Richard picked me up on Saturday afternoon in a rather sporty Honda Accord 2.2 deisel hire car and we headed off to France, via Eurostar, to the ASO hotel at Compiegne for the night before the start of 'Roubaix.
After we checked in, we immediately headed out with a big Dane from CSC H.Q. called Jon and went to meet some VIP's that Richard was looking after for the weekend - they had won prizes to ride in team cars for the race.
The venue was a beautiful Dolce Chantilly hotel, golf and sports resort near Chantilly - famous for the icecream liquor-sauce, as well as horses and polo. Dinner was a top-drawer smorgesboard / buffet, with everthing from oysters to Morrocan lamb - fantastic.
Race day started early for us, Big Jon brought Richard's VIP guests over to our hotel for 8.00 and we walked the 200m (according to Richard - more like 1km,) to the square where the race was to depart.
Richard dished out some VIP passes and we were immediately mingling with cycling royalty like Hinault, Gimondi, Jalebert etc. I went for a wander about the main square and already crowds were assembling and pushing up against the barriers - I strutted about on the opposite side, trying to look official - and loving it!
My job for the day was originally to help ferry bags and equipment from the start to the finish and I was really looking forward to that. Team buses start to arrive and the atmosphere clicked up a gear - I was now fully wide awake and keenly observing all of the different team's preperations and last-minute equipment choices before the depart.
CSC Director Sportive, Scott Sunderland looked stressed but very much the man with the plan and in control. He remembered me from navigating for him in the team car for a couple of days in 2007, when the team were based in Surrey for the London Tour de France depart. I went from feeling flattered to feeling gob-smacked, when he asked if I could help with race service, taking wheels and bottles to some crucial sections of pave where the team cars get held up behind crashes etc. Wow! - he wanted me to potentially be there for Cancellara and O'Grady etc. at a crucial part of the race - talk about a vote of confidence! I could feel my head expanding inside my CSC baseball cap!
Richard and I quickly got the Honda badged-up with offical accreditation so that we could drive on the race route. We would not be part of the convoy but we would be driving between the front of the race and publicity caravan, parking up at our designated points and standing by with wheels and drinks - then cutting accross country to get back in front of the race. My excitement levels went through the roof! Richard looked concerned - apparently, some of the team had asked him if he had fitted the obligatory sump guard - oops!
We took a shortcut accross Compiegne's busy traffic - having the car badged up with race stickers had a dramatic effect - all traffic in town gave way to us and we could basically do whatever we wanted, including driving through red lights and bumping over pavements. All done with the blessing of the Gendarmarie and a knowing smile and nod from the public - the other traffic - at least until they noticed the GB plates!
It wasn't long before we were on the race route - the only car on the race with UK plates (and no sump guard!) I thought I was driving along at a fair lick - 70-80kph on narrow lanes - until we were caught by some press bikes! I don't know where I got the impression that P-R was flat but there were plenty of long drags that would definitely have had me out of the saddle.
After being directed through what looked like a farm gate we were on our first section of pave, it was downhill and twisting and I could imagine how fast the bunch would take this section in the dry. Driving the car on the pave was not easy. The camber was so pronounced that you could not straddle it in the Accord and so I had to place one set of wheels on the top of the camber and the other in the gutter to avoid grounding and ripping bits off the bottom of the car!
We pulled in for a pit stop at a little village on the course and one of the VIP's went to buy some frites and was handed the biggest portions that I have ever seen - there must have been 2kg of chips in there!
Section 23 was our first rendezvous for team duties. We didn't have long to wait. GB's Ian Stannard (Lamboukredit) was away with 2 others and had about 10 minutes on the bunch - an impressive debut by the World Class Performance Plan rider - catching the race within the race - to be at the front of the race when the live TV transmission started. Speaking of TV, this is definitely a classic where watching the last hour doesn't give you the flavour of the race - you need to get the DVD (or live in Euroupe) and watch the race evolve in front of your eyes like a sporting soap opera.
Next came the bunch driven by CSC at the front - surely too fast to hand bottles up to? - O'Grady snatched the bottle out of my hand - nice one Stuey - Cheers!
Even at this stage there were plenty of stragglers and casualties chasing behind and we had to wait 10 minutes or so before we got back into the car. I gave quick beep to the crowd and as if we had pre-arranged it, they lifted the crowd barriers for us and we were off again accross country to get back in front of the race. We took a quick hop up the autoroute and were able to leave at a blocked off slip road when the workers moved the cones for us. Of course they did! - as soon as they clocked the Race stickers on the car!
Rendezvous 2 was Section 10. Getting nervous now, what if I fluffed a wheel change? - on live TV! - I'd never live it down. Thankfully it wasn't going to happen. The dry conditions meant that the mechanics had an easy day. Stannard's break was still away but only by a few minutes now and the bunch were on the rivet now with O'Grady looking good in 3rd place.
Back in the car we had to use our best navigational skills to get back in front of the race before the closing stages. After a couple of dead ends, we just about managed to get back onto the course and squeeze in between the race and the publicity caravan. Richard was at the wheel now and he was loving it - in his element! We were soon up behind a publicity float blaring out the macadona and throwing goodies to the crowd.
What followed was one of the best experiences! The crowds were massive and we gave up trying to weave to miss their feet - we just drove straight at them and relied on them to jump out of the way at the last minute! Up to this point we had been beeping to the crowds and kids were waving back at us. Near the end of the race there were plenty of beer tents on the course, surrounded by plenty of hammered Belgians!
I gave a friendly wave to a group of 200 Belgians outside a beer tent and we immediately got beer thrown at us and our mirrors got punched - as unbeknown to us, a break of 3 were away, the Italian Ballan, CSC's Cancellara and their beloved Boonen - they interperated our smiles as us thinking that Cancellara was going to walk it! Note to self - Flandrians can be touchy if it's not going their way!
The final sections of pave were so familar from all those years of watching the race on TV. I especially remember the bend where Hennie Kuiper punctured when he was away on his own and had to wait for what seemed ages - he completely lost it and when the poor mechanic was eventually able to get too hem, he was rewarded with a thick ear!
All too quickly we were on the last section of cobbles outside the velodrome. We were directed to a car park and ran towards the track centre. Despite all the badges, it was too late in the day for the stewards to let us cross the course to where we needed to get too.
I came into my element here and my years of 'bunking-in' experience paid dividends as I demonstrated to Richard the 'Watson Vault' and we ran accross the road between the motor bikes to get to the finish. We heard some murmors behind us - the hi-viz brigade were not happy! Back into VIP land it we just had time for some champers and then were in the track centre watching the last km of the race on the big screen. Boonen did what was expected and it was all over for another year - except it wasn't.
What you don't see on TV is the arrival of the final stagglers - what really impressed me is that they all sprinted it out for the line. Also what was impressive out of camera shot was Bjarne Riis - we didn't see him until the end of the race and then he was there to see everyone of his riders home and he treated them all with the same degree of respect and praise, no matter how long it had taken them to finish. Watched a few of the riders being interviewed and then we went to chat to the mechanics. As soon as Cancellara had finished his interviews and visited the dope testers, he went straight to the mechanics to thank them all - that's the sort of ambience team CSC has.
O'Grady crosses the line and before he gets his breath back, he thanks all the team helpers - including us! - Proud!
At that point I thought that it had been quite a day - but this was only half time! It had been a long campaign for O'Grady, Cancellara & the rest of the Northern Classics Team. They had started with the build up in the Tour of California and this was their last race before they took a break and the Stage Race Team took over for the summer.
THEY WERE READY FOR A PARTY!
I am honor-bound to not repeat all of what I was prive to that night. Buy me a drink sometime in private and I may elaborate in private - but for now, I'll just say that what followed was a night of serious eating and drinking, with all of the riders and their wives and partners. It was such a privilege to see such great riders, away from the lime-light, relaxed and letting of steam.
O.K., I will tell you one little thing. Their was a little team presentation and last prize was presented to Stuart O'Grady, who was awarded the title of 'The Hardest M****r-F****r on the Planet!' - it was a cobble-stone dug up from the course!
The evening blurred into a long night of drinking and dancing, everyone was fueled-up on champagne and 9.5% Westmoor beer. I last saw O'Grady on the dance floor at 3am! He was no longer dancing, just moving around slowly, refusing to go to bed long after the rest of the riders had departed - I could see how much deserved his title!
These pros have some stamina!