At the start of the year Sports Tours international asked me to write a blog on a new trip they were about to launch, a trip that would be truly ‘monumental’. On paper it looked madness, in reality it would be insane, it was to ride the courses of all five of cycling’s monuments in a single week. Milan-Sanremo, Tour of Lombardy, Liège-Bastonge-Liège, Tour of Flanders and finally Paris-Roubaix. Just taking on one of these famous parcours in a week takes some guts, to do all five with all the traveling in between would need a herculean effort. I wrote the blog, sold the adventure best I could but secretly never expected anyone to actually take up the challenge.
Roll on a few months and I get an e-mail. “Simon, we have two clients booked on the Monuments week, we need a ride guide for the last three, are you up for it?” “Um... I’ll get back to you.” I replied. I needed to think about this task. I’ve ridden the L-B-L course a couple of times and they are still the two longest rides I have ever done. I’ve ridden extensively in Flanders but never tackled the full race distance, and Paris-Roubaix? No, I’ve never had any inclination to take that on. I have no problem riding uphill on cobbles but downhill and on the flat it is just pure torture. Sometimes in life though opportunities are presented that even though daunting are impossible to turn down, yes it would be brutal, and yes there would be a few sleepless nights in the run in but I had to say yes. Let’s see what this body can do.
I arrived in Liège Tuesday night and met the guys, slightly jaded from their nine hour drive north from Lombardy but in good spirits. There would be four of us in total on the adventure, our intrepid warriors Jose Santos and Stephen Scheepers all the way from Johannesburg South Africa and Moshe, our Van support/masseur/nutritionist/motivator, the list goes on. Two days previous they had completed the 300 kilometre Milan-Sanremo sportive then the following day navigated the 220 kilometres of the Tour of Lombardy including the famous Ghisallo on Monday. In those two days they had ridden what I’d normally do in two weeks and the hardest was still to come.
Waking on Wednesday morning I had to double check the time on my phone because outside it was still dark. Nope, it was 6am but the rain was falling so hard it looked like night. The forecast was indeed dire, 12 degrees and torrential rain until mid afternoon but there was no question of postponement so we rolled out into the rush hour traffic and got stuck in. My job as a guide can be split into three parts. One, to make sure we don’t get lost and to relay information of the climbs and sights on the route. Two, to make sure everyone is always smiling and three to take the wind so the clients can rest their legs. So that meant today started with a 110 kilometre turn into a cross headwind battling the sort of rain that would have had Noah pulling up his gang plank.
Having ridden a version of this course twice before and written a book on its famous climbs I knew the hills, I love the hills and couldn’t wait to show them off to my new South African friends. Turning back from Bastogne the route comes alive at Houffalize when you hit the infamous 20% slopes of the Cote de Saint-Roach then at regular intervals you are met with short viciously steep walls of tarmac all the way to the finish. Showing zero effects from the two previous monuments Jose and Steve ate the climbs up, mostly without complaint and by mid afternoon the skies had cleared and spirits were high. Although the distance was great we all rolled into Liège intact, 260 kilomtres in our legs, and for the guys it was three down, two to go.
It was 7.30 pm however, we had to load the van then make the 90 minute journey to Antwerp for our next base. We didn’t get to eat dinner until past ten, then following this and that it was past two am when the lights went out. Not ideal recovery nor preparation for the 275km on the menu the next day.
Waking on Thursday and feeling like a Zombie the prospect of 110 kilometres of block headwind and light rain to Oudenaarde meant spirits were slightly subdued at breakfast. I had no appetite but got stuff down and at 7.30 we hit the road. What a ride, at times our speed dropped below 15kph such was the wind but I just had to stick at it, protect the guests and grind it out, kilometre after kilometre. Although the scenery was unremarkable, the cycling infrastructure was astonishing. Between Antwerp and Oudenaarde we barely had to touch a road and whether they were at the side of the main carriageway or stood alone we did just about the whole journey on dedicated paths.
Arriving behind schedule, battered, wet, and low on moral I decided to make a call. The plan of course was to ride each monument in its entirety but to push on today would have ruined us. Sometimes you have to ask the question. Are you doing this too look tough? To get kudos on Strava? Or are you here to enjoy yourself? There was a rest day planed for the next day and the weather looked far better so I suggested we call it a day today, get some R and R and pick the route up in the morning. It was greeted with an overwhelmingly positive response, and even though I could sense the internal conflict in Jose’s mind he knew it was the right thing to do. We stopped our computers, ate, and went to the hotel. I put my feet up and Moshe took Jose and Steve to the Flanders museum, we recharged, had a few beers and the positivity returned.
The next morning the sun was out, we only had 165 kilometres left to ride and we hit the hills of Flanders fresh (relatively) and loved it. I adore these roads and was really excited to show them off to Jose and Steve and I can confirm they loved them just as much. The Oude Kwaremont, Muur, Koppenberg, Taaienberg, Paterberg and more were all ticked off, some twice as we traced this year’s race route. Again I’d been taking the wind all day, but when we joined the bike path back to Oudenaarde the guys hit the front, ramped the speed up to 50kph and drilled it to the end. Right, if they are this fresh they are pulling their weight tomorrow! Following the afternoon drive to Compiègne and an excellent meal we got to bed a decent time and prepared ourselves for Hell.
I’ve never had any inclination to tackle the route Paris-Roubaix, for a start there are no hills, and I dislike riding on the flat cobbles intensely but here I was, it was going to happen so might as well give it my best shot. On the roll out we agreed to share the pace, five kilometre turns and to make up for the bitch of a headwind on Thursday today it was on our backs. We knocked off the surprisingly undulating 100 kilometres to Troisvilles in a fraction over three hours. Jose feeling strong attacked the crest of each and every little rise with Steve matching him. Forcing the pace, driving hard to the point that I eventually let then ride off on one lump, choosing caution over bravado, we still had a long way to go and all manner of perils lay in wait.
At our feed stop we met Moshe who had been supplying us with every manner of sustenance over the days, we let some pressure out of our tyres, I put some track mitts on and we prepared to enter hell. I wasn’t ideally equipped running 25mm slicks, had made zero adaptations to my bike and was dreading the abuse it was going to take but now excited to get stuck in.
First impressions? The segments are MUCH longer than they look on the TV. MUCH LONGER. After the first few I devised my plan on how to cope with them and it is thus. You engage your biggest gear, hit the start of each one at maximum velocity, then, as the rumble begins pretend you are Tom Boonen and go all out until your momentum fades. After this, well, you just swear, shout, and beg for the sector to end. We were all adamant that we would not resort to riding in the mud or grass but by the 6th or 7th sector it was like “Balls to that, I am taking every option available, the pros do after all” It was also by about this point that my wimpy arms started to hurt as the muscles along the forearms began to scream and burn. The stones were mostly even and manageable so far but every now and a again you’d hit a really rough patch and the thuds to the front wheel would all but throw you off. The ride had now become interval training, a 160 kilometre interval session following a 100km warm up and we were going well. Then we arrived in Arenberg.
The stones at the entrance looked like the rocks of the Greek islands where the Sirens lured Sailors to their deaths. One look at these and we shock our heads. NO, that’s not possible, that isn’t going to happen. It turns out in fact that the opening section is under repair and thankfully the gaps will be filled in future so we wouldn’t have to ride this part, thank goodness. Once navigated though we had to tackle the rest and although until now the sectors had been difficult, these stones were a whole next level. This was total insanity. The pain was almost unbearable, the size, the irregularity of the stones almost intolerable. I have to admit to taking to the path at the side to catch my breath a number of times before somehow drawn to the pain going back for more before regretting it and heading to the sanctuary of the verge once more. HOW, HOW do the pros RACE across this, wheel to wheel, in the bunch, at frightening speed, and sometimes in the wet is almost beyond comprehension. My respect for not just the winners but each and every single competitor who has ever lined up to take this challenge on cannot be measured.
We knew that would be the hardest, the worst, we had 100 kilometres left and now could focus on the finish. I’d written down the location of each segment and taped it to my top tube but it didn’t matter. We now started to really look forward to the next beating and you always knew they were coming, not thanks to any signage but if we found ourselves in a small village tuning on to ever tighter roads heading to a seemingly dead end we knew what was waiting. As ahead you see the texture of the road change you engage that big gear and launch your self towards them. NO MERCY! The rush of the first few hundred metres of bouncing is powerfully addictive but when the endorphins fade and the forearms begin to scream it vanishes and the hurt takes over. I’m not proud but I have to admit that with 10 sectors left I resorted to popping my emergency ibuprofen, (usually reserved for if my back goes) just to quash the pain. The legs were fine, we’d been fueling well so energy levels were great it was just my bloody week arms.
One by one we ticked each sector off, I don’t know their names, we didn’t really stop to look, I remember the Marc Madiot and Bernard Hinault ones being downright evil but at no point did we ever, even as our reserves faded wish for the end to arrive. It was pure love and hate. At the times when we stopped, mostly because Steve punctured (three times) and stood roadside between the fields next to the hallowed stones it was almost moving. It was so quiet, so serene in such contrast to the madness of the riding.
The finish was organised naturally for the velodrome but we weren’t getting our hopes up of being allowed in however Moshe, our hero had somehow persuaded a guard to let us on. Half the track was closed with some sort of infrastructure so we couldn’t cross the line but we were able to ride anticlockwise to the banking and then just fell onto it. FINISHED, time for the champagne!
WOW. What a four days. Liege and Flanders were great but Roubaix, that was something else. I’d never wanted to do it, I may never do it again but I urge each and everyone of you to try it. It will break you, my arms and hands are so sore it hurts to type this but it’s a magical cycling experience that will leave you both battered and elated. In fact 24 hours later I still can’t wipe the smile of my face and I can’t ever remember a day on the bike leaving me so elated.
It was an utter privilege to have shared the time with Jose, Steve and Moshe and a huge thanks goes to Sports Tours for giving me the opportunity of a lifetime. Roll on next year...
For more on Sports Tours and the trips they run check here.
Oh and to read about the climbs in Liège and Flanders my book Hellingen is back in print and in the shops July 4th.