Cent Cols Challenge: Classics

A daily journal from the end of the road

The Spring Classics are the hardest one-day races in cycling. Painfully long distances, ridden over the juddering farmland tracks of northern Europe, often in pitiful weather, they instil fear into even the toughest of bike racers.

In May 2016, ten brave amateur cyclists attempted to ride the full routes of six Spring Classics in just seven days. During this special Cent Cols Challenge the riders reflected on their endeavours each evening with handwritten notes. The following entries take you on a journey deep into the heartlands of the sport.

I don’t want to spoil it for anyone but we made it… Summarise the whole thing? Tough, but I’ll try: If you ride one sector of the Roubaix cobbles, you will understand how hard they are to ride. You cannot comprehend what it feels like to ride 52km of them. Similarly, to ride one of the Liège-Bastogne-Liège climbs is to get a smell of the race. To ride one of the sportives of these great races is to get a taste of them but to ride six full-length Classics back-to-back is to devour them, to have them in your guts. They have truly deepened our respect for the pros. They have reminded us how resilient the body is. We all felt broken after Paris-Roubaix and yet we flew round Amstel after our ‘rest’ day. These races end with a fight between the individual stars, but the winner always thanks his team after the win. None of us could, or would, have done this on our own. Our teamwork with focused, positive minds was as important as our legs.

Only hours after finishing, thousands of kilometres separate us already, but the long hard roads we shared have created an emotional bond that kilometres cannot touch. Which days did riders prefer? OF COURSE, the two hardest, Paris-Roubaix and Liège-Bastogne-Liège! The more the ride asks of us and the further it pushes us, the more intense the sharing of that experience becomes. Ask any CCC rider! Now for some sleep. What an event. – Phil.

Day 1

Tour of Flanders: 268km

Day One. 7.30am roll out. Unending rain. Four falls. No breaks. Six punctures. One bike lost on the plane, one snipped Di2 cable. Roadworks turning us into cyclocross racers. One rider temporarily lost. Two carnivals and a pro race flash past. Did I mention the rain? Amazing morale and good humour. The Koppenberg as slippy as an ice rink. Trudging up it shrouded in a feeling of failure. A shout goes up: “even Eddy Merckx walked up here once!” Very timely. A chorus of ‘respect’ from a local Belgian club’s Sunday ride. They are tough here. The rain! First rider home at 20.30 after 13 hours. Last man home at 21.15. We all made it. Conclusion: how do the pros race along these narrow roads? They aren’t the same humans as us. Dinner a lively affair – but it’s still only day one. Bed for the riders at 23.30. One in the morning now, support crew up tomorrow at 5am to load the bikes for a transfer to the start of Gent-Wevelgem. Onwards. – Phil.

Day 2

Gent-Wevelgem: 220km

A dry day, thank goodness. Made going up the Kemmelberg easy. A little wind, but it is Belgium. The route is a winner. Tight, twisting turns, beautiful views and surprisingly severe climbs. This is supposed to be the ‘sprinters’ classic’… Amazing positive spirits among the riders and a real group spirit for going fast. We all want to succeed in this challenge. Even the stronger riders are very tolerant, slowing up for everyone. Last rider home at 20:30, dinner over by 22:15 – an hour quicker than yesterday. Paris-Roubaix on Tuesday, then a rest day. It’ll be tough. How do I do this on so little sleep, and ride and talk all day? Pure passion for sharing these roads with others. And we haven’t even got to my ‘home roads’ yet, the Ardennes. I look forward to it. Checking out. – Phil.

Day 3

Paris-Roubaix: 262km

Place du Général de Gaulle in Compiègne at 8am. The morning traffic plays its warning drum roll as our tyres tap away on the cobbled square. The battle anthem is sounded. We do the first 90km at just under 30km/h. Did you know Paris-Roubaix has a ‘hilly’ section? French rollers. The draining kind. Then, cobbles at Troisvilles. Muddy as anything. Back wheels all over the place. We panic: ‘will they all be like this?’ The riders take the battering well. Some even embrace the ‘fun’, pounding through the fields. The Roubaix magic takes hold. This bunch are mighty. Good humoured, resilient and they let me boss them around at the feed stops – “fight he who tempts you with the idea of rest! We still have 135km to go!” Introducing Mr Walter Beckers, the authentic Belgian hardman and my co-guide. He can only ride in one position – on the front – and so we let him. All day. Every day. Don’t bother asking him about fatigue (he won’t understand the question) or the gradient (he doesn’t notice it). Yet he’s a warm, modest, much-loved man. He pulls us for 265km today. At the same cadence. The Beckers and Deeker team is B.A.D. news if you don’t want to suffer. We catch evening sunlight glinting off the Carrefour de l’Arbre cobbles. Makes even those brutes look beautiful. A timeless moment. Last rider makes it home at 21.20, having done four laps of the velodrome to celebrate. It feels like flying on its smooth surface after the brutal battle beforehand. Another 14-hour day on the bike. How lucky are we? The staff are doing a ten-star job. Nothing phases ‘Spanners’ Craig. Just today he fixed a broken pedal, seized BB, brakes, wheels, tyres, saddle and stem. He keeps smiling. So, the Flanders rides are behind us. An indelible stamp on our psyches. We now head east for the bergs and smooth tarmac of the ‘Ardennaises’. Tomorrow is a ‘rest’ day. Merci Roubaix, au revoir. – Phil.

Day 4

Rest Day: 0km

“Suffering, culture, friendship: THIS is cycling!”
“Sharing personal, physical, and emotional boundaries with seven strangers.”
“Feeling physically and mentally ready for anything now.”
“Tracing the roots of bike racing & understanding the hardness of the Spring Classics.”
“Finding out that a lot more is possible on your bike than you thought when with new friends.”

The above lines, written by our riders today, show the simplicity of this experience. The riding has been so tough and yet so simple. Fight the pain and exhaustion through total focus and the pain slowly subsides, giving way to a wonderful feeling of overcoming. When shared with new friends, that impression is further enhanced. Today we have rested. Tomorrow [Thursday] we will ride from our hotel in Maastricht to weave a cat’s cradle 275 km-long through Limbourg, via 34 climbs. The stories we bring back will only mean something to our little group. People will pay respect, admire and encourage, but only we will be able to fully explain to each other what we will have actually achieved. Our prize is hard to share. We can hardly define it to each other. Maybe we don’t need to? – Phil.

Day 5

Amstel Gold: 272km

Something is wrong: todays’ comments talk about the ride as if it were a wonderful day out. One even calls the whole trip a ‘vacation’! The sunshine and lack of wet clothing seems to have changed all perspective. Roubaix is a rite of passage and after its harsh WW1-scarred countryside, the hills of Limbourg are reassuringly civilised and unthreatening. Or, quite simply, the guys have gained in confidence, ability & fitness and 200km seems a totally normal distance for a ride. Quite right! The Classics routes have revealed their individual characters to the eager students. A sunny day was a deserved reward for the Flanders punishment. But in a few hours on Friday we roll again, back in Belgium and under 90% chance of very wet skies. Ah, that’s better. It won’t phase them though: this group has become a super-solid unit, tighter and more efficient by the day. Bring on the Ardennes to test them properly now: two days of uncompromising climbing with undoubtedly the toughest ride to close this journey. They will win, I am sure. – Phil.

Day 6

Fleche Wallonne: 206km

It’s not just the riding. For the staff, it’s been shorter nights and longer days. Transfers. Long daily distances. The need to continually keep all aspects of the show flowing. The riding is almost the simple part. For the clients too, the relentless character test comes not only from the tarmac, but also from the intensity of the daily schedule. We have not once left our dinner table before 22.00. We have not once left our breakfast any later than 7am. As the legs become fitter, the mind becomes more confused by fatigue. I notice that the riders comment less on what they have spotted from the bike. The fatigue is numbing and yet the riding is humming. This morning we left our hotel in Holland at 6.30 and after a short transfer start riding at 9am. The Flèche is all about the Muur, of course, but the route regularly presents yet another gradient-fest. But we know we are winning. Feedstops take away fewer riding minutes per day. The average riding speed slowly creeps up. The Muur is chaos. People are everywhere celebrating something. we feel so far from THAT world. We climb back into the van to transfer to our hotel in Liège. Riders collect their room keys at 22.30 and disappear instantly. No one has even yet had a post-ride shower. The eve of the final battle will once again be short. No one feels like writing. We deserve a win tomorrow vs LBL. – Phil.

Day 7

Liège-Bastogne-Liège: 266km

It was one of those mornings when you just feel so happy to be right in that moment. Liège was still sleepy at 6am, but the hazy, sunlit sky promised a day never to forget. We were in the Ardennes in search of beauty, fun, pain and fulfillment. We found all four. On my ‘home’ roads we rode one of our fastest days, brimming with confidence and warm camaraderie. Our ‘weaker’ riders (in relative terms!) had come through their doubting days and were flying. Along the way we added in the Stockeu and the Maquisard (which the race didn’t do this year) and of course went and got that last 10% cobbled climb where Wout Poels made his killer move in April. The beauty of the route almost belied its cruelty. I have ridden this route many times but it had never been this good. – Phil.