Never again were Alberto’s first words when he fell into my arms. Two hours before, after some The Amazing Race chase through Roubaix in an attempt to find the possibly best signed out velodrome in the world, I had walked into the stand of this historical place.
There weren’t any crowds. No one had told me where to park. It felt like the most normal thing in the world, and, at the same time, surreal and emotional. Please pinch me, I thought, history was made here. Two old men with an old bike were talking two rows below me. They were at home here, and left not long after the first rider crossed the finishing line.
The weather made this Hell of the North Challenge less of a hell for Alberto. It could have been raining, or worse. The sun was out, now and then, but the chill in the air made me walk back to the motorhome to fetch my winter jacket, beanie and scarf. Alberto told me later that he felt cold and desperate during the race. I can only try and imagine how it must have felt for him, riding into this tradition-rich place after having endured the cobbles.
Alberto went to see The Showers, the famous Paris – Roubaix cubicles with the names of winners of “L’Enfer du Nord”, and I felt excluded from this men’s world. I just got a glimpse.
Afterwards, we drove straight to Oudenaarde (Belgium) – a spur of the moment. We weren’t organised enough, hadn’t actually planned any further than meeting at the Roubaix velodrome. It sank in that there was another event that day, one that the world was more interested in: The Tour of Flanders 2012. And it happened right that moment, and less than an hour from where we were.
When we drove into Oudenaarde, the Tom Boonen had crossed the finsih line of the 2012 Tour of Flanders less than an hour ago. The radio commentator had told us about Cancellara’s broken collarbone and Boonen’s win, but in Flemish, and we still had to confirm our half-understanding of the foreign language. The entire town was in party mood and we were just too happy to join in. People surrounded the Omega Pharma – Quickstep bus when it drove off the market square, like there was a rock star behind the tainted windows. A visit to the Ronde van Vlaanderen museum, Belgian beer and frietjes in a crowded place, sharing the table with a local who was keen to talk politics and cycling and travel and the afternoon sun, a 15th century town hall and tiredness setting in… it was a day in cycling heaven.
A day off the bike had been perfect for me and the next morning I was dying to get on my bike. Alberto not so much. He was a broken man (in his own words). The pave had rattled his body so much that he was craving a rest day now and he was happy for me to scout out the area on my own. In the museum we had picked up De atlas from the Tour of Flanders. The route could not have been clearer and I knew I wanted to ride bergs. The more cobbled the better.
For some reason I can always hear Paul Sherwen say Koppenberg or Phil Liggett talking about The Muur. The first time I didn’t get up the Koppenberg. Half way up, my front wheel lifted and I slipped on the cobbles and veered too far to the side and my pedal hit the steep grassy bank and I freaked and unclipped. Only when the gradient eased, I was able to get back on and ride the rest of the berg and I knew I could have made it.
When Alberto had recovered from his Paris – Roubaix Challenge, and I had annoyed him enough with excited reports of riding bergs in the area, we agreed on staying an extra day to do some more of this exciting thing that is riding cobbled 20% gradient bergs. Half way into our ride the next morning, we met two local guys. Alberto raced one of them up Paterberg. I reached the top without unclipping. Walking might have been in fact faster but I didn’t care how fast I had ridden up. Paterberg, with 300m length, is a short climb, but it kicks off with 20% gradient on good cobbles and averages a hefty 13% gradient over the entire distance. Koppenberg was next and as we were approaching the climb, my confidence was justified. This time I made it up the 22% section of really big lumpy cobbles without unclipping, thanks to the person who came up with the idea of compact group sets and a 28T cog.
Once again I could have just kept riding, but even the best ride has to end at some point and so we rolled into Oudenaarde for a bite to eat, packed up and hit the road again.