October 21st, 2016
First stop, Flanders
Armed with our demo Enigma Etape, we made a journey that we’re very familiar with at Richmond Cycles. M3, M25, M20, Eurotunnel, A16/E40 and into the heart of Flanders.
This particular pair of legs has been over the bergs of the Tour of Flanders nine times – not always in the saddle, it must be confessed. Sometimes the gradient, the cobbles and the sheer relentless intensity of the repetitive short hills just gang up on you and far better riders than this have found themselves walking. As veterans of this particular humiliation, we favour mountain bike shoes and SPDs for Flanders. At least then, if we have to walk, we can walk.
Technique is everything on the pavé. Stay relaxed, take more weight on your feet by riding a slightly heavier gear than usual, and focus on the distance to stay steady and smooth in your style.
When we were here in April the roads were jammed with aspirational cyclists tackling one of the globe’s best known sportives.
In September we have the Flemish lanes to ourselves. From the tarmac main roads to the rhythmic “gerdunk” of the concrete slabbed side streets to the cobbles of the ancient farm lanes. Come here on that certain spring weekend and you might find your way up the Koppenberg blocked by a thousand weary sportive warriors walking up the 22% cobbles. There will be no excuse for us on this bright, warm, early autumn afternoon.
First, we head along the backbreaking drag of Kerkgate in Mater. A couple of kilometres of cobbles designed to destroy the unprepared, the Enigma shoots over the crown of the pavé in a way that surprises us. Having ridden here so many times, we think we know what to expect, but not today. The long wheelbase gives us extra comfort and stability, the extra clearance allows big tyres to squidge easily over the setts and the zip and power that flies up through the frame when we churn a big gear rockets us forward.
The Oude Kwaremont comes and goes without a hitch, as does the shorter and sharper Paterberg. Ahead in the distance, the blocky outline of Oudenaarde’s church shows us where we’re headed, but first we need to make that ridiculous dead right hander and tackle the Koppenberg from a standing start.
The first time we encountered this hill more than a decade ago, the slope was so intimidating that we were off and walking before we even got to its foot. Determined to beat it today, we select the 28 sprocket, lock our elbows, sit deep in the saddle and grit our teeth.
Any drive home to Richmond from Flanders ought to detour south into France and a look at the altogether more sinister cobbles of Paris-Roubaix. We’ve got time to ride a couple of secteurs, so we park up at Haveluy and head into the featureless farmland that characterises the department of the Nord. Although it’s only the view that’s featureless… the ludicrously damaged farm tracks that criss-cross the landscape were never laid with bikes in mind, but it is their place in the world’s most famous one-day race that make it so memorable.
The sections are long – you can be on a stretch of pavé for 20 minutes if you’re as slow as us – but you need to keep up your intensity for the whole effort. One pause or drop in power and you might as well stop. All the same techniques you honed on the other side of the border count here, but the challenge is far greater. Churning a big gear and letting the bike bounce below you is still the aim but it’s easier said than done.
No visit to Paris-Roubaix is complete without tackling the Arenberg Trench. The preserved huge pulley wheels that mark the extinct coal mines at Wallers loom up before us, telling us that we are approaching the entrance to the forest. Ahead: one and a half dead straight miles cut through the trees on the worst cobbles known to any vehicle, let alone a racing bike.
We only rode for an hour, yet it is the hardest ride we’ve done this year.