For the first time in the 2010 edition of the Tour we were actually going to head out onto the race route and drive the course ahead of the riders. The plan was to take a look at the true Road Side goings on and then pull up along the way and see the riders pass by for the final, and most likely decisive, section of the race.
We spent last night in a fantastic B&B in Liege and on their recommendation, strolled to a local restaurant and ordered pave de boeuf, in honour of today’s cobbled finish. Having topped up the iron levels, we had two more tasks to complete before setting sail for the French border and the rest of our Tour de France.
Job one was to purchase a Dutch language newspaper while we still could. Job two was to find a bakery and stock up on rice tarts.
The post-mortem was not exactly favourable to Cancellara, but today was another day and there would be another story to take its place by tonight.
With our mission accomplished, we drove directly to the start, bypassed the village without stopping and hit the road.
A Wave Of Excitement
The number of press vehicles and other accredited cars that were parked at the front end of the start line, waiting to drive out ahead of the riders, was something to behold. We had agreed to be on the road an hour before the riders so that we could take things easy and reach the cobbled sections in plenty of time.
Even with the riders at least an hour behind us at this early point, the fans had started waving at anything and everything that was even slightly Tour de France related that passed them by. It seemed like the polite thing to do to return the waves – for the moment at least.
Patrick, Martine and Joachim were ready and waiting along the route to cheer their local boys across the final kilometres of Belgian soil.
The first sprint of the day at Saint-Servais, near Namur was placed up a very gradual, but quite long climb. With the green jersey still technically anyone’s at this early point of the race, the twisting run into these PMU sponsored sprints would require a lot of concentration for riders sprinting and those completing the lead outs.
A week from today, the riders will face an Hors category climb, two first category climbs and a second and fourth category climb on the 9th stage of the race. Today’s fourth cat effort at Bothey (which actually has less vertical metres of climbing than the run to the previous “sprint”) will not be the sort of “mountain” anyone will remember in a few day’s time.
That doesn’t mean that people were not interested though and there were plenty lining the route, waiting to see if the Quick Step team would be out to build on Jйrome Pineau’s 5 point lead.
The Weather forecast for the stage today was warm temperatures of around 23degrees and light winds. By the time we had reached the mid point of the course, the winds were a little more than “light” and the clouds were rolling in. Luckily we would get away with no rain today, but that still wasn’t enough to stop more than a few riders from ending up on the deck.
Onto the Stones
Around 15km before the first section of cobblestones, we drove up behind the back of the publicity caravan. As we are unable to pass the last control car in this convoy, the Pez-Mobile and a few other blue-stickered cars were marking time as the various contraptions in the caravan stopped and started in front of us.
We had picked up a tail in the form of HTC Columbia owner Bob Stapleton and the Team’s consultant for all things cycling, Erik Zabel. After me telling Tex he could claim he had Zabel in the wheel at the Tour de France, the crafty six time green jersey winner made his move at just the right moment and got in front for the start of the stones.
The Business End
With 40km between the 1st and 2nd cobbled section, there were plenty of twisting roads where mistakes or misfortune could either be rectified or possibly amplified.
Looking at the television pictures after the stage, I was pleasantly surprised to see the number of people along the route in the final 35km of the course. We were not allowed to enter this section due to the narrow roads and crowds, and after seeing good sized, but not huge crowds along the route, things started to get a bit more populated on section number 2.
There was a scant 1000m between the second and third section and not wanting to get caught out with no place to park, we pulled off the road in the middle of the two sections and tossed a coin to see if it was on to section 3 or back to section 2.
Section 3 was the winner, but as it turned out, 2 would have seen more action, or possibly even just staying right where we were.
Where this family was stationed between the two sections was where Charlie Wegelius and Damiano Cunego came unstuck in a big way. Both remounted but The Little Prince would lose more time again to go with his 8-plus minute loss into Spa.
Setting Up Camp
It is always amazing how crowds can materialize at any point along a bike course and in the town of Rongy, they had the TV commentary booming out of big speakers at the corner cafe and when the word was given, the drinking establishment quickly vacated and the TV watching punters made their way to catch the live passage out the front.
A long down steady down hill section, a right hand 90degree corner and then a long drag back up the hill gave the smoother stones of section 3 their own challenges for the day.
When the front group rode through Rongy, the motorbike marshals and camera men were so close, that spot number one ended up being a loser for a quick pic of the race. So, here they are riding their way up the rise!
The corner at the bottom was proving a great place to capture the rides moving through and while at this point of the race there seemed to be a good chance that the guys we saw would still be in contention, in another 35km, there would be some big losses from the riders here.
Evans was likely the big surprise of the day. The Australian stayed out of trouble by riding near the front and even though this last section was only a taste of what the real Paris Roubaix is like, he did a lot better than many of the other riders who don’t normally venture to the cobbled races up north in the spring.
The national champion’s jersey of Frank Schleck was easy to pick out of the bunch, but as we were finishing for the day and walking back to the car, we heard “chute, chute” and the Saxo Bank rider’s name called out over the speakers. The nightly highlights showed us what we had missed by being down there and I bet he wished he was watching it on TV too, rather than living the broken bones “live” at the road side.
Armstrong would also lose time today, but showed the value of having a strong team around him in the final section of the race. While Saxo Bank lost one and still rode the race to perfection, Radio Shack were able to call on their numbers too to help Armstrong limit what could otherwise have been more significant losses.
Some of the team cars were having trouble keeping things in check getting around the corner and like the riders, they were accelerating hard up the straight in the hope of making up positions on the 12kilometre run across the French border to cobbled section number 4.
One of the last men to make it around the corner and off up the hill was crash victim Damiano Cunego. He had the worst sections of stones still to ride but in the last two days all of his fears about racing these tough Belgian and French roads had come true and with only four days or racing complete, he was effectively out of contention for the 2010 Tour de France.
The preparations and anticipation for the passage of a Tour stage is something I have witnessed many times since first seeing the race in 1996. The amazing thing about today’s event was how quickly after the passage of the final rider and the Voiture Balai or Broom Wagon, the roads were back open and the place took on an look as if nothing had happened at all.
On the walk back to the car, we stopped occasionally to catch snippets of radio broadcasts or watch a TV set up in someone’s front room facing the road and we reached the car with enough time to hear the French commentary of Thor Hushovd’s win in a sprint.
After putting our morning’s preparations to good use and re-fuelling on our final taste of Belgium…
We jumped in the car and picked up the race route again for the border crossing in Rumegies and the motorway to our hotel in Valenciennes.
We’ll be back on the road tomorrow so stay tuned for more from the 2010 Tour de Pez.