Concours de Machines 2022: Backstage of the Adventure with Cycles Manivelle

Each framebuilder has probably their own relationship with the Concourse de Machines. Mine is not monochrome.

On the one hand, there is the excitement of creating a product with soul and sharing it with the framebuilding family. Our profession is “socially” atypical. It is at the same time very solitary: us and our ideas, our tools, the calm atmosphere of the workshop. And it is also inevitable to expose the brand/our work on social networks, the only lever to promote ourselves autonomously, without counting on the press. During the CDM contest, this too virtual sphere becomes the timespan of a few days entirely palpable and real. I find in the other framebuilders a sensitivity, convictions, a listening that it is hard to find in someone who did not go through the same choice of professional life as me. For many, it remains one. The contest is also about that: talking about our joys, our doubts, our desires, our difficulties, and that makes it very attractive to me.

On the other side, there is this shell that I try to put on myself since the frustrations felt during the CDM 2019. I had a bad experience putting so much soul into a project to feel pretty much unconsidered. Too young, too shy to show off, not enough in the good papers. So I take advantage of each edition to remind myself that we are doing this competition above all for ourselves, to continue to invent ourselves. The look of others is sometimes pleasant and often relevant, but it should not affect our own.

We install the contest bike in the back of the van; it’s just if we don’t tuck it under the comforter. We are proud of our build. Our two personal bikes are installed on the bike rack, we want to ride with Caro. A few boxes full of our accessories, to deliver to some colleagues and to go to some stores in Lille. Thomas puts the contact; the music starts, the preparation of the Contest stops only at this moment; I breathe.

The workshop’s departure in Roubaix’s direction is planned around 3 pm. The bikes are ready, and we patiently prepare a surprise for our pilot Caro, which is a small wooden plate engraved with her name (dedication to her job as a carpenter, and plate required in the specifications of the Competition).

I hadn’t been in his van since the 2021 competition; the Jura landscapes and lots of sweet memories come to the surface. During the journey, we prepare our words for the oral presentation tomorrow morning. We arrive near Roubaix while the day falls at its end; Thomas finds us a spot for the night near a fort. We take out the table and folding chairs, cider, and chips, and watch the sun go down. We chat until the humidity brings us back to the back of the van, finding sleep with the excitement of the next few days ahead.

Thursday, the Big Reveal

We have breakfast in the traffic jams of the Lille agglomeration. There is better, but the jury is waiting for us at 10 am, and we are not really early to join the workshop of Andreas, alias La Fraise Cycles, the conductor of this 2022 edition of the Machine Contest.

Neither Thomas nor I know this part of France. Roubaix certainly does not leave us indifferent, with its industrial past, its bricks, its earthenware, its popular bars, and its small grocery stores. We turn to the right to enter the inner courtyard of the Non-Lieu, a third-party venue located in an old woolen mill. There are not many people yet; we are the first to pass. Petor (the famous Dear Susan) and Josh are already there, ready to go on a report for The Radavist. We chat; I remember Petor met on his Tallbike during the 2017 Contest in Bruniquel. I ask him how he is doing with Dear Susan, and a discussion about the situation of British framebuilding scene ensues. The nonstop increasing standard of living makes the job precarious. He is now concentrating on something else, namely the organization of Bespoked, a festival of artisanal bikes (and the people who make them) in London.

We are waiting for the jury to call us; the jury is waiting for us to go up to the first floor. A little misunderstanding makes us start the oral a little later than expected, in a good and smiling mood. Our introduction is a bit romanticized, as we like to write. Then we exchange on our proposal for a long time. The moment is very pleasant. First was a nice meeting with Marie, who is part of the jury and is the co-founder of Avalanche Cycles. We already know the other jury members, Elisabeth, Laurent, and Alexandre. We take their portrait before leaving the place for the next oral.

Following, then, was a succession of pretexts to take place with the bike: technical commission, photo studio, and improvised shooting. The other framebuilders arrive one by one; the curiosity intensifies with each appearance of a new build. The approaches are very different, between the build of Rémi (framebuilder) and Amélie (pilot), a thin tire and cantilever race bike, and Jeanne (pilot)’s Victoire, beautifully painted by Julien (founder of Victoire), a gravel bike that she plans to use on the Atlas Mountain Race next year. Rumors are starting to flow about the route that awaits the pilots. It seems we will be closer to a revisited Malteni Bootlegger (gravel plus race) than to a Paris-Roubaix with elevation changes as we had understood it.

Having passed in front of all the commissions in the morning, we had free time on this early afternoon after a shared couscous. We get on our bikes to meet Roubaix and Lille’s shops to meet the team of “Les Mains dans le Guidon,” a place between a store and a self-repair workshop, which was really great. Notice to the inhabitants of Lille: our accessories are now available in these places!

We appreciate the play of bricks on the facades as we return to LaFraise’s workshop. Caro, our pilot, is not here yet. For good reason, she is now taking her carpentry CAP. Already at the head of her company for three years, she does it to deepen her craft know-how; she is an architect by training, but especially to have one more tool at her disposal to assert herself in this world of men. Congratulations to her. The CAP ends at 5 pm, and a private cab driven Lucas and friend Pépin will travel from Roubaix for an arrival at 11 pm.

The briefing of the race starts at the end of the afternoon; we will make the report to Caro. Alex (Voisine, member of the jury and creator of the trace) takes the floor. The start was at 5 am, 210km for 1800m of D+ (figures from the GPS after the race). The course will be very challenging; there will be rocks, slag heaps, and sand. And thunderstorms are expected. I’m getting a little tense as I discover this route. Either we did not all have the same information, or there was a lack of dialogue. In any case, we did not expect such an engaged route, nor did our driver, who only drives on roads. I call her to tell her about the briefing and wake her up from her nap in the back of the car. I don’t tell her everything, but I tell her that there will be areas where she must be careful.

I am very happy that we have coupled the specifications of the CDM (which really identified Paris-Roubaix in our mind) with Caroline, who wanted a bike that would allow her to get off the road to discover the trails and expand her practice. I hope the course is fun enough for her not to put herself in danger and that she even finds pleasure in this new way of riding.

We leave LaFraise again, in the direction of the Airbnb reserved for the next days by Caroline and her staff. We discover a family house on the edge of Roubaix, with a slight impression of entering someone’s home. Family photos everywhere along with rooms containing cat posters. The day was very tiring and we waited for our pilot with pizzas and some reading about the industry’s history in Roubaix.

Our three friends arrive a little later. A real sports team, with our well-rested athlete and her staff (Lucas and Pépin), who are busy unpacking the numerous bars, legumes, and other foodstuffs recommended for the physical effort that awaits Caro and the rest of the grupetto. We will race behind her tomorrow morning.

Friday, the Storm That Hid the Sun

Wake up at dawn, have breakfast on the fly, and arrival at 4:55 am at the starting line of the race. I observe Caro’s face; I hesitate between absolute serenity and emotions not yet awakened. The departure is given, the play of light of the dynamo breaks the still dark morning, and we embrace this beautiful peloton with our applause.

We leave about twenty minutes later with a small group of motivated people. The first kilometers are along a canal; legs and head wake up slowly as the early morning mist rises from the surrounding fields. The landscapes are punctuated with industrial monsters spitting out their smoke. The aesthetic interest I give to these scenery cohabits strangely with what they tell about our society.

I’m enjoying the beginning of the course, and we cross the Belgian border, and we get to know the cobblestones of Flanders. The excitement of meeting Caro on the course makes us go fast, but I ask the group not to try to catch her at all costs; it’s her race first. And she drives well; we do not see her appearing on the horizon.

A little later, we meet Sophie, a Cyfac rider with whom I had already ridden last year. We chat a bit; she tells me that Caro is not far ahead. Lucas, her friend, receives a call from her. She is approaching CP1 and has been riding alone for 20km. The huge thunderstorm that is coming up does not cheer her up. Lucas suggests that we join her, and speed up the pace. We decide to cut 1km of the track to find her as soon as possible. It turns out that Caro is blocked in the middle of this km, her way is blocked by a herd of cows not deciding to get up right away. She stays there for 10 minutes, and we find her at CP1. She has a big smile and tells me that she feels good; I am reassured. We all leave together, ready to face the rain. As it intensifies, the track turns into a field, and we spend the next hour in torrents of mud, playing with the puddles to make the sticky earth fall off our tires.

It’s not easy to see the GPS numbers stuck when we have just covered less than 10km in one hour, and there is still 150km to go. Our gruppetto remains festive; we continue the road; the sun seems to have never been so close behind the storm.

We are approaching the “Trouée d’Arenberg.” I tell the group that I’m going to take a little bit of time to get ready to take a picture of Caro on the cobblestones (a good excuse not to ride that 2 km). I realize after a few kilometers that the cobbles are not nearby. I leave the track until I find an open grocery store; I will search long enough. I take some good things to start the afternoon, chips, homemade sausages, gingerbread, peanuts, fruit, and drinks. I cross towards the track, await my guests after having installed this aperitif-meal on the ledge of a fries food truck, then closed, like most of the crossed businesses. They take a long time to arrive, I call Lucas to relay some news. I then learn that I have avoided the dunes, which had slowed them down again.

I see them take the turn in the distance and make big signs. They join me, and the peanut pack is quickly finished. We don’t come across any other open shops; this detour was useful for avoiding eating almond bars all day.

Our next playground is the “Terril Sabatier.” A terril is a hill created by an accumulation of mine waste, typical of this northern region. Black earth and the landscape become lunar when we reach the top of the Terril. We are in small, playful, fluid singles. Caro tells me she is starting to enjoy it, and I am delighted. Just after she rushes down a steep slope with a souvenir photo to prove it.

The Terril is now behind us; we arrive at the “Trouée d’Arenberg.” Caro surely goes into it, even taking the time to discuss it with Rémi, who follows her on the edge to check that she is riding the whole cobblestones. You have to see them, these stones. Real teeth planted in the ground. I am impressed by her smile that does not move; she finishes with this 2 km. We turn around, and Lucas and Pépin are no longer there. We decide to continue our route; there are still more than ten cobbled sectors to face.

I’m starting to like that little tickle in my arms from the cobblestones. We have a great rhythm with Caro; the kilometers are finally going by and we start to believe in reaching Roubaix before the deadline. The cobbled sectors follow one another, and Lucas and Pépin catch up with us.

It’s 5:30 pm, and there is a little less than 30km to go. When the previous 180km is made up of brittle singles, cobblestone turns, and perpetual restarts. The group becomes more and more silent. We each look for our bubble, not asking each other how things are going so as not to wonder too much.

The kilometers can now be counted on the hand, and the smiles reappear. We are approaching the old Roubaix velodrome, which marks the course’s finish line. We drive slowly to enjoy or don’t have that much strength remaining in the legs.

The velodrome is empty; everybody is next door, near the fountains, the French fries, and the water jet; we understand them. Then we make first a detour there, received with applause which touches us. A rather intense moment because it was hard. I am very proud of our happy team, of our pilot Caro. We meet again Thomas, who had left us earlier in the day. He had the nice idea to look for a bottle of champagne; I order fries to accompany these bubbles, then we dash well equipped in the velodrome curves. I capture this memorable moment, Caro, her crank, and all this mud in a velodrome rocked by the evening sun. It’s time to celebrate, and the evening will be beautiful.

The two following days will be the occasion to share our work with the public, to take the time to exchange ideas between craftsmen, to discover new faces, to see some again with great pleasure (hello Louise), and even to chat on the mic with Céline of Vera Cycling.

The weekend ends with the prize-giving. We finished with the “Most beautiful internal cable routing.” This award is quite a precise one, obviously. The jury tells us that it is also a compensatory award because “you are second in almost every category.” This included the framebuilder’s choice, which is a recognition that touches me a lot.

I left Roubaix with a tired but happy face – with inspirations from all over, a superb atmosphere, a beautifully managed organization, and nice compliments on our work. Next year, the CDM returns to the Paris-Brest-Paris. Notice to amateurs!