Having worked two seasons as a bike guide in Greece, I classed myself as a fairly confident cyclist despite my non-existent cobble riding experience. So, when the opportunity of riding Paris-Roubaix presented itself, after what seemed like a never ending non-bike riding snowy UK winter, the prospect of getting back in the saddle was just too good to refuse. After all, when you’ve ridden in the mountains, what’s a few cobbles when there’s less than 1000m of climbing over the 175km? Just how naïve and wrong could I be….
After persuading a (very fit, Kona triathlete) friend to accompany me on the trip, we decided that due to the tight timings of finishing work on a Friday lunchtime, the Channel Tunnel was the best way to travel. Aside from the unnerving moment of ‘would the Volkswagen Caddy, (which was booked on as a car) fit in the 1.84m train?’ (only just scraping the roof bars in case you’re wondering), this was definitely a good option. We arrived unscathed in Roubaix at around 7pm.
Our hotel was perfectly placed in the centre of town and on arrival I was instantly filled with adrenaline and excitement at the sight of every other guest who was also unloading bikes, changing to 28mm tyres and talking nervously about those famous cobbles. Our tight Friday turnaround did result in us arriving to a full hotel car park, meaning some time driving round Roubaix looking for 24hour parking. In the end we settled for the car park on Rue de Winston Churchill, a 15minute walk from the hotel at around 33 Euro a day.
Time for carb loading, or at least that was the plan. We decided to eat in the hotel restaurant unaware that fine dining, and the small portions that this involved, was on the agenda. Still, the food was tasty and as long as you’re not vegetarian (non-existent on the menu) there are several good options.
The morning of the ride involved a 4am wake up and collection of the ample breakfast pack, before the short 5km cycle through the deserted town with a significant number of equally nervous, bleary eyed fellow cyclists to get to the transfer buses. We had been given a bus number and informed of a 90 minute transfer to the start line, however nothing prepared us for the organised chaos of loading thousands of bikes and people onto coaches and lorries in the dark supermarket carpark. The sheer scale of the event was for the first time at the front of my mind as I handed my beloved bike to the lorry driver, wondering how on earth we would ever be reunited.
Following the 90minute drive, unloading was again organised and hyper efficient and after being easily reunited with said bike, we were soon making our way to the start line. The initial smooth tarmacked road of beautiful French countryside lures you into the false sense of security (I headed out at 35kmh+), and all too soon you’re turning the corner to the first Cobbled section.
Prepare to be faced with utter carnage, nervous cobble debutants, and pavé strewn with cycle paraphernalia, which my friend correctly described as ‘like a peloton crashing into Halfords!’. Literally, if it’s loose - it’s going missing - End of. Indeed, within the first 500m, both of my friend’s bottles were casualties to the cobbles, and I did question if my own body parts were to join the cobble graveyard as every ounce of me was jolted to obliteration. There are only three water stations throughout the ride, so loosing bottles means you’re guaranteed to stay dehydrated for at least 40km. Thankfully, the first section was over within 1km and we were back on smooth tarmac and looking down to our stickered top tubes, which when coordinated with the Garmin, showed how many kilometres into the ride each graded cobble section was, thereby giving us the knowledge of how long the body had to recover between each bone shaking section.
The first 70km seemed to pass uneventfully as my body became used to being a human jackhammer. Then we turned the corner… la Trouée d’Arenberg. My heart sank as I saw large amounts of spectators, cyclists being bunched up onto the narrow path and those dreaded cobbles become loose and muddy. All too soon my foot came unclipped and I found myself trying to pedal with only one foot clipped in, being surrounded by fellow cyclists succumbing to the cobble death trap and experiencing sheer panic of ‘I must not fall
off’. I found myself trying to focus on all those tips I’d read prior to entering, ‘ride on the crown, stay out of the gutter, try to go fast, ride on the tops or the drops’, yet all of the advice went out the window as I focused on purely staying upright, gripping the hoods so tightly that my hands began to blister and bleed, and just praying it would end. The next 30km was a trip to hell and back as the cobbles became not just a physical punishment but mental torture, and I questioned for the first time in any event, weather it was time to throw in the towel.
At 100km we reached the second feed station. A break, some delightful banana cake, a much-needed drink and a serious chat with myself and my ever-patient friend, and I felt ready to tackle those cobbles again. The next 70km seemed to pass uneventfully in a haze and was finished not just through physical merit, but sheer grit, determination and adrenaline to ignore every agonising body part and continually reiterate a ‘I can do this’ motto to myself. Arriving into the crowds of the Roubaix Velodrome, exhaustion seemed to disappear instantaneously to be replaced with immense pride, gratitude and utter delight which I have never experienced to such a degree before. The ‘Hell of the North’ certainly lived up to its name, but the achievement of completing it was worth every bone breaking cobble.
If you are planning to ride Paris-Roubaix, prepare to have fun (Type 2 most likely), break yourself, question yourself, find yourself,
re-evaluate and rebuild yourself, develop a mental toughness you never knew existed and develop a whole new level of admiration for the pro riders who tear up those cobbles as though they’re riding pristine tarmac. Would I recommend it? Yes, without a shadow of a doubt. The sense of achievement, self-worth and utter euphoria is worth every blistered finger, broken body part and bike component casualty.
The next morning, I awoke to a surprisingly in-one-piece body and was excited at the prospect of, perhaps a bit sadistically, watching
the pros take the cobble punishment. After much deliberation we decided that it was preferable to watch one of the cobble sections live, rather than from the comfort of the Velodrome. We drove out towards the famous Carrfour de l’Arbre and cycled to the cobbled start. It seemed as though this was equally preferential for the locals who came armed with deck chairs, BBQs and radios for a day of spectating in the sun. The atmosphere as the riders came through was utterly electric and whilst they hurtled along at a speed which made me question if I’d been riding backwards the day before, their equally grimaced faces and battered bodies painted a truthful picture of the spirit of Paris-Roubaix.
Our trip ended thankfully uneventfully as we praised our decision to cleverly escape all the Roubiax Velodrome traffic by instead watching the race live. We were very soon squeezing the van back into the tunnel and making our way home in time for the Monday morning work come down and discussing what our next challenge would entail. Finishing Paris-Roubiax emulates the belief that you really can tackle anything…now to start planning!
· Fit metal bottle cages and pre-bend for more grip with elastic over the top, or you’ll be going thirsty for 140km.
· Ride cobbles individually and rendezvous with your group at the end. It is detrimental to ride slower than your own pace and dangerous due to riders trying to pass everywhere.
· Try to ride on the tops or the drops. If you’re a nervy rider on cobbles and want to be near the breaks and gears, tape/plaster up your thumbs or they WILL bleed if you ride on the hoods.
· Opt for 28mm tyres at least, psi no less than 80 and +1psi for every kg.
· Ladies, (and maybe some gents) take toilet paper. There are only 3 portaloos at the feed stations and these have no paper in them.
· Get your bike serviced prior to taking it to Paris-Roubaix. Use it as an excuse to change your bar tape and temporarily fit the old tape over the top for the cobbles.
· Take provisions and something to sit on if watching the race live. There are no shops/cafes/ food stands open on Sunday. A disposable BBQ is definitely a good option.
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