For awhile there, I tried to take notes. I thought I was doing a pretty good job. I got home and went through my notebook, and an entire day’s entry looked like this:
Beauty Silence (gears)
Wind all Blindz/trust.
Cobble live after quit thoughts.
Pedal fly stop on beauty…somewhere deep, dark but then so deep it was light, bright, then the descent after the, after the, after the sun, orb, right at us.
Stares would wash us. And an Orval.
I usually take around 2,000 to 5,000 words of notes a day when I’m working a story. Still, something remained.
We started in the cold dark, a cold that made the dark darker and a dark that made the cold colder. We did not speak to each other. We rode in single file. We had the night before begged the hotel clerk to stay past her shift when she was relieved at the desk and go over and open the cafeteria early so we could scrounge some kind of breakfast, boxed cereal at least, and she had, and so we had eaten some but not enough to make up for what we’d already done or to prepare for what we still had to do, and we knew that. We did not talk of this, or anything else, not the cold and not the dark or how each intensified the other, and not what waited for us at the end of the raveling road. We never even spoke to agree to our silence; we just all six of us knew this was how it had to be, though we could not then have said why and still today cannot. I’ll see Taylor or Milliman or Jeff or Alvarez or Ben and say, “You remember the start of Roubaix?” And they will blink, or exhale, or look down and shake their heads, or utter a one-syllable affirmation like oh or unh or phew. The how and why of those bleak hours remain beyond any fathom of ours, but to me the deeper wonder is that I would not trade that wretched time for anything I’ve ever done on a bicycle.
The question was never if Stoepid Week could be done. I regularly pedal out of the parking lot of the local bike shop with three or four people who with a day’s notice could knock the thing out. The question was: Could it be done by us?
Back in September the year before, Alvarez had sent me an email: “Concocted ridiculous plan: Ride routes of 5 of cycling’s Classic races in 7 days. Gent-Wevelgem, Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Amstel Gold, Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Full lengths.”
My response was succinct: “You fucker.” His acknowledgement of my acceptance was equally so: “Good man.”
I’d met David Alvarez when he was working for a Belgian bike manufacturer years ago and we did the amateur Tour of Flanders ride in 40-degree rain. I think we became friends because either of us would have bailed if the other had asked to, but neither of us would ask. And because, at the finish, instead of sprinting to the car to warm up, we coasted over to a beer tent and stood shivering and smiling with our bikes while we put down cans of Jupiler until the cold no longer mattered. We’d stayed in touch since then, ridden when we could. He’d jumped all around the bike industry then opted for a grown-up’s career, more lucrative and secure, in the mass peddling of European kitchenware. But he missed something about the life, so from his home in Belgium he teamed up with Todd Gardner, a frame-builder who lives in Oregon, to launch a small-batch bike company they were calling Stoemper. He wanted to debut the bikes with the challenge he threw at me, which came to be known as Stoepid Week.
The invite also went to Chris Milliman, a photographer and videographer who at 6-feet-4 and 220 rides like Godzilla with a lot of fast-twitch muscle; to Taylor, a last-name-only bike mechanic who is the kind of natural and all-around cyclist who muscles a singlespeed up the most feared wall in the town where we both live, but also pulls 50-mile rides on a townie and in jeans; Jeff Lockwood, a friend of ours who was living in Antwerp, soft-spoken and unassuming in the way an anvil is not much to look at until you start banging hard things against it; and Ben Berden—the one true gifted rider among us, a pro cyclocross and kermiss specialist from Belgium.
Aside from Ben, the rest of us were the kind of cyclists who congenitally and perhaps somewhat pridefully seem unable to get enough saddle time to be prepared for whatever’s coming at them. The 1,230-kilometer distance wouldn’t, I figured, be the worst of it. The real challenge was the distance plus the cobblestones. Plus the hills. Plus the cobblestoned hills. Alvarez tried scaring us into shape with anti-pep talks—reminding us, for instance, that on day six, although every cobble would be behind us, we’d still have to ascend more than 12,000 feet. I’d found my own stats that woke me up at night. Like: The last 25 of Amstel Gold’s 32 climbs come in the final 165km—about one every 6.6km—and, toward the end of the course, we’d hit one of the last eight climbs about every 10 minutes until we ended atop one of the world’s worst. But nothing scared me like Paris-Roubaix. I’d ridden those cobbles plenty. I’d been on them once with the three-time winner, Johan Museeuw, when he was just out playing around, and he’d showed me some lines and told me I was a monster—right before he casually motored away. Another time, during what was for him a simple shakedown ride but for me was a leap of faith into the mouth of hell, I went into the Arenberg Forest secteur on four-time winner Tom Boonen’s wheel. I’d only managed to complete the full length of Roubaix once, after I knew how to ride the cobbles right and I had some of the best fitness of my life. I’d ridden the cobbles wrong a lot, and ridden them unfit, and once wrong and unfit and had finished that time with the skin of my palms flayed raw as stigmata. I’d bled into my chamois until it was sopping red.
We rode silent until we saw the sun. We said things in the light like “Okay,” or “Finally,” and a couple of us reached back and took sandwiches out of our jersey pockets. We made our snacks and lunches every day from the breakfast bars at the hotels. We put whatever meats and cheeses we found between whatever bread we found and wrapped it in napkins we stuffed in our pockets, and the heat from our backs kept the sandwiches warm. Late in the day, our sweat made them salty and also dissolved the tissues so we ate much of the paper, too. We scrambled to arrange for a follow car every day. Once it was Ben’s dad as a favor, and once we hired a guy who had a book on a shelf in his study labeled Sport Avec Dopage. Sometimes in the car, depending on how tired we’d been the night before, we would have stocked in a supply of Cokes or tiny sausages or sugar waffles, but we always preferred our lukewarm, damp, sweat-salted sandwiches and ate the better food as a last resort.
Our sandwiches were cold this morning. In some vague but powerful way I found this unnerving. I fell out of line, where I’d been right behind Ben who was ticking off pedal strokes at around a hundred rpm, and I dropped backward to share a lament. I faded past Taylor, who seemed too suddenly happy at the sun’s appearance to commiserate with. I passed Milliman, who was always a little risky to ride beside simply because his motions were so outsized compared to ours—he could subtly adjust his position on the saddle with a scootch of one buttock and end up consuming half a bike lane. Jeff looked to be still somewhere so deep inside himself the sun hadn’t penetrated yet, so I went back to Alvarez. I was about to tell him my sandwich was cold when he said, “I might not make the cobbles.”
Paris-Roubaix does not start in Paris, and hasn’t since 1939. It starts these days where we did, in the town of Compiegne. It doesn’t start with cobbles, either. The first 60 miles bore into northern France on hilly pavement that is wracked by crosswinds and puts about 5,000 feet of cumulative elevation in your legs. Just getting to the cobbles, what people generally consider the beginning, would be a harder ride than most of us did most any typical day back home. But nothing had been typical for some time now.
On the drive from the Brussels airport to Diest, Alvarez had told us that a few things were a little behind schedule. It was early morning, a full day before our first ride, Gent-Wevelgem. We had plenty of time to mop up some details, eat a good meal, relax, get to bed early.
“What’s left?” I said from the back seat.
“Well, our bikes aren’t built yet.”
Taylor, riding shotgun, said, “Of course.” He’d been to Belgium before. He knew how the country operated. He said, “No problem. We’ll slap the wheels on, and slam the bikes together.”
“Well,” said Alvarez, “about that. Our wheels haven’t been built yet, either.”
That’s when we knew our friend had been so long in his adopted country that he now found normal the urgency and organizational acuity of the average indigenous Belgian, which in American terms was about that of Jeff Spicoli.
“Look,” said Alvarez, “Is this just one more stupid week, or Stoepid Week?”
I answered in the affirmative.
We built our bikes out on the sidewalk in front of Fietsen Verheyen, the local bike shop, while the smell of marijuana wafted over from a nearby café. Once all the parts started coming together, and when the wind blew just right, there wasn’t much to complain about. The frames were beautiful. We had Campagnolo components, as tough as a sledgehammer, as soulful—at least to a cyclist—as a Stradivarius. And, sure, we had to build up the wheels from scratch, but they were gorgeous, with glistening hard Chris King hubs laced to old-world, handmade Ambrosio rims. Tubulars.
Yeah, tubulars: the rarefied kind of wheels onto which the tires must be glued instead of merely snapped in. “We can’t get these glued in time,” I said. “We start riding in twelve hours.” I was saying things everyone knew but I needed to say them, maybe to be able to believe them. “You got to clean a new rim with solvent to remove any oil then let it dry. Then you set a layer of glue on the base tape of the tire and that has to dry. And a layer on the rim that has to dry at least overnight before—”
“Relax,” said Alvarez, “We’ll just tape the tires on. It’ll hold.”
Ben had pedaled over on his bike, the first to be built up. He said, “Hey, this is Belgian stuff, it’s okay.” But I saw that he had brought his own wheels, and they were clinchers, which require neither tape nor glue to hold the tire on. I was about to point this out when Alvarez handed over boxes that wouldn’t have been out of place in the flickering lantern light of a miracle elixir show. Taylor squinted at one of the boxes then removed a roll of the tape. He peeled up an end. It was about the consistency of something you’d use to affix birthday wrap but wouldn’t trust to seal a mailed package.
“You guys know I wouldn’t let you down,” said Alvarez. “Right?”
It was dark by the time all the bikes were built and the tires were taped, and we were a little drunk, and with the traveling, Taylor and I had been awake for about 32 hours. Still, we could all grab at least a few hours of sleep before we had to leave for Gent. That’s when Alvarez remembered that we needed to unpack his new roof rack and install it on his car.
We rode beside each other on the Roubaix course, Alvarez and I, and after awhile we stopped chasing the surges of our friends and went steady and let them wash far out then back into us on the long rises and dips. But mostly, there was no denying it, the tide of the ride was drawing away. I told Alvarez all he needed to do was make it to the cobbles. I reminded him how strong he was on the stones. I told him that when we’d done Flanders two days ago, I had quit on myself at least seven times but wouldn’t quit on my friends, and somehow had made it.
It was Taylor who’d cracked the worst at Flanders, on our third circuit of the cobbled Kwaremont-Paterberg loop. The Kwaremont averages just about 4 percent in grade but is 2,200 meters long; the Paterberg is only 360 meters but averages 12.9 percent. After the first time you do them, you go up the 600-meter Koppenberg, which averages 11.6 percent and tops out at a knee-cracking 22, then do two other hellingen—as the short, steep hills are called. You come around and do the Kwaremont-Paterberg again, plus another climb, then return for a third time, all to end a 160-mile day. When Taylor came apart, it scared me worse than all the times I had. He was in the best shape of his life—he had, as Milliman with his visual perspicacity had pointed out, pro-style hollows around the tendons and ligaments in the bends of his knees. Yet I’d never seen him look worse on a ride.
Alvarez and I were on another of Roubaix’s damnably long shallow hills. He put his hand out and for a tow grabbed onto the side mirror of our follow van, driven today by Gregg, an ex-pro who ran a guesthouse for young American racers. I leaned over and craned my head around Alvarez and shouted through the window, “Don’t you let him get in while I’m gone.” At the top of the hill I kept on the pedals, and bridged up to the other four and when I got there I said, “We might lose David.”
“We can slow some,” said Ben. “But you know we also must ride.”
He meant something none of us could argue with, though none of us could explain it, either. In some way, we all understood that the validity of Stoepid Week depended on the rides being real—that in theory we could take 15 hours to cover the 160 miles of Roubaix, but that wouldn’t really be riding it, not the way we wanted, anymore than someone clocking in at six hours has actually run a marathon. For Stoepid Week to mean anything—whatever it might ever mean—the strange math of authenticity had to be accounted for.
Ben understood that calculation better than any of us. He’d been the one who’d gotten us through Gent-Wevelgem that first day. Our three GPS units were at such war that we went the wrong way at the absolute first turn of the entire trip and never did get much better that day. (Nor would the units come to any lasting terms, so that over the course of the trip they ceded their eminence to human guess.) The giant levers and improbable weights of Milliman’s body began destroying inner tubes and components immediately (a process that would reach its apogee when he’d shear his crankarm from the bike on our second-to-last day, on the Amstel Gold course). Through gauntlets of crosswinds and straight into headwinds, Ben sat wherever the bad side was and tapped away at what lay before us, undaunted and untroubled by our maddening and imperceptible progress, riding as smooth as an hour hand on a journey of undetectable motion around a clock. The flat infinity of the route and our own wrong turns had us so crazed that we were fantasizing about finding the few climbs waiting for us toward the end of the day, the cobbled jump to Cassel, and the legendary Kemmelberg and its run-in. The wind had us praying for precipitous anaerobic ascents on which we might break our chains. Ben set a pace and got us through it. And mostly while sitting up and texting his girlfriend.
I let the group go off on their way toward Roubaix and dropped to Alvarez. I didn’t want to leave him alone. I knew he wouldn’t quit on his friends. I knew we couldn’t really do this ride if we waited for him. He and I pedaled along. We came up to the group, or they came back to us, and we dropped or they left, who knew. We’d done about 300 miles in two days. After the legendary pro Bernard Hinault had ridden Flanders, he’d said, “What on earth have we done to send us to hell now?” I took a long look at Alvarez. We’d taken a rest day after Flanders, but I could see that he’d been burnt down to nothing by the damnation of that ride.
“Don’t quit on me,” I said. A slight shake of his head. We came back to the group, fell off. Came back, fell off. Came back.
One of those times when we’d all come together, I was up talking to Taylor, I think, when I looked behind and saw that we had dropped Alvarez again—and that this time he had stopped riding. The van was idling beside him. I swung around and pedaled against traffic and blaring horns, and Alvarez was off his bike and I raced toward him because I knew he wouldn’t quit on his friends. I just needed to be there. He handed his bike into the van. Then he got in.
I stopped pedaling. I coasted, and coasted. After awhile I arced back around. He’d never have quit on us. We had left him.
Growing up, being raised as white trash, I was taught to beat dogs. I got away from that some time ago, and I’m sorry now for just about every dog I ever hit. I put it that way only because there’s one I still go back and forth on.
Based on that and I guess some other things in my life it is plain to me I am not a very good man but I am at least about as honest with myself about myself as I can figure out how to be. I don’t really know why I wanted to do Stoepid Week, no matter what I write here. I’m generally interested in finding out where whatever toughness I might have lies inside me, and also in finding out what lies the toughness has told me, and, as well, what lies I have been telling about it. But that thing inside us—is it toughness or meanness or is it, just maybe, some kind of love of something? Do we quit or are we left? And can we ever know either thing either way?
There was so much on the cobbles. There was the first of the 27 secteurs, Troisville, which I went into in just about my biggest gear, low on the handlebar, and sitting back on the saddle, my hands just right, my ass muscles driving the bike over the ragged rocks like a speedboat skimming waves, and when I was alone and far in front I looked back and saw the specks of my friends at rest by the van because we had missed a turn off to the left. There was the Franco-Belge equivalent of a juvie roadside trash pickup crew replacing a devastated section of a secteur. There were some guys, looked like just local guys out with their home leaf-blowers, scouring moss from another section. There was the Arenberg, which we went into hot just like Tom Boonen had told me to years ago and damn if we didn’t find ourselves on top of the beast but there was an open smooth footpath on the side that, try as hard as we could to will ourselves to stay on the cobbles, we all rode eventually. There was the corner I slid through and opened up my right knee on. There were war bunkers, and in the fields there were remnants of ordnance we could not see but which some farmer would still even after all these years someday plow up and explode. There was a hobo dog that clearly belonged to no one but loved its bedraggled hermit comrade, a Jerry Garcia doppelgänger pushing a grocery cart of fresh-cut logs out of a secteur in a narrow woods paralleling a highway.
The canine regarded us with something of kinship in the lift of its snout.
And sometime after that, I turned rabid. I could tell I was starting to fall apart and my jersey sandwiches were long gone but I was riding the cobbles so well I didn’t want to stop the van to get some food. Then I ran out of water but I was still riding so good. We came out of a secteur and stopped in a town and rode to the van and Gregg said to me, “You don’t look well. You’re sweating salt all over your jersey.” I took a Coke and asked if there were any little sausages left, and when I did I could feel the corners of my mouth peeling apart where they’d crusted together. My eyes rasped against their lids when I blinked. The pavement rippled under my feet. The sky flickered. Someone handed me the bag of sausages and while I was staring down into it trying to work out the great puzzle of what it was, my friends said it was time to go. I said okay, and I drank my Coke until the can was empty, and when the can was empty I understood what the bag in my hand was and I ate. When I looked around, everyone was gone.
I clicked into my pedals and rode the way we’d been headed, going hard because I did not want to be alone. I chased them all the way out of town and into another, and when I hadn’t caught them, I knew we’d taken different roads. And I’d emptied myself again. And I had left Alvarez. And my knee was bleeding. And we had all left Alvarez. And the dog had looked at us and known something about us.
We didn’t find each other again until the end of the next secteur, where they’d waited for me. I rode up and almost bumped into Milliman. He just happened to be the person I ran into. When he started to say something, I said, “Fuck you, Milliman. Fuck you for leaving me. Fuck you for fucking leaving me. You left Alvarez and you left me.” I was frothing. I spat at him. He is not just 6-feet-4 and 220, he is a bad-ass 6-feet-4 and 220. He’d been riding all these cobbles with a broken thumb. I was going about 154 those days. I must have looked like a chipmunk trying to gnaw down a redwood. Milliman mostly let me wear myself out. When we started riding again, nobody was talking. The van pulled alongside me after awhile. Alvarez leaned out and said, “Man, that was great.” I didn’t say anything. I maybe gave him a hard look. He said, “Can you believe we’re going to be friends after this is all over? Isn’t it great?”
After it was all over, not just that day but the whole thing, we were not just friends but better friends. That’s how it works, unless it doesn’t. Hell, we even quit together, there at the end. We all cracked on a beautiful country road, under a sunny blue sky, in a gentle breeze, on the last day, on Liége-Bastogne-Liége.
The night before we quit, at dinner, Jeff or someone who knew some Dutch had asked for the check. We had romped through Amstel Gold that day, each of us finding legs at some point, riding in short sleeves and carousing up and down the hills, attacking each other for fun, laughing when we passed or were passed, slashing into the corners on our weakly taped tires trying to stay with Alvarez, the best descender, and sitting up atop long and open ridges to ride no-handed and snack on our jersey sandwiches. The brutality of Roubaix seemed so far behind us, as if it had happened on another trip, as if it were an old, old injury that now might ache only if the weather turned bad.
At dinner, Jeff or whoever it was asked again for our total. It’s called “the rekening” over there, how it all adds up. I guess I’d known that all along.
When we talk about it now, none of us is sure how we finally came apart, or why, or why then, or which among us let go of the dream first or last. We’d begun in Liége chilly but not cold in warmers and jackets, peeling layers as we climbed out of a wide Belgian valley, 45 minutes of the silent pedaling that among friends is as good as any conversation we might have had. The pavement was smooth. Jeff was suffering most visibly—his knee—but we all, including him, knew if we could get him into hour four he’d be one of the first of us up whatever climbs were to come. We dipped down, then back up for 30 more minutes on a road so broken that each of us was for some time haunted by that old wound, Paris-Roubaix. But we outsped our aches on the descent until, finally, in the sun-drenched rural Ardennes valley, at peace with our bodies and our quest again, we sat up and rode no-handed, as if our open arms might be antennae that could pull to us some of the magic and glory we’d had at Amstel Gold the previous day.
But we just could not ride, at least not fast enough. The awful math of authenticity bore down on us, colder than the rain we’d outlasted at Flanders, harder than any of the winds we’d smashed ourselves against at Gent: We simply were not going to be able to ride fast enough to complete the course in a way that felt right. We each realized this on our own, and kept it to ourselves for miles, not wanting to be the one to say it. We rode on.
We rode on, and we each realized we all had realized that the dare or dream or whatever it had been had eluded us. The pace slackened, then there came a stretch of resolute pedaling like a last big gasp of breath before something dies, and, finally, on a gorgeous sunlit road the quality of which cyclists immemorial and worldwide long for, a road our GPS could identify only as “road,” one of us spoke:
“We can’t make it.”
We sat up, stretched, grouped, parted, regrouped, blew our noses, held our heads down, looked with sunken eyes at the rise beckoning us, stared out across the green fields left and right. We rolled on, coasting, soft pedaling, making the same dumb jokes we’d been making all week, and we let loose of the ride, let it slip away to wherever such things pass to, and there came to us that awful recompense of having been there at the end of something. We waved the day’s follow car up and stopped and unclipped, and someone retrieved the six-pack of Jupiler that Taylor had bought that morning for the celebration we were going to have once we’d rolled valiant into Liége. Alvarez sat down in the road.
After awhile, we would finish our beers and get on our bikes and figure out how to cut the course to cherrypick the hardest climbs—the Saint-Roch with its average of 11 percent, and the 12.6-percent Stockeau with the monument to the great Eddy Merckx at the summit, and the Redoute haunted by the ghost of the tragic Frank Vandenbroucke. Later, I would think it might mean something that after we had all quit we’d gone and done what some people might call some of the worst climbs of the week. But before that, standing there sipping at my beer and looking at Alvarez, I thought about how long it had been since I’d seen anyone lounge in a road, and how, as a kid, my friends and I had done it all the time in the long summer vacations that seemed a lifetime, and I thought of entire days spent at play, and I thought that you really weren’t spending those kinds of days after all. You were banking them.
But we had the cobbles of Roubaix to get past before we could we live that fine day of failure. There were times that day when we stopped to pee and, surrounded by fields and sky and only each other, we said nothing, which made loud our splashes against rocks that had been set deep into the ground by Roman laborers of another age. There was a chicken in the center of one of those ancient roadways, hesitating as Taylor drilled toward it, a nervous and ragged old fowl summoning a comical yet somehow dignified moment of defiance before sprinting off, clucking her low opinion of us all, which none of us thought to argue. There were the times right before or right after cobbles when I apologized to Milliman, then, just for them having to witness what I’d done, to Taylor and Jeff and Ben. There was a giant farm thresher going along in front of us, holding us back, so wide there was no room to pass between it and the ditch on either side, and I rode up beside it and with my shoulder bumped the rim of the wheel taller than me, as if it were nothing more than a junior racer I wanted to move out of the way, and giant curved cutting things that would drag me to my death were inches from me and the farmer cursed at me in French and we all laughed. There was a rooster standing haughty on the crown of some cobbles late in the day, looking at us as we pressed toward it then turning its head as if not deigning to receive us. We horsed our biggest gears and refused to cede the crown because that line was the only good one on that section. And there imperious in its plumage and unmoving remained the rooster, until after all we split to the left, to the right, abandoning the high point and falling into the gutter and struggling on, caught under the mighty resistance of our gears and the immensity of our laughter.
There was the velodrome, where the race finishes. We did our laps to end it all. Ben won our theatrical sprint because even though it meant nothing it was still a sprint and he was Ben and we were us and it was good for each of us to make sure we had not forgotten that. There was a bench and I sat there, and it was that time of day, right before dark, when the sun casts shadows of indefinite edges, and the separated slabs of wood made stripes on the ground in front of me, and I looked at them blurring and it had been so long since I had simply sat and watched a shadow vanish. There was more. There was so much more. There was the certainty among us now that the worst day might fracture us, that every friendship has a limit, that we would in some circumstance abandon one another or turn on each other. There was a reckoning we would have to make.
Originally published in the May 2013 iPad edition of Bicycling