11 April 2012

I was a fan at the Paris-Roubaix

The Hell of the North

This was my chance to finally do what I always wanted to do - to stand along the pavé of the Paris-Roubaix and cheer like mad. "You must walk here," the fan pointed down to the huge blocks below his feet, "you must walk on the stone to feel the Paris-Roubaix." We were walking deep into the Arenberg Forest and this already inebriated Belgian fan was welcoming us to his world. American, Italian, Australian, New Zealand, Swiss, French, Belgian, Dutch - all the fans I met that day on the cobbles were here to watch the greatest race of the Spring Classics.

Everything you have imagined about the Paris-Roubaix is true. Yes you can feel the ground rumble when the cars and riders pass by, yes you can see the pain in their eyes as the riders pass so close you could touch them, yes the fans are so wild it lifts your soul, yes the dust is so dense you taste it and breath it, yes the beer is so plentiful you can't avoid drinking it, yes the crowds so large you become immersed in the atmosphere of being a fan. Even though this is a French race on French soil the Belgian national pride is so thick it is hard to hope for any other rider to win other than their beloved Tommeke Boonen.

We couldn't have asked for a better introduction to the Paris-Roubaix then beginning our morning at the Trouée d'Arenberg. Immediately upon parking we could hear the singing and chanting. As the car in front of us unloaded a father and his four grown children, I got that sense that generations have been coming to this same spot for years to watch this race. We walked into the forest with this clan of happy fans (below).

They welcomed us instantly throwing their arms around us. We had a blast chatting and laughing our way down the narrow cobbled path to the far end as they greeted hugged and high-fived most fans along the road. They delighted us with perfectly entertaining broken English and taught me to sing their chant line by line.

All images by Karen Rakestraw at ©PedalDancer.com

That is me walking along with my new friends  Photo by Gregg at The ChainStay
walking into the Arenberg Forest
Oh the glorious fans
We were more than observers, we were participants. "This area where we are going, it has great ambiance, you like ambiance," the fan asked me. Yes, I liked this ambiance a lot. We arrived at the end of the forest to beer tents, large screen TV, frites and sausage stands, and grabbed a "Jupi" beer near the festival area at the beginning of sector #16 (Arenberg). We watched the whacky entertainment on stage of baton twirlers, a Michael Jackson look alike, singers and dancers. We looked over to see that our friends were now on stage, smiled and soaked in the experience of being a fan at the Paris-Roubaix.

Fans on stage at the start area of Arenberg Forest

waiting for the riders
Loving every minute of this day so far, we made our way back into the forest to find our viewing spot. The crowd was growing in numbers. We came across Gregg and his happy guests from the ChainStay cycling lodge clustered under an American flag. Gregg appeared with a bottle of wine generously pouring me a glass. They had a perfect location on the long stretch of road. 
Gregg of The ChainStay
After visiting for awhile, my niece and I continued into the forest to the point where the road begins to pitch upward out of the gap (trouée). This would be our vantage point for the race. This is also where we met Jon and Matt.
Jon Rourke and Matt Opperman of Suburu-Trek in the Arenberg Forest

Jon Rourke and Matt Opperman are the team manager and head mechanic for the Subaru-Trek mountain bike team. They were on their way to Houffalize, Belgium, for the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup race. I met them by offering them Easter candy after overhearing their English (a rare sound in these parts). Noticing their really nice Trek Madone bikes stashed in the ditch behind us, I greeted them with the same question the Belgians typically ask of me, "What are you doing here?" "I know, we wanted to see the race," they replied.

At ease and happy to be playing fan for the day, Jon and Matt's knowledgeable comments both before and during the race were entertaining. Matt easily noticed the sound of a flat tire in the break away group. We looked at each other in shock wondering what happened to him as Guillaume Van Keirsbulck rolled by with blood dripping from his knee and nose. We wiped dirt from our faces as the main peloton sped by. We wondered what crash had happened ahead that stopped the cars momentarily along the pavé in front of us. It was memorable indeed. Every day in Belgium I seem to run into the perfect hosts for my day's adventure. It was certainly a treat to be able to watch the race with Jon and Matt.
No moss on these cobblestones in the Arenberg Forest
The cobbles of the Arenberg forest are enormous, the road noticeably convex. The affect on the riders is brutal and makes jockeying for placement heading into the forest vitally important and very dangerous when wet. For the fan, the arched road has the affect of raising the riders to eye level. Fans stand in the dirt or paved walked behind metal barriers or ropes along the edge of the pavé section seemingly below the riders.
One of my first photos of the break, before I realized - hey they are above us!
I love to look into the faces of the riders as they pass by, looking directly at Boonen, Chavanel, Vansummeren, Hincapie and so many more. I rested my camera on my knee and intermittently clicked away while watching the real race fly by. For those who dare to say a race is not worth going to because the riders whiz by in seconds - just look at all the action that happened around us on this day. Plus my eyes and body experienced far more than my camera lens. Being at the Paris-Roubaix rocked!

Tom Boonen came flying by
I believe that is my beloved Bernie Eisel with the rest of the strong lead group

Sylvain Chavenel
George Hincapie in the center
The team cars were so close
so were the riders
bloodied knees and noses
Flat tires
And then it was over, the race had passed.
Chasing le parcours
Time to move onto the next section of
pavé. This year's route made chasing the race a bit tricky. Infrequent autoroute exits and the crisscrossing route meant that the options were limited, but possible. We ended up at the Carrefour de l'arbre cobblestone sector #4. Parking in Basieux and walking the long distance, we were mesmerized as we watched the team cars and riders pass through the long lines of fans in the open fields like a camel caravan through the desert.

Most special was standing in this wind-swept junction between pavé sectors #4 and #3 in the French countryside looking up at the large screen TV as Tom Boonen rode the final kilometers into Roubaix and around the Velodrome. We joined in the loud cheer as Boonen crossed the line to victory marking his 4th Paris-Roubaix win. Sixteen kilometers from the finish line, the last riders were still passing in front of us, determined simply to finish their own race.

Tom Boonen had won his fourth Paris-Roubaix. For the fans it was time to relax or walk home.

Kristina joining in on what felt like a pilgrimage of cycling fans
My Paris-Roubaix driving instructions (viewing in Arenberg Forest and Carrefour l'arbre): 

Once you pass from Belgium into France, south of Roubaix/Lille, connect onto the large A23 autoroute. Continue south of the city of Orchies (at exit 2). You then have three choices to access the Arenberg Forest: Exit 4 will place you at the end of the Forrest where the riders exit; Exit 5 places you at a dirt trail where you may walk to intersect the first third of the forest (low traffic area, easy entrance back onto the freeway); Exit 6 takes you to the busiest intersection and the start of the Arenberg Forest (this is also where the beer tents, large screen TV, and performance stage are). You may easily walk the length of the forest, under the old defunct rail bridge. If you want to see the race pass over another section near the Carrefour l'arbre, get back on the A23 north, transfer onto the E42 towards Tournai and take Exit 3. Depending on the route (it changes every year), you should be able to park and walk (a long walk) to this famous sector of pave with more beer tents and large screen TV. These 2 sectors of pave are almost always included in the Paris-Roubaix every year. Many fans skip straight from the Arenberg Forest directly to the Velodrome in Roubaix to see the finish in person, but be warned this city is congested, parking is difficult and car vandalism is seriously high. (Buy map: Lille Maubeuge #102, IGN Institute Geographique National; and Buy map: Michelin #111 Grand Lille; and Buy map: Michelin Belgie #213).

For a full gallery of images from the day please visit: Pedal Dancer Images

Words of the day:
tranchée (trench)
trouée (gap)
le parcours (route)
le secteurs pavé (cobblestone sectors)

Video: Tom Boonen - prepared for the day

Photographs and other stories from the 2012 Paris-Roubaix
Graham Watson Album
Steephill.TV big photos
Ted King: Done and Dusted
BikeRadar: Boonen triumphs at Paris-Roubaix
PezCycling: Chasing Roubaix: One Last Day On The Cobbles
2012 Paris-Roubaix route
2012 cobblestone sectors
Part 1: Last 75 Km (55:54 Dutch) — sporza (via Steephill.TV)
Part 2: Last 35 Km (56:26 Dutch) — sporza (via Steephill.TV)
CyclingNews (James Huang): Tom Boonen's new Specialized Roubaix SL4

Paris-Roubaix 2012 Results
2 TURGOT, Sébastien (EUROPCAR) + 1:39
3 BALLAN, Alessandro (BMC RACING)