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December 12, 2016

The Rite of Spring: What Riding Flanders & Roubaix Really Means

2014 Velo Classic Tours - Roubaix

So far, I’ve been riding my Seven Evergreen SL for most of the winter.  It’s billed as a mixed terrain bike, which I prefer, rather than calling it a gravel bike.  I’ve been riding plenty of mixed terrain-gravel and dirt and rock paths as well as pavement-and it has motivated me to get outside.  The rural area I live in offers a great mix of terrain, including some steep hard packed cinder roads across the river in Bucks County.  And while it’s not the same as riding the cobbles of Belgium and Northern France, it is a great alternative for the bike handling skills needed to navigate what many consider to be the Holy Grail of Cycling.

Heading into my 15th winter preparing for Flanders & Roubaix, I’ve never been fortunate enough to have some rough terrain right out my front door to train on.  At the very least it is getting me on my bike, and outdoors.  But to be honest, unless you live in Northern France or Flanders, it is impossible to prepare properly for what the cobbles dish out- a heavy, repetitive dose of pain unlike other bike rides.  I think a false sense of understanding Belgium and northern France in April permeates the cycling scene that has grown over the years- led simply by the belief that if you ride in bad weather it makes you Belgian.  But don’t worry, everyone begins hoping to be Flemish, but only the work doing it ever lets you peek behind the curtain. There’s a whole lot more to it and if you are willing to embrace the North Country, they’ll let you in if you are willing to pay the price on the road.

To fully appreciate Flanders, I believe a rider must embrace Flemish culture, the landscape, the subtleties, the immense and historic culture that envelopes our sport and creates heroes and villains and foes.  A winner of Flanders is recognized as a true flahute, a man or a woman who not only knows what it takes to conquer the great roads of the Flemish Ardennes, but honors the culture.  Too many cyclists believe the Tour of Flanders is something you can tick off as an accomplishment.  But its more than that- a flahute has it in their blood, it is a way of life.  And the surprising thing is it has very little to do with the first Sunday of April.  Many locals will tell you that it isn’t the riders that make the Tour of Flanders; it is the Flemish people and the land that makes it so special. The small roads, the cobbles, the narrow climbs, these are all roads that are used daily by the townspeople, so the race is always linked to everyday life, making the stage for the exploits of the riders a part of traditional life, and providing a personal connection for the people, their place and their race.

Paris-Roubaix, well that is a different beast all together. The Pas-de-Calais, the region of northern France which hosts Paris-Roubaix, is an underrated area for travel and cycling. The Tour of Flanders has succeeded in creating a tourist destination around cycling and beer, with the Flemish Ardennes offering a beautiful network of cycling roads and a culture and landscape that is full of charm and a pleasure to embrace, if one is willing. With its success comes popularity, and it seems the Tour of Flanders has quickly become the Tour de France of the single day races.  For Roubaix, it’s not as easy, but the effort is bearing fruit.  Lille, the region’s largest city, has a gem of an old center with historic architecture, great restaurants and bars and attractive shops and squares.

Roubaix crisscrosses a swath of land in Northern France that undulates across wide open farmland, its scenic beauty interrupted by abandoned mine shafts and large wind turbines.  If the season is right, vast fields glisten with the vibrant color of rapeseed across the horizon.  But within that framework, there defines the truth about Paris-Roubaix that is perhaps lacking from the other monuments. The race itself remains true to its original form, a course that holds closely its purpose now as in 1896. If riding in the Tour de France is a badge of courage, then riding Paris-Roubaix is the Purple Heart.  The recipe for success is to simply ride hard. And then ride harder. Witnessing the speed, the concentration, seeing the pain etched on faces masked in dust, caked with dirt, is like watching a street fight. It’s an absurd spectacle, yet it’s entrancing. It’s enthralling. It’s mesmerizing.

Riding the pavé of Paris-Roubaix is the most direct way to feel like you are a part of the race, in your own mind, which is exactly what matters most.  Locals, working in their garden, will stop to cheer as you ride by, their backyard abutting the cobbles.  Schoolkids on the playground, knowing there is a bike race coming, will holler as you pass.  The townspeople along the route, while they don’t traverse the cobbles daily- that’s saved for the oversized tractors- they know what the stones represent and they respect you for being there.  There is no equivalent to strive for; no record to break or speed to beat. The race, as they say, is between your ears.  And rest assured, reaching the velodrome is every bit as rewarding as reaching the top of Mont Ventoux; the Galibier; The Stelvio; the Tourmalet.

I recently read a blog post questioning the validity of suffering that is marketed across the cycling industry.  I understand the writer’s point, but I think he was having a bad day.  I enjoy cycling for a lot of reasons, and one of them is the suffering.  I have my own perspective of it and how it fits into my life and my riding.  I sense we probably all do this otherwise we would participate in a sport that wasn’t so difficult.  But there is also fun in it- a sense of adventure, experience, newness that doesn’t exist at the same level unless you push and challenge your abilities and perceived limits.  Do I view riding the pavé of Flanders and Roubaix as suffering? Yes, I do. Do I enjoy it? It’s all relative, but the answer is absolutely. There is a certain feeling of accomplishment that washes over me when I’ve completed another Flanders/Roubaix experience.  I haven’t elevated myself onto higher ground for conquering it, or brought on some form of life altering suffering to accomplish it.  If you love riding your bike, embracing a new adventure and enjoy the moments that color that experience, then this is for you.  Look at one of our five itineraries to see the Tour of Flanders & Paris-Roubaix, and set your sites on becoming a flahute.

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