l’enfer du Nord

The temperature is supposed to break 70 degrees this weekend, and the last remaining lumps of dirty snow should be gone from sight soon. I cannot begin to tell you how happy this makes me. I saw the street sweeper making it’s way past the office today. As I type my new bicycle is being assembled by the skilled hands of Jay Hollywood Henderson. It should be ready by next Wednesday, which means that the warm weather IS KILLING ME!

It is officially cycling season.

Not that true cyclists need warm weather. No, cyclists are a crazy breed. Even in the midst of the worst snow storms, I saw them out pedaling the streets. I’ve never been that hardcore. I have a policy that I never ride in temperatures lower than my age. It’s worked well for me so far, but unless I move to Arizona, I may have to reconsider in another 10 years.

In my early 30’s, it wasn’t such an issue. Back then I was absolutely infatuated with cycling. I have told the story of my ill advised attempt to shave my legs before, but I have not told you all of the crazy cycling induced madness in my life.

In early April 2000 my good friend Scott and I made a pilgrimage to Belgium & Northern France to take in the greatest one day cycling race in the world. The Hell of the North. Paris-Roubaix. A 150+ mile long race, across the flat windy expanse of North France that runs over 40 miles of rutted, muddy, century old cobble stone farm roads known a pave. (pronounced Pah-Vay) It is a brutal race, taking place during mud season, and often run in cold driving rain. Cyclists being masochists at heart, this is viewed as a good thing.

The Belfort in Antwerpen

Now back then, TV didn’t show cycling except for a few taped segments during the Tour de France each summer. Following the sport was difficult for anyone in North America. Newspapers seldom printed race results, and the only publications that focused on the sport, came out once a month. This was still at the dawn of internet sports coverage. Not that any of those things were the reason we decided to take a week off of work and fly to Europe to watch a bike race. No, we’d have gone anyway.

I have been working for 3 years with my current Dark Corporate Overlords, and had finagled my way into working very closely with our Belgian Office. Having made friends there, who knew of my passion for cycling, it was relatively easy to arrange hotel and rental car, and work out the logistics. So we booked our tickets. I flew from MSP and Scott from SFO, and we met in Schipol Airport in Amsterdam.

When we got to Belgium, we checked into a small hotel in Leuven, and shared a room. I mention it because unbeknownst to us, the proprietors of this little Mom & Pop hotel assumed we were a nice gay couple from the U.S. They used to send me a card every Christmas for several years afterward, until the hotel changed hands.

We spent the next few days sightseeing during the daytime, and hanging out in the college bars on the Oude Markt at night, drinking the wonderful Belgian beers and dancing on the tables with Austrian college girls. Well, one night anyway. I think they were Austrian. It was kinda noisy in the bar so it’s tough to say. Don’t get the wrong impression though. It was completely innocent. I am pretty sure they too assumed we were a nice gay couple from the States.

a couple of close personal friends

Now watching a cycling race is a strange pastime. It doesn’t require tickets. You just hang out by the side of the road, and watch the riders go by. It can be over in less than a minute, which is why it is important to pick a good place to stand, with ready access to beer and music, as you will spend a lot of time standing along a muddy ditch bank waiting for the race to go by, so you might as well have a little fun.

When Sunday came around we drove down to the Forest of Arenberg, one of the most famous, and treacherous sections of cobbles, and waited. There was a tent with a stage set up, and a table selling beer. A small parade came through the little village of Wallers, and ended in the field at the entrance to the forest. It was 9 am in the morning, and already there were thousands of drunk Flemish fans standing around, knocking down cans of Jupiler, and taunting the French. An old man sat on the small stage, playing an accordion, and singing songs in French until the Flemish hooligans eventually climbed up on the stage, took over the microphone, and began singing songs in homage to Johan Museuw. We were sufficiently entertained.

The Vlaamse Leeuw!

After a few hours of this we started to hear the helicopters approaching, a sure sign that the race was getting nearer. We took our places along the side of the cobblestone path in the forest, and waited. Minutes passed, and the tension rose. Soon advance press motorcycles, and police cars came rumbling down the pave with sirens blowing.

It’s different now, but back then they didn’t have barricades along the whole stretch of pave, just the first few hundred yards on one side, and some plastic snow fencing on the other. It was about one car width wide, and the shoulders were narrow, so the crowd was standing ON the race course. We’d lean forward to see if cyclists were coming, and then jump back so our heads did not get taken off by a car mirror.

Kissing the Bricks Arenberg Style

Finally, a roar rose from down the road, and ran like a wave through the crowd. They were coming! Then we leaned forward, with thousands of others to catch a glimpse the first rider came shooting past us, on the heels of a yellow motorbike. Then another. Then ten. Then twenty. Then a hundred. It was total chaos. They crowd pushed forward, the orange fencing came down, it was amazing.

(Look for us on the right hand side of the road at around 8:45)

It is hard for someone who has never been there to understand what the experience is like. The best description I can come up with is this. Imagine yourself hanging out tailgating at a college football game. Then imagine that after 3 hours, the two football teams come running through the parking lot tackling each other, and knocking over your grill. That is kinda sorta how it feels.

Once the riders had passed, we started running to get back to the car, so we could try to drive ahead of the race and see it go past again. The folks that know the farm roads claim they can see the race 3-4 times in a few hours. Being unable to speak the language, and not knowing our way around, we just jumped into the car, pulled out onto the highway, and started following the helicopter. I was behind the wheel, and Scott was my spotter. When a car with a team logo went blowing by us at 90 mph, we jumped onto his tail and followed. Eventually we lost him somewhere on the city streets of Roubaix. We knew that we had gotten ahead of the race, but had no idea where the finish line was in relation to us. So we parked the car, and started wandering the streets until we found a crowd of people. Then we waited and about 30 minutes later, we saw Museuw pass by alone. We waited some more, and then the riders started passing in small groups. When the race had fully passed, we walk back to the car and drove back to Leuven.

That night we watched the highlights in Dutch and French and tried to piece together what had happened. It was an unusually dry and warm edition of the race that year. The roads were dusty, and the riders were choking in the clouds kicked up by the support vehicles. Belgian legend, Johan Museeuw broke away with about 40 km left in the race, and soloed into the Roubaix Velodrome to win his 2nd Paris-Roubaix.

Looking at this photos again, I can’t believe it was over 10 years ago. I’ll be heading back to Belgium again next month, but this Sunday morning I will pour myself a hot cup of coffee, sit on my couch, and enjoy the race in the comfort of my living room.

3 thoughts on “l’enfer du Nord

  1. In the entirety of my life I have only seen a bike race once. In Atlanta. I ACTUALLY GOT PICTURES.
    I am embarassed to tell you that I forgot the name of the actual event because it was such a big deal while we were there.
    Now I’m going to have to do research.

    • I should post the pictures I tried to take of the riders. In each one all you see is the back half of their rear wheel. Them suckers are fast.

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