Wednesday 10 April 2013

Paris Roubaix Part 2: The magic pass

Race day dawned bright and sunny. We were up at a reasonable hour - a 7am alarm is nothing compared to the 0515s of the Haute Route. We filled up on breakfast as if we were riding the race itself and were soon in the minibus on our way to the start.

We'd been promised access to the start on the trip itinerary, and I assumed we'd be able to wander around the public areas with the rest of the spectators. We started like this, watching the publicity caravan start to leave and the teams start to arrive.

Follow that truck!
There was even an Android!
Saxo bank were one of the first to arrive. 3 or 4 team cars and the usual bus.

The Saxo bank caravan.
They were closely followed by the Death Star itself.
Dum dum dum, dum der dum, dum der dum...
We watched the parade of vehicles as they went into the team car park, which was closely guarded by a belligerent looking Frenchman. Misty eyed, we strained to get a better look - what was going on in there? Then the Vacansoleil bus arrived and Matteo dashed off, hopping inside before it entered the restricted area. A couple of minutes later he appeared, with a handful of plastic cards. These were our passes for the day, and we could get into the team parking area with them. He flicked through the passes and carefully handed them out, making sure the names matched. Well, I say names... maybe "gender" would be a better word. Apparently, due to some administrative delay, they had to produce the passes in other names. Oh, and they weren't from Vacansoleil. And we seemed to be Assistant Sportifs. Still, if they worked...

We approached the belligerent Frenchman. He challenged the first of our party, pointing out that he didn't look much like an Assistant Sportif. Still, a few words from Matteo and he seemed to accept the situation. We were in!

We were now in a world populated by pro cyclists, mechanics, team heads, press and the odd fan or two. We started to hang around the Sky bus and I started to take a few pictures.

Ian Stannard's bike - note FMB tubulars
Dave Brailsford looking shifty
Eddie Boss with the youngest assistant sportif in pro-cycling
Geraint Thomas having sunglasses issues
Of course, it wasn't just Team Sky. Euskatel were there with their Orbeas. They must have some really tiny riders for the race, as their frames were pretty small.

You'd think they'd be more tidy.
We were now having a whale of a time. It was slightly chilly though, and someone suggested a coffee. There was a VIP tent - maybe we could get in there? Off we wandered and brandished the magic passes. This time there was no hesitation from the guard and we were waved in. I took a look at the back of the pass.

VIP start, VIP finish, all PR spaces, Press Room and finishing line...
Let's just skip over the "non-transmissible" part shall we?

Things were getting more lively outside now as the riders started to sign in for the race. They were also starting to form up in the start lane, so we lined up at the entrance to the start area to see the riders better. Matteo had other plans though. A swift wave of his pass and he was in the start lane - well, deep breath, look confident, follow.... and I'm in.

I'm in the start lane of Paris-Roubaix with riders all around me and Matteo chatting to Baden-Cooke and look that's the big star of the race Fabian three feet from me climbing up to be the last to sign in and a gaggle of press taking pictures and I'M RIGHT HERE WITH THEM!

I was slightly excited.

Matteo catches up with old mates
A little wave
Rider's eye view of the start
Of course I'm meant to be here...
A few minutes before the start we were finally asked to leave - else we'd have to ride the 262km as well - so we went to the beginning of the course to watch the roll out. This wasn't particularly exciting (although we may have been feeling spoilt by this time) and the riders were soon gone.

Next - Arenberg Forest. Arenberg is one of the roughest sections of cobbles and a great place to get a feel for what riding Paris Roubaix involves. It was a good hour's drive away so we spent the time trying to calm ourselves down.

 At Arenberg we followed tradition and enjoyed sausages and beer.

 Before finding ourselves a spot by the barriers. It wasn't as crowded as I expected - we were able to find space fairly easily - and we settled in to wait for the race. Occasionally we were enlivened by a passing car or moto, or some dancing Belgians. Sooner than we expected the race arrived, with the break about a minute ahead of the main chase group.

The break, breaking
 Occasionally a rider came past much more slowly than the rest.

New Zipp wheel shape
We waited for most of the riders to come past - some blood stained, most with gritted teeth, some with no teeth. This was a hard, hard race. The poor Euskatel riders on their tiny bikes really weren't having fun.

However, we were. Next - the velodrome for the finish. As we approached we found the road closed - this was the race route and no cars were allowed.

Unless... you have a magic pass for your minibus. Which we did.

Equipe = Team
Once we were past the first set of barriers, the rest were easy. Three more sets were pulled aside so we could approach the velodrome on the most direct road. We parked up a few hundred metres from the entrance (off to the side of the course - we're not that dumb) and walked to the first entrance we found.

Inside we found ourselves trackside with a big screen to watch.

Surely there must be more to this... we had magic passes! Glancing around there were a few cabins, a stage, some tables and a bar. Hmm, how much for a drink? We went to the nearest cabin that contained a giant TV showing the race - 40km to go - and a bar handing out free champagne. Well, if I must.

We made ourselves at home, and the room started to fill up as people realised that this was actually a pretty exciting race. Having a recently-ex-pro as a personal pundit was handy as well.

3km to go, and I decided I'd watch the finish for real. With a free beer. The atmosphere built as the two lead riders approached - and there they were, with a lap and a half of the velodrome to go. It was all a bit cagey until the final bend, then the sprint, the straining of eyes... and Fab had won again.

More riders arrived, looking shattered. There was much milling around, a presentation, more arrivals, more milling around.

The comedown. It was all over bar the showering (for the riders) and the drive/tunnel back (for us). As an experience it was awesome - way beyond what I was expecting when I received that first text message. I think it's probably ruined watching cycling for me now as I'll want this treatment at every race I go to. The organisation, the travel, the food, the guiding and the backstage access were all superb, as was the race itself.

My final photo - looks like they'll need another stone for Fabian.

Tuesday 9 April 2013

It started with a text: Paris-Roubaix from the inside

"Are you interested in a trip to Paris Roubaix next weekend? Access to start, transport, hotel, meet Vacansoleil before race, ex-pro as a guide."

Those were the words that leapt out of my phone when I got back from my ride last Friday. They were from David, who you may have seen in blog posts about the Pyrenees, the Dolomites, the Haute Route and the greatest cycling cafe/pub crawl ever performed. A quick consultation with my girlfriend followed ("That sounds ace, you should definitely go") and a hopeful "yes please!" was sent in return. A couple of nervous hours followed until I got the confirmation that David and I had the last two places.

Roll forward a week and I was on my way to London. The trip was organised by Cadence Performance , a bike shop/training venue/cafe kind of place. They were using the contacts of their in-house recently-ex-pro, Matteo Carrara, who rode for Vacansoleil 2009-2012 (as well as Lampre, Barloworld, QuickStep...). I'd not heard of him but a quick check on Wikipedia showed a pretty impressive palmares. When we arrived at the shop I was surprised to find that this was only a small group - seven guests and two from Cadence. Somehow I'd got in my head that there would be 20-30 people and a much bigger bus.

We drove out of London towards the channel tunnel terminal. Traffic was light (at least on the roads - it was dark in the tunnel) and before long we were in France, on our way to our hotel in Noyon - about 20km from the start town of Compi├Ęgne. Looking out of our hotel room window there was a hint that a bike race was taking place.
I spy a team car
We had an hour to kill before the first activity - meeting Vacansoleil - so obviously we spent it watching the time trial stage of the Tour of the Basque country. You know, just to get us in the mood. We met the rest of the gang in the hotel reception for the short drive to Soissons where Vacansoleil were staying.
You read about how the life of a pro-cyclist is a stream of anonymous chain hotels on industrial estates. Well, I can confirm that this was certainly the case this time, with the team being located on an estate just by the ring road. We knew we were in the right place when we pulled into the car park.

The service truck
Matteo leapt out to greet his old mates and we took a nosey round. The truck had washing machines.

And was full of maybe £300K worth of bikes, wheels and bits.

Remember not to steal anything
I even got into the truck without being wrestled to the ground by an angry Dutch mechanic. Clearly we were in for special treatment.
I said, don't steal anything!
Next, we were told that there might be a rider or two hanging around. We went into the hotel, stopping to check where everyone would be.
If only all hotels did this
Although in the end, we were saved any hunting by the simple tactic of waiting for Juan Antonio Flecha, one of the big favourites, to come and say hi to us. Which was nice. We had a brief chat about the race, how he was feeling and he signed a couple of autographs for those brave enough to ask for them ("You bought this cap specially? I'd better sign it properly then!").

Flecha, Mirko Selvaggi and Matteo
We left the riders to their dinner, and went to find ours in the start town of Compi├Ęgne. Thanks to the research and planning of Simon from Cadence we had a great meal - traditional French country cooking at its best - washed down with local beer and wine. The meal was enlivened by Matteo's tales from the peloton (Oh, that Giro stage in 2010 with the six climbs....), training hints and a long discussion of Tarantino's films. See, it wasn't all about cycling.
Coming soon, part two: Race day.