Having been talked into taking part in the Paris – Roubaix Challenge there was little room for backtracking my way back out of it after I’d taken the time to do a little research into what exactly I’d let myself in for. I knew a bit of the history of the race and the prestige and of course I knew that there were cobbled sections but I hadn’t really given too much thought as to what exactly that entailed. After reading pieces like this http://www.rapha.cc/merci-roubaix however I started to fear the worst.
There wasn’t much more I could do by way of additional training except for a couple more mid week rides and a massage to try and work the lactic acid out of my increasingly tired muscles but there were a few modifications I could make to the bike. The guys at Putney Cycles helped to put my mind at ease with such high tech solutions as wrapping additional tape around my handlebars to help smooth out the vibrations and, perhaps most significantly, shodding the bike in some new rubber that was a bit fatter, stronger and able to run at slightly lower pressures to give a slightly smoother ride whilst also having a better chance of lowering the very real risk of punctures. For my part I just packed an extra pair of padded shorts and hoped for the best!
And so it was that I found myself France bound on Friday afternoon with a couple of Cambridge rugby blues (Ross Blake and Daniel Stewart). Ross was riding with me (or vice versa) while Dan, nursing a knee injury, was acting as driver/ support vehicle/ navigator/ DJ.
We arrived in Saint Quentin about 30 minutes drive from our start point in Busigny and spent the night a modest hotel with a quite spectacular view of the frankly huge cathedral on the other side of the road. This was actually the view from my window!
After the obligatory large bowl of pasta we took ourselves off to bed having left careful instructions with the English speaking front desk to give us a wake up call at 6:00 am sharp for a 6:30 departure. Predictably that never actually happened and by some fluke or other I woke up at 6:30 (5:30 London time) and rushed to knock on the room next door to wake the others who were fast asleep. In my haste I managed to lock myself out of my room and then had to sheepishly wander down to reception (handily located in the foyer/ restaurant where about 50 other competitors were just finishing their breakfast before heading out the door) to ask for another key!
So after a rather frantic exit and some rapid driving/ navigation from our resident DJ we made it into Busigny with a little time to spare before the departure window closed.
I wouldn’t exactly say conditions were ideal. On the plus side it wasn’t raining and …. Well that’s about it. Less positive was the temperature (2-3 degrees) and the wind (10-15 mph directly from the north). And our direction of travel for the day? Naturally…. Due North!
It’s quite easy to get a little over excited in these sorts of situations, with a jersey full of gels and energy bars and a fresh pair of legs you can easily forget that you have 170 km ahead of you and nearly a third of that over the infamous pavé. So of course that’s exactly what we did as we set off in search of a group in which we could try and hide from the wind. Within 20 minutes or so we were in a group which was steadily picking up pace as the numbers grew and we swallowed up smaller groups ahead. Riding in a relatively large peleton (there were about 50 of us by this stage) is tremendously exciting and we were simply flying along averaging around 25 mph for the first half hour into a headwind …. Not really a sustainable pace for a 7 hour ride! And then we hit the first section of pavé.
It was immediate carnage as our group of 50 riders was scattered like a flock of startled birds in all directions. Nothing can prepare you for the feeling of suddenly going from smooth tarmac onto cobbles at pace. Things were flying in all directions as the dust kicked up in the air and water bottles (sometimes with cages still attached) flew off from peoples bikes. Almost immediately the edges of the surrounding fields were lined with people fixing punctures and any sense of trying to stay with your group was immediately abandoned as you concentrated simply on trying to thread your way through the undulating cobbles. In fact I don’t think you can call them cobbles … this is pavé and there is a difference. Guildford high street is made of cobbles whereas this stuff looks as though some huge giant has used large granite cobbles as snuff and then simply sneezed them over a muddy track. With riders all around you it becomes increasingly difficult to pick a path though it all and the constant shuddering of your bike transmitting itself through your legs and arms is relentless. Forget about getting your hands anywhere near your brakes/ hoods because you can’t. You just have to hold on to the tops of your bars (you know you’re not meant to grip too tight but it’s not so easy in practice!) and hang on. Downhill sections were particularly frightening for that reason although they were mercifully few and far between. Within a couple of minutes it’s over and you move back on velvet smooth tarmac as your body tries to comprehend just what the hell happened. And so on and so on for 170km.
After a while you do begin to adapt and learn how to ride the pavé which is basically to sit a little further back in the seat so as to protect the sort of equipment they don’t sell at Putney Cycles, select as high a gear as you dare and just try and power through – often picking a line on the crown of the road where they are often a bit smoother. The pro’s pretty much sprint the cobbled sections because the faster you go, the more you can smoothen out the vibrations as your bike literally flies over the top whilst the higher gear means you can put more of your weight through the pedals rather than your seat. But doing this takes a tremendous effort and if you lose your momentum because you’ve hit a pothole or got stuck behind another rider, it is very difficult to get it back and you find yourself bouncing all over the place for the rest of the section which can be anything up to nearly 4km long (although the average was probably just under 2km long).
So the whole pavé riding experience broadly came into two halves – the first half which was challenging and rewarding and the second half where your energy was on the wane and over every section you could feel it getting harder and harder to the point where you just wanted it to end. Your bum hurts, your legs hurt, your feet lost any feeling inside the first half hour because of the cold, your fingers ache from the effort of holding onto the bars, your arms and between your shoulders burn with the effort of raising your head as you hunch over the bars as your bike shakes violently over the seemingly endless track. And all around you are cyclists, literally thousands of them as well as support motorcycles, the odd car and pockets of well wishers and their children who come out to cheer on the madness.
Logistically it’s an impressive event – the roads aren’t closed but they are not far off it. Gendarmes man all the junctions and hold up traffic as they wave you through and here in this most bike friendly of places it’s as if bicycles have right of way as people in cars honk their encouragement. Fuel came in the form of 3 feed stations that are manned by an army of volunteers handing out energy drinks, bars, fruit, cake etc etc and all this for the sum of €25 per entry!
And so it was, some 7 hours and 10 minutes after setting off (of which about 30 minutes were spent at the various feed stops) we found ourselves rolling around the famous outdoor velodrome of Roubaix for our lap of honour. I had no idea the banks of a velodrome were so steep but any notion of powering round a la Chris Hoy were well and truly forgotten as we basked in the relief of having finally having reached our goal. Incredibly we’d both managed it without puncturing once. (Ross shod with a well used pair of Continental Gatorskins while I used Michelin Pro4 Endurane).
Some ride stats and a map of the route can be found here.
Later that evening, over a large steak frites and several carafes of vin rouge we talked over what we had just done with some other riders eating with us. None of us wanted to do it again but all of us were glad we’d done it. One German rider who had ridden the 260km of the Tour of Flanders sportive (also with cobbles) just the week before, commented that Paris – Roubaix was far harder. Ultimately it was a combination of the pavé and the wind that made it so hard. The smooth sections of tarmac offered little relief from the effort of riding over the rough stuff simply because you had to battle the headwind and there was rarely enough time or enough people with the energy to get any sort of a peleton riding together to combat that. So a plan has been hatched that next year we do the Tour of Flanders … Just an additional 90km and (I’m told) cobbled sections with up to 24% incline. Sounds like some training might be in order!
The following day we set off in glorious spring sunshine (and no wind!) to watch the professional race which, although longer than ours by about 100km still takes in exactly the same amount of pavé (52km) as our ride – they just start closer to Paris than we did. A considerable amount of discussion went in to exactly where we would try and watch the race as we wanted to try and pick it up in a couple of locations before heading to the velodrome where Ross and Danny had managed to organize VIP passes with the organisers of the race. After several changes of plans and a flurry of emails with a professional photographer covering the race we had our schedule all planned out. We had initially thought about trying to watch the race go through the most famous stretch of cobbles at the Forest of Arrenberg but dismissed this as too obvious and therefore likely to attract too big a crowd to get a good view but instead we wanted to try and get close to the first couple of sections. However, the best laid plans of mice and men and all that, we didn’t really have a clue where we were when trying to match our knowledge of the race route with the map on our iPhone and so in the end we pulled into a car park just off the local autoroute where there seemed to be a few cars. I enquired whether the race passed nearby and to our amazement, after walking a couple of km we found ourselves right at the start of the Forest of Arrenberg stretch! Owing to our complete lack of timing the race was still a couple of hour away and this enabled us to sample the unique atmosphere that built steadily as the fans pouring in from Belgium poured more and more cheap lager into themselves and took to chanting to each other as if at a football match. Our early arrival also ensured that we were ringside for the action when it did finally arrive and I can’t even begin to do justice to the atmosphere and excitement as well as the sheer noise of the crowd, bikes, cars, motorcycles etc when the riders flew over the cobbles at speeds which had to be seen to be believed. ITV are showing a highlights show on their iplayer for a few weeks at this link but it’s worth a look just for the opening montage sequence which is perhaps the best way to get just a hint of what it all looks like. https://www.itv.com/itvplayer/cycling-spring-classic-highlights/series-1/episode-2-paris-roubaix
In the end we watched the riders go over one additional stage that passed near the autoroute on the way to the finish at Roubaix so we just parked on the hard shoulder like everyone else and slid down the bank to wait for the riders to arrive. In the flat featureless landscape you can actually follow the progress of the race just by the dust cloud it throws up and if anything this felt even more involved than the Arrenberg stretch despite the fewer spectators on this stretch.
Finally we picked up the finish in Roubaix where we were treated to a grandstand finale as the legend of the one day classics that is Fabian Cancellara prevailed over a very brave Belgium rider who I’ve never heard of who had led the race for most of the second half. In the end it came down to an individual pursuit race around the banks of the velodrome as each played cat and mouse before daring to sprint to the finish line. Cancellara came from behind to take his third Paris – Roubaix title by a matter of inches after 257km of racing. Quite incredible, and a fitting end to a wonderful weekend with the bikes – something I don’t think I’ll ever forget.