Today we have a chance to explore a bit of the countryside around Kortrijk. No one is really interested in pushing themselves any more than they have to. Tomorrow is the big day: we get to hit the cobbles of Roubaix.
Day 8. A short one before the cobbles
It is almost warm enough to ride in a short sleeve jersey. I say almost because while the sunshine feels amazing after a few days of bundled up riding, every little gust of wind feels like the fridge door being opened.
Day 9. Riding the Cobbles
The day finally arrived. We were hitting the cobbles of Roubaix. To sweeten the deal, the weather played along and a lot of the riders—myself included—opted for short sleeves and no leg warmers for the first time during the trip. The ride, officially known as the Paris Roubaix Challenge covers 145 kilometers starting in Roubaix, heading south before making a u-turn and treating riders to a number of legendary cobbled sectors before finishing at the Roubaix velodrome.
The excitement was high during the first hour as we made our way through the Nothern France countryside. And then it happened. We made a turn onto a forest road and found ourselves facing the first cobbled sector: none other than the formidable Trouee d’Arenberg. I assume that translates to skating rink because that is exactly what those cobbles felt like. Riders falling left and right and doing their best to remount their bikes, before invariable giving up and settling for the footpath that runs along the stones.
The rest of the cobbles come in quick successions. I find a rhythm over the stones and each sector turns into an all-out sprint, making my way past riders on all sides of the road and trying my best not to slow down. By the time I start seeing signs for Roubaix, my hands are a callusy, semi-bloody mess.
The velodrome is packed with spectators and other riders, but as I cross the finish line the only thought I have rolling through my mind is how badly I wish to do the ride all over again. Well, that and a beer. The latter gets solved a few minutes later in a pub just across from the velodrome where we celebrate the last ride of the trip.
Day 10. Paris-Roubaix
But we are not done yet. Today is our last day in Europe and it will be a special one. We have front row seats to one of the best races of the year: Paris-Roubaix.
We pile into the van and drive about two hours south of Kortrijk over a highway and through some farmlands until we reach a quiet stretch of cobbled road surrounded by wind turbines. This will be where we wait for the peloton to pass. The hours go by and the sides of the road get more and more spectators. There is plenty of singing and plenty of beer. By the time the caravan starts rolling through, the crowd is murmuring with anticipation. And then it happens. The first batch of riders rolls through in a flurry of dust and drunken cheers. By the time the rest of the peloton rolls through a few minutes later, the crowd feels like it is about ready to burst.
The excitement may have lasted only a few minutes, but the party will keep going into the night. But we do not have time for that. We have somewhere to be. Specifically, the Roubaix Velodrome.
We pile back into the van and make our way back north. We take our seats in the Velodrome not far from the finish as the jumbotrons announce that the race is only a few minutes away. Silvan Dillier enters the velodrome, followed in close second by Peter Sagan.
The crowd responds with a roar. The last lap lasts probably all of 30 seconds, but at the moment it feels like an eternity. Sagan crosses the line to take his first Roubaix victory to finish an amazing race. We all look at each other and without saying a thing know that we are sharing the exact same thought: we need to get back here again next year.
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