With our event, Peloton de Paris Roubaix, only a month away, Vince and I went out to recon some of the highlights to the event. He calls them the "hidden gems": climbs (some cobbled) and pieces of road that the big famous races never use, probably because they aren't technically in Flanders.
Passing through Ronse is the sign of crossing the border between Flemish speaking Belgium and venturing into French-speaking Walloon region. As usual, the further South we would go, the more rolling the terrain; both with false-flat sections that suck the speed out of your legs and rolling hills where Vince would subtly show dominance going up, and I'd make sure we had speed going down.
One of these hidden gems is Mont Saint Laurent. We turned right onto the start of the climb and Vince said "take it easy, this one is longer than you think." As we begin the first curve in the road to the left, the grade increases and the trees reveal a monster; a steep, wide cobbled climb.
The top begins to curve back right, and I had mistaken it for the top. Coming around the trees reveals MORE cobbles and more climbing. The cobbles end, and the road switches back to concrete slabs as the climb begins to level off and drop into a descent.
Overall, 1100m in length, 7% grade... I'm shocked as to why races neglect to come here. It felt like Oude Kwaremont, only harder. The cobbles are in pretty poor shape in some spots, the climb drags on forever.
We continued our ride, and began to head West toward the famous cobbles of Roubaix. Although our day was foggy and gray, the roads were quiet, pretty well-paved, and some of the scenery that was still visible was breathtaking.
After a stop in Tournai for lunch, I began to giggle with excitement as Vince grumbled about how he "doesn't like cobbles." We were going to tackle my favorite road in the entire world: Carrefour de l'Arbre.
Growing up in the US, we would only get a few races a year on television, usually including Tour of California, Le Tour de France, and Paris-Roubaix. For quite a few years I'd wake up early in the morning to catch the most important 100km, always aiming to wake up before the race reached the Trouée d'Arenberg (my second favorite road ever). Each year I'd watch heroes make bold attacks on every sector, but this sector in particular created a launchpad for some of the greatest attacks, with 2100 grueling meters, curves in the road, and the famous corner toward the end that gives me goosebumps every time I ride it.
At full gas, the cobbles hurt. As you slow down, they hurt more. My 30mm tire can fit in the gaps between these old cobbles, and so as you slow down you tend to fall into these holes rather than bounce off the top of each individual stone. Watching the race on Sunday, I heard the commentator joke that this road's construction was "stones dropped from 200m in the air." The cobbles feel so randomly placed, he might be right.
We continued to follow the route into Roubaix, and finished our day at the famous velodrome. Again a place where I get goosebumps, we take the right hand turn onto the track that I've watched legends begin to celebrate as the bell rings for a final victory lap, or prepare to sprint past their opponents in the closing meters. Vince and I couldn't help but recreate some of those scenes as riders go from high on the velodrome banking to dropping into a sprint for the win. We ended up sprinting at each other quite a few times before calling it a day.
We had a great adventure to places I've never even knew existed. On the way home that night I was already picturing going back to Mont Saint Laurent and giving it a shot at full throttle, now knowing the trickery that hidden length can play. You, too, can discover these "hidden gems" for yourself at our Peloton de Paris Roubaix bike packing event this year, May 18th and 19th. I can tell you, you will NOT want to miss this. For more info and registration, click here!