Paris – Roubaix

It’s been a long time since my last blog post and a lot as been happening on the cycling front so time for a series of updates – starting with the first event of the season, Paris – Roubaix.

Paris – Roubaix, the Hell of the North, one of the five monuments of cycling. The words conjure up images in my mind of mud covered cyclists attacking over bone shaking cobbles with crashes and broken bones commonplace. So it was with some trepidation that I began scanning the weather forecast with a week to go, looking for the faintest glimpse of sun and a following wind.

The Paris – Roubaix Challenge takes place the day before the pro race of the same name. Whilst the pros cover a staggering 260km, we were only riding for 173km. However that included all 28 sections of pave, or cobblestones for those from the UK. These sections of cobbled tracks criss cross the countryside in the North East of France. There are 28 sections of cobbles numbered from 28 down to one. They range from 300m to 3.7km and are graded from 1 to 5 stars depending on their quality (read – depth and pain causing qualities).

I was doing this event with Neil from work and my two cousins, Ian and Simon. We left on Friday afternoon and headed down to the tunnel and over to France. So far the weather was good and the forecast equally so. Staying overnight in Douai, we did the obligatory bike fettling and beer then headed out for a feed. I’m trying to go overboard on the carbo-loading pre race but I still managed to eat what can only be described as a Calzone pizza with a steak in the middle!

The morning of the race started with a wake up call at 4:15am. Why can’t these things start late like the pros do? Driving down to the start it was really misty, damp and cold too. Kit choice for the day: arm and leg warmers, Assos shorts, Mavic top with a Gore-tex waterproof to keep the damp out. The start was very low-key. It was a staggered start so there were not thousands of riders all milling around. Timing chips and race numbers were acquired and fastened to the bikes.

After being promised by my cousins that we’d be going at a steady pace between the cobbles we promptly set off at a pretty fast pace. Visibility was around 50m and the mist was dripping of bars and noses. It seemed like a normal ride, just with a bigger group than normal. Half an hour later that all changed.

Nothing can prepare you for the first section of cobbles. You see the sign coming up and everyone gets a bit nervous and the speed increases. Then you hit them. Bang, you put power down that you know can only last 5 minutes and then the rattling causes you to lose vision. Your mind tells you it will be impossible for the bike to take this. It goes on and on and on. Then it ends and you are left looking around wandering WTF just happened. Did I really ride across that without suspension, on a super stiff carbon race bike. Wow!

The next three hours is just a blur of fast roads, rattling across cobbles and a massive grin appearing on my face. An altercation with a muddy puddle followed by a swift over the handlebars into a nettle bush cannot dampen my enjoyment. Even the puncture that follows soon after due to a bit of adrenaline fueled pace is met with a rapid change of inner tube.

After about 3 ½ hours you hit the Arenberg Trench. This is the first five star section of pave. By this time the sun was out and it was a glorious day. Hundreds of camper vans were parked up as we swept down the hill towards the entrance at some speed. Fortunately for us there are some barriers nearly all the way across so your speed is slowed as you enter the section. The pro’s have no such worries and hit the section at upwards of 60 km/h. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

The pain in your legs as you put down as much power as you can is overwhelmed by the pain in your arms as you desperately seek out a smooth line. A futile exercise, there isn’t one. Up ahead I see Ian. I’m surprised as he should be way ahead on this section. Looks like he had an off straight into the wire fence. The damage did not look good.

We regrouped at the end and took pictures in the sunlight whilst someone oiled my chain and told me it needed replacing. It then came to me that this was one of the finest bike events I’d ever done. The atmosphere, the history, the pain of the pave. What a ride. I will never forget that 10 minutes of going across ‘the trench’.

But we were only half way through. It was getting more and more difficult for Neil and I to chase back onto the wheel of Ian and Simon after each section. Then a mechanical meant we were down to three. My original aim was to try and stick with Ian and Simon for four hours then crack as they disappeared into the dusty distance. When we got to 5.5 hours in I realised I was going to be with them to the end. This was a major achievement for me and proof that the hard miles over the winter had paid off.

Before we knew it we were in the outskirts of Roubaix with the speed rising as we all prepared for the sprint finish. Coming out onto the Velodrome was awesome. So many people were there cheering us on. It was a fantastic way to finish. It didn’t matter that we’d been cycling for 6 hours 50 minutes. We all started sprinting like we were Mark Cavendish. All that was left to do was collect our medals, take the obligatory finish line photo and get a beer. Yes a sportive event with a bar at the end. It doesn’t get better than that.

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