Last weekend, I was ‘lucky’ enough to finally be able to take part in an event I’d been dying to do for the last four years: the biannual Paris-Roubaix Cyclotourisme.
I’d wanted to take part in the last two editions of the 200km+ sportive, but had been unable to due to various prior commitments. In 2012 however, I’d marked it on the calender, done a bit of extra training just to get the endurance up, and set off for France.
The event is organised by the Velo Club Roubaix, who I pity if they have to ride the same ‘lanes’, if they can be called that, every time they go for a ride. This year, there were two distances: the 100km route, advertised as essentially seeing all the cobbles you see on the TV, which started cruelly just outside the Arenberg Forest sector, or the ‘legendary’ 210km distance, just 55k short of the full professional distance. Of course, this was the one for me, as I was only interested in the closest to full distance.
The year before, I’d entered the inaugural ASO Paris-Roubaix Challenge, which had been run off the day before the actual race, to be won by Garmin’s Johan Van- Summeren, with the promise of closed roads and a velodrome finish. Unfortunately, about 3-4 days before hand, we were told that the event would no longer feature closed roads, nor the fabled velodrome finish that many people clearly dreaming about: indeed, a great number of people pulled out from the event. Whilst disappointing that we would have to finish on the Carrefour de l’Arbe cobblestones rather then the fabled velodrome, this was still an experience to be had, and thankfully a balmy 25 degrees day had made it a dusty and unforgettable ride…
This time however, the forecast looked likely to make the ride one you’d want to instantly forget. Whilst Britain was being swamped by the now customary June drenching, Roubaix and the remainder of Northern France was sitting in a purgatorial spot that swung in and out of an utter drenching depending on which forecast. Having already sampled the cobbles before, I knew just how slippery they were in the dry, let alone if they’d been soaked with a solid dollop of mud on the side. Thankfully, when we began, the rain appeared to be holding off…
The ride began in Bohain-en-Vermandois, a sleepy little village with one good cafe, although thanks to some inept organistaion, we were required to ride the 15 miles from our hotel in St Quentin, a sleep little city with one good restaurant that everyone went to (excellent steaks and deserts at the Buffalo Grill, for those interested) to the start, which want the most appealing prospect after a 4.30am start and with the 130mile ride to come playing on our minds, especially when the furthest I’d ever ridden was a mere 110 miles. Still, it acted as a nice warm up, and with shorts and arm warmers, we were off.
Paris-Roubaix is an odd beast. Whilst everyone tells you it is flat, this is only in contrast to the other spring classics, which are characterised by sharp uphill pitches. Whilst Paris-Roubaix lacks these, it still features a good deal of uphill, except it’s simply gentle, accumulative drags, mainly situated in the first half of the ride. This was where the first surprise of the route was situated, when we came to the first of the 33 sections of cobbles that were to make up 33 miles of the route. After charging onto them at speed, big gear engaged and hands on the top of the bars, we suddenly discovered that the the road was going…downhill.
Now, thwere are certain things that make me somewhat terrified. Heights is one – if there’s no barrier, I’m going no where near that edge. My heart seems to fill with pipeing hot liquid, and everything seems to tremble. This was a similar experience. Riding cobbles is bad enough – everything makes a horrific shearing noise on your bike as if it’s about to collapse farcically, and quite often it does, with the littering of bottles and indeed bottle cages, their charges still attached, was testament to. As if the abuse of your ears wasn’t enough, you’re subject to what is best described as the bucking bronco effect, as your front fork becomes possessed with carnal desires and decides to attempts an odd fusion of trying to both batter your hands to pieces whilst simultaneously attempting to throw you off. You can’t really brake, as your tyre is barely in contact with the rocks anyway, and steering is out of the question: it feels like any movement will result in being catapulted off having incited some dangerous slide. So needless to say, when you suddenly add an uncomfortable speed to the equation, as well as a sharp bend to negotiate, you begin to wonder why indeed you signed up to petrify yourself in such a manner.
Luckily, once the opening two or three sectors had been traverrsed, they stayed mercifully flat, or even better, slightly uphill, which allowed for the Holy Trintity of power, speed, and (a degree) of comfort. It’s true that you can ‘glide’ over the cobbles if you go faster, once you build the confidence to do so – this does however require the cobblestones to be the smoother variety. For over the 130 miles, you become increasingly aware of the ‘kinds’ of cobbles – all quite unlike any British cobbled street, which is ornamental at best and supremely organised. The cobbles in France are, to borrow from Chris Horner, simply rocks hewn from a helicopter into a field. However, you can still distinguish the kinds – a black/blue, bruised complexion of stone indicated that the stones will be polished and slippery, whilst the reddy brown much indicates you better hold on, as you’re about to experience bumps beyond reason.
The battering truely begins at Arenberg, ‘Le Trench’ – a 2.4km ‘road’ that is literally the worst surface I’ve ever ridden on, and I’ve only been over it three times. I used to think Northumberland’s rutted and potholed roads, where a piece of flat and unriddled tarmac is worth stopping and marvelling at, to be abysmal – it’s velvety compared to Arenberg, and this is no exageration born out of its lofty reputation. The first fifty metres are atrociously painful, with no respite – if the completely irregular and chaotically ‘arranged’ cobbles dont hurt you, the gaping chasms between them will, and if by some miracle those dont get you, the damp caused by the enclosing trees and mossy growths will. The worst part is the ever so tempting cinder track to the side – its smooth, unblemished, velvety surface siren calls you from just metres away, and as your fellow riders swing off onto it, you curse them with all your breath for not being man enough to take the punishment.
And really, that is the story of the remainging 100km. It wasn’t really that enjoyable, hell, it was was a cruel mixture of physical and mental torture. With all the ‘names’ coming up – by which I mean all the sectors whose titles are whispered by commentators and alike as places of simultaneous pilgrimage and slaughter, great holy meatgrinders of cobbles in other words, the mind, already struggling to comprehend the excruciating, nerve jarring signals the body was now constantly sending it from the wrists and arms, now had to prepare itself for even more. And so as Orchies, Mons en Pevele, Duclos Lassalle, Gruson and Carrefour de l’Arbe came by, the real horror was that you actually had to concentrate your attention fully on them, and the accompanying brutalising, rather then trying to think of calmer, less murderous things, else you’d be thrown off and into a whole new world of suffering. Until a rather dull sign proclaimed ‘Bienvene a Roubaix’, the heart was flat, the arms heavy, the legs stiff, and the hands torn to shreds.
Luckily, the promise of the Velodrome was enough to get a bigger gear going and course through those famous avenues and corners into the velodrome. And so it came to be that I ticked off my first ride on a track and my first ‘proper’ spring classic route. I have to admit emotions were quite high at the finish – this was the race that made me gape in awe as a 14 year old newbie to cycling after all, and to finally have managed to get around it softened the heart and eyes. We even got our very own cobble stone out of it!
So should you give it a try? Deffinetely. Although you’ll quickly discover why the excellent Velo Club Roubaix, whose food and hospitality was as generous as it was pleasant, only organise it every two years. You’ll say ‘never again’ for a eighteen months, but thenm just maybe, the smell of the dust will entice you back to the Hell of the North…