Thursday, 8 July 2010

Tour De France 2010 Stage 3 - A trip to the Pavé

I just got back from one of the best cycling related trips I've taken yet. Myself and Stephen O'Shea flew yesterday morning to Charleroi to take in one of the most anticipated Tour stages in a while. The plan was to hire a car at the airport, head to the days only KOH and then dash into France to catch the peloton on one of the days pavé sections and, hopefully, see some real action. Of course, as well as taking the chance to see the Tour, live and in the flesh, it was also an opportunity for two confirmed bike nuts to stand on some of the most hallowed roads in cycling, l'Enfer Du Nord, the Hell of the North.

And the plan worked out to perfection!

After an early start in Dublin, we landed at Charleroi and picked up our nifty little Ford Ka. Thanks to some pre-programming of my sat-nav we had the rough locations of the climb and all of the pavé sections at our fingertips. So it was an easy, ten minute drive to the village of Sombreffe, where traffic was being stopped just before the junction the riders would pass through. We knew the 4th Cat KOH line was a kilometer or two to the east, so we reset the sat-nav to bring us to the junction of the next side road in that direction. We followed the directions and, after passing through a beautiful, sleepy, Belgian village had our first taste of the cobbles as we made our way up to the route.

This part of the day was just what I imagined watching the TDF is like as it winds it's way through the by-ways of Europe. Local families, young and old, lined the roadside. Those whose houses were on the route had their chairs out and were sipping a glass of wine or just chatting among themselves.

The publicity caravan was passing now and the local kids were scrapping for the goodies being thrown from time to time from the speeding advertisements. I'll put up a gallery of the various vehicles seperately.

We set ourselves up, green t-shirts and triclolours on display, at the prime point and were very much a novelty to the locals for a bit. After a long wait, in very pleasant sunshine, the break of 7 arrived led over by Ryder Hesjedal of Garmin-Transitions and Steve Cummings of Team Sky.

Just over four minutes later, the peloton came up the hill, led by the Quick Step team of race leader, Sylvain Chavanel.
Quick Step lead the peloton
Chavanel in the Maillot Jaune
White jersey leader, Tony Martin, leads Juan Manuel Garate
Defending champion, Alberto Contador leads Christophe Moreau

The bandaged Schlecks are protected by their Saxo Bank teammates
World Champion, Cadel Evans, rides ahead of Olympic Champion, Samuel Sanchez

Before leaving Dublin, Steve had tweeted Nico Roche to tell him we'd be at the KOH and to keep an eye out. Being the gent he is, Nico did just that and gave us a quick wave as he passed. If you ever do go over, and there's an Irish rider, do remember your tricolour. They do notice and Nico has said it really motivates him to think people have travelled to support him.
Nico Roche spots the tricolour.

Once the race had passed, the roads were quickly re-opened and we were on our way to join the motorway for France. This was the bit we were concerned about. We had no idea what, if any, traffic restrictions or crowds might block our way to the pavé. All we could do was get there as fast as we could and hope for the best.

We decided to go for the second last, and longest, section of pavé on the stage route. We had the village of Wandignies-Hamage, the start point for these cobbles, selected on the sat nav and, just over an hour later, we were parked up on the edge of the village, right at the barrier where the minor road we were on intersected the race route. The anticipated delays and crowds never materialised. Just a hundred meters or so to our right was the 20km to go balloon, but we needed to head left, through the village and on to the pavé.

It hadn't occurred to me that the Irish tricolour might have an added significance in France, given recent events on a football pitch, but let's just say we heard the name Thierry Henry shouted at us many, many times as we walked the kilometre or so through the village.

Eventually we took a left hand turn and there it was, the almost mythical pavé. I will admit that, after years of watching epic battles over these roads on TV, my heart leapt at the sight in front of me. The anticipation was palpable and my day was made, regardless of what may follow.

We walked on for about another kilometre to get past the crowds gathered around the start of the section. It was surprisingly hard just to walk on the very uneven surface so I could only imagine what it would be like to ride over it. A few bikes passed as we walked, rattling and shaking in a most unnatural way! I wished I'd brought mine.

Once we'd selected our spot we set about making that small section of Hell into an Irish enclave. Flags were hoisted on bushes and sticks and we were ready for action.

We didn't have too long to wait for the race traffic to arrive. Team and official cars rattled past at bone-shaking speeds, while some of the police outriders had opted, sensibly for off-road bikes, although not all.

First rider through, riding on the sandy gutter to avoid the jarring of the cobbles, was Canadian Ryder Hesjedal of Garmin-Transitions. He'd left the his break-away companions on a previous section and was now making a bid for glory on his own.

Hesjedal was holding off a very strong chasing group, led towards us by the master of the cobbles, Fabian Cancellara, winner of both Paris-Roubaix and Tour of Flanders in the spring. Strung out behind him were the surprisingly strong Andy Schleck, Cadel Evans, Thor Hushovd and Sky team-mates Geraint Thomas and Steve Cummings.

Cancellara drives the chase after Hesjedal
The World Champion, Norwegian Champion and British Champion were all in the chase group

The question for most people then was, where are Lance and Contador? We added Nicos name to that list. Where was he?

Without a stopwatch it's hard to judge gaps but the next group came along quite soon after, led by (I think) Garmin's Johan van Summeren. This was a big group and tucked in there was Contador and, to our relief, Roche, riding really well with some of the big boys.
Johan Van Summeren heads the "main" bunch from Jurgen Roelandts
Roche powers over the pavé behind Vinokourov, Menchov and Gerdemann

"Did anyone see Lance?" was the question going around in several languages after that group passed. No one had. The main group had split! Just a bit behind came another group containing Cavendish and, near the back, Petacchi in the Green Jersey. But still no Lance!

Mark Cavendish rides in the gravel while Danilo Hondo rides the crown.
Green Jersey wearer Petacchi struggles as Sky's Boasson-Hagen loses contact

And then Lance appeared, trailing his teammate, and chief minder, Yaroslav Popovych. Lance really looked to be struggling. I only found out much later that he had been in the Contador group but had punctured just before reaching us, getting a spare wheel from teammate Gregory Rast. He was now starting what would be a long chase to the finish, trying to limit his losses, on what he later admitted was one of his toughest days on a bike.

Lance catches up with Popovych as they chase his rivals
Lance showing the effects of a tough few days on the Tour.
It's going to be a long lonely chase for the RadioShack pair

After Lance went through it was down to the survival merchants. Riders were strung over a huge distance in groups and riding solo, all trying hard to just get to the finish in one piece so they could start another day. Chief among the stragglers were Yellow Jersey, Sylvain Chavanel and Giro winner Ivan Basso, struggling on his first taste of the cobbles in competition, but there were lot's of other big names choking in the dust, way down on the leaders. Here are some of them, in the order they passed me:

French Champion Thomas Voeckler
Ivan Basso followed by Swiss Champion, Martin Elmiger
Tour of California winner Mick Rogers
Yellow Jersey, Sylvain Chavanel, twice a puncture victim
Multiple Tour podium finisher Andreas Kloden
Polka Dot Jersey Jerome Pineau chased by German Champion, Christian Knees
Young Rider Leader Tony Martin was involved in the crash that split the field
Jens Voigt was delayed tending to the injured Frank Schleck
Simon Gerrans, bloodied and bruised but still going
Former Estonian Champion Rin Taaramae leads Danish Champion Nicki Sorensen

No sooner had the last riders gone past than it was time to find some way of hearing the stage result. I managed to get an over-several-shoulders view of a very small TV screen on a car passenger seat, while Stephen was getting a running commentary from his wife on the mobile from home. She was making a great fist of it until the doorbell rang and her shower of expletives had a small crowd in fits laughing around the speaker phone. I could just about make out Hushovd take the sprint in Arenberg but know little more than that. Ruth, in Dublin, provided the rest of the lowdown, including the great news that Roche had managed to finish in the much deplted second group, moving himself up hugely on GC.

What a stage! Exciting racing, crashes galore, drama featuring most of the favourites and some surprising gainers, none more so than Andy Schleck. How will he go now that his brother is out? Maybe it'll free him from a burden of responsibility he always seem to feel towards his (slightly) less talented sibling. And what about Armstrong? He fought a great fight to limit his losses, and was surprisingly philosophical about his misfortune afterwards. But can a 39 year old get that lost time back, against the young guns, Contador and Schleck?

Anyway, enough of the race analysis. That's what the cycling websites are for. I want to try to get across what it's like to have fulfilled two childhood dreams in one day. Le Tour AND the pavé in one day! I could hardly sleep last night as my mind raced with the enormity of it!

And after the race passed it wasn't over. We drove the pavé and then got to visit the legendary Arenberg forest. But I'll post more about that later.

To finish this post off I thought I should put up some pics that might help to show why the Tour is not just a bike race. It's an event. I mean it got me and Stephen (and the nice lady in the sat nav) on planes and automobiles across two countries, old friends re-united on a mutually-obsessed quest. It gets communities out on the side of the road, neighbours enjoying their own streets in a whole new way. It gets fans from countless nations out on the side of a farm track in a backwater of northern France. It gets companies to spend their marketing budgets on hilariously innovative ways to throw tat to kids at 80kph. It is a part of France, even when it's in Belgium. It's great! I can't wait to go back.

The new flag of Flanders!

Walking home after the Tour de France

Anyone need a wheel?
Shaky baby.


  1. Sounds like a great trip guys. you should be organising this professinally every year. Well done on the logistics - Im pretty sure my energetic brother had something to do with that !!


  2. Thanks Sarah. It was his idea but the nice lady inside the satnav did a lot of the hard work on the day. Couldn't have done it without her.

  3. great for the support.. thanks again for the irish spirit,
    nicholas roche

  4. Thanks Nicholas. We're all proud of you and it's an honour to know our flag waving spurs you on. Best of luck with the rest of the Tour.

  5. this blog is in stone and will remain so for ever.


  6. What a great adventure guys, sounds like ye had a lot of fun and ye got some great action shots too...