A wheely good evening from Paul Ashman cycling aboard a P&O ferry heading back from France. The last three days have seen me taken in arguably the greatest one day classic there is, the cobbled Paris Roubaix race.
It all started early hours Friday morning when we were picked up at 2:30am as we had a 6:00am crossing across the channel. We left the white cliffs behind us bathed in sunshine and this was the shape of things to come as for the whole trip it didn’t drop below 18 degrees and we had wall to wall sun.
Friday we decided to head to the Ardennes and take in the first day of the Circuit of Ardennes classic race. This is a second tier race but still had a good field of riders. The Ardennes is a truly beautiful part of Belgium and a new area for me to visit. The race itself had a gruelling first stage with no less than seven categorised climbs and a classic sprint finish in the small town of Bazeilles. We got to see the race three times in the mountains and still got back to the finish for a well earned beer in the sun as the riders entered the finishing circuit. This day was a cracking start to the weekend which only got better.
So Saturday we woke to more sun streaming through the windows and what a day in store ahead of us. It was team presentation day of the 2018 Paris Roubaix and the setting the glorious square of the beautiful town of Compiegne just north of Paris. As the teams arrived aboard the stunning team buses the fans were buzzing to see the classics specialists who 24 hours later would be embarking on the 254 km ride to Roubaix. As well as the team presentation there was a quirky little bike jumble which gave ample opportunities to pick up some cycling bargains and memorabilia, just the two pairs of mitts and a book for me this year. Oh and of course the mandatory bottles and road signs that have become a customary part of the trips abroad. The highlight for me was getting some more signatures on my yellow and pink jerseys as well as meeting some new riders I have never met before. Before long the presentation came to an end and it seemed fitting to find a cafe and sit outside in the early evening sun with a Belgian fruit beer. All in all a fabulous day and still race day to come.
Sunday came and yes more sunshine so we knew we were in for a hot dusty day out on the pave sectors of the race. We spent some time at the arrival of the teams and it is always special to see their bikes all cleaned and gleaming aboard the cars, including Peter Sagan’s limited edition gold S-Works Tarmac. This was just the start of our day on the cobbles. We had a plan to hit three sections but would it come off? Well with Clewes at the wheel and Ashman with the map how could this fail?!? First up was sector one and the pave at Inchy. This was a challenging opening start for the riders with a tight ninety degree turn and a fast exit. Like any of these roads it brings it’s danger and this was no different with a pile up bringing down Geraint Thomas of Team Sky amongst others. This is my first time out on the cobbles and I was amazed in the flesh just how demanding and rough this surface really is.
Onwards for us and we hit the famous Arenberg forest and this is probably the most well known sector. There were literally 1000’s of fans four deep either side of the barrier once we got there awaiting the riders and there was only one place to view the race……….ten feet up a tree in the branches. Now I am no monkey but when there is a bike race to be seen I can scale a tree like any creature. Watching the riders take on this fabled cobbled sector was an experience that I’ll long remember knowing they followed the footsteps of many legends before them. The break passed us and one by one the chasers battled by. This was leaving us one more place to visit, the legendary Carrefore L’Arbre five start sector. We parked up and were faced with a one and a half mile walk to the sector but boy was it worth it. When we arrived it was packed and buzzing for the arrival of the race. We had heard on race radio Sagan was in the break so the anticipation to see the rainbow bands pass by on the dust and cobbles was almost too much to take. If the give away from the helicopter above wasn’t enough as the riders approached the noise from the crowd steadily increased to a volume almost unbearable. Sure enough Sagan was out front with Dillier and the Swiss National champ was literally hanging onto his wheel. These two had over a minute on the chasing group and with only 15 km remaining who’d bet against them taking the top two steps of the podium. We ventured over to the big screen to see the last part of the race unfold.
The gap grew out to a minute and before long the two of them entered the outdoor velodrome to a barrage of noise. The game of cat and mouse began, who would pounce first. The tension was building, the line getting closer. As the metres counted down 400, 350, 300 come on who would jump. And then with 200 metres to go the man himself went and the three time current world champion Peter Sagan came over the line arms aloft. He was the 2018 Paris Roubaix champion and a deserved one at that taking his second monument.
So as we leave the ferry for the journey back to Swindon all I can say is you have not witnessed this race in the flesh do it. That’s two years in succession now and I’ll be back next year and I am going to try the sportive myself next year. For now all I can say is happy riding and I’ll be back soon with more news from Paul Ashman Cycling including some recent race reports I have been involved in. Laters!!!