Yesterday I made the trek to watch Paris-Roubaix. While you might think that’d be as simple as a walk across town, the reality is that Paris-Roubaix hasn’t started in Paris in many decades. Instead, it starts in Compiègne, which is about an hour outside of Paris (by train or car).
So I grabbed a Zipcar and loaded it up with all sorts of cycling/sport gear for a day of race watching, and then toying around in the countryside afterwards testing stuff. Might as well make use of my rental – right?
Getting to the start was silly easy. Google Maps took me to the town center and I found free street parking a few blocks away. As with most major race starts, they’re actually rather sleepy. I think people assume that stage starting areas are some massive endeavor, when in reality, the whole thing is over so quickly that aside from a starting banner, a platform, and some fencing – there’s not much too it. Locals in the town will go, and some cycling fans – but it’s not a huge draw.
So it’s easy to just wander up and check things out. There was a bag/coat security checkpoint in effect to get into the starting area, which is the first I’ve seen of that in the last few years.
About 90-mins before the race officially started, there was only Tinkoff’s RV there. Like I said, things start kinda sleepy.
However just half an hour later a boatload of teams arrived. And the fog started to lift
Soon the entire place was buzzing:
Many were planning their day. This moto and photographer were working together to outline their exact route/spots for the day.
And the support motos were getting prepared as well:
I wandered around a bit and checked out the various teams and bikes. What’s great about these events is that it’s so easy to just get up close to the teams, bikes, and riders. I really can’t imagine this will last forever that way, so it’s neat to do it while you can.
While I was burning some time finding hidden tech (more on that in a moment), a crew of UCI officials came cruising through to check for hidden motors. The team was very efficient and left no bike unturned.
They use an iPad with a specialized app and accessory/case hardware that is able to scan the bike.
There’s a few theories on how exactly they are scanning, most revolve around both an IR and magnetic scan. Here’s a video I put together showing them doing the scanning:
It’s great to see. And if this is all that they need to keep motors out – hopefully this can spread to more events. Both within pro cycling and related, like triathlon and even bigger stage amateur races (i.e. Kona, Ironman podium finishers, etc…). Quick and easy.
About an hour before the start the caravan began their procession. For those familiar with the TdF (Tour de France), the caravan is the sponsor parade. See my past posts on it here. In the TdF it’s massive, and quite frankly probably a bigger attraction to many non-cycling people in France than the racers themselves. It takes some 30 minutes to go by.
With Paris-Roubaix? Well…it’s two Haribo trucks and a police mini-van. At least the Haribo trucks were throwing out candy. Can’t go wrong there, right?
With about 15 minutes to go, the racers were coming up to sign-in. The process has shifted from what used to be a physical sign-in board (sometimes visible to the crowd, sometimes not), to a digital tap-in system. Not quite as exciting.
As the riders come/go from the stand, it’s easy to get autographs. Almost all of them stop, especially in races like this (versus the 15th stage of the TdF when they’re tired and just went to get on with it).
After that I headed out a little ways from the start to watch the race begin. There was a starting delay of about 8-10 minutes due to tailwinds, which would have caused the race to conflict with local train schedules/crossings. But soon they were on their way.
As is usually the case, the first few kilometers aren’t terribly exciting from a race tactics standpoint. I think half the riders are still drinking coffee secretly stashed in their water bottles.
I found it interesting that there were no Paris-Roubaix souvenirs anywhere at the start (official or a 3rd party). In fact, online on their site there are only two items, both clothing. It’s surprising to me that ASO fails to have basic stuff like posters, t-shirts, etc… available for sale onsite (another example being La Course, the TdF women’s pairing). Would seem to be easy money to me, and leftover stock just goes online. Perhaps at the finish there was stuff.
Tech Items of Note:
What? You thought this would be all pretty pictures and no tech? Don’t worry, we’ll combine pretty pictures and tech. In my case, I’m on the lookout for sports tech gear that’s not otherwise known about, or is pseudo-secret. Or, just things that are kinda interesting in a ‘gee-whiz’ standpoint.
First up is the Stages dual left/right power meter. This has been talked about for some time, with Team Sky running a variant of it since last year. I even talked with Stages folks about it this past fall.
It appears they’ve advanced forward an iteration or two though. Previously only a handful of Team Sky riders used the dual system, now it appeared on every bike (both primary and spares). Note the way to tell is simply finding a Stages pod on the right side (drive side), in addition to the existing one on the left side. The only difference is which version.
Some riders had what I believe to be an earlier iteration, where the pod was further along the crank arm, similar to the left-only setup.
The pod design on these was also very similar to the Gen2 pods.
However, there appears to be a new design (or perhaps two variants of a new design), which shifts the pod closer to the bottom bracket and reduces the footprint (depth) of the pod. It also makes it more ‘aero’ (but the primary benefit is around frame compatibility).
This new pod design on at least one unit was marked/printed ‘Prototype 14’. It’s unclear if this was assigned to a specific bike (i.e. bike 14), or an iteration number.
Either way, they’re clearly getting closer. Short of seeing them announce something at Sea Otter this week (I think that’s unlikely), I’m going to guess they’ll announce in the Eurobike/Interbike timeframe (September). Typically Stages makes big announcements on US turf, so likely more Interbike than Eurobike. Also, it sounds like they’re running a bit behind on the carbon crank arm front (announced last year), so I suspect resources are focused there rather than dual systems.
Next up, a brief note on SRAM eTAP (you’ll see my review in the next 24-36 hours on that, as I finish spending hours in Lightroom). At the start, I didn’t count exactly how many teams were running it, but it was definitely heavily very prevalent.
In most cases, when a team was running it – the entire team was. However I did see one case where a handful of riders on a team had selected mechanical instead.
Like them I presume, I didn’t have any eTAP problems on my cobblestone rides either.
Next up was various things mounted to bars. First was a handful of GoPro’s. Some may have been added at the last minute, but I didn’t see too many. These are likely from the Velon/GoPro partnership (which netted this view released this morning).
I only saw GoPro Hero4 Session units, but again, I suspect others were out there.
Then there were bike computers. A wide range of mounts (almost all out-front), but the majority of teams that didn’t have a head-unit sponsor were on Garmin GPS units. Mostly Edge 520 and 1000. The rest were Sigma (sponsored team), Pioneer (sponsored team), and SRM (for some team, but not all SRM power meters).
My favorite Garmin mounting job was below. Yes, that’s packing tape.
Lastly, while not tech per se, many teams did have paper printouts of the cobblestone sections. Typically it included the kilometer marker of the start of the section, as well as the length (in meters). One person had some sort of star/color ranking system. I think it’s like Uber driver rankings, but for cobbles.
If you were the low-man on the totem pole, you apparently had to fill in the blanks by pen:
For all the tech in the world, this is a beautiful example of something that just works better on paper. It allows a quick glance at anytime of the nearly 30 cobblestone sections, no button pushing required.
Speaking of the cobbles, let’s get into it. I visited three spots (see Logistics section below for where exactly). My first spot was also their first cobble section (there are 27 sections). I walked backwards from the end of section 27, where numerous team vehicles were staged in case of breakages. The sections count down.
While there are always team cars around, all of the cobbles spots I was at had team vehicles staged with extra wheels. I suppose the first cobbles section is the one where if anything is going to go awry, it’ll likely happen on the first one.
I was right before the finishing banner of that section, and relatively alone. So I went ahead and stuck the 360Fly action camera up on a cow-pasture fence pole and set it to record the action (the clip below is from a few spots). Since it’s a 360° action cam, you can rotate around. No, the quality isn’t earth-shattering. Welcome to non-4K 360° action cams. But, it’s still cool – especially the sound:
The riders were flying down this this hill, and with nobody around I got a few good shots.
At this point they had splintered a bit into a few groups, along with some stragglers off the back. Followed by a plethora of team cars.
After the main group went by about 10 minutes later these three dudes wandered through. They stopped for a while and consulted some maps with the team cars and kept going:
Next up I hop-scotched 30 minutes up the road to another cobbles section, this time on a corner. It was a bit busier here, but hardly jam-packed:
By now the race had really spread out, with the various groups taking 10-15 minutes to fully pass:
Lastly, I went a few kilometers away to another spot to watch them pass one last time. While it only took me a few minutes to get there, it took them well over 30 minutes due to the route. Plus they went through numerous cobbles sections.
Those extra cobbles sections took their toll, the group now much more broken up.
A good 20+ minutes after the leaders went by a handful more cyclists passed. They looked defeated, but were clearly determined to finish. Note the blood on the first guy (out of focus), and the torn jersey on the next.
As Dori says in Finding Nemo – ‘Just Keep Pedaling’…or something like that.
And with that (more than 6 hours after I arrived at the start) – my race following adventure was done for the day. In the next section I’ll explain how exactly I got around and got to so many places (I didn’t bother to get a media pass, just a normal spectator).
In the past I’ve covered some of the logistics of going to check out these events, such as my Tour de France spectating primer. This was my first time checking out Paris-Roubaix, so my sample size is a bit smaller. But I figured I’d share nonetheless.
Note that given I live in Paris, my start/end points for the day were going to be Paris. So as much as it would have been nice to continue even further north towards the finish, I figured a 9+ hour day was still respectable. Also, there gets a point where you just can’t keep ahead of the peloton anymore due to roads.
In general, the closer to the start, the less the crowds on the roadway. Said differently: The closer you get to Belgium the more cycling fans come out onto the roadways. So, your ability to get around them quickly diminishes. Also there are less alternate routes to take.
Note the official site is really your best bet for planning (+ Google Maps). As you get close to race day it’ll list estimated timings for all points on the route. Just use the fastest peloton speed as your baseline (they won’t exceed that at Paris-Roubaix due to train timing/crossing issues). For reasons that defy logic, ASO (which runs Paris-Roubaix and the TdF, among others) rarely update the official site until a week or two ahead of time. But don’t fret! For rough planning purposes next year, here’s a PDF copy of the 2016 route, and the semi-PDF’d copy of the timetable site portion since it usually disappears in a few weeks.
The Start: In any case, the start is fairly straightforward. I just drove there and then followed the standard bright-yellow Paris-Roubaix route signs backwards. It’s basically held in the town center (all French towns/cities have town-center signs). I was able to easily park a few blocks away. As a general rule when parking, ensure you aren’t going to block yourself in after the race starts. While the roadway opens up a mere 4-5 mins after the race goes by at Paris-Roubaix, it’s always a concern at the TdF.
This is a good point to mention that a car really is required if you want to follow this race. If you just want to go to the start or a specific point very near a station, then by all means a train from Paris to Compiègne is easy and quick (and cheap). But after that it’s not really possible to get to many of the places on the route by train.
The starting area is pretty open, you can get right up near the team cars. If you get there early enough (~2 hours prior to race time), before they bother to start to check press/VIP/whatever badges, you can hang out in the main team areas. Everybody and their brother seems to have access there (kids/VIPs/advertising sponsors/media/snails/whatever), so once you’re in, it’s like being in a stadium – nobody checks/cares anymore. Even if you don’t get in, you’re only a few feet away from many teams.
My First Cobbles Section (#27): You need to plan your route so that you can get to the cobbles before the riders do. Many people underestimate just how fast the peloton moves on closed roads. My rule of thumb is simple: Assume they go 60MPH. Seriously. Obviously, they don’t. But that little bit of extra fluff time you’ll burn through in getting to/from your car, missing a turn, unexpected detours, traffic, and everything else. The 60MPH rule virtually always works for me.
In this case, it worked out great to go to the first cobbles section (near Inchy). That meant that I was almost immediately on the highway and at high speed, leapfrogging the Peloton (another of my rules: ALWAYS use the big highways to leapfrog).
Unlike the Tour de France, you can park FAR closer to the race route (within a block if you want). Whereas with the TdF the police will often block you 400-800m away from the route. However, be warned: If you get too close you’ll get stuck when everyone tries to exit. I was able to casually jog faster than all of these cars/motos, to my car about 400m away. That saved me valuable time.
My Second Cobbles Section (#19): Again, I found a stretch of highway, applied the 60MPH rule and leapfrogged ahead via a blend of highway and local roads. This spot worked out great because it would allow me to quickly shift to another sport while the peloton did a bit of a lollipop loop in the area. I stopped near Escaudain towards Haveluy. You can see on the map how it’s a very quick cut from cobbles section #19 to cobbles section #16, whereas the riders have to do a loop that goes outwards a bit.
My Third Cobbles Section (#16): This was a mere 5K (or less) from the 2nd section, by car/bike on town roads. However, the cyclists had to do about 30-35 minutes of riding to get to that same point. So it was perfect. And again, you could park very close.
Speaking of parking, in France they’re pretty flexible on parking for short periods of time. As long as your vehicular solution doesn’t actively totally block a roadway or a driveway (or garage), you can more or less park anywhere you want without getting a ticket or in trouble. Decide to put your warning blinkers on? Buys you at least 30-45 mins. A Sunday? Well then, just setup a picnic and call it good. Folks are pretty laid back here, just don’t do something super-annoying.
After the third cobbles section I could have gone towards the finish in Roubaix – no doubt. But quite frankly that’d have been a solid haul for me to get back that night. Instead, I just wanted to go out and enjoy riding a bit (my bike was in the car). Plus, if after the peloton goes by you just sit back and wait 20-30 minutes for all the various official vehicles to finish driving by, you can easily ride on the cobbles themselves. It gets quiet real quick.
Also, getting to additional cobbles probably would have been possible with careful planning. My bet is I could have squeaked one more in a bit further up north. The problem though is at this point the route stops wandering around the countryside and starts going in a relatively straight manner, and you lose the routing advantage. Also you gain the Belgium cycling fans on the roadway all trying to do the same thing as you (introducing traffic and slow-downs).
Still – can’t really go wrong with a day including three cobbles sections and the start, can you?
With that – thanks for reading!