Posts Tagged ‘arenberg’

Podcast: Issue 37

March 11, 2013

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Jack Thurston travels to Ludlow, foodie capital of the Welsh Marches, to talk about the terroir and heritage of the great bike races, with William Fotheringham, veteran cycling journalist, regular Rouleur columnist and author of best-selling biographies of Tom Simpson and Eddy Merckx. They discuss the strange attraction of the Arenberg Trench, Team Sky’s strategy for winning at this year’s cobbled classics, how the UCI is unwise to tamper too much with the established race calendar, and why it ought to be doing more to promote women’s bike racing.

Issue 37

The Rouleur podcast is brought to you by Mosquito Bikes, London’s custom made bicycle specialists. Mosquito Bikes is proud to announce that it is the UK’s first & exclusive retailer of Alchemy custom bicycles. You can see them in the flesh, along with all Mosquito’s other brands, at the Bespoked Bristol hand-built bicycle show show between the 12th-14th of April. Mosquito is at 123 Essex Road, London N1 2SN or on the web at

Shake, Rattle and…

June 7, 2012

Words: Ian Cleverly Photos: Wig Worland 

There was a Charge of the Light Brigade moment entering the first cobbled sector at Troisville. The dead straight road leading to the 2.2km opening stretch of the rough stuff descends gently, giving the rider sufficient momentum to freewheel briefly and take in the unfolding carnage.

Bodies to the left, bodies to the right, bodies in front. Cycling’s equivalent of Lord Tennyson’s doomed six hundred – or a fair few of them – had fallen at the first hurdle. The bi-annual event impeccably organised by VC Roubaix takes place in the summer, with (generally) correspondingly dry and mud-free conditions, yet a veneer of moist slime on the pavé was wreaking havoc.

Some hit the deck hard within yards of leaving the tarmac. Others struggled to hold a straight line and bounced, victims of their own transfixed stares, into ditches either side of the track. Bottles littered the ground; muddied riders surveyed their machines for damage, clasping bruised hips and sporting battered egos; one chap appeared to be heading for an early bath, destined never to experience the legendary utilitarian showers at Roubaix.

The previously jocular nature shared by our group of eight on the opening road section dissipated in an instant. Silence descended as we each focussed on a route through the chaos and wondered how the hell we were going to manage the next 160km without falling to pieces.

Into the mouth of Hell

Rode the six hundred

The curious thing was we all emerged unscathed. Or maybe not so curious. Those with cobble experience had prepared the Roubaix virgins the night before. Attack the pavé sectors and recover on the road, they said. Keep the hands on the tops, nice and loose. Use the body to steer, not the bars. Ride on the central ridge and avoid the gutter, unless you can clearly see there are no hidden potholes lurking in the puddles.

And it works. We blasted through the sector and back onto tarmac, conversation returning in an excited babble as we re-grouped briefly – a big part of the enjoyment of the day, I felt: we were pretty evenly matched for speed and rarely had to wait around for long. Anyone in a big hurry could always find a faster group to latch onto but, truth be told, we were passing a lot more than being passed, especially on the cobbles. All those winters of cyclo-cross were finally paying off.

The choice of equipment was paying off, too. A ‘cross bike shorn with 28mm Conti Gator Skins, bar-top brake levers and gel inserts under the bars may sound like overkill, but worked to perfection. We pushed on, gaining confidence with every section of cobbles, passing the occasional water bottle, saddle pack or tubular, their owners presumably blissfully unaware of the loss.

The feeling of smug satisfaction with our progress was gone in a flash. The left-hand pedal, you will no doubt know, is designed not to come undone, due to its reverse thread. Well, mine did. At speed. On the cobbles. It was a hairy moment, pushing down on the crank and hitting stone with pedal, but I managed to keep it upright with an ungainly hop, skip and skid manoeuvre. The multi tool in my saddle pack had disintegrated into its constituent parts. Thankfully the rather better-equipped mechanic in our midst knew to insert the pedal from the reverse side of the crank to overcome the stripped thread situation – a tip well worth knowing – and we were back on the road. Anything not firmly attached to the bike (and even things that are) will rattle loose during Paris-Roubaix, so be warned: tighten up.

The infamous Arenberg Forest was looming large, just when we thought we had this thing licked. Jean Stablinski is the man to thank for this particularly fine (or gruesome, depending on your outlook) stretch of appallingly uneven stone. The 1962 World Champion and ’58 Vuelta winner was a former miner who had worked far below the dead straight road that starts by the pit gates, the tunnels apparently having a bearing on the subsidence of the cobbles. Quite why the great Stablinski thought it a suitable surface to run a race over is unclear. Presumably he could handle it.

I, for one, could not. The summer version we rode allows the luxury of leaving the pavé (or even skipping it altogether) for the adjacent cinder track. The ASO event in April, taking place the day before the race, will have barriers in place, leaving no alternative but to grimace and bear it. Everything you have heard about the Arenberg is true – with interest. I walked the length of it at last year’s Tour and close inspection brought home the random nature of the stones, misshapen rejects jutting out at all angles, cobbled together. Prepare to be shaken.

The consequences of cycling and taking murky substances are well catalogued. The risks are plain for all to see. A curious green energy drink supplied by the organisation looked like something Barry Manilow might sip at the Copacabana, so I plumped for the clear boissons énergétiques – and paid the price soon after. The rattling of the Arenberg speeded the evil potion through my system and I was crouched behind a hedge soon after. Sorry to be so graphic, but take your own tried-and-tested energy products or suffer the consequences.

Some determined chasing to rejoin the group and the remainder of the ride flew by, even the notorious Carrefour de l’Arbre – a totally different prospect on a dry, sunny summer’s day to a wet and windy April.

The comrades on wheels transformed to deadly enemies approaching Roubaix velodrome, attacks going on either side of the pavé, blowing the group to pieces before the famous, spine-tingling right-hander onto the banked track. Getting out of the saddle to sprint for the line and flumping straight back down again brought home the sheer exhaustion from an amazing day.

A beer or two, the ultimate in rudimentary showers and that all-important mounted cobblestone. It really does not get any better than this.

The Pavé Buzz

April 13, 2011

Words: Ian Cleverly  Images: Kadir Guirey

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?

Follow the Badger

March 3, 2011

“You will never make me take back what I have already said about Paris-Roubaix. It’s a big nonsense!

Bernard Hinault, quoted immediately after winning the 1981 Paris–Roubaix.

Off the bike Bernard Hinault is a charming man. No doubting that. In his role at the Tour de France and similar major races he meets and greets sponsors, riders, journalists and special guests, always smiling and gracious. Nice guy, Bernard. On the bike he still has only one character – the minute he swings his leg over the cross-bar his persona reverts. Bernard Hinault is still Le Patron, not exactly the all consuming race-dominating Badger he once was, but he’s still a super fit alpha-dog of a man these days… It’s hard not to be intimidated.

To become a fan of cycling in the early eighties was to immerse yourself in the world of Bernard Hinault. He was the man you see, Le Patron. His famous victories were outshone by his ability to stand proud at the head of affairs and speak out for the riders or wade into striking farmers preventing he and his riding colleagues from doing ‘their work’. Fair do’s really, can’t argue with that. Even if you have the sympathy for the underdog, a race is a race and stopping it isn’t cricket, in France at any rate. Strangely I was never a ‘fan’ of the Badger. Being an avid follower of the fall guy or the scrapper, I was never drawn to his relentless domination of bike races, nothing personal – I just wanted to cheer on the less-championed. And anyways my distinguished colleague, Graeme Fife, did a marvellous job of getting into the Badger in issue 19 of Rouleur, so I shouldn’t go on too much, but needless to say Bernard Hinault is a legend and rolling into Erre in the heart of France’s hellish north, to line up alongside him to ride a section of Paris–Roubaix is kind of cool. What am I saying? This is going to be amazing.

Before I go on, please watch this. It is 1981, the year that the Badger won. He was in arguably one of the most perfectly formed Paris–Roubaix breakaways in history. Previous winners Francesco Moser, Roger De Vlaeminck and Marc Demeyer were joined by eventual 1983 winner Hennie Kuiper, who was fresh from victory at that years’ edition of the Tour of Flanders. The only weak link was Guido van Calster, who, nonetheless, was no slouch across the stones and anyway, who cares with that name? So make no mistake, this was a snazzy break. Resplendent in his rainbow bands, Hinault crashed out of the action in the final kilometres. For most this would spell disaster and yet he still furiously remounted, blasting his way back on and riding straight to the front of the break. The look on his breakaway companions’ faces when he makes contact says it all. In that moment Hinault clinched victory, the rest just knew it. It was the only time he would win the race but it demonstrated his key qualities; indefatigable, brutish and hugely self assured.

Of the main protagonists missing that day were one fall guy the rest of the cycling world adored: Gilbert Duclos-Lasalle. Now here’s a man I massively admire. If you want to see a rider with panache, who oozed style, look no further. Duclos was cool. One of the finest rouleur-baroudeurs the sport has ever seen. Famed for partying as hard as he rode, he was the smiling antidote to Hinault’s grumpy dominance – a crowd pleaser, the likes of which we have rarely seen since. I have a problem each time we are introduced though, I get a bit tongue-tied and can barely get past hello…  And here is the man himself at the start of the journalists’ recce of the stones to be ridden in April, telling us what to expect. I am all ears.

There are many things you need to know about riding cobblestones although here perhaps isn’t the space to start. I thought I had it down, but riding behind Hinault pretty much shows it all. It’s an education. Push a big gear, stay seated and fast, don’t switch suddenly, hold the bars firmly but not too firmly. Following his wheel goes further to explain the all-important positioning – stay in the centre of the road, on the crown of the stones as the edges subside and get really messed up towards the ditches. If you can move to the dirt (in February this is essentially mud) make it smooth and get out of the gutter well ahead of any obstacles. Keep your head up, concentrate. Never look away from the road ahead.

Moving up the line is unspeakably hard, so if a gap opens ahead it’s nigh-on impossible to get back on. Picking a line through and around the rider in front is like putting your head above the parapet (fitting, seeing as we are in the middle of a rather large ‘no mans land’) as picking a line over the rougher sections of cobbles is bonkers. Accelerating is necessary too and doing that uses a lot more power and effort than you’d think. Before long your legs and lungs are burning and you’ve only done one sector… there’s 12 more to come today. The sector at Mons en Pevele is downhill, but don’t stop pedalling as the bouncing upsets your balance and pedalling helps keep it. Mountain biking skills are handy here, as sideways bunny hops are terrific for getting out of the slush. The mud is slippy but it does smooth out the holes a little – having said that the car gets stuck and Hinault flicks off and stops for a piss. Maybe he knows something we don’t…

Before too long he’s back on the front and I’m beginning to feel like Guido van Calster. After three hours of hell we’ve thrown in the towel. Lunch is needed and the awaiting beer is all I can summon the strength to focus on. We stop in a restaurant and shower in the adjacent hotel, not quite the showers at the Roubaix velodrome, but just as welcome. As we all chat in the car park I notice that Hinault’s jacket is still immaculate and there’s barely a spec of mud on his face and I look like I’ve just jet washed a pig sty. Maybe the mud is scared of Bernard too. It’s a major final lesson learnt: always ride at the front.

For some reason Monday’s recce has changed me, besides the obvious honour of getting mud sprayed all over me by Bernard Hinault’s back wheel, I got back to London and rode home, in the rain, laughing at the pathetic pot holes around Elephant and Castle – and I’m thinking: has riding those sacred stones toughened me up? Maybe. Two days after the ride, as I type this, my hands still hurt. The vibration is a killer and Hinault’s huge farmer’s hands are clearly better suited to this work that my pathetic moisturised-soft-office-hewn digits, but weirdly, I’m quite liking the pain…

Paris–Roubaix is the best race on the pro calendar for me and it’s the only race that’s as tough now as it was ‘back in the day’. It was the first race I saw on TV, and it’s the only race I’d want to have ridden (in those plentiful daydreams about riding a bike for a living…) but even though we barely rode a third of the parcours, Monday certainly told us one thing: Paris Roubaix is stupidly tough and you have to be pretty stupid to want to take it on. As Chris Boardman once said of the race he always refused to ride: “It’s a circus and I don’t want to be one of the clowns.”

Guy Andrews is the editor of Rouleur magazine.

Photos by Wig Worland