Two rides over the August Bank Holiday – part one, the Laurent Desbiens Sportif
A weekend of rides based in the Nord/Pas de Calais region of Northern France featuring
the third edition of the Laurent Desbiens Sportif (Ch’Ti Bike Tour) and La Route
des Monts, located in Armentieres, close to the Belgium border and only a short
distance to the Kemmelberg and Roubaix.
In our hotel rooms we pinned our
numbers to our shirts, further adding to the mystique of the weekend
Our small LondonCycleSport team was set to take part in the Ch’Ti Bike Tour, comprising the third edition of
the Laurent Desbiens Sportif and La Route des Monts and held over
the weekend of August 25/26.
We would be following in the wheel tracks of Tour stage winner Laurent Desbiens on his
training rides. The palmares of Laurent Desbiens includes wins at the Four Days of Dunkirk and
stage wins in the Tour de France; he also spent three days in the Yellow Jersey
of the Tour de France. The route borrows roads from both the Dunkirk 4 day and the
Ghent Wevelghem classic.
Like so many France-based events, the local municipality, in this case the
Lille Metropole (Lille being the nearest large town) gave organiser Didier
Soenen and his team their full support and thus full facilities and support were provided. Tour sponsor
Skoda also added to the professional atmosphere by providing service and organisers’
Laurent Desbiens Sportif
Although we must admit to being under the illusion that Saturday’s Laurent Desbiens
Sportif was to be a gentle roll out into the Flandrian countryside, we soon became
aware of what was truly to come when we were handed our numbers the previous day
and viewed the barried finish area with plenty of banners and the line of marshals’
motor bikes that screamed ‘race’.
We arrived at the start only just
in time for Neil to join the end of the mass depart
We also got to talk to a number of helpful and friendly people who chuckled
when we asked questions about the ride, and we got the impression that it was
a bit of an ‘in joke’ to call it a ‘sportif’. Later we heard that classic winner
Franck Vandenbroucke had been at the start, but didn’t intend to ‘win’; rather,
he wanted to animate the event which passed by his home.
In our hotel rooms we pinned our numbers to our shirts, further adding to the
mystique of the weekend, and we outlined our ride plan. Neil Simpson would stay
as close to front as possible and the rest of us would take pictures and get
round the 160k’s in our own time.
Being based a good half hour from the start and being strangers in town, we
arrived only just in time for Neil to join the end of the mass
start. He would have his hands full getting near the front, we thought, as we
eyed the pro-looking local riders in attendance.
As the lead cars set off with horns blaring and motor bikes roaring, the Laurent
Desbiens Sportif saw 500 plus start en masse. We were the very last to start and
gave the ‘race’ a good 10 minutes. Everyone around us was wondering why
we hadn’t started and the broom wagon driver was smiling as us in anticipation
of us getting under way, we told the commentator that we had a ‘relaxed’ plan,
rather than the truth that of one of our party was in the toilet.
The 2nd group on the road
Finally we were off, and with the broom wagon on our wheel we caught our first
earlier starters. One rider had punctured on the line and others had suffered
the same fate as the neutralised field rode out to the start point, where the
lead car revved its engine and the event burst into life.
We chased as hard as we could, but we were unable to bridge the gap to the peloton.
Thankfully we soon caught riders aplenty and we were no longer the focus of
the broom wagon. Our first challenge was the Mont Noir, the hillside littered
with WW2 bunkers and the climb with riders. Soon after we assailed the Mont
des Chats (Cats), where the first feed station saw us welcomed warmly: ‘Ah, Anglais’!
It was a feature of the weekend, how much the locals were pleased to see us on
We soon hit a few more climbs, and on one descent a lead motor bike lay in a
ditch which added to the Tour feel. Next we reached the ancient Flandrian village
of Cassel and the next feed station where we decided to cut the course by 30k
in the hope we would catch the leaders.
It’s a race
It was a pure fluke, but as we rejoined the course the first group of 100 riders
plus soon streamed past flanked by a motor bike escort. We looked for Neil, but
alas he wasn’t in it, and when a second massive group, at about two minutes down,
went by, we wondered if he was still in the chase. Moments later he appeared alone
having suffered a mechanical which saw him detached from the riders ahead. He
was disappointed, but still game to chase them down. A third group was only seconds
behind him, catching him, and he rode to the finish with them.
20 motors, 375 marshals, 2 ambulances
and looked over by Dunkirk 4 Day organiser Alain Cordie
At the finish he told us that the pace was murder on the flat sections, but
slowed on the climbs, ‘so different from the UK’, he remarked. Neil also said
that the bike handling skills of his fellow riders were impressive and he was
able to trust them as they flew over some pretty rough and pot-holed minor roads.
Having witnessed the passing of the lead groups we continued onto the finish.
As we caught riders in ones and twos a train formed, with myself at the front and Andrea and Emma giving the blokes a wheel to sit on. Thus after 5 hours
and 20 minutes we completed our ride and as we crossed the line we heard the
timing system go ‘ping’ and drinks were handed up to us by helpful hands.
The finish area was a lively place with bands playing, roller racing being staged,
free massages and a bike park, and we soon found Neil who had recorded a time
of 4.17.23 in 263rd, an excellent performance over unknown roads. Next on the
agenda was to eat the food and knock back a beer provided by the organisers. The
‘winner’ was Michel Leliere (CC Cambresien) with a time of 3.41.36, finishing
ahead of a five man group.
A notable feature of the ride had been the number of marshals that stopped
the traffic at nearly all road junctions and, we think, stopped all oncoming
vehicles. Apart from in the large villages and towns we never saw an approaching
Organiser Didier Soenen with Neil,
Emma and Andrea
OK, if you had entered the Laurent Desbiens expecting a leisurely days riding,
then you would have been disappointed, as the pace was fast, and in fact it
was in all but name a ‘race’. It would be wrong to say that the event is only
for racers; if you have reasonable pace and fitness the event does present a challenge,
but not an unattainable one. Long after we had finished, riders were still coming
in. I can think of a few teams and UK riders who would benefit from the experience. (Great training weekend away?)
The route was fully waymarked and spoon shaped, leading to a hilly loop before
returning back over many of the same roads with a few deviations. Whilst the
minor Flandrian farm roads were rough and muddy, there were long stretches that
had been freshly tarmacked. Otherwise, with the assistance of hundreds of marshals,
we felt secure and looked after. The main roads were long and smooth, with marshals
at all but a few junctions. The hills were short and sharp, testing, but not
Acting in our support were 20 motors, 375 marshals, 2 ambulances and looked
over by Dunkirk 4 Day organiser Alain Cordier. We loved it and we have
begun pondering a longer trip that could include visits to Oud Kwaremont, the
Arenberg Forest and the Kemmelberg, just to warm us up for next year’s Ch’Ti
Bike Tour weekend.
Sunday’s ‘La Route des Monts’, in Didier Soenen’s words, ‘would be a completely
different day’. Time would tell.
A haunted area
French Flanders owes its history to centuries of political shenanigans, by
the Burgundians in the 100 Years War (15th Century), annexation by the French,
followed by a switch to the Netherlands and then back to France in the 17th
Century, much to the dismay of the Flemish people.
Since then French Flanders has become better know as the battle front where
the trenches saw World war One armies face off in bloody carnage. Some 628 war
cemeteries and monuments bear witness to this and the hundreds of thousands
of soldiers killed in action. The war still haunts every small lane and field,
and it was easy to picture soldiers marching up to the line over the very roads
we were to ride.
Sat 25th Aug – The Laurent Desbiens, 160km.
Sun 26th Aug – La Route des Monts – 60, 115 or 145km
– Rando MTB – 20, 45 or 60km
– La Randonee familles – 10 or 20km, full ride security and open to any type
of bike / trike.
The Ch’Ti Bike Tour weekend featuring the Laurent Desbiens and La Route des Monts
is based in Armentieres and is accessible by Eurostar or plane to Lille. We
chose to drive there via Dover/Calais and it took about two and half hours.
Website – www.lechtibiketour.org
Results – http://www.lechtibiketour.org/fr/classement-2006.html
Reports/Pics – http://www.cyclosport.info/?rub=art&id=289
As used on Paris
Roubaix, my Spesh Roubaix, now featuring deep section rims, a compact
chainset and Toupe saddle.
Neil’s Scott awaits the action
The first group
The rear of the 1st group
The third group about to catch Neil
Neil Simpson on the Flanders roads
The feed station atop Mont des Chats
The lead riders didn’t stop at the feed stations
Skoda are heavily involved with the event providing
a number of cars