Gary rides the Paris-Roubaix Challenge
“Why, oh why!“ was the only thought that my brain could coherently hold for more than a couple of seconds. I was currently heading towards a place called Hem in phase three of a newly ingrained “four positions on the bike interval session”. Tops, Hoods, Drops and finally the now almost forgotten and increasingly hard to find on modern bars “Corners”. Over the previous 5 hours I had discovered to my eternal delight that when on the tops and through very subtle changes in grip pressure I could rattle my eye balls to the point it was impossible to focus, cause quite painful brain rattle, make my triceps flap (do I really have chicken wings?) or smash all my fingers together concertina style.
It had all started one evening in November “So you’re doing Paris Roubaix then.”, not being sure if that was a question or a statement I was left with no face saving option other than to say “yes” in the tone of someone deeply offended that it could possibly have ever been in doubt. Two days later the accommodation and Eurotunnel were booked and tentative “training plans” laid out. Repeated and very necessary pub meets over the next few months raised excitement level to teenage and kit buying to beyond Wiggle platinum status.
Now it was April 8th and there was no turning back, Matt my riding buddy from Uni and I skipped through a gap in the barriers and joined the back of the fifty or so strong group of idiots who had thought it a fine and sensible idea to be off with the gun at 7am, except today it was -1C and very misty. After about 5 mins listening to a particularly enthusiastic French announcer who appeared to be doing nothing more than a fine impression of Duffers (R.I.P.) to fill time before the sun came up, we were off. The group spread out quite quickly and we gradually made our way up into the first quarter of the riders on the road sitting side by side and setting a steady pace. The route was signed every few lampposts and at each junction there was a marshal or two keeping an eye out for traffic and letting the riders know if it was clear.
Wrapped up and rarin' to go
We’d chosen to ride the 172KM route which started in Busigny and takes in all 29 of the cobble sectors the professionals were due to ride the following day. Research amounting to reading one web page and watching a couple of GCN videos had left me with the following guidance “hit the cobbles hard, ride a low cadence of about 80” and “think of them as a number of threshold intervals”.
A few km before the first pave sector at Troisville the feel of the group noticeably changed it become more excited and twitchy as the level of nerves and anticipation became very evident. Due to the mist, there wasn’t much time to prepare for the pavé when it eventually appeared so I just pressed on the pedals accepting the lower cadence and rode along feeling quite comfortable. The cobbles are strangely even in a very uneven way and keeping away from the edges it was all quite predictable and being dry there was nothing to worry about. The first sector was rated 3* at 2.2km long starting with a downhill section, at around the 1/2 way point it rose up to cross the D643 and a marshal signalled us to stop and wait for some traffic to pass. Starting off again and back onto the cobbles at about 20kph it hit me how rough they really were and the amount of effort required to get back up to speed was surprising. Incidentally I noticed my Garmin was telling me I was riding the Rue Jean Stablinski, which at the time I thought quite quaint. It was shortly after setting off again that I saw the first of the countless escaped bottles, pumps, tubes and other miscellaneous but now emancipated pocket dwellers. An upturned bike off to the right signalling a puncture took me back… already? after less than 1.5km of the rough stuff! I rode on with my frozen fingers for company and tried not to image how long it would have taken me to fix a pinch flat.
After 6 minutes, yes 6! of shaking about the sector ended. Hitting the road again I got the strangest feeling through the bike, everything was too smooth and just too quiet I had to look back to see if my tyre had started to lose pressure. Oddly I never did get used to feeling when transitioning back onto a normal road.
The next sector came up after 4km of normal roads, it was also a 3* sector at 1.8km and ever so slightly downhill, I tried riding it on the tops but because of just a few missing cobbles and dodging round other riders I had to transition to the drops to cover the brakes and have the confidence to control the bike. My hands were bouncing wildly around moving along the bars and almost coming off so I pushing them into the hooks and held on.
A nice long sector of cobbles -
not so nice after 145km though
The next two hours continued in this vein remaining cold and misty with cobbles every 5 or 10 km. There’s a huge variation in the “quality” of the pavé, some sectors have been re-laid with the road forming a smooth crown with each stone set in a concrete and sand mix others can have a 20cm or more difference in height between the wheel track and crown. Rim grabbing gaps or whole chunks of missing stones are normal on those sectors not recently visited by “Les Amis du Paris-Roubaix”. Unsurprisingly the cycle group etiquette of pointing and shouts of “holes” were just not heard again after that first passage.
Honestly, this lot are in good nick
There really is nothing that can be done in advance to prepare for those 5 or 10 minutes of battering, there is nowhere in the UK I’ve ridden that even compares, our cobbled roads don’t come close, they are evenly laid with rounded stones, all those off-road epic routes travelled with front suspension and fat tyres are nothing in comparison.
The countryside is familiarly flat with large open fields, and although the road can be below the height of the field there is generally no protection from wind, there are no hedgerows in this part of the world, but none of that mattered as the day was windless and totally dry.
The Trouée d’Arenberg sector (another of Jean Stablinkski’s gifts to cycling - graciously received) is just shy of half distance but with only 8 of the 27 sectors having been completed things were going to get harder. The route turns northeast towards the forest allowing you sight of the grey mine heads protruding above the tree line. Getting closer there were a number of parking areas set aside for camper vans, and these were already full more than 24 hours before the pro riders would pass.
Arenberg is the point that the medium distance route joins the longer one I was on, and as they joined from the right I saw the large numbers of mountain bikes that would make up around 1/3rd of the riders from that point onwards. The 2.4km sector is just like the mythology, being deliberately and quite obviously left in a worse state, and being surrounded by trees the stones looked a little damp with lots of grass and moss between each of them. Because of the increased numbers and higher density of choppers it was necessary to navigate carefully around slower riders and to watch out for faster ones coming up from behind when switching line. The crowds were much denser here with many people watching on and offering encouragement. Barriers prevented any riders taking the bale-out option of moving on to the grass or soil although some did find their way to the other side to avoid the pavé.
At the end of Arenberg large number of riders has stopped to recount their story, fix rattles or take on some food. Many of these were supported by the various sporting tours groups who operate The Paris Roubaix experience or the like, their vans would now appear regularly along the route as did the sight of their riders taking it relatively easy on the normal roads only to smash through each cobbled sector then stop at the end for a chat and a rest.
Unnoticed the Sun had come out and it was now quite pleasant and warm.
I’ll spare describing the remainder of the route in detail mainly because much of it is now an age induced blur and my vocabulary too thin, bottom line though the story remained broadly the same. There were some odd detours as the route searched out each sector, getting on to one of the Orchies sectors requires a trip through an industrial estate round the back of some units and the Gruson section exits directly onto a residential street.
As the day wears on it is very tempting to take the easy route down the sides and although it was pretty bloody painful I did try to ride as much of it on the cobbles as possible, even taking the very dusty corner of Carrefour de l’Arbre at (my) “full tilt”.
Dowsett, Boasson Hagen and I think Luka Mezgec taking the easy route at Gruson
The sector into Hem is the last we rode and its officially rated as lemon squeezy being only 1.4Km in length, but like all of them not easy unless you are flying along. After that it’s 5km into Roubaix we were not allowed on the short 300m sector that was laid a few years ago to make up the distance and to also commemorate previous winners, not idea why but honestly I wasn’t bothered. The relief of arriving in the velodrome is… well… just that, a relief. To rub it in though, just like the rest of the ride, it isn’t properly smooth and there are the familiar gaps between the banking and the cote d’azur to keep you on your toes. Round the top bend, a quick sprint for show across the line and it’s all done.
They paid me to smile ;-)
Having deliberately highlighted the toughness, which is the point of Paris Roubaix after all, what was it really like? Physically the distance is pretty easy given how smooth and fast the proper roads are, the scenery villages, towns and supportive crowds keep it all ticking along nicely and it is pretty easy to find group if shelter is needed. The three food stops are well placed meaning it is quite possible to ride with minimal supplies and IMO that’s obligatory if you like honey waffles. Although the roads are not closed drivers were very accommodating voluntarily stopping at junctions to allow even one of two cyclists priority and for bigger groups or busy junctions the marshals would just stand in the middle of the road to stop the traffic.
Would I do it again? The call to do so arrived from Matt on the Tuesday night after we got back, his rose-coloured glasses obviously work more quickly than mine. The reply… in the dry maybe, in the wet never!
Since returning I’ve been asked what equipment I took, tyre pressures etc. so here goes
I was riding my “best bike”, a 2016 Canyon Ultimate CF SLX with 60mm deep section carbon wheels, 28mm Continental GP 4 Season rubber @ 90psi. The wheels held up perfectly and have suffered no damage, although at one point I did think the rear had started to collapse as it washed about under me, but that was down to a mountain biker too close behind just learning a life lesson… Rode my “Fenland” cassette 12-25 on a 52-36 but with hindsight I should have gone with the 12-29 as some parts can be slow and it would have cut down on cross chaining (it’s a genuine big ring all the day route).
Didn’t bother double taping my bars as I think it looks like a fat saddle, so taped up some strategic parts of my hands, carefully missing out the only bit that took any wear.
After much procrastination, worry and swapping I used 2 * 1 litre bottles with the cages tied up with strips of inner tube, not a hint of the bottles making a break for it.
Stay put you buggers
Then it was the usual collection of tools (i.e. all of them and more) and tubes (3) in a medium sized saddle bag which as I had no mechanicals or punctures allowed it time to find its true vocation was wearing a pretty big patch out of my seat tube.
Tried to keep my pockets free for food and gels as I didn’t want stuff flying out all over the place.
The training I alluded at the start amounted the grand 84 hours from that November phone call to the weekend before we departed.
Thankfully it was dry
Other stuff of note
Passed a guy on “retro” Bianchi with the name “Evgeni Berzin” on the top tube but it can’t have been him, too thin.
The second best Italian polished carbon fibre levers do wear away skin and quickly, I now sport blisters on both index fingers.
There are loads of railway crossings on the route and 2 underpasses which I’ve never seen the pro’s tackle
The top tip is to each and drink as soon a leaving a sector, no faffing or waiting as there can be no distance at all between some of them.
An English chap queuing at the bar next to me after the ride came on all indignant when the barman asked him to pay for his beer, “I’ve come all this way and paid to have the shit kicked out of me it’s the least you can do.”
Internal cable routing has at least two harmonic frequencies a low slap and a high zing
Cheats ride 29’ers on cobbles, IMHO it defeats the whole point of the event, but I guess the group of guys riding single speed turn of the 20th century bikes sporting waxed moustaches looked on me the same.
Finally, the professional riders are in another world, at times on the Sunday watching them race over this stuff took my breath away. This event more than any other I’ve done or witnessed over the last 35 years makes that difference so very stark. it’s not like The Tour when the groups clip past all shiny and well-oiled or an eyeballs out sprint for a mountain top finish. It’s just lots of rattles, grunts, shouts, dust, pain and broken things.
The race was in bits by sector 3
Sagan almost taking it easy after two punctures
Matteo Bono talking it prioper easy, having packed before the Carrefour
Napoleon said "No amount of money will induce someone to lay down their life,
but they will gladly do so for a bit of yellow ribbon.” I guess something similar applies here