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Twelve Days in Belgium:
 The Northern Classics 2002

 

Story and Images by Tony Szurly
Copyright (c) by Tony Szurly. All rights reserved.

 

Editor's Note: DP Reader Tony Szurly spent 12 days in Belgium watching the great races and riding the courses. 

 Riding Paris Roubaix

 

Thursday

We rode 120km from Gent in Belgium to Valenciennes in France, our new home for the next four days. We passed a bar that had a big banner supporting Peter Van Petegem and another one that was the official fan club home of Hans De Clercq, complete with giant caricature mounted outside. Along the way, we passed through Ronse, home of the 1963 and 1988 World Championships. There was a great mural depicting the 1963 race painted on the side of a building.

 

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We asked about bringing our passports for the border crossing and as some had decided not to, our guide was nervous that we would be stopped at the border. About 3km from the border, he had everyone practicing their response to the question of whether we had brought our passports. We had the last laugh as we actually crossed into France on a narrow farm road with nothing to mark the occasion except a small sign and two cows.

 

As we neared Valenciennes, we detoured through roads in the Arenberg Forest. The road was really more of a dirt path but after riding on cobbles all week, it seemed like new asphalt to me. It was funny how what my idea of "rough road" was had changed after just one week. We came up to entrance to the Arenberg trench used in Paris-Roubaix. There were some people clustered around and a small boy came up to us after hearing us speak English. He asked us in French where we were from, and wanted to know if we could get him Lance Armstrong’s autograph.

 

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The Forest Road

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Arenberg Forest

 

A rider from our group wanted to try out the cobbles there and our guide said to him "sure, go ahead, after 100 meters you’ll wished you hadn’t". We’d be back the next day.

We shared a hotel with the Credit Agricole team and their mechanic was busy cleaning bikes and washing team cars when we arrived. We had dinner at the tables next to the team. Jens Voigt spent most of the time on a cell phone. You could quickly tell the difference between the rider’s table and the staff table. Guess which one had beer and wine! The head man was elbow deep in a bucket of moules and a beer.

 

The hotel was completely full up with cyclists and I don’t think the owner had any idea of how much food we’d eat because as the days went on they gradually ran out of food and beer. The owner was always running around in a tizzy and we took to calling him Basil Fawlty.

 

Friday

The good weather continued as we readied the bikes for our foray onto the last 100-km of the Paris-Roubaix course. The Credit Agricole guys had already left the hotel for training. I put an extra inner tube in the jersey pocket as a good luck talisman. Before I left, I told a friend that my idea of the perfect trip would be to ride the cobbles with some of the pros. Well, Friday turned out to be the day for that. As we entered the Arenberg Forest, I looked up from the road to see none other than Andrea Tafi heading the other way. Mapei were testing tires and Tafi went up and down the Forest trench 3 or 4 times, gliding along in a big gear over the gnarly stones. In contrast, I had my hands full keeping the bike going where I wanted and often headed off to the side of the path onto the dirt for a respite from the battering. There was a crew from Italian TV filming the team training for the big race and they gathered for an impromptu picture. We talked to Robbie Hunter as they compared notes and then they were off to ride the Wallers section. The desolation of this area was striking, mounds of earth came right up to the roads, often times it was difficult to tell the difference between the fields and the road. There were only two choices- right in the middle over the crow of the road or sometimes there was a strip you could get right along the gutter. Anything else was misery. The headwinds were blowing and it didn’t take long to figure out we were in for a long hard ride. After each hard cobbled section, arriving onto pavement was a welcome relief.

 

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Andrea Tafi

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The Long Hard Road

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Group Photo

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Tony and Andrea Tafi

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Tony and Robbie Hunter

 

We passed a CSC-Tiscali rider taking shelter next to some bashed-up barn midway through a long cobbled section. He had a loose crank bolt but no tools. The team following car was lost. When we got to the end of the pave section, we saw Paul Van Hyfte and two other CSC guys. We told them their teammate was about 1 km back on the cobbles. Paul laughed and said he had already ridden that section once and was only doing it once more - tomorrow. They waited there for the car. He reminded us to "put it in a big gear" and laughed as we rode off.

 

One of the riders in our group had a flat and as we all stopped to change it, we looked up and saw 4 riders approaching, followed by a car. It was none other than the man himself, Johan Museeuw, with Rodriguez, Van Heeswijk and another team rider. Driving the car was Wilfred Peeters. We screamed at our man to hurry up with his tire so we could ride with the Domo guys but it took forever for him to finish and they were gone. Someone said, "let’s hurry and we can catch them," but we only laughed. Better riders than us have trouble chasing Museeuw over the cobbles!

 

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The cobbles at Orchies

 

Soon after, Van Hyfte and the CSC guys came alongside and we jumped onto the back of their train for a few miles. There was a TV moto and we were cruising along at 25 mph, out of the wind, all feeling very Euro-pro. This lasted until the next cobble section, when they continued along at 25 mph and we all got shelled out the back. Fantasy over!

 

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Hopping on the CSC Express

 

We headed off through the last 25 km and then went down the last ceremonial section of cobbles outside the velodrome, where some of the bricks have the winner’s names on them. We wheeled onto an empty track and did our obligatory 1 ½ laps. After that, it was into the VC Roubaix clubhouse, where we chatted with the locals and emptied their barrel of Septante Cinq beer. A most memorable afternoon!

 

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In the Roubaix Velodrome

 
 
 
 
 
 

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