Wednesday, 4 February 2009
Heckle of the North
(Image courtesy James Hill)
Firstly, an apology; I have a backlog of stories to tell, so here's the first...
Who doesn't love beer, cyclocross, moules, pavé and good friends? I was lucky enough to enjoy a healthy mix of all those things a few weeks back on a stag do in Lille.
On Saturday we headed out of town under grey skies on a rag-tag mix of bikes; carbon road, 'cross and singlespeed flat-bar commuters were all present as was enough filth on the wet roads to leave us looking like the Paris-Roubaix veterans we were distinctly not, before a light lunch (ahem) and our first section of the famous pavé. Which happened to be the so-called Trench of Wallers-Arenberg. I was expecting it to be tough, but even on a cross bike with fat tyres and thick bar-tape I could barely hold my bottle after the 2.4km stretch of cobbly-nastiness. The weather had improved so the surface wasn't the mud-slicked nightmare that it often is in the race, but it was none-the-less very testing. I have even greater respect now for those that race in a pack over this stuff. Heroic (and a bit mad). Chapeau.
We arrived in time to see the women's race start in the historic velodrome. Katie Compton of the US took a convincing win from the World Champion Hanka Kupfernagel (although she has since lost this position to Marianne Vos finishing 2nd in last week's World Champs in front of Compton in third).
The course was a brutal combination of flat-out velodrome, sloppy, off-camber turns, steep and rutted descents, deep sand, steep (up) steps and the ubiquitous barriers (taken with such finesse by these racers that they would appear to be at the point of crashing into them before dismounting gracefully and leaping across the two barriers at much the same speed that they were riding at only moments before).
Beer was drunk, giant franks eaten and the sun gave a gloss to the trail-gravy just as the men's race got under way.
By now the course was lined several people deep, especially at the entertaining sections (we'd waited for ages at the top of a very steep chute in order to maximise our heckling) and you could hear the riders coming before seeing them as the roar followed them around the course amid the flags of Flanders and giant supporters hats (often customised with their favourite riders names). A party atmosphere was in sway.
Most of the lead riders decided to run down the slope we'd pitched ourselves above, but we heckled them to ride it anyway and those that did either gained a place on the exit or crashed, filthily - either was perfect by us. One particular Czech rider, Zdenek Stybar was the only rider in the front group to ride it and eventually finished a close second to winner, Erwin Vervecken (fortunately he might just have understood our enthusiasm as Sam can speak fluent Czech and was shouting louder than most). Chapeau.
The thin bodies of cyclists aren't designed to cope well with the excesses of a stag weekend in cold Northern France, so we insulated ourselves with pastries, pizza and raspberry beer, entirely in the interests of health (of course).
A fantastic trip and inspiring for the final 'cross race of the season...