I had visited the Paris Roubaix Spring Classic race a couple of times in the 80’s and 90’s and always came away thinking that these riders were crazy, riding all day over the cobbles of Northern France. Who would take a road bike over the unkept, uneven broken farm tracks? I always remember the carnage I witnessed at the velodrome after the race, bent forks broken downtubes, countless wheels with flat tyres and cyclists covered head to toe in mud or dust depending if the race was held in the wet or dry. Now, over 20 years after my last visit I stood in the very velodrome, where all my cycling heros had ridden, Merckx, DeVleminck, Moser, Hinault, Madiot, Museeuw, Boonen and Cancellera looking at the velodrome where I would finish the next day after 170km over 28 sectors of cobbles. Could I do it? I wasn’t sure.
My day had started early in Basel and Suzy and I drove up through the Vosges (in the Alsace). If you ever get the chance, try and include this on your travel itinery, it was really beautiful with some amazing wooded mountains and flat valleys. After passing through the Alsace it just got a bit industrial and then I started to recognise some of the mining structures that characterise this part of Northern France, I was getting closer to Roubaix. My GPS let me know that I was getting closer to the Velodrome ...... and then, transported 20 years back, I recognised the street, ahead of me. There were countless cars parked up and riders in all sorts of dayglo and luminsence were appearing. I thought, hey the Italians are here!!!!! Taking their lead (no I didn’t put on dayglo) we parked up and headed around the corner to the velodrome entrance. To my disappointment, the registration for the next day was in the new covered velodrome and expecting queues around the corner I was prepared to wait a while to pick up my number.
Well, this event is really well run. I walked right up to registration, no queues at all, gave them my number and in exchange was handed a nice little package of number, map, emergency details and a nice sticker for my bike detailing all 28 sectors of pave (trepidation set in again). This was going really well. Looking around there was a merchandising stall, with some cool looking jerseys and t shirts, so of course I wanted to pick up a jersey. Again there was no queue, but a fair number of people looking for jerseys. To our disappointment all that was left on offer was "small" jerseys, then we noticed that someone went to the stall and gave them their details, they had pre-ordered to pick up at registration. Why didn’t I think of that?? It then got worse, there was a Paris Roubaix soirée on at 7:30 on the Friday night with talks from the legend Bernard Hinault and an auction of Paris Roubaix memorabilia. I even saw Cedric Vassuer making his way through there. Again, pre-registration was required and the price was only 5 Euros !!!!. Bummer. Note to self, make sure that you pre-register for everything before you get to the event.
We then went outside and passed some time waiting for Rod and Deryck to arrive from Scotland. It was fantastic to see so many people milling around at the start helping build the atmosphere for the next day. I was really surprised how easy it was to park and get registered. Outside registration was a small trailer for Tourist Information providing all sorts of links and maps for anyone who was in Roubaix for the race, but not riding the next day. The staff were very knowledgeable and extremely helpful. We then noticed some merchandising stalls selling magazines, spare inner tubes, tyres, bottles and last minute things that you may have forgot. Again that was really useful, but no use to me as I had kitted myself out with all sorts of bike stuff for the next day expecting the worst.
We then went off to the Roubaix bar to look around. This place was amazing with all kinds of memorabilia from old races. Above the bar the name of all the race winners from day one and the walls were adorned with pictures of Plankaert, Boonen, Merckx, Hinault etc, all amazing and really built the atmoshphere for the next day. It got even better. There were signs to visit the Mythical Douches of the Paris Roubaix. I had seen these showers in different documentaries but never in the flesh. We walked on through the bar in hope of finding the showers, but it looked as if everything was shutting up for the night, it was nearly 6pm after all.
We went back to our hotel in Lille (only a 20 minute car drive) and made last minute preparations for the next day. I will not mention the meal we had in Lille. It was possibly the worst food I have ever eaten in a long long long time, so much for French Cuisine :(.
I put my race number on the front of my bike and Suzy got out the needle and thread to make some final adjustments to the housing for the video camera. We really wanted to have some good footage of the day. After all of that, I laid out my clothes for the morning, packed all the energy bars that Suzy had meticulously prepared, put together the bike tools that I would need and we were ready for bed. The alarm was set for 4am.
We had arranged to meet with Rod and Deryck at 5am in front of the Velodrome, so were up at 4am to prepare. I looked outside and no surprise.... it was dark, but it was foggy too. I had a dilemma, legwarmers or not. I had packed some Rapha winter embrocation. This stuff was the business. I worked it into my legs and lower back (hey I was beginning to feel like a cyclist again) and my legs warmed up perfectly. Just for information, this saw me through the cold foggy morning and entire ride without my legs feeling cold at all. If you need to ride in the cold, this is the stuff.
We took off for the Velodrome with me feeling a little apprehensive, or was it just excitement. I remembered all the cool stuff we had seen the day before and remembered this is Paris Roubaix. I will be riding all the cobbled sectors that the pros are riding. Is it possible for me to do this? Again, parking outside the velodrome was easy, no pay to park in the area of Roubaix. Just don’t expect to park in front of or inside the velodrome, there were buses as far as the eye could see. Only thing was, I wasn’t registered on any of them. I wasn’t the only one. Rod who was coming from Scotland was in the same boat.
Suzy had mailed the organisation a few days prior to see if there were any spaces. Of course, there were none, but they did say that if you turn up on the day, the likelyhood was that you could get on to a bus. Perfect, we were at registration nice and early and the organisers let us know that we would have to wait until the last bus to ensure that no one who had registered was left without a space. That was fair and we also had to wait for Rod and Deryck, who were running a bit late. I was amazed at the number of cyclists of all ages, shapes sizes and genders were leaving in the buses. They were all dressed from full winter gear to shorts and a road top.
For me I went with shorts, two road jerseys and arm warmers (these came off at lunchtime when the sun eventually made an appearance). There were top of the range road bikes, mountain bikes, cyclo cross bikes hybrids, carbon, aluminium and steel. Of course for me steel was the only way to go. The bikes were loaded up in military fashion. These guys know how to put on an event.
Eventually we were given the all clear to pay our 30 Euro to catch a lift in the bus. As this was the last bus it seemed that the driver had thought he would just follow the rest. I would have thought that but when we got to the first light we stopped. All the other buses were screaming towards Busigny, we were stopped with a driver who didn’t seem to know where he was going. It took nearly 2 hours to get to the start!!!! We were going to have to play catch up from the start. After a 2 hour bus journey, we needed a coffee, of course,the organisers had this arranged too. Well, Rod went to registration and came back to Deryck and myself with the nice brown liquid, smelling so good in the foggy morning in the middle of nowhere. However, after a coffee you need ......
Once we got ourselves comfortable, we were ready to set off on 170Km into the unknown, all excited and a little nervous. Although it was close to 9am, the little village of Busigny provided us with great support as all the final riders passed through the Start banner. This was timed so we heard a little beep as we started out on our journey into the fog.
We made our way through the small roads in Busigny in small groups. At every turn there was a brightly coloured high –vis sign showing the route of Paris Roubaix and on others we had race marshals who would stop traffic in favour of the cyclists. This is how to ride, nice roads, no traffic to speak about and beautifully surfaced roads......for a few kilometres.........
As we were a bit late in starting we found a big group of dutch riders, so worked our way through to the front keeping a nice brisk pace. We continued into the countryside and through the little village of Troisvilles, up a little hill, turning left into the fog and BAM!!!!!, the first sector of 28. We hit this sector of pave and my arms were bouncing up and down, my heart rate soared and my front wheel was all over the place as I tried hard to find a good line as riders disappeared in front of me. Bottles were strewn all over the road. The other riders behind me were yelling something in some sort of dutch/flemmish dialect but I was passing people and just kept going but the protestations were getting louder. They were trying to tell me that my spare tube that was nicely seated blow my saddle had come loose and was flapping dangerously close to my back wheel. I had no option but to stop and sort it out.
What a start!!!, the first sector of pave and I had a mechanical (of sorts). I took a little bit of time organising my spare tyres and got back on my bike. Brilliant, now I’m chasing. My heart rate was pounding now as I hit the second sector of pave chasing all the way picking up riders here and there. I found out something really early. If there’s something worse than hitting the cobbles at speed, it’s coming downhill on them. There’s no room for braking here, you just need to keep your balance and keep control over the front of the bike. Yikes, that was really tricky, feeling the transition between pave and asphalt was amazing, I thought for sure I’d punctured but all was good, at least for me..... I was fine coming downhill on the pave, others were not so good. As I exited Sector 26 there was one guy lying in the road legs covered in blood. Not a good start, but the medical team were with him. Did I say how much I liked this organisation?.
Riding on the smooth road I was still chasing, looking into the fog I could see riders in front of me and started picking them off group by group, I was really enjoying it now. I kept the routine of picking off riders on the flat and just holding it together on the pave as I worked my way towards the first feed station. I found out that if I was slightly over geared for the pave, that worked fine. The lower my gear, the worse I bounced around. The smooth road was such a relief. Each sector is like a climb as far as effort goes and you can forget even getting close to your brakes, that just makes it more difficult. I even started the Roger De Vlaemink trick of riding on top of the brake levers (having mounted them slightly lower) to give more control over the front wheel. These cobbles are brutal and really shake every muscle and bone in your body. I exited the next section of pave and looked down on my bike. To my surprise, it was caked in dust!! This is new. I had no idea that this would be so dusty. My chrome forks were brown, my white bottles were brown, now I was in a race and feeling like I’m in the Paris Roubaix. The pave was wearing me down, the dust was adding to the complex picture but now the sun was eventually starting to lift the fog to lift my spirits.
I passed through the first feed zone and didn’t stop. I had filled up with Suzys wonderful energy bars and this gave a boost as I climbed out of town at Verchain. I was still chasing Rod and Deryck after that first mechanical. I wasn't sure that I would see them before the finish. At the top of the climb I heard a familiar voice. Deryck waited for me at the feed zone, and seen me whizz through, so chased me for a change. This was fantastic we were able to ride together, working well on the flat and Deryck taking off on the pave. He was so much better than me on the cobbles. I don’t think you can ever prepare yourself for the battering that you receive on each sector of pave. We continued towards the first iconic sector of pave, the Forest of Arenburg, first crossing the pave Bernard Hinault (Sector 19 at Wallers). This sector was the first with a 90degree right hand turn. Another note, although going downhill on pave was hard, the right hand turn was really difficult. I had to keep my speed up in the turn to come out of it with any chance of keeping my momentum. It’s a whole new experience this pave. Now on to the Forest of Arenberg.
I knew from my previous trips to this race that the Forest is incredible. If I can get through the forest I can finish. By this time, most riders were in small groups riding together, so it was quite relaxed going into the forest. I stopped just before the entrance to set up my video camera hoping that it would stay on my handlebars. The Arenberg is set up so that there is no respite for the rider. One side, where the walkers path is located is all fenced off. The other side, to the left as you enter the forest, is all dug up like a farmers field so it was impossible to ride on. The ensured that all riders had to pass through the forest on the pave. We entered through the gate, over a little ramp and then........oh my gosh, these are the biggest and most uneven cobbles of the entire day. The video tells the story. This went on for over 2km and such a challenge. I really had to dig deep here. My heart rate was up, i was passing some riders on one side and other riders were passing me on the other side. There were bodies all over the place, bottles bounced out of cages everywhere, but what a great atmosphere riding shoulder to shoulder with riders from all over the world. All the way up the forest spectators were cheering us all the way through. These guys know the effort we’re putting out. It felt so good to exit the forest and get back on to the smooth road again and start riding along with Deryke again. The forest was indeed the hardest part of the parcours and I am proud to say that I came through without too much drama. No mechanical, no puncture and I stayed upright all the way through, trying really hard all the way over every single uneven cobble.
The sun was fully out at this point and I was beginning to really enjoy my day out on the bike. This was the longest ride i had done all year and the distance wasn't really bothering me, the pave did enough of that, and I was really feeling very good having conquered the forest (or trench - Trouee). Deryck and myself left the forest and caught up with a big bunch of rides from the Johnstone Wheelers, I remember commenting to these guys that it was a hell of a place to bring your club run!!! Anyway, we had a nice run up to the next feed station at Hornaing with this group, keeping the pace nice and brisk. The feed station was well served with electrolyte drinks, fruit (mainly bananas) and waffles, along with toilets. It was time for us to take off the arm warmers and get ready for the next sections of pave.
Immediately after we left the feed we were back into the pave with me taking my customary role of losing time as my front wheel bounced over the cobbles. I thought that this section wasn't too bad and took some more footage. You can still see that the pave really takes it out of your arms with the constant buffeting through the handlebars, and this was an easy one !!. I tried to keep the front wheels down by riding on the hoods but it made no difference, it was a real battle just trying to find a line across the pave. Sometimes the centre was better, other times along the gutter, until the road opened up with a massive hole forcing a rapid change in direction.
I was starting to feel a little dehydrated at this point with the distance and also with the fine weather. It was time to turn to Suzy's coconut water and barley grass mixture in my second water bottle. It takes a bit of getting used to, but this is a perfect natural electrolyte replacement. I started sucking down the green concoction, thinking that I'm drinking grass, but hey, this stuff really works. I felt the slight headache, lift almost immediately and I was back into the game, passing lots of riders on the flat and struggling through every single pave section. Exiting what I thought was Sector 15 with Deryck (obviously this wasn't too hard) I thought that Sector wasn't too bad. To my delight it was sector 13 lifting my spirits even more.
I was really getting into this now, that's until I hit sector 10 at Mons. This was a really long one at 3Km. As I was doing my best impression of Roger De Vlaemink on the brake hoods, they started to move south. Oh Oh....... my first mechanical. and I needed an allen key to tighten up the Cinelli XA. I told Deryck to continue on and I would meet him at the final feed as I carefully limped through sector 10. My first stop was a couple of cyclists taking a break but they were not able to assist, so I continued. The next group of 3 were stopped beside one of the many camper vans. Turns out that they were Dutch and although we were unable to communicate perfectly, the mechanical situation was quickly ascertained and the large Dutchman, produced a multi tool. My face lit up, I didn't want to waste a lot of time trying to find assistance. After trying a couple of wrongly sized allen keys, one fit the bars and I was away, thanking the dutchman as I bumped over the rest of sector 10. It was fantastic to find help by the side of the road, but I thought that I did check all the nuts and bolts on Thursday evening. Just remember that before this event check and double check all the fittings on your bike. By the look of the road on each pave sector make sure you have good water bottle fittings too. I lost count of the number of bottles that had come loose and really surprised to see discarded bottle cages too.
I continued solo after sector 10 to meet up with Deryck at the final feeding station. This was the best feed stop, there was still plenty of food and everyone was in really good spirits, realising that it wasn't far until we got to the famed Velodrome. There were a lot of admiring glances at my Bikyle, although it looked as if it had been in the wars, and I got into a conversation of how steel felt over the pave. I can only say that my legs felt really good, I had no upper body pain, the only problem was the next day when my hands had swollen to double their normal size. They have now settled down again, so I can finish writing this blog :)
I was enthused counting down the last few sectors of pave. Cysoing (Sector 6) came and went and wasn't too bad and I was riding with Deryck until the last really tough sector at the Carrefour de l'arbe. This was the final long one and I let Deryck continue on as I focused on all the famous riders that had done this before me. I summoned up one last big effort to push along the gutter to finish this last really hard sector.
After this last sector we picked up the pace to push towards Roubaix. The last two sectors were not too hard considering what we had just conquered, and I was keeping pace with Deryck across these ones towards the finale. Coming into Roubaix we had caught up with a small group on the road and pushed on up the final hill towards the finish. The worse part of the finale was that we were under traffic controls. It seemed that every single light had changed to red as we approached. As we got to the top of the hill, there was a small group mending a puncture, what a shame to puncture on the main road only a couple of kilometers from the velodrome. Nevertheless, I'm sure they fixed it quickly and made it to the finish. Coming down the road towards the Velodrome, I remembered very well from my youth, and also from parking the car in the morning, we started discussing the finish, was it a lap before the line like the pros or was it just full on to the line, we didn't know but favoured the pro finish. We took the famed right hander into the velodrome entrance accompanied by the cheering crowds and thumping PA system, this felt amazing.
We picked up the pace towards the finish line as the music pumped out and I just took in the whole atmosphere, looking around at the crowds of family and cycling enthusiasts as I approached the line. I did it, I accomplished the ride of my life. My fears of punctures, mechanicals and distance all faded from my thoughts. I scanned the finish area looking for Suzys smiling face, I did it.
Deryck and myself found Rod at the finish and we all celebrated an amazing day with a well earned beer.
At the finish I was a little sad that it was all over, feeling that I had just ridden a bit of cycling history. We were all greeted with organisers handing out our well deserved medals at the finish.
We all stayed around the finish for ages cheering more riders into the finish and just absorbing the moment. All with our own memories of the day. You have just read mine, I hope I have encouraged you to try the "Hell of the North". Would I do it again, probably not, there are so many other races I want to do now but this is one race every cyclist should ride, it's an amazing day with such a history. The event itself is so well organised that you cannot go wrong, book your hotel early along with everything else for this day and you will experience an event like no other.
Thank you to the Paris Roubaix Challenge for organising such a great event and supplying fantastic official photographs as a memory of such an amazing day.
This is taken from my blog Steel's Real. Later this year I'm off to the Giro d'Italia and will be adding more stories and pics!