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.

Handy.
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.
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