Rouleur Classic

Set in stone

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It has been my not inconsiderable pleasure this week to proof read the second edition of Le Metier, 46 and Camille J. McMillan’s splendid book published earlier this year by 1. The new, updated version – with added text from David Millar and Barry himself – will be available later this month. That’s the hard sell bit done with…

A couple of passages in Michael’s writing got me thinking about two things: one bike-related, the other not strictly, but relevant nonetheless.

Cobbles. There, I’ve said it. Barry describes the feeling of hitting the hideously undulating stone surfaces at Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders, and the resulting carnage that ensues as 200-plus riders fight for space on some of the narrowest lanes and farm tracks in Europe. Some riders seemingly float over the pavé, while all around others flounder. The big strongmen of the Peloton – Cancellara, Boonen, Hincapie, Hushovd, Flecha and the like – come into their own. (Roger Hammond is the anomaly here, being strong, but clearly not big. It doesn’t seem to do him any harm.)

It may not have escaped your attention that ASO is planning a Paris-Roubaix sportive on April 9, the day before the real thing. You may be planning on riding. You may be thinking that the 135km route from Saint Quentin to Roubaix – as opposed to the 250km ‘full Monty’ the pros ride – will be child’s play. Think again.

Having ridden the bi-annual summer event organised by the Vélo Club de Roubaix Cylotourisme a few years back, I can confirm that it will be a long, hard day in the saddle. My abiding memory of probably the best day’s riding I have ever enjoyed was approaching the first sector of cobbles at Troisvilles on a straight, gentle descent and witnessing half of the preceding pack fall apart at the very first hurdle. Bottles littered the pave; bodies flew into ditches left and right; some went down hard on the muddy surface, damaging both bikes and limbs.

How were we ever going to reach the velodrome for a celebratory lap of the track with another 27 of these – including the infamous Arenberg and Carrefour de l’Arbre – to go?

Then the pre-start advice from old hands kicked in: attack the cobbles, don’t grip the bars, let the bike find its own path, sit back and relax, recover on the road sections. And it worked a treat. The ‘cross bike with 28mm tyres soaked up the worst of the vibrations and our group arrived in Roubaix in good shape to pick up souvenir cobbles and bottles of beer. Much as I abhor memorabilia cluttering up the house, the cobble has pride of place on the mantlepiece as a reminder of an amazing day.

Then again, the version I rode is held in the summer. Next April will be a very different prospect indeed. It will be a memorable weekend, with the race the following day – just don’t underestimate the cobbles, and try and get some practice on them beforehand (easier said than done, I know). Details of the event can be found here.

The not strictly bike-related part of this post stems from 46 writing about Flanders and northern France, and the inescapable, everlasting presence of the fact that a huge part of two World Wars took place in the fields the peloton races past and the towns it passes through.

I visited the Canadian War Memorial at Vimy Ridge, near Arras, a few years back, having some spare time before the start of what turned out to be a Tour team time trial in torrential rain. Michael, being a Canuck, might well have been there. It is one of the most sobering monuments to the foolhardiness of war I have ever seen.

The ridge of high ground so brutally fought over during the First World War overlooks miles of flat terrain, featureless save for regular eruptions of gigantic slagheaps, testimony to the coal mining industry that dominated the area. An enormous network of underground tunnels, dug by specialist miners on both sides of the Western Front, spread for miles in each direction.

Sections of preserved trenches, quite literally a stone’s throw separating German and Canadian lines, snake through the woods, interspersed with craters of mind-boggling proportions – created not by shells, but by burrowing miners tunnelling beneath enemy lines and detonating tonnes of explosives. Thousands of casualties were incurred in the Battle of Vimy Ridge at Easter, 1917, for little gain – the hallmark of the entire conflict that resulted in an estimated 8.5 million deaths.

Should you be planning a Classics excursion for next spring, give yourself an extra few hours on the itinerary and swing by Arras. It is a deeply moving experience.

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