One of the oldest races on the Calender, Paris-Roubaix, has earned itself many 'nicknames' but it is actually the one given to it when the first edition was run after the First World War that many people know it by now – The Hell of the North. The riders of that era remember the scenes of devastation that had occurred over that region in the preceding 4 years – villages, towns and trees all destroyed and remember, in those days of no TV this was the first time these riders would have seen this kind of devastation. The only way they could describe it was by referring to it as Hell on Earth or more precisely The Hell of the North.
The very first Paris-Roubaix was held in 1896 and with obvious breaks for 2 World Wars the 2014 edition was the 112th running of it. As with many bike races it was set up to promote a newspaper and was unique in that, it including various sections of pavé and finished on an open air velodrome in Roubaix. Many famous riders have lifted the cobblestone trophy in the centre of the Roubaix Velodrome including Merckx, De Vlaeminck, Kelly and more recently, the battle has been between Cancellera and Boonen. Mind you, Bernard Hinault, once referred to this race as 'Bulls**t' but then proceeded to ride it and, as if just to prove a point, won it.
One of the joys of cycling is that you can always ride the same roads as the pro's (you wouldn't be able to play football at Wembley as an amateur footballer!!). There has been a sportif style event based on Paris-Roubais but generally this was run by the local cycling club, VC Roubaix, and took the form of an Audax in June. However, more recently an event has been orgainsed in the form of a sportif that takes place the day before the pro's take to the very same roads. This is essentially where we come in, with one of those typical Winter conversations, you know the sort.
'Who fancies doing Paris Roubaix next year'?
'Well I've ridden the Tour of Flanders Sportif so should be ok but....'?
'I tell you what I'll do it if you do it'
Plenty of time to get fit, so I thought but, with the wettest winter on record it wasn't going to be too easy but I'd give it a try. Before I knew it, Jez had phoned me to check a couple of details (date of birth etc) and I then received an e-mail confirming 'I was in'. I was trying to put the miles in at the weekend and the odd longer rider from work. Indeed The Lionheart was used very much as a training ride.
One of the mistakes I always make is doing a bit of research in to what I am getting myself into. Well, a few google image searches later and I was thinking those cobbles in the Arenberg Forest look big and those in the Carrefour de l'arbre looked incredibly uneven – how was a I going to ride a normal road bike on those. It probably helped, as Jez kept telling me, I was riding a bike made for the cobbles, my Trek Domane – a race winning design used by Fabian Cancellara himself.
The group going over consisted of 5 of us: Me & Jez from Bay Cycles, Simon from Colin Lewis, John from Madison and Mike from Strada Cycles with Simon using a rather nice Vito van from work that would ferry us all over in style and comfort.
I got picked from Bristol Parkway rail station and then it was a quick drive down to the Channel Tunnel for our Shuttle trip over to Calais. After that a quick drive down to Roubaix we picked up our numbers from the new covered velodrome which has been constructed adjacent to the open air one. We then took in the amazing sight of the open air velodrome then decided to find our way to the Hotel. I won't go in to too much detail but we got there eventually after a tour of Roubaix, Lille and what seemed like every other local town!!
Anyway, with hotel and rooms sorted we then needed to fix the numbers on to the bikes. However, within the information give to us by the Organisers was a map showing the route we would do the next day. Basically the Organisers gave 3 options: 170km, 141km & 70km; we opted for the middle distance of 141km. This meant a ride of about 45km south from Roubaix then joining the race route at the dreaded Forest of Arenberg or The Trench – Welcome to Hell. This also meant that we would encounter 17 sections of pavé varying in length from 'just' 0.5km to 3.7km.
Having fixed our numbers in place we managed to get some nice food in a local pizza restaurant after which, back at the Hotel the general consensus was that pudding may have been a step too far. Anyway, we decided to meet up for breakfast the next morning at 6.45am with a view to leaving the hotel at about 8.00 and riding to the Velodrome about 6 miles away. For some strange reason, whilst the others were happily tucking in to their 'all you can eat breakfast' I just about managed to get 2 pain au chocolat and a coffee down me.
Looking out of the window it was a strange morning, quite misty but when you popped your head out of the door it not actually that cold, ultimately leaving us with every cyclist's nightmare – what to wear?? Anyway, once that was sorted we all re-convened downstairs for checking of tyre pressures etc with the general consensus of opinion being 95psi front and back – sorted.
Short ride in to Roubaix almost tuned in to an adventure after we nearly ended up on the Motorway after taking a wrong turn (john???). We rolled up to the start, short comfort break and then it was off in a rather understated way – you were just allowed to roll out under the Trek banner and we were off. Now, me & Jez had already had a conversation about this, we knew that Simon & John would go off quote quickly (they are first cat GC road racers after all) but we weren't sure about Mike but chose just to let them go off and do their own thing – after all there were still 141km to go.
I would like to say that you do not go to this region of France for the scenery which was probably a good job as for the first 40-45km the mist, and in some places fog, remained firmly in place. It was only when I looked down at my bike and realised how damp it was. I am afraid to say that I can't tell you much about this first 45 km other than it was a nice gentle introduction to a ride before Hell began.
We soon started to pass through slightly larger villages and towns crossing the A23 motorway which, I hadn't realised we would end up crossing on a number of occasions all day. Soon we entered a more wooded area and that feeling of dread and, in my case doubt, started to enter my head. I mistakenly mentioned this to Jez who become worried about my wellbeing!! We soon reached a bit of a bottleneck and all of a sudden we were there, The Arenberg Forest! Stopping for a minute to take it all in we noted we were actually joining the course at right angles and thus were going to start by turning right into the Forest. To the left of where we had stopped were the iconic mine shaft lifting towers of which, can be clearly seen from TV coverage of the event. At this point the pro's are doing in the region of 60-70km/hr to get the best position before entering the Forest. Sean Kelly once said that the battle for position into the Arenberg is worse than a bunch sprint and he should know as he has battled well in both.
Anyway, with no more hanging round, we decided it was time to do battle – with a gate that partially blocks the entrance into the Forest before you know it you are on the cobbles. Now, I have experienced the cobbles in Flanders but they are nothing compared to those of the Arenberg. The Arenberg cobbles almost look like loaves of bread with gaps a few slices wide between them. All my kidology with Jez worked as I hit the cobbles hard and fast straight down the middle but after what felt like an age I made the mistake of looking down and that messed with my concentration. The secret is to keep going quickly but my look down had thrown all that. After, probably reaching ¾ way through I felt a bang at the rear of the bike and the dreaded feel of a flat. Damn, I had to pull over and lifted the bike over the tape onto the adjoining cinder track with Jez pulling up not long after me. As a very decent Director Sportif (DS), Jez, very kindly did the tube replacement for me but he did berate me slightly over my earlier kidology about fearing the cobbles – couldn't use that one again.
Tube replaced and we were soon on our way and at the end of the Arenberg. I managed to find a Beligan with a team van to borrow a pump so that I could get a decent pressure in my rear tyre. Handing the pump back with a thank you, the man said to me 'You look like Bradley Wiggins!!' .
We were soon off, looking forward to the next section which was only a 3 star section and involved going through an old railway bridge however, also involved our first experience of going round corners on cobbles. Now, one of the other things they tell you about riding cobbles is to hit them fast. The only slight problem with implementing this theory was on the entrance to the section where an organisers vehicle was positioned slap bang in the middle across the road leaving only a metre gap either side. Nevertheless we pushed on soon picking up the momentum we needed.
Another section ticked off with the next thing to look forward to – the first feed stop in Hournaing. This turned out to be a veritable feast of waffles, honey bread and biscuits. Suitably fed and watered we were off again following some Norwegians from a Cycling Club whose initials on the back of their jersey read FOCC – not sure that would work in the UK.
Soon after leaving the feed zone the next cobbled section came, this time the longest section of 3.7km with a 4 star rating. After having ridden 2 sections I was now getting used to the cobbles and how best to ride them. A short section of cobbles initially followed by a tight right hander on tarmac and back on to cobbles. It was this third section of cobbles when it suddenly clicked, gears tuned in to maintain momentum and stick to the middle of the road. I soon realised that if anyone needed or wanted to come past me then they would move round me. In other words it wasn't down to me to move out of their way. After what seemed like an eternity I could see that the organisers had actually place a banner across the end of this section, something to aim for. Soon a relief from the constant battering that all of me was taking.
A 'regroupment' at the end of the cobbles saw some members of the Russian National Team cruise past making it look all too easy. Before long we had crossed over the narrow river bridge and soon after hit the next 3 star 2.4km section of cobbles at Warlaing a Brillon.
Now the organisers had given us a sticker to affix to the top tube showing all the sections (a la pro style) but because mine is a team bike I thought better of it but even after so few sections I was starting to lose count. I think my brain was slowly but surely being rattled out my head. On each section I was going for the centre of the road and when I wanted a bit of respite I would ride the narrow edge or even the grass verge just to relieve the sharp pain I was feeling in my wrists and forearms.
I do remember one thing and that was the sheer number of motorhomes already in situ for the next day outside of which sat families already on the beer. Not sure what state they would be in the next day but they gave us a cheer as we went past.
Remember that motorway, well the 13th section from the end was at a place called Beuvry, a short section of 1.4km (3 star), that ran immediately alongside that motorway. An initial distraction but soon concentration was back and we reached the end. A slight turn away from the motorway along narrow lanes but it wasnt long before we crossed it again and encounted section 12, Orchies (1.7km 3 star). Mind you this was after having to negotiate past another race organisers vehicle.
Soon after Orchies we approached Auchy-les-orchies a Bersee which was where we realised that, apart from motorway bridges, there were some slightly uphill sections,. Not Flanders uphill but certainly hard enough. It was on this section that 2 things happened: the first was that I felt confident enough to follow someone else's wheel on the cobbles and also confident enough to move my right hand from the top of the bars to change gear – not easy when you are being bounced around. This section was 2.6km long and rated 4 star and towards the end I was starting to feel the effect of the early start so stopped at the end to down a caffeine gel – that 'hit the spot'.
A few more twists and turns on narrow roads and Mons En Pevele was upon us, a 5 star 3km section. At the start of this section the organisers had placed a sign stating 50km still to go – really?? The start of this section was slightly downhill and I started quite quickly but unfortunately it didn't take long for me to loose the much needed momentum. I quickly tried to source an easier route along the verge but soon realised that it was like riding on the beach – sand which become quite thick in places almost bringing me to a halt. The cobbles themselves were not much better and I really was wishing for this one to end – it soon did. A brief respite at the end and I tried to take in some much needed energy in the way of a bar but feeling nauseous I wasn't too sure about it. Luckily (apologies to the Squeamish) I managed to keep it down.
Stay tuned for Chapteur deux to follow shortly...