Everyone experiences cycling in a different way, and to illustrate this variety we invite columnists to write about their personal experiences on two wheels. Marijke de Laat travelled to Roubaix to do some riding and she let us know what it’s like to witness the Tour de France up close.

Le Velodrome

We had planned a nice route to ride — to the south of Lille, and from there through Wannehain and Baiseux and back to the Velodrome in Roubaix. Our final destination was of course the location of the finishing straight of stage 9 in the 2018 Tour de France, and the last section of our ride included the stretch of road that professionals would be racing past a couple of hours later, headed towards the finish. And that became obvious quite quickly.

Barriers were set up along long sections of the route and large groups of French fans were already gathered behind them, ready to scream their heroes over the cobblestones. They were really into it! We were also cheered as we passed the fans, and it really made the final kilometres fly by.

Le Gendarme dit “Non!”

We were happily heading for the finish until, one kilometre before the finish, a policeman put an end to our fantasy of crossing the line like the professionals: “Non!”. Oh well, we decided to continue on foot and see how close to the finish line we could get. The answer: 150 metres in front of the finish, which turned out to be exactly the spot where the three breakaway riders started their sprint in earnest.

But that was not before the entire publicity caravan had passed by. Giant plastic French fries on wheels, cheese, plastic cows, extra-large bicycles and a whole bunch of other weird items attached to the roofs of cars crossed our view. Once this publicity circus had passed by, the giant TV screen showed that the pros still had some 30 kilometres to go. Crash after crash filled the screen…

The climax

When the TV screen announced that there were 5 kilometres to go, you could literally feel the tension mounting in the crowd. More and more people joined in, pressing towards the barriers as the first fuzzy dots on the horizon gradually transformed into racing cyclists. Wait, wait, wait and…sprint!

The breakaway shot over the line; John Degenkolb won, to the joy of the German gentleman standing next to us. Zoom, zoom, zoom: more riders shot over the line. Wow, they were travelling fast…

John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) starting his sprint at the 150-metre mark. He won the stage. Photos: Marijke de Laat

The departure

Then something strange happened: the large group of spectators immediately disappeared. At first we couldn’t understand why they didn’t want to enjoy the aftermath. Suddenly we realised that France was preparing itself for the next sports event. The World Cup Final. Half an hour after the first riders crossed the line, the streets were completely deserted.

The empty streets of Roubaix

The whole country was glued to the TV, getting ready for the next big party. What a day!