I’d got through the Arenberg Trench sector unscathed – the same could not be said of a rider to my left when we first hit it’s vicious cobbles. He went down as if shot by a sniper. I was now on the smooth tarmac, working hard into a headwind along the straight road, heading for Sector 17, the Wallers à Hélesmes. Surely a 3 star cobble sector wouldn’t cause me a problem after the Arenberg?
Once on the smoother cobbles of Hélesmes, for some strange reason though, I decided to take the soft option (the only time throughout the whole day), and ride on the verge to the right. I was going at a fair speed, and when seeing a slower rider in front of me, I realised that I needed to get back onto the pave. I’d noticed that the transition from verge to cobbles wasn’t smooth – there was an inch ‘step’ up to the pave. But even though I’d noticed this and knew I needed to bunny hop, somehow my body didn’t respond.
The next couple of seconds would test myself and my clothing far beyond the already tough challenge of the Paris Roubaix Sportive…
Hours earlier I’d awoken at 4:00am in an Ibis hotel room. Bleary eyed, myself and my room mate Alan staggered around the bedroom trying to fathom out what to wear. Weather reports over the week had predicted all sorts of different weather for the Roubaix Challenge – from pavement cracking sun to full on rain. Which is why all of us in the party of six embarked on the mini bus in the UK with bags bigger than our bikes. Just before bed I checked the forecast one more time – light rain was predicted. That’s it then, I’ll wear the Mossa. But at silly o’clock in the morning, it seemed warm outside in Roubaix and no sign of rain. So I ditched the Mossa and instead wore a Tommasini jersey (made by Parentini), armwarmers and my flouro Parentini gilet. Flexibility was my thinking. I’d already decided on my new Shark bibshorts, as these have the brilliant Enduro C6 pad – perfect for long distance and hopefully adding comfort over the pave. I had intended to wear oversocks, more to keep my shoes clean. But franticly rummaging around in my bag I realised they were still hanging on the clothes horse at home. Luckily I’d packed my Parentini Windtex socks. It’s amazing sometimes how mistakes lead to a better outcome. These socks were to be a blessing. Finishing off my look was my new Parentini knee warmers – never worn before and my thin Roubaix gloves.
Riding the couple of kms to the coaches outside the famous Velodrome, I was pleased with my choice of clothing – it was a pleasant morning and would only get warmer no doubt. So coaches loaded up, we embarked to get dropped off in a village in the middle of nowhere south of Roubaix.
All my mates dropped off to sleep. The two espressos quickly downed in the Hotel made sure I couldn’t. Which not only meant I could see the weather changing as we made our way South, but also realise how far we were driving. It suddenly dawned on me how far we had to cycle back. The night before I proclaimed how excited I was to ride the Paris Roubaix. Now I wasn’t so cocky.
We got off the coach at around 7:00am in the village of Busigny, and were greeted with a temperature a lot lower than at Roubaix. It was also raining. So with a less than enthusiastic tempo we got ourselves ready for the Hell of the North. Quick check over of the bikes, a not so quick toilet stop (see my essential Paris Roubaix Challenge tips below) and off we pedalled.
Once past the start line however, all thought of rain and cold dispersed as we realised that we were embarking on a legendary ride. The pace was high, fuelled by adrenalin and coffee, as we headed for the first pave sector 9kms away.
The biting wind and 20mph pace made me glad I’d opted for the gilet and windtex socks. My feet were toasty, and I felt comfortable as we neared Sector 27, the three star Troisville a Inchy. I got myself ready for the pave – remember, a bigger gear, lightly hold the bars, try to take the vibration through your legs.
We hit Troisvilles with a big group. And all the tips went out of the window. Riders ahead were panicking. Most of them apon hitting the cobbles opted to slow down and even brake. Which meant the smooth ride I was hoping for went out of the window. The slower you ride, the more you feel the cobbles. Riders were all over the width of the farm track, so there was no way for me to get round and try to ride faster. By the time we got to the end of the sector, our group had splintered. I never saw Simon again until the Hotel later. He forged ahead, ending up with over 18mph average. Impressive stuff.
One by one we rode the early pave sectors, and one by one riders got used to them and how to ride them. It turned out the centre of the sectors is smoothest, so riders lined out in the middle. If you approached a slower rider you had two choices. Stay on his wheel and go at his pace, or choose the smoother the rougher sides. I chose the latter, enjoying the acceleration and overtaking manouvere. I tried holding the bars lightly, but found my knuckles vibrated painfully against each other. So my technique was to ride on the drops or the tops. Either way I held a firm grip and took the vibrations through my bent arms.
So onward we went, getting quicker and smoother on the pave sectors, trying to count them down. I even started to enjoy them, and imagined I was riding them like Cancellara, Museeuw or de Vlaeminck. We tried to regroup after every sector, but one by one our group got splintered. Eventually I was left with Alan, and being similar fitness we rode briskly to the next sectors, using the smooth roads to drink and eat.
Sector 19, and Haveluy’s 2.4kms of four star pave was ticked off. We then had 9kms respite before the big one. Trouée d’Arenberg.
The approach to the Arenberg is one of the iconic roads in cycling lore. A couple of kms out you can see the light grey pit winding gear, and as you sweep around a curving left hand bend, the winding gear is suddenly on your left and down the straight road you can see the wood in the distance with it’s dark, forboding tunnel. The approach is slightly downhill, and we had a strong tailwind, so we started picking up speed, which I was happy about because all the tips I had read about the Arenberg advised to hit it at speed.
Now hindsight’s a wonderful thing but the fact we were suddenly held up by railway crossing barriers was a blessing. I dread to think of the resulting carnage if we’d hit the Arenberg cobbles at the speed we were going. As it was, my slower momentum was still too fast for my liking, the sharp cobbles, with their moist, moss laden gaps, the perfect width to unsettle a tyre, made me nearly lose control twice within the first 50 metres. I then adjusted my speed, going a lot slower than riders around me but I didn’t care. I just wanted to survive. On I plodded, hoping I would stay upright, looking at what cobbles layed ahead, and occasionally looking ahead to see how much longer of this misery I could endure. And then, after what seemed like a week, I looked up and saw the end of the Sector. I’d survived Arenberg. After that little glimpse of hell, what could possibly go wrong?
20 minutes later, I was tumbling on the Wallers à Hélesmes, hitting the cobbles hard. I’ve no idea what part of my body hit the ground, the only thing I remember is my helmet smacking into the hard granite and then it was over.
Stunned and dazed, I realised I was facing towards oncoming riders. Alan came over to see if I was OK. I took a look at the areas that were giving me the sickening pain – my brand new right knee warmer had a hole in it. Underneath I could see blood. I didn’t want to look too closely, but I hoped I hadn’t re-opened up a nasty old wound. I checked my thumb and wrist. No damage to the gloves, but there was a lot of pain coming from this area. I was worried.
I checked the rest of my kit – miraculously, apart from a couple of tears to my left hand bar tape and a few scuffs to the carbon lacquer on my left hand ergopower lever, my bike was unscathed. Even my Parentini clothing had withstood the cobbles and had no marks. Tough stuff. It seemed that it was my body that had taken the knocks, not my kit. I suppose this is a blessing. Healing skin and bone is a lot cheaper than replacing carbon and lycra.
I stood for a few minutes to compose myself. I then swung my leg over the bike and started pedalling. These first few pedal revolutions revealed a big problem. My right knee was stiff and sore, but more worrying was my thumb and wrist. It was painful holding the bars and difficult to use the right hand Campag thumb shifter.
Shit. I had the dawning realisation that I wasn’t even half way into the Challenge. I still had over 50 odd miles of cobbles to do – 16 more savage roads including the two other 5 Star sectors.
I rode the remaining cobbles of Hélesmes slowly and painfully. Alan waited for me at the end of the sector and off we went – he visibally hunting down the next sector, me wondering whether to get off and call it a day. If Roubaix was a circular, circuit style route I might have succumbed to this thought. But it isn’t. You set off from a small village surrounded by grumpy fields, and finish in Roubaix. And my hotel was in Roubaix. So I had no choice.
As we rode along the smooth road to the next sector, I was struggling to ride at the side of Alan. Our easyish 18-20mph of before was now a tough slog – my body must have been in shut down mode. I sat on Alan’s wheel and made it to the next sector, where Alan left me for dead. Before the crash, it was me who glided across the cobbles, leaving Alan in my wake. I was now struggling badly. I managed to find a new way of holding the bars so that my wrist didn’t take a pounding, but it was my legs. They just didn’t want to work anymore. As I rode on just trying to get to the end of the sector, and hook back up with Alan, I started worrying whether I’d actually make it back to the Hotel. Of all the sportives, in all the world, I have to crash in this one.
This worry carried on for a few more sectors, until at the end of some god forsaken cobbles cutting through a foreign field, I never saw Alan again. I was on my own.
So I decided on a change of tactics. I would find a large group, riding at roughly the pace I could now manage, and sit on the back of them until Roubaix. Luckily, not long after this thought process I found a perfect group. On a road section, some Dutch Cyclocross team rode past me at a pace that was ideal. I sneaked onto the back and enjoyed the ride.
This enabled me to get a breather, and re-evaluate my situation. I decided to stop feeling sorry for myself and instead think of myself as a giant of the road. Battle scarred, limping home to a hero’s welcome, on the world’s toughest cycling roads. Roads I’d wanted to ride on since I first started cycling as a teenager all those years ago. So as they say – ‘I manned the fuck up’. I rolled my sleeves up and got stuck back in.
With this new steely determination, I started riding near the front of the Dutch group – putting my nose in the wind and contributing. Some of these lads were impressive on the cobbles, but they always waited for one another. So it was I counted the sectors down with these helpful Dutchmen.
We were on a roll, and I was enjoying the Roubaix experience again and feeling stronger, speed increasing and my confidence building. This group were perfect. At this rate, I might even pick Alan back up. The weather even started getting brighter and warmer. All was good in the world.
Then the last feed station came up. The group stopped. And I lost sight of them.
Now what do I do?
Just as I was thinking that, munching on some cinnamon laden, cloying cake, someone tapped me on the shoulder.
It was Justin, one of our party. I’d not seen him since Sector 22. Turns out he’d crashed as well. But in contrast to me, it was his bike that took a battering. Stood at the side of some cobbles, he wondered, like me, how was he going to get back to the hotel? A bent chainring would make for interesting forward motion. But being an ex-Para, he’s been trained to think on his feet and assess situations. So he walked back to a village, and knocked on doors. An old Frenchman came out, and between them they hammered out the bend with some old French farming implement.
Riding with Justin was the final shot in the arm I needed to get to the end. One by one we rode the last sectors, and once over the brutal section that is Carrefour de l’Arbre, we knew we’d done it. The last section was polished off and suddenly we were back in the outskirts of Roubaix. We ended up in a big group, riding from traffic light to traffic light – and it was at one of these crossroads that I was hit with a thought. The one area where I expected a lot of pain was trouble free. I’d heard that Sean Kelly would still be pissing blood days after his Roubaix rides, so I was very happy to realise that my nether regions were pain free. No chafing, no saddle sores, no bruised perineum. Totally happy down there. I knew these Parentini shorts had a superb reputation but they far exceeded my expectation.
The last few miles toward the finish are a bit of an anti climax if I’m honest. I don’t know why, I was expecting closed roads. Instead we had to weave in and out of cars, all trying to head for the Velodrome. 105 miles of tough riding and this is the reception you get. This thought soon disperses though when you see the big white arrow on the road, indicating to turn right into the Velodrome. A few more yards and there you are, riding on the famous track heading toward the finish line opposite the old stand. I wanted to get some speed up, but the wet track put paid to that. Never mind, the image I had in my mind of sprinting for the line like a wily old pro probably wouldn’t have looked like that in reality. So instead I rolled over the line with a smile on my face. I’d not only eaten up the full menu of sectors, I’d tackled half of them with what seemed like one arm behind my back. I could feel justifiably proud.
An hour later when the adrenalin had worn off, the pain from the ride decided to make an ugly appearance. My swollen wrist reminding me why I shouldn’t have ridden on. It was very angry with me.
Weeks after, it’s still not forgotten and is still nagging on at me. At this rate I’m going to divorce it.
My top tips for the Paris Roubaix Challenge
1. Make sure you’re comfortable riding for over 100 miles – if you haven’t had one already, invest in a reputable bike fit.
2. Don’t bother practising on cobbled roads at home – they’re nothing like the ones at Roubaix.
3. The more spokes you have in your wheels the better – the same goes for your tyres. The more air you have in them the better. Go for 25c plus.
4. Make sure your bibshorts fit you correctly and have a premium insert like Parentini’s. You’ll be glad you invested.
5. Make sure you have a good choice of clothing with flexibility – the weather in Roubaix might be nothing like the start which is 80 odd miles away.
6. Take some toilet roll with you to the start – trust me this is vital! Thousands of nervous cyclists using 10 portaloos. You get the picture.
7. Forget everyone’s advice of how to ride the cobbles – after the first few sectors you’ll find your own technique.
8. When you hit a bad patch, and your cursing the cobbles – remember, you’re riding on legendary roads. Savour every moment and think of all the heroes who have pounded the pavé.