Thursday, April 9, 2009

3 days and counting

until the Queen of the Classics, the 106th running of Paris Roubaix, the finest piece of racing if there ever was one. In my mind, the race completely eclipses all the grand tours combined. It's a brutally hard fought race while riding over the worst imaginable surface, centuries old worn cobblestones that absolutely destroy men, machines, and morale. In 1997 I was working in San Jose California for Rockshox as an engineering technician. At that time the 2nd generation Boxxer DH fork was in development and I was tasked with taking a handful of prototypes over to Europe in April to go test in Northern Italy with the likes of Steve Peat, Rob Warner, the Misser brothers and Juergen Beneke. There was to be a side trip to the North of France to support the Ruby road fork at Paris-Roubaix. I had been following this race since I was a pre-pubescent roadie wanna-be reading VeloNews when it was printed on newspaper and arrived in a folded mess in my parents mailbox twice monthly. To say I was excited was an understatement. This was to be my first trip to Europe and to have witness to the greatest one day event in bike racing history was almost to much to bear.

Our tech crew stationed in Europe was the dynamic duo of Tim and Helen Flooks, the kindest and most outgoing couple I've even had the privilege to know. They lived out of a Mercedes truck had had been bisected into deluxe albeit cramped living quarters in the front with a complete workshop out the back. We set up shop at a Novatel hotel just outside of Compiegne. Most of the main players were there and our few days of work consisted of sitting around for most of the day until riders returned from the reconnaissance rides and then we would make a few tweaks here and there to their individual suspension settings in order that a minute amount of comfort and control could be afforded to the rider. To date, the Rockshox road fork had made a pretty decent impression on the pro peloton. Gilbert Duclos-Lasalle and Andre Schmill had both earned victories while riding our forks and it was pretty obvious that the weight penalty seemed worth it.

Race morning was a warm and dry bluebird day, we piled in the Flooks' home and parked in Compiegne. We had a French distributor who was our liaison with the race officials so when we arrived we were handed our entry passes into the teams paddocks. The scene was amazing,massive throngs of fans against the metal fence hoping for any kind of interaction with their favorite riders, perhaps a snapshot, an autograph or just a slap on the back and a "Bon la Chance"!! A few Postal Service riders had shown up that morning sporting a prototype full suspension bike modeled after Treks popular mountain bike the Y-Bike. The UCI officials were quick to intervene and the team was left scrambling to hurry back to the hotel to pick up a proper road machine, the full suspension contraption would not be allowed in the race.

Once the riders rolled through the square and began their odyssey, we jumped into Francois' auto and went North to watch 2 sections, one being Wallers, unfortunately we didn't have the time to head up into the Forest Of Arenberg ( next time! ). At Wallers we found a space on the grass for the car and then hiked for about 15 minutes into the section of cobbles. By then, cycling fans had arrived in earnest, some sporting matching jackets with the name of their rider emblazoned on the back and actually carrying spare wheels in the event that their hero was caught with a puncture and his team car was out of reach. A steady caravan of advertising cars and other assorted "vehicles" rolled through kicking up huge clouds of dust,those were closely followed by the local gendarmes and then we could see and hear the helicopter covering the peloton from above. The hair the back of the neck starts to stand and then all the team and officials cars come through..more dust! Out of the mess comes the first wave of riders and forces our group to take a good step backwards as the riders wheels are firmly in the soft shoulder and they're straining to find the smoothest line. In a matter of seconds it's riders, cars, horns with short stacato beeps, fans yelling, clapping, then it's over, the group has passed and we can hear ourselves again. We headed back to the car and I managed to grab a route arrow flag as a souvenir. The plan was to head back to a nearby hotel and watch the remainder of the race live on Eurosport. A rider with our forks had made his way into the final group and the group remained intact until the velodrome in Roubaix, however it was a relatively unknown rider, Frederic Guidon riding for Francais de Jeux who outsprinted the group and for the win. For a cycling uber-geek like myself, witnessing this event was one of the highlights of my life and deepened my obsession with Paris-Roubaix. Hence, Paris Roubaix Day in only 3 days and the weather here on the front range looks positively....poor! Very much like it should be for PR day

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