Paris-Roubaix. The race, the ride, and Ernest Borgnine

I don't deal well with the pressure that comes with high expectations. Luckily, due to a long track record of only achieving semi-competent results at nearly every endeavor I've ever participated in (except perhaps for napping, which I happen to excel at), expectations have consistently remained low for me. This all changed recently when someone in the Rapha blog expressed interest in my possible coverage of Sunday's Paris-Roubaix in this blog. As soon as I saw their mention, I began to panic. Although I had taken my camera with me to the race, I lacked the necessary software to make my pictures black and white, since my computer is roughly as sub-standard as my bike. Would they approve of my coverage if the photography was in color? Could I possibly live up to the expectations of the whole internet community? I've never had anyone eagerly (or semi-eagerly) await anything I've ever produced. I mean, my doctor once called me to remind me to bring a stool sample to his office, but I don't remember hearing a high level of excitement in his voice. Because of all this, I was overcome with anxiety. The whole internet was waiting for me to weigh in. I began to panic like an Euskatel rider prior to one of the Classics. It's with this in mind that I slowly approached my portable computer (a 78 pound CompuTron 2000) in order to write this "piece" (I find that using the term "post" for my fantastic prose is demeaning to my abilities as a writer, and to said "pieces").

Although a bit bulky, my trusty CompuTron continues to work well after all these years. It's lack of embellishment, sturdy build and massive weight are reminiscent of my bike, and thus make me feel right at home when I write.

I should now tell you that I briefly considered writing an explosive piece, one that would both entertain and shock due to its humorous insight, wit and overall candor. Then I remembered that English is not my first language, and that I'd rather what you'll find below is all I could put together. Additionally, I should mention that after seeing Roubaix in person, and riding the last 70-something miles of the course the day prior, it's rather hard (even for me) to willingly take a piss all over the event. Yes, you read right. I was humbled, so doing anything but revere Roubaix would be insanely insincere on my part. I know you all come here for my hilarious and award-winning insight, and not for cycling facts or simply to read the ramblings of yet another guy fawning over the "beauty" of a race. I personally don't love reading about "pain and suffering", so I'll try not to inundate you with details about the manner in which my my ass cheeks received a brutal pounding (if you take that as gay innuendo, fine, but I imply nothing by it). What can I tell you, riding the course and seeing the race were both unbelievably great experiences. As such, I'd have to work pretty damn hard to write something that would state the contrary. I could, for example, say that Cancellara's underbite makes him look like a urinal in a public bathroom, but I can't sink to such levels. I refuse to. Similarly, I could post the picture of me pretending to sniff a non-existent powdery substance from Tom Boonen's plaque in the Roubaix showers...but would that get us anywhere? Would the picture of my brother pretending to have a neanderthal brow and a simian gap between my upper lip and nose by Peter Van Petegem's plaque help you understand the experiences we had during my trip? No, they wouldn't. In the end, the best I can do is merely give you some highlights...and because I'm tired, I've simply written them in small bite-size chunks. First, I'll tell you about my ride, then share a few insights about the race. Feel free to skip down to the part about the race. I'll never know that you did, so its okay.

Riding Roubaix
In total, I rode 72 miles with 18 sections of cobbles. Those 18 sections totaled 20 miles. The ride felt twice as long though, and certainly took a toll on my body. If you've done the ride before, and you disagree with your assessment...good for you. You're better than me. If you've done it before, and you crapped yourself and ended the ride in the fetal position somewhere in Arenberg...well, I'm better than you. Look, I'm not delusional or stupid. I know I didn't do the ride at race speeds, I know I willingly rode please spare me the idiotic comments. I'm just trying to tell you a bit about what it was like. I'll try not to dwell on the differences between someone like me and a professional. My stunning good looks are already proof of that. I'll just try to give you a quick snapshot, if you will, of my experience.

We started at the Forest of Arenberg. The first part of this section is so insane that it's actually comical. My brother and I laughed nervously as we tried to keep our bikes upright, and we "gripped" our handlebars by holding our hands almost completely open a good two inches away from the actual bars. Have you ever felt your eyelids shake? I can now say I have. The same is true for my adam's apple, which is not oversized in any way...and yet felt like it was going to come detached from my body. I've heard the cobbles in Arenberg be described as a "collection of baby's heads". I don't think that's accurate. It's a bit more like an assorted mix of lawnmowers, engine parts and parking meters which were carelessly strewn throughout an already uneven road. It's excruciating, and hypnotically exhilarating at the same time (insert colorful language about suffering and beauty of cycling here). It's true that some speeds work better than others when going through these sections, but over time you get worn down (by having to go through so many pave sections) that it's difficult to hit that speed. The ability, concentration, strength and determination you had in the first six sections is slowly drained out of you by the time you hit the seventh, eight, ninth and so on.

I tried my best to capture the beginning of Arenberg (which is insanely brutal) on video, but keeping the bike upright and moving forward was already hard enough. As such, I made a quick video in a much, much smoother part. My nose was running like crazy, because of the cold, howling wind. I thought the forest would be sheltered from the wind, but it actually acted like a funnel and seemed to bring in super cold air from every surrounding town in order to smack me in the face. The last 10 miles or so were the same way. The wind was brutal, and the bit of strength I had left was consumed at about twice the normal rate. Before you make fun of me for this video, let me clarify that I eventually found a rhythm and managed to get through the cobbled sections in a smoother fashion than what is shown in this video...but I can tell you that the amount of shaking and rattling would still be the same.

Really important people who write really important blogs have taught me via their wirtings that handlebars are one of a bike's "touch points". Said points are crucial when you are riding over stupidly bad boulders and parking meters. In preparation for my trip, I used leftover scraps of handlebar tape, and gave the top portions a double layer of tape. Did it make a difference? Not really. Do you think that gently draping a napkin over your face will make a difference if someone is about to smash your face with an iron skillet? It won't. I mean, if it will make you feel better about the whole incident, be my guest, but don't come to me crying when you're in pain and you can't find your nose. The truth is that the endless bursts motion that your hands undergo create raw spots in your hands almost instantly. Within seconds, a few layers of skin come off and you are thus left with gaping holes for the rest of the ride. Minimal contact becomes augmented by sheer repetition. The outer part of your pinky may gently rub up against the inner edge of your hoods. Now multiply that by a billion, and you will soon have no skin there. Are you religious? Do you believe in stigmata? If you don't, you will soon after you start, because your palms will bleed as well. Want to gently put your hands on the hoods? Don't. Drops? Nope. Top of the handlebars is not great either. Your hands will take a beating, but luckily you won't feel much of it until afterward. One unusual thing: as I type this, muscles in my hands are still having some light involuntary spasms. I can see the muscles contracting for no reason at all. Fun. I should point out that the picture above is not of my hands, but those of a person I rode with. Mine were similar, but the raw spots were of the stigmata kind, and in the outer parts of my pinkies.

Anyway, nothing ached too badly after the ride, or the day after. My legs felt fine, as did my wrists and my arms. There was an overall exhaustion though, but no focused pain or discomfort in one place or another...just an overall feeling of having been through a cement mixer for a few hours.

As I rode the course I thought surely my nearly non-existent biceps would be the ones to ache the most the morning after. The muscles flap around like a flag being held out of a moving car in a highway. It feels as though the muscle will surely come detached, and you can see certain muscles flapping around in a way that doesn't seem right at all. Oddly enough, my arms fared pretty well in the long run. My armwarmers were down to my wrists after about six pedal strokes in the first section, and I continued pulling them up for the length of the ride. They've always felt rather tight around my arms, but there was simply no way they could have stayed up.

The instant double snot rocket
Are you the kind of person who has trouble executing a proper snot rocket while riding a bike? Does it get on your jersey? Are you grossed out by it? Come to Roubaix. The pave takes care of it for you. In at least five sections, the runny nose I had due to the cold wind, became an instant and powerful double snot rocket upon hitting the first cobbles. Just imagine hitting the spout/spigot in your kitchen sink with a large wrench. Even if the faucet hasn't been used for a day or two, a few drops will suddenly come out once you hit it hard enough. This is exactly what happens when you enter a pave section. All liquids that could potentially exit your body, suddenly do.

Thanks for rubbing it in pal
Why is it that the minute you do something, someone does it in a more difficult way, and then rubs it in? The minute you work astonishingly hard to get a C on a test, the kid next to you gets and A+, and then tells you he never studied for the damn thing. Well, imagine riding up to a guy that's doing the full Paris-Roubaix route on a bike from the 1920's, including the original wooden wheels. Then it turns out that it's not just any bike, but the bike that Lucien Buysse rode to win the 1926 Tour. Yes, when you see such a thing (and such an outfit) you want to laugh at him for basically taking part in what equates to a civil war reenactment. But then you have trouble staying on his wheel, and you feel like the idiot that you are.

Suspension? Really?
One thing that I didn't expect about doing the Roubaix route, was that 90% of the people that I saw riding were on mountain bikes. Perhaps they're the smart ones, since the course certain calls for a mountain bike. Still, it seems a bit silly to me. I mean, the length of a marathon certainly calls for a bike to be used, perhaps even a Segway or a car. But a marathon is meant to be run. I know that what I did was not as difficult as a marathon...but a mountain bike sure defeats the purpose of the whole endeavor. Just because you can use something, doesn't mean you should. Perhaps I'm wrong, but the next time I take the bus for 26 miles, I'm going to brag about having done a marathon.

By the way, in case you're wondering, the forks on the mountain bikes I saw on Saturday looked like they were compressing as much as three inches while they were ridden over the cobbles. Is that even possible? I don't know much about mountain bikes, and I could barely see straight during cobbled sections....but it was weird to see. Once I noticed how much work those suspension forks were getting, I quickly understood what my arms were feeling much better.

After one cobbled section, a guy riding in front of me asked "can you please see what the noise is in, or around my rear wheel? Is something broken?" I looked and told him the truth. Everything was broken. The rim was badly out of true, the brakes were rubbing, spokes seemed to be bent and a deadly noise was coming from the hub, which was not spinning very smoothly. He finished the ride though, and his aluminum bike (and fork) survived. The bike seemed to be Polish, and as another person riding put it, appeared to have been "welded by a monkey". My favorite detail of the bike was the company's motto, which was proudly printed (and misspelled on the seat tube).

I've seen the showers in the Dachau concentration camp, and I can tell you that if you try to strip away the context and purpose for those showers (if you can), the Roubaix showers are even more depressing and grim. I don't say this to make light of the holocaust in any way. I say it honestly to tell you how decrepit and depressing the showers are. There are chunks of paint peeling off the walls, the concrete is chipped, the windows are broken and the pipes are loose, making the entire showerhead nearly fall on you when you yank on the chain.

One small detail, see the missing plaque in the picture above? It's where the Merckx one is supposed to be, someone keeps stealing it.

I've often told friends who don't ride bikes that competitive cycling (even at fairly low levels) doesn't have a culture that honors merely being a "finisher", like the world of running does. Runners even have shirts that proudly tell those around them that they finished a race, sometimes a marathon, sometimes a 5 or 10 mile run. I've even seen Nike running shirts that merely say "Finisher" on them, and nothing else. The person knows he will not win, but he will finish. Finishing is an accomplishment, even if the race was a short one. This doesn't exist in cycling, or does it? In Roubaix, it does. Sure, merely finishing the races is a huge accomplishment, but that's not what I'm talking about. As you probably know, every winner of the race is immortalized in the velodrome's showers with a small brass plaque. There is, however, one plaque for a man who did not win the race. He was actually last. The reason? He was a member of the local Roubaix Cycling Club (who at the time was responsible for putting on the race). He actually finished the race, but was last (43rd). It didn't matter since his accomplishment was substantial, so his name was immortalized exactly like the winners of the race.

My brain hurts. Badly.
One of the more unusual aspects of riding this course was the amount of attention it took. While I normally manage to look down or around me while I ride, the cobbled sections require your constant attention. The severe bouncing made merely steering your bike difficult at times. It was like trying to juggle while someone continuously kicks you in the balls. As you ride, you seek the best path to take, and concentrate on how to get to to the next spot. You are endlessly connecting the dots. While everyone will tell you about the roughness of the cobbles, the huge gaps between them, and how rounded off they are (rather than being flat), few will tell you about the gigantic potholes and dips in those sections. These are potholes big enough to swallow your bike, and deep enough to throw you off it. Additionally the center parts of the roads are sometimes as much as six inches above the side portions (due to the weight of the wheels of tractors). I heard a few team cars bottom out because of this. One of the fancy Team Sky Jaguars sounded as though it had left it's transmission behind as a result. Trying to pass someone, or avoid a hole can be a deadly task. You can't really safely get from one side to the other, because something taller than a curb is waiting for you. Ondulations this high are nearly impossible to navigate, as are the huge potholes. These are sometimes partially and unevenly filled with a handful of bricks that were just thrown into place, sometimes rocks rocks, sand, concrete, but usually nothing at all. Similarly, riding the slightly smoother portion off to the side is not as easy as it seems. First of all, its seldom there. When it is, its sometimes as thin as three inches wide. On one side, this thin strip is flanked by grass which is about four inches taller than the road. On the other side are cobbles that are almost as high also. You are suddenly riding a tightrope without any hope of getting off. Turn your wheel only slightly and you are going down. As I was ridding on the cobbles, a guy in a Specialized S-Works passed me very fast on this little path off to my left. His front wheel rubbed up against the grass and he went down hard toward the cobbles. His chest hit the pave with a thud that sounded like a badly tuned bass drum. He slid and continued to drag his bike behind him through the cobbles. It's a sound I won't soon forget. Gladly, I can tell you that I didn't fall. I also didn't get a single flat tire during the whole ride. Hooray for me.

In order to pack my bike for travel, I marked the seatpost with a piece of black tape, so I could quickly put it back to the height I normally ride. Once unpacked, I tightened the clamp as strongly as I could (within reason). At the end of the ride, I noticed that the tape had buckled slightly as a result of the seatpost sliding down. In total, my saddle ended up about a quarter of an inch (6.35 mm) below what it started at.

I'm a bit verklempt
As I finished the ride, and I turned into the velodrome to take a lap, I suddenly got emotional. Seeing the velodrome, the stands, the finish line....I suddenly (and unexpectedly) realized that I'm more in touch with my feelings than I ever thought. As it turns out, I'm not as manly as I once imagined. The excitement of the moment got the best of me. If you think I'm an idiot for having felt this, and for telling you about're probably right. But hey, it would be foolish of me to pretend that I don't care about cycling, this race or its history, when I just flew all the way to France to see the damn thing. You know?

About The Race

I am Specialized

After Breschel's endless complaining in the media about his botched bike change in Flanders, Specialized made him a new custom frame for Roubaix.

Dead men walking
I had the opportunity of speaking briefly with different riders before the start. Compared to even a decisive stage at the Tour (which I've seen), the riders in Compiegne looked like they were about to be executed. They were lambs on their way to the slaughterhouse. Their eyes were darting around as though (this is no exaggeration) they could start crying at any minute. And no, they weren't acting that way because I'm repulsive or because I was bugging them. The only exception to this was Flecha, with whom I chatted for a bit. He was decidedly upbeat and extremely calm. If you're wondering how I got to be around all the riders, you clearly don't understand the tenacity of the Colombian spirit. Anything is possible, especially if you're willing to bend the rules a bit.

At one point, I thought I should perhaps give the riders some tips on how I managed to ride the course, in order to help them on such an important day. Since I managed to reach speeds that were well into the double digits in the cobbled sections, I thought these guys could really benefit from my insight. I asked Bjarn Riis if I could have a quick chat with Cancellara to teach him a thing or two, but he declined.

Riis the bobble-head
Speaking of Bjarn Riis, remember how he was a bit frumpy and doughy-looking a few years back? No more. The guy has the build of a 11 year old girl now. His tight, green (!) Armani jeans accentuate this. His head is still huge, which makes him look like a bobble head, or an apple that you stabbed with an unsharpened pencil.

A real fan
It might be hard to tell, but this is a Tom Boonen sweater, which is being worn by a small white dog. I know you might not believe me, but right as Cancellara came into the velodrome, this dog suddenly took a massive shit right on cue. Amazing.

Getting even
"No monsieur, I can't let you through. Your team has refused to give Oscar Freire a proper frame pump, forcing him to tape a mini-pump to his top tube. For that alone, you're not allowed in the feed zone. Get out of my face and go buy him a pump for him, or at least some CO2 cartridges."

Lost in translation
I tried to ask this cycling fan what it was like to have been castrated at an early age, and what it was like to have front teeth than can easily open canned goods. Sadly, my French is rusty and instead he told me that the breakaway's gap had been reduced to one minute.

HTC. High tech sponsor, low-tech solutions

Ever wonder how team mechanics remember which bike belongs to what rider when they are on top of the car, and the rider's names are on the top tube? Easy. A simple piece of paper and some tape on the headrest seems to work. Similarly, I noticed (but was unable to photograph) that the Mavic guy who drives the motorcycle, has a piece of paper taped to the back of his helmet. The piece of paper is for the guy on the back of the motorcycle to see. It shows what each team's kit looks like and states whether they use SRAM/Shimano, or Campagnolo.

A very proud father
I willingly admit that I can be a jaded and dismissive character. Having said that, I have to tell you that seeing George Hincapie's dad at the end of the Forest of Arenberg with George's extra bike warmed my heart. We had talked before the race started in Compiegne, and when I saw him in the Forest, he recognized me and said "He was right up front! Did you see him? He looked strong didn't he?" You could see the pride in his eyes and in his smile.

Mom is never happy
If there's one thing I know, is that mothers are never pleased. I have a Colombian mother, so I've learned this over the years. Professional cyclists from all around the world face the same problem. Their jobs are unusual, and their mothers let them know how they feel about it. I had the opportunity of spending a fair amount of time on race day with the mother of a rider in the race. She was certainly proud, no doubt about that. She had never seen her son race at this level, but there was still reservation in her voice. She was worried about his safety, which I certainly understood, but she also repeatedly said that she wanted him to "move on, and get a different job soon". The mix of pride and apprehension was interesting, but the concern about his future and his need for a "real job" was unmistakable. So as it turns out, for every rider in Roubaix, there's a condemning mother somewhere in the world shaking her head in disapproval.

It's all the same
If you're an American, take a long hard look at this picture. Next time someone tells you that only Americans are fat, try to remember this image. The truth is that people of all sizes exist all over the world (even if the number per country is different). That's all besides the point, because that's not why I took this picture. I took it because of this lady's bravado. Why? Because I saw her argue in French over the price of a pair of Quick Step cycling gloves for well over five minutes. Finally, the vendor broke down and gave them to her for the price she was willing to pay. As she walked away, she changed her mind and suddenly wanted to trade them for a pair of Cofidis ones. The vendor's face upon hearing her request was priceless. I wouldn't be surprised if he committed suicide that night when he realized that he had spent such a substantial part of his day arguing over three Euros.

Today is the day
Out of all the days in the year that they could have gone to buy a couch, it HAD to be on the same day as Paris Roubaix. Out of ALL the places to buy a couch, they HAD to pick the place that was ten feet from the race's route, and twenty feet from the velodrome. Out of all the moments in the day to go pick up the couch, they HAD to do it as the race was about to finish and thus go by that street. Was it that important to have the couch on that day? Was Boonen coming over after the race to cry himself to sleep? If so, did he insist that his crying must take place on a couch?

European fans
From now on, any time that an American tells me about how amazing and devoted cycling fans in Europe are, I will remind them about the fact that I saw French and Belgian fans laughing at stragglers in the race, with some even tauntingly spraying them with the contents of their nearly-empty water bottles. They pointed and laughed, some even mockingly yelled at them to scare them. Most of these people seemed to be fans. They had flags and clothing that certainly pointed in that direction. I know this is not true of all fans in Europe (clearly), but it was still sad to see. So if you think you get heckled when you ride to work, believe me when I tell you that being a professional in Europe is no better. I watched four large groups come into the final stretch, along with many riders on their own. Many of these guys were literally dripping blood, and in once case, had a jersey that was now three distinct pieces of cloth. All these riders got the same treatment from a few people in the dispersing crowd. After seeing this display of how the great European fans behaved, I checked the local newspapers and a few websites the next day. None of the riders I saw who got this treatment had their times published. They didn't make the cut. Great day at the office huh?. I don't mean to be yet another person who endlessly raves about the tenacity of cyclists who get paid to do what they do...but watching those last riders was almost more interesting than seeing Cancellara come into the velodrome. The picture above is of the very last rider that was headed into the velodrome, Romain Zingle. He passed with a small group well over half an hour after Cancellara crossed the finish line. Good for him and all those guys.

Lordy lordy
Why is he looking up at the sky? Is he praying to god in order for French cycling to finally come out of the huge rut it's been in for so many years? No. he's hoping that God will answer his prayers, and finally make him look like less of a douchebag.

Lost in translation
When I travel, I often find myself getting angry at myself for not speaking the language. Such is the case, for example, with French. Aside from a few stock phrases and expressions, I simply don't know the language. I try my very best, and I'm respectful of the local people...but in the long run, I just don't speak French. Even if I did, I don't think I would fully understand the culture, which is even more maddening. Actually, I think I could live in France for twenty years, and I still wouldn't understand why French fans were playing the sound of dolphins having sex (their explanation) over loudspeakers in one pave section, and why the crowd around me was loving every minute of it. They were all laughing hysterically. The fact that I'll never understand why listening to the sound of dolphins having sex at Paris-Roubaix is that funny makes me angry.

A mother's love
"Hello? Is this Tom's dealer? I'm his mom. I can't talk too much right now, I'm surrounded by crazy French people. Could you please send twice the normal amount to his hotel room tonight? I just saw that one guy with the red jersey and the underbite go by, and he looks super strong. I'm afraid my little Tommy's gonna' be grumpy tonight."

Turbo Euro
Americans can try (and they do) but they'll never catch up. Europe has been seamlessly blending shitty fashion and shitty music since 1989.

Ernest Borgnine. A Hollywood legend, and a rabid cycling fan
Tom Boonen says: "Holy shit, is that Ernest Borgnine in Arenberg? I can't believe it. He looks great when you consider that he's 91. I guess his secret for staying young is working!"

As I look through my pictures, I may find other gems that I want to share with all of you. I will also tell you about my time in London, which is where I am as I type this. I will try to get back on a regular posting schedule as soon as possible. Also, keep checking in because I will be bringing back a nice souvenir from my trip which I will be able to share with all of you.