Let's throw it way back to 2008. Below, Dan Hughes tells the now infamous tale of his journey to Europe to help Specialized debut the (then) brand new Roubiax SL2. For the full photo gallery head over to our Facebook page.
I don’t necessarily feel like I’ve reached an age in my life where I can hand out advice to those that aren’t seeking it from me. But if I could suggest one thing it would be this: always have a valid passport. That way, when someone calls you seven days before the biggest one-day Classic of the year, you’re that much closer to getting on the plane.
Through sheer luck, and as strange as it may sound, Lawrence is currently home to someone who’s pretty well connected in the pro cycling world, Nekane Elizabeth Chantal Xuen Mallea. Nekane (for short, thankfully) and her fiancé (Cofidis pro Bingen Fernandez) own and operate Gruppetto Tours based in Spain and in addition to running tours for average joes, they also work closely with Specialized Bicycles to orchestrate media launches and special events. So it was that ten days before the cobbled Classic, Paris-Roubaix, Nekane contacted us to say that she had a spot for a mechanic during the press launch of a new Specialized bike. The job seemed pretty cush: all expenses paid to France, look after the bikes of four journalists and some Specialized staffers, drive a SAG wagon behind them while they ride and on Sunday, get to witness Paris-Roubaix in all its glory. The only two requirements were to have a week away from work, and a valid passport.
My first thought was of our Service Manager, Adam Hess. Adam is an accomplished mechanic, a master-level fitter, he has a great attitude, and he’s been to Europe before. Plus I figured that he was the most likely person to actually have a passport. Well it turns out that he did have a passport…until it was stolen in Europe a few years ago. And while his temporary passport might have worked, it was expired. And I guess we could have paid $300 to have him get a passport overnight from one of those places on the coast, but with his driver’s license also expired, Adam’s participation was over before it started.
With Adam out of the way, the rest of the Sunflower staff immediately started jockeying for the plum assignment, but in the end it came down to Paul, who shares many of the same credentials as Adam (but who would ever have thought that Paul even had a passport?). Several of us quickly tried to bring Paul up to speed about French culture, the history of Paris-Roubaix, and the specific needs of being a mechanic out of a suitcase. At the same time, other people were plotting on how to kill Paul and take his place. Needless to say, Paul employed a food taster in the days leading up to his departure.
I was of course a little bittersweet about not going myself, but I consoled myself with the fact that I had been to Paris-Roubaix before and it would be a great trip for Paul. Maybe even something to tip him over the edge into full roadie status. I had visions of him returning with shaved legs and a snobbish attitude towards mountain bikers. So I was happy for Paul, but a little sad that I wasn’t going. Little did I know that sadness would soon give way to fear.
In an act of supreme kindness, Nekane called a few days later to offer me the opportunity to act as a “guide” on the trip. Before I called Nekane back I got the conditions of my release squared away with Karla, and only after I told Nekane that I would go did it start to sink in that I might be in over my head (to fully appreciate how under-qualified I was, consider that the guy Nekane usually has act as the guide is none other than ex-pro Jo Planckaert…of the famous Planckaert family of Belgian pro cyclists, and who in 1997, was second at Paris-Roubaix). I knew that the staffers from Specialized would be really fast. They get to ride 365 days a year, and after riding with some of them a couple of years ago in California, I knew that I would be hanging on for dear life. My only hope lay in the knowledge that Paris-Roubaix was fairly flat, that it favored power riders, and that the bigger you are the less likely you are to get bounced around on the cobbles. I also prayed for soft, dough-like journalists (whose care of would be be my primary job) that couldn’t ride real fast.
So four days before Paris-Roubaix, Paul packed his tools and I packed my bike and we were off for France. Unlike my most recent bike trip abroad (with the Drs. Gatti and McBride), there was no running through airports on this trip and our luggage all made it to Europe without a hitch. Nekane picked us up from the airport and we went to pick up the RV that had been rented for the week’s events. Paul was a little nervous about piloting this 20ft. behemoth down the narrow roads of France, but we quickly made it to the hotel and started to set up camp. Trips to the grocery store for Mike Sinyard’s (Specialized founder and President) favorite brand of energy snacks and my favorite variety of beer helped kill some time before the new bikes from Specialized arrived. We worked late into the night putting bikes together and distributing journalist schwag. It was actual work, but we were in France so how bad could it really have been?
The journalists and the staff from Specialized were supposed to arrive late Thursday afternoon so in the morning Nekane sent us out to scope out a ride for the crew to do on Saturday. It was billed as me riding my bike around for a couple of hours while Paul followed in the van. What it turned into was a four hour drive in the van while Paul and I did approximately 300 u-turns on the roads Northeast of Compeigne. Helpful tip: when reading the map to a non-French speaker (like Paul) don’t attempt to pronounce street names or towns in actual French; that just confuses the driver and leads to a frustrating afternoon. Also, since “chamois time is riding time” I count this driving adventure as a four hour ride, just to be clear in my training log.
We returned to the hotel with a really good route mapped out (narrow country roads, chateaus, etc.) and met up with the folks from Specialized and the various journalists. There was a brief meeting wherein Ben Capron (Global Marketing Manager for Specialized) had everyone introduce themselves and it quickly became apparent that there were some strong riders in the group. Capron himself is no slouch and the same could be said for Mike Sinyard. But when you add Don Langley (Specialized engineer and world record holder on the track; silver medal at world’s a couple years back, and the fixed gear bike the “Langster” is named after him), Chris D’Aluisio (another Specialized engineer who’s also a Pro/1/2 rider that specializes in cyclocross), and James Startt (journalist and a former neo-pro from a few years back), then the deck was really stacked for some fast riding. My objective changed from one of gallant guide to “just don’t embarrass myself too badly.” Thursday wrapped up with bike fittings for the journalists and then to bed in anticipation of Friday’s festivities.
Due to Specialized’s close relationship to the Quickstep team (home of current world champion Paolo Bettini, and Belgian superstar Tom Boonen), Friday was an awesome day from start to finish. We began the day by locating the Quickstep team bus in the village of Wallers, just 1km for the start of the Arenberg Forest. The plan was to roll out with the team on their reconnaissance of the course. While Paul and I readied bikes for riders, the who’s who of Belgian cycling wandered around the little car park. Tom Boonen was of course there, as was current Belgian champion Stijn Devolder (winner of the Tour of Flanders just five days before). Former Ghent-Wevelgem winner (and now directeur sportif for Quickstep) Wilifred Peeters chatted up Capron and Sinyard from Specialized while Patrick Lefevere (head honcho at Quikstep) looked on. Meanwhile, people took turns getting their picture taken with Tom Boonen’s bike. It was enough to make you dizzy, and that wasn’t just from the embrocation on the riders’ legs.
That dizziness was soon to be augmented by extreme vibrations however. The Forest of Arenberg is a 5-star (most difficult) sector of pavé that measures 2.4km (roughly 1.5 miles). So while the 1km lead-up to the Forest was pleasant enough (riding amongst the Quickstep team), the subsequent 2.4km was a pretty rude awakening. To appreciate the Arenberg, you’ve got to imagine the worst cobblestones you can think of. Big loaf-of-bread looking stones, laid at improbable angles with large gaps in between them. Then put yourself aboard a bike on 700X23 tires (700X25 max) and in an adrenaline-fueled sprint, launch yourself after Tom Boonen for 1.5 miles. Oh, and to complete the vision, be sure to get dropped by the Quickstep team within the first 100 yards of pavé, and then get passed by some 20 other pros over the remaining cobblestones (that’s if you want the “Dan Hughes experience”).
Understandably, the first sector of cobbles completely blew our little group apart. Most of us regrouped after the exit of the forest to tighten some slipping seatposts and handlebars, but for one intrepid (and STRONG) rider, James Startt, the day was full-throttle from then on as he hung with the Quickstep team for some 60km after the Forest of Arenberg. And I was supposed to be the “guide?” Not likely with this crew.
With 11 more sectors of cobblestones to tackle, our group continued on towards Roubaix. I fixed some flats, tightened some water bottle cages, and even gave up my front wheel to Bill Strickland of Bicycling Magazine when he flatted his. All the while, Paul followed along behind in the van, probably causing untold damage to the vehicle’s suspension and undercarriage. It was slightly surreal. One minute you’re giving a helping hand (literally) to one of the Japanese journalists (probably violating some strict code in their culture in the process) to get them back to the group, and the next you’re being passed on the pavé by Filippo Pozzato (and his long blond locks) or George Hincapie. Heck, we even passed Roger Hammond of the High Road team at one point. In retrospect he was probably waiting for his team car to catch up (possibly blocked by Paul), but I have to think that even for the pros it’s slightly weird/odd to have someone yell “Good luck on Sunday, George!” (as I did when Hincapie passed me) when you’re out in the middle of nowhere France.
At the end of the day we had taken in about 15.5 miles (25km) of cobblestones interspersed between our total mileage of 55 miles (90km). My wrists were sore and the bone I broke in my hand a few years back in Moab was bothering me. I had also worn a hole in my wrist from my watch fob repeatedly poking me, but it wasn’t too bad since I had taken it off after only two sectors of pavé. But we were in France, so how bad could it have been really?
We elected to skip the remaining sectors of pavé as they were run through some heavily traveled streets near Roubaix. We instead trundled into the van and the RV and headed to the Kennedy Hotel in Kortrijk where the Quickstep team was staying (although in what would become a pattern, engineers Chris and Don headed out for more riding). After a quick clean-up, we were treated to sit in on a private press conference with Boonen where he detailed his love of the new bike he had been given to ride (what else would you say with Mike Sinyard and Ben Capron in the room?) and afterwards we got to eat “with” the team in the adjoining conference room. The fare was quite good with a start of a full plate of spaghetti, followed by a large salad, and finally (since we were in Belgium), a steak with accompanying “frites.” Perhaps the most striking portion of the evening for me however was looking over at the table of the team members and thinking that they all looked like kids; kids that had been racing competitively for almost 15 years at a very high level. It gave me something to think about on our two-hour car ride back to the hotel.
Saturday was supposed to have been the day of Paul and I’s scouted “Tour de Mangled French Pronunciation” ride, but at the last minute it was decided to instead ride from the hotel since time was short. This was fine with Paul and I since we could use the extra time to clean bikes and do minor mechanical tweaks while the Specialized engineers briefed the assembled journalists on the details of the new bike that no one is supposed to talk about for 3 months. Only later did it dawn on me that since we were riding from the hotel, I would have no idea where we were for the total of the ride I was supposed to be “guiding.” Paul and I worked out a complex system of hand signals and radio code words (since he would be following in the van) to help figure out where we were, but our plans were blown out of the water in about 3km. With the Specialized engineers leading the way, followed by “James-the-neo-pro-turned-journalist,” we were quickly doing 25-30mph along narrow little roads and tight roundabouts. No time to look at a map, or radio back to Paul for directions. And when we started “swashbuckling” through traffic and passing 20 cars at every stoplight (again all under the direction of the engineers), calling back to Paul would have been pointless anyway since he’d been dropped in the van some kilometers back (and ultimately turned around and went back to the hotel). Luckily one of the engineers had a GPS unit and the other two knew the area pretty well. All that was left for me to do was ride. Everyone’s bike was running smoothly and thankfully one of the journalists was showing some signs of fatigue, allowing me the “excuse” of slipping to the rear of the pack to check on his condition. We returned to the hotel after a couple of hours and most of the group headed out to Compeigne to secure press credentials for the big race. I did another lap on the bike with the engineers (which was ridiculously slow for some reason) while Paul borrowed a bike and did a little ride of his own. The second lap was filled with sprints for city limit signs, and I remember clearly sprinting for one sign that was about 200 meters away. As I stood up to sprint, Don Langley starting spinning in his little chainring and was gone before I could say good-bye. I told myself that this was to be expected as Don does hold a world record in the 200 meters on the track, and secondly, that sort of thing happens to me all the time when I ride with Keith McMahon back home.
Eventually, we cleaned up and headed to dinner in Kortirjk. Saturday’s dinner was a really special affair as we again got to eat with the Quickstep team. This time however, the setting was much more intimate and I was able to look over my shoulder and see the entire team enjoying their last supper before Paris-Roubaix. Patrick Lefevere introduced the whole team to us, and then joked that they were going to sign the journalist James, since he had been able to hang with the team for so long on Friday. The local paper even had a photo of the team training with James peeking his head out at the back of the line. The team eventually excused themselves and headed to bed while we remained and were entertained with stories about Mario Cipollini (as told by his friend Simone, who works for Specialized as a team liason and was instrumental in getting Quickstep aboard Specialized bikes). I didn’t catch all the details, but in Cipo’s eyes there’s a difference between “ProTour” level women and “F1” level women. That, and apparently if Cipo is surrounded by beautiful women and you have one on your arm, it doesn’t matter how many Cipo has…he wants yours. Must be that Italian blood that makes him sprint so fast. We finished up our meal and then headed back to the hotel to start packing up bikes (an ordeal that took until the wee hours of the morning).
After an overnight soaking of rain, Sunday morning dawned bright and relatively clear. Our group scattered to various locations associated with the race and Paul and I were left to drive one of the rental cars on our own. As early as we rose, we were far from the first ones awake in our group. Not content with the miles accumulated thus far, two of the Specialized engineers (Chris and Don) got a ride from the hotel to Compeigne with Nekane at 4AM and started riding the entire race course (260km) at 5AM with lights mounted to their bikes. We were to see them again nine hours later in Roubaix. Without such an ambitious timetable, Paul and I drove to the race start in Compeigne. We watched the riders sign in for the race, I did some shopping for my sons (what child wouldn’t love a Tom Boonen keychain or a scale model of the Cofidis team bus?), and we saw the racers depart at approximately 10:50AM. We were then on to our next assignment…stealing route signs. The first one was pretty easy, we just asked a French guy who was taking them down for one. He smiled, gave us one, and I’m sure thought “silly Americans,” or something like that. But once we had our appetite whetted, I wanted more. This entailed getting into the toolbox and securing the side cutters, but soon enough we were trailing the course and stealing as many signs as possible. Our total tally was a measly four, but we didn’t want to risk the ire of the local gendarmes or miss any crucial portions of the race.
From Compeigne we traveled North towards our old friend the Forest of Arenberg. We had heard from Nekane that parking around the forest was crazy, but through our superior navigation skills (and a small amount of bickering between Paul and I) we were able to swoop into a sweet parking spot just after the exit from the forest. We were there well in advance of the race, so we took some time to drink a beer (Duvel of course) and walk the cobbles. Paul remarked that the cobbles were too tough even to walk on, but he had had more beer than me at that point so that’s up for debate. The race eventually came flying through, and both Paul and I were amazed at the speed with which those racers can go, especially over the pavé (even the wind from their passing is impressive). We then trekked back to the car and headed towards the velodrome in Roubaix. Nekane had told us that we probably should go directly from Arenberg to the velodrome due to traffic issues, but we couldn’t resist stopping for another sector of pavé, as it traversed right next to the highway for awhile (I’m sure parking on the shoulder of what was essentially an Interstate wasn’t exactly legal, but we had good company doing it). Not wanting to miss the finish and also make sure we lived up to work responsibilities, we then drove straight to Roubaix.
Here’s an interesting tidbit about Roubaix: the velodrome isn’t really on the map for the city. And it’s a big city. So while this solved the problem of Paul and I arguing about what the map said and what language it said it in, it did leave us at the mercy of the Roubaix locals. Luckily, my pidgen French (“Pardon monsieur, ou est le velodrome?”), shouted at various people on the sidewalk was enough to get us close to the velodrome. Excited to have found our intended destination, we quickly made our way inside the velodrome and staked out a spot in the public section that gave us a good view of the finish and the 30ft jumbo-tron on wheels. We then watched as Boonen, Cancellara, and Ballan rode in for their final lap and a half of the track. And as you probably already know, in a script that couldn’t have been any better if Specialized had written it themselves, Boonen sprinted past his rivals and won his second Paris-Roubaix aboard the bike that we had been there to show off to the journalists. The entire Specialized crew were exchanging high-fives and hugs and there were smiles all the way around as we headed towards the cars with the intention of heading back to the Kennedy Hotel in Kortrijk for the team celebration.
In retrospect, it was extremely fortuitous that Boonen won. Sure, the engineers were happy that the bike they had designed had won the toughest one-day race on the calendar. And Sinyard and Capron were stoked that their marketing efforts could now roll into high gear. But it was perhaps most fortunate for me, since the thrill of victory was just enough to gloss over the fact that I had (in my haste to reach the velodrome) forgotten to remove the GPS unit from the window of the rental car. Apparently, the area around the velodrome is a little rough, and leaving the GPS in plain sight was an open invitation to have the window broken and the unit stolen. Maybe one of those helpful Roubaix locals had actually told me that in our hurried conversations, but it hadn’t registered with me. I was also quite lucky that more stuff hadn’t been stolen out of the car. All of my and Paul’s stuff was in there, but more importantly so was Luke the engineer’s laptop…with all the designs for the 2010 Specialized line. So in the end it was “just” 1000 euros in damage to the rental car. I guess we got off cheaply, but be sure to keep up to date on Bicycling Magazine’s Bill Strickland’s blog. I’m sure a future topic will deal with how he nearly froze to death in the backseat of a Ford Galaxy going 160km/hour towards Brussels. They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, right?
After a brief stop at the team hotel (drinking a glass of champagne while Boonen ate dinner and watched the race recap on TV), we wrapped up our adventures with one final dinner with the Specialized folks in Brussels. The next morning we jumped in the car with Nekane and headed for our flight from Paris. She dropped us off and continued on to Spain to spend some time with her fiancé.
And just as quickly as it had started, we were on our way back to the States. We went into this trip wanting to distinguish ourselves in the hopes of being invited back at some point, and while the jury is still out on that subject, we’re hopeful that we’ll be mucking around on the Continent again sometime soon. After all, I’ve still got a few years left on my current passport and I know Adam is getting his all squared away.