Three days in the Hell of the North

Every now and then my brain goes in overdrive, which results in yet another crazy idea. Some of them I can let go, others on the contrary scream to be executed.

Ever since I pointed at the Eiffel tower and the brief internet buzz that followed that foolish action, I knew that one day I had to go back there. And since it had been three years, this year was the time for another visit. Now cycling to Paris seemed like a good idea, but when I put a little bit of thought in it, cycling from Paris over Compiègne to Roubaix definitely had a better ring to it.

It was not at all hard to pick a date for my endeavor. In the week between two of the most iconic cobblestone races – The Tour the Flanders and Paris Roubaix that is – I would take some time off from work, spend two days visiting Paris with Ann, and then cycle all the way home.

Day 1: The Unknown

Around 8 o’clock on Wednesday 4th April I saw to it that Ann safely got on board of a Thalys to Belgium before departing on my own little adventure that I aptly baptized ‘a ride through he Hell of the North’. Now I had never cycled over 135 kilometers on one day before, yet it somehow seemed like a good idea to pre book an overnight spot 200 some kilometers from Paris. How’s that for being reckless, right?!

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Ready, set, go! You nutjob you.

Ideally I would have packed light but since the weather forecast promised heavy rain I nearly tripled my kit. Enough kit vs riding light, it’s always something to consider. Just go what feels best for you. So a stuffed Vincita bag (4.9 kg) in the front and a weather proof Apidura bag (3kg) in the back it was. I also sported two 500ml water bottles (bidons) and a BBB snackpack (200gr). So in total, that was 9,1 kg of luggage on my three speed Brompton. For a short solo ride like this, I didn’t really care about the extra kilograms.

Enough kit vs riding light, it’s always something to consider.

I couldn’t have hoped for a better ride then the first ten or so kilometers of the day. Smooth asphalt alongside a canal that got me out of Paris before I even noticed I wasn’t wearing my helmet. Man, was I cruising or what! Then after 30 kilometers my Garmin failed me for a first time and the route I plotted with ‘RidewithGPS’ wasn’t exactly all that. I somehow got diverted from my original route and saw myself riding on rougher paths than I could have anticipated. However, I persevered and after 105 kilometers I even managed to find a bakery that was actually open. Time for well-deserved sandwiches and a chocolate cookie.

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I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore Toto

In Saint Quentin I joined a peloton of young cyclists for a kilometer or so before our ways parted. They continued riding on city asphalt, I found myself in the middle of nowhere in no time riding paths that could be best described as grassy and muddy. The last 15 kilometers of my ride was all about road works and diversions that go with them. With 190 kilometers already done, another detour wasn’t really something I considered so I just ignored the road sign and embraced the rough gravel. After all, it wasn’t the worst surface I’d seen that day.

Upon arrival at Beauvois-en-Cambrésis I clocked out with a whopping 205 kilometers done! My lovely hosts truly treated me like cycling royalty and were flabbergasted when confronted with my Brompton workhorse. A well-deserved shower, a cool Belgian beer, a warm meal and a comfy bed were all I needed before I called it a day at 21.30 h.

Highlight of the day, a little fox that crossed my path while I was going down a slope at approximately 45km per hour.

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How’s that for a first day!

Day 2: Cobbles Galore

On day two I had a date with cycling history. Wallers, Arenberg, Roubaix, Oudenaarde and plenty of cobblestones… need I say more? What made it even more interesting was the fact that the pro riders were training on the cobble sections. Who knew, if I was lucky, I might even spot them. Before it got to that, I had to make my way to the Forest of Wallers – a mere 35 kilometers – where the infamous cobble section ‘Trouée d’Arenberg’ is to be found.

Five minutes of cycling, that’s all it took for me that morning to ‘stumble upon’ my first pavé (French for cobble section) of the day. After a couple of roads – or rather tracks – I soon discovered clay like mud kept building up between my rear tire and fender. It took me nearly two hours and several stops to ‘get the muc off’ to reach Arenberg where a large cheering crowd was waiting for me. Or for the riders from Katusha Alpecin, to this day, that remains uncertain.

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Cobbles, cobbles and cobbles

I continued my way to Roubaix on a wide variety of roads. There was only one road I actually cursed, one that just turned out be a private road… after 2 kilometers of muddy rocky riding.

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Seriously people, put the fence at the beginning of the road!

At that point I decided to skip Carrefour de L’Arbre and take the shortest route to the André Pétrieux velodrome. For my lunchbreak I stopped at a local bakery where I treated myself to a stale cheese baguette and a flan. Since I was riding the little wheeled bike, I got an extra flan for bravery. As I was eating my lunch, several teams like the Dutch Lotto Jumbo and the Belgian Lotto Soudal passed by. Obviously I cheered for them!

Since I was riding the little wheeled bike, I got an extra flan for bravery.

Once again I saw a couple of amateur riders and was keen to follow their lead for a couple of kilometers to ‘up my moyenne’. Where they decided not to ride a certain cobble stone section to spare their behinds, I actually did for reasons of being an absolute hardcore badass. Much to the liking of the Cofidis team car who surely was expecting some pro’s to pass by rather than a nutjob on a Brompton!

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More cobbles… Monsieur Roubaix must be proud of me.

After 100 kilometers or so I reached Roubaix where I could finally see with my own two eyes that the Velodrome indeed has seen better days. But still, a mythical place in cycling it is! I ate my second flan while I watched city workers trying to patch up the concrete track for the big race. *

I continued my way to Oudenaarde, home of the Tour de Flanders and my second and last rest stop of the day. From there on – and after a refreshing glass of Kwaremont beer – it was straight to Lochristi next to Ghent where I would spend the night at a friend’s place. Kudos Mel for the great pasta, the power breakfast and the pep talk.

Highlight of the day was the elderly deaf and mute cyclist that eagerly tagged along in my slipstream and rewarded my hard work by pointing me in the right direction at the obligatory daily road diversion.

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A day in hell in 171,5 kilometers, much appreciated!

Day 3: The Saga Continues

I must admit that in the weeks before this Paris – Roubaix – Home adventure it had crossed my mind to take train from Ghent to my hometown. The idea of actually cycling all the way home however made me part with those foolish plans. Perseverance was go, cycling the last stretch it was. My first and only rest stop was the Malines based cycling bar Peloton de Paris. A bar with a name like that is well worth the small detour I’d say, and after all, I enjoyed the first sun as I pedaled along. Sun’s out, guns out, right!

Sun’s out, guns out, right!

From that point on, it was all familiar roads leading home. I took the time to take some pictures here and there, chatted with fellow cyclists and did what everyone using a GPS does, I tried to beat the estimated time of arrival and succeeded with an unseen 15 minutes. My legs were on fire!

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Went to the bike wash as soon as I got home – dropped the luggage of first – and took time to do another 5 kilometer lap just to reach 500 km in three days. Once at home, my dear friend Strava told me I stranded at 499.2 kilometers. Oh well!

Highlight of day three must have been the moment when I fiercely mimicked the sound of the herd of sheep I passed, totally unaware of the amused cyclist closely following me. I tried to cough me out of the situation.

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* Three days after I visited the Velodrome, Peter Sagan would win Paris Roubax. The unfortunate Belgian cyclist Michael Goolaerts (team Veranda’s Willems Crelan) however would never reach Roubaix due to heart failure resulting into his untimely death. My thoughts and prayers are with his family, friends and teammates.

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