The Mental Battle of the Paris Roubaix Sportive

This is a story of one man’s cycling baptism of fire.

We had planned a trip with our bikes to celebrate a landmark birthday, what better way to celebrate turning 30 than to take on the mythical 21 hairpins up to Alp d’Huez. Whilst there we decided we could also tick off Mont Ventoux and the return happened to coincide with the 2010 edition of the original Roubaix Sportive. This was organised by the local cycle club where entry was by post and involved bank transfer fees. For this you received a hand written bike number and the invitation to 100km of cobbled glory in the June sunshine.

A wonderful few days of Alpine climbing was had by all, the Alp was conquered, Croix de Fer ticked off and the mighty Ventoux tamed. It was with a spring in the step that we headed north the final leg of our epic week of European riding.

Sunday morning, 5am, lost in the northern town that is Roubaix. The streets are deserted and the legendary velodrome is nowhere to be seen. We have 2 minutes before the transfer bus is departing. In my favourite recurring dream, we turn left, never spotted the car park, decided to catch an early ferry and are home in time for a roast dinner. Alas, we turned right and were soon snoozing on the one-hour bus transfer at the start of my worst day on a bike and the beginning of a 6 year battle to recover my dignity.

Now, I know that there are thousands of riders who return each year for their dose of Roubaix magic. This article is not written for them, it is for the riders wracked with self-doubt, who’s mind convinces them they are beat, even though the legs are willing and the lungs are strong.

I have since spent every Sunday in early April watching the pros hammer over said cobbles but at that stage I was blissfully unaware of what I had signed up for. 100km, almost zero climbing, the roast potatoes might even still be warm if we push it. How hard can it be...

0. Carousel Arenberg

The bus arrives, its go time. The ride starts with 100 metres exiting the car park and bang! 2400m of 5 star cobbles, the Arenberg trench. One of the toughest sections of a super tough race, welcome to hell boys. Rough? Certainly, but what is the fuss all about? Both water bottles still in place, Arenberg done – this is going to be easy. The feeling of smooth tarmac after the cobbles is magical and we decide to attack and catch a faster group. Is this all you’ve got Roubaix?

The cobbles sensed my overconfidence and decided to show me who’s boss. The pave sections were coming thick and fast, sending shockwaves through every bone and shaking the arms like a jackhammer.

There seemed to be two schools of thought as to the best way to ride. The most common advice is to stay on the crest of the cobbles and go hard, gliding over the top. The second option is to ride in the narrow gutter at the side and avoid the cobbles all together. The heart tells you that you have not come to Paris Roubaix to try and avoid the cobbles but as the body blows continued I decided to seek refuge in the gutter. Definitely not the spirit of the race but I was back on top.

Then the heavens opened. It is a quirk of fate that the pro race has been dry since 2002, a 15 year run that has defied all the April odds. However, luck was not smiling on us that June day. The rain was torrential and lightning streaked overhead. The gutter returned to its natural job, filling up with water sending me back onto the cobbles. Now wet, the stones glistening like ice. Body at its limits, the head was now screaming danger! The pace slowed and rather than skipping over the top I was now bouncing slowly from cobble to cobble on the camber of the road, still a long way from home.

With 15 cobbled sections down and around 30 minutes from home came the sting in the tail in the shape of the 5 star Carrefour de L’Arbre. At 2.1km this is the last major test and often the scene of decisive action. The cobbles here are bad even for Roubaix standards! There seemed to be no safe route through the minefield of pave, with huge uneven gaps between the stones just waiting to snare any wheels that dare to cross. This was too much. As I came to a standstill at the side of the track I was beaten. Soaked to the skin, energy levels depleted and stuck in the middle of hell. I can still remember how I felt standing there in the rain. The self doubt had won. Fear had affected my riding which had made the challenge seem insurmountable and right there and then, it possibly was.

As I reached for my last crumbs of food I was aware of another item in my pocket, the car keys! The though of my poor ride partner who must by now have finished the race forced me back onto the bike. I can remember just trying to keep the bike in a straight line over the last of the cobbles and finally it was over. The famous right hand turn that takes the riders into the old Velodrome for the sprint finish and glory. As I completed my lap of dishonour there was a strange mix of relief and embarrassment. I picked up the certificate and commemorative cobble stone for completing the event but a large part of my sole was still out there in Sector 4, still battling those cobbles.

Did I enjoy my first Roubaix experience? It is the absolute definition of Type 2 fun, something that has very limited enjoyment at the time but on reflection is a great experience. However, the rose tinted memories cant hide the fact that I fell apart that day. I was not prepared for the mental challenge, the resilience needed to overcome the fear and just keep the wheels turning. The internal voice that is telling you that you cant do this, you are not good enough. This was harder to get over than any physical scars left by my Sunday ride in Northern France.

As my passion for the Spring Classics grew, I knew that I was going to have to make my peace with the cobbles. The bergs of Flanders were a totally different challenge with their 20% gradients but this seemed a race more suited to my skills. Don’t get me wrong, the thought of the cobbles still scared me and hours were spent pouring over climb descriptions and images of the road surface but over the years I became both physically and mentally stronger. This meant only one thing, It was time to return to the scene of the crime.

Six years later, the old Velodrome looked just the same as we parked up ready for the re-match. Mind and body were ready, there were to be no surprises this time. Just to be safe though we had opted for the shortest route option! 70km which still contained 10km of cobbles. There was only one place I needed to re-visit. Sector 4, Carrefour de l’Arbre 2100m of 5 star cobble. Bang! Bike shaking, body shaking, arms being pulled the sockets, how I have missed you Roubaix! Relax the grip, keep the cadence high, stay right in the middle, this is happening, YOU CAN DO IT! 1500 metres done and the realisation that I am smiling, maybe this is fun after all. This time it was a triumphant lap of honour around the storied old track and whilst It may not rank alongside the great battles that have made this race so spectacular over the years, as I crossed the finish line I felt a small personal battle had been won.