race with the hopes that I could see more not looking through the camera. It worked fairly well. I've spliced together all the footage I had and posted it for your viewing pleasure. I'll post pictures in a separate post, for the sake of load times.

Forewarned, the video contains some coarse language in English, and possibly some in any combination of French, Dutch, and Flemish. I'm just not sure. Either way, assume that the sound is not safe for work.

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