I have seen my team win at Wembley – and lose, for that matter. I have witnessed the Tour de France at close quarters on many occasions: from the roadside, inside a team car, in the mountains, on the flat, at the finish.
But nothing – and I mean nothing – comes close to the experience of seeing Paris-Roubaix in the flesh. Standing amidst the crowd at the top of the banking in the velodrome, applauding each and every finisher of this true monument of a race with equal enthusiasm to that accorded winner Johan Van Summeren, brought a tear to the eye that caught me totally unawares.
It was hastily wiped away. Pull yourself together. Man up. That is no way for a Millwall supporter to behave.
The thing was, I had no intention of being in the stadium for the finish. Lazing by a sector of pavé with a picnic and a cold bottle of Duvel was the plan, but the offer of a ride with Team Europcar was too good to be missed (thank you, Richard Goodwin from Hutchinson for sorting).
Having the team doctor, Hubert, at the wheel seemed like no bad thing. Being a nervy passenger no matter how many times I travel in the race convoy, the imagination runs riot when you are hurtling across the cobbles in a dust storm, just feet away from the preceding car. I figured we were in safe hands with the good doctor. Or as safe as could be reasonably expected under the circumstances.
First stop was the feed zone at Solesmes, home to Rue Jean Stablinski (as I discovered while wandering around), the former miner and World Champion whose bright idea it was to include the tortuous Arenberg Forest in the parcours. Nice one, Jean.
No major dramas at the feed and Europcar were happy enough, with their Canadian David Veilleux sitting pretty in the break, so we stormed ahead to Sector 19 at Quérénaing à Maing, held up wheels and bottles and hoped the wheels would not be needed. Any rider requiring mechanical assistance from this ham-fisted, left-handed luddite would have to be desperate.
The editor, meanwhile, had taken a more relaxed approach to the art of Paris-Roubaix watching. Guy was holed up in a well-appointed camper van with Rouleur’s good friend Kadir Guirey, enjoying the spectacle at the relatively quiet Sector 11 at Bersée.
He’s done the whole chasing around from point to point thing enough times before, so decided to park up and take it all in. Good call.
The second feed zone, coming some way after Arenberg, saw a dramatically changed field of riders passing through. Most of the pre-race favourites had hauled themselves into contention.
A succession of smaller groups, caked in dust and grime, reached out for musettes and pressed on, knowing they were effectively out of the race, yet determined to finish. A battered and bruised Geraint Thomas, a solitary figure in the no-man’s land of Northern France, pushed on regardless. There goes my £10 bet…
Another mad dash cross-country (with just the one near-miss exiting the motorway) and we were in the velodrome in time for the finish, Van Summeren pushing for all he was worth whilst trying to keep on the blue interior band of the track due to his flat tyre, Cancellara and co entering just half a lap adrift.
I’m still buzzing four days later. And planning next year’s trip. Now, where’s the number for that camper van hire company?