‘Brutal’, is all I could utter when asked how it went; what else could I say? A little earlier I had fallen into the arms of a friend in Roubaix Velodrome centre. I felt so weak and there was simply nothing left in my body, but my soul was full, very full.
The bi-annual event is a matter of great civic pride and as a rider you feel very much welcome by the locals and authorities. Not an entrepreneur in sight, this is an old school event organised locally, giving it a special romantic atmosphere. I was joined by many Brits, not forgetting riders from all across the world. A team from the Basque country ‘won’ the team prize of a giant cobble (I was part of a team who won it a few years back) and they had shown up as if they were the pro squad.
A major part of the sportive is not just the support of the banner waving locals, but also the race support offered by team mates, friends and relatives. Some come well prepared with full spares whilst others rely on friends and family members with a spare wheel and some food in hand. Others ride unsupported. We came across a rider from Corley Cycles walking back up the pave with a broken bike; sometime later we saw him sitting in a support car of a Dutch club. This was probably echoed across the event as people looked after each other no matter what nationality or affiliation.
On the subject of clubs, I took pleasure in noting the club/team names such as Laurel & Hardy Fietsen, from Doodlinberg (or something to that effect) or Team Volcano from Iceland, including one Belgian team who seemed to be sponsored by the local chef…
We dropped off our full distance rider’s at Compiegne and I journeyed onto my start to embark at 7.30am at Bohain, for the middle distance ride of 180km, which features ALL the pave sections undertaken by the pro’s.
I and some two and half thousand riders rolled onto the French tarmac under a warm and sunny sky, and whilst the ‘long’ rider’s had some 80km of tarmac to ride before they hit the first section of pave at Troisvilles, we had less than twenty before our lives were ‘turned upside down and inside out’ on the pave.
The first section at Troisvilles is over two kilometres long and is down-hill. Although hard on the hands, this first experience of the pave is relatively smooth, though if you’re not careful the bike can get away from you and items will spill across the track from pockets or from the bike.
If you watch the pro-racers they will soft pedal after each section of the early stuff, and this is what we did to allow some recovery before hitting the next relentless succession of pave.
The art of riding the pave is to hold the bars lightly, ride on the centre brow and push a gear with some resistance. If you spin too much you are in danger of losing your chain or breaking a mech, and pedalling too hard will see you lacking pace and you thus feel every cobble. The slower you go the worse it is the knack is to find a happy balance that will see you to the finish.
Many of the early sections are rough; this is where the wearing down process of the race begins, and where the domestiques will be working to keep their team leaders out of trouble and ready for the hard core of the race; the infamous Tranchee d’Arenberg and onward to Cysoing where the race is decided, particularly at Carrefour de l’Arbre.
As we approach the Arenberg Forest, now riding in a large peloton of some 60 riders, the heavens opened and what had started as a warm sunny day now saw us assaulted by almost unbelievably heavy rain; ‘God with a pressure hose’ was how one rider described it. With over 90 kilometres to go and the worst of the pave to come, we all faced the prospect of a ‘hell’ of a ride.
Scared? You bet!
The flat landscape of the Arenberg, once a large mine at the industrial heart of northern France, is marked by cone shaped slag heaps and abandoned mine workings. Today the area suffers economic hardship and the roads built for work now find their greatest role as the place for heroes to do battle. The Arenberg mine is now a tourist and heritage site, and a control point for the sportive. Despite some new work the interior of the mine building is dark and smells of age, conjuring up a sense of foreboding, the coming struggle and melancholy. The rain pounding outside compounded the self-doubt that many were feeling as we stood on the verge of riding one of the most famous sporting locations in the world. Your average football fan cannot play at Wembley but we can ride the ‘Arenberg Tranche’. It was with a heavy heart that I climbed aboard my bike as rain streamed off my helmet and stung my eyes.
The Arenberg Forest is a sombre place at the best times and when the race is on, full to the brim with fans as they seek the thrills and spills that the forest provides. The pave looms up before you and the old railway bridge that straddles the pave frames it perfectly. Just under two and half kilometres long, the cobbles here are more like riding over a rock garden and underneath the pave is a miners’ tunnel which has caused the pave to bow at the centre. The first kilometre of the pave falls downward and the last up. I have ridden the whole of the Arenberg many times, but never in such heavy rain and I’m not ashamed to admit that I popped onto the footpath to the side for the middle section. Made from coal dust, I and the majority of riders were soon caked in the stuff; my lovely pink Rapha rain jacket had almost turned black.
I returned to the pave for the last kilometre and I made grunting noises signifying my effort in conjunction with an array of grimaces as I pushed myself to the limit. My reward was to hit the tarmac at speed and to gain a whole heap of praise from a large group of spectators. It was very much appreciated I can tell you and I felt like a pro.
Struggling somewhat in the heavy rain I did question my ability to finish and my mind began to select random notions in my head, all very much incoherent streams of thought, and when I punched myself in the face by mistake looking at my watch, I decided to stop and pull myself together. I spent just a few moments standing in the rain thinking about my ride and I worked out a game plan: firstly, I would stop thinking that the distance counter of my Garmin was ticking over too slowly and to stop fixating about it and secondly I decided to get back on the bike and ride, and importantly work to maintain a line of coherent thought – ‘think bike, think ride’ I said to myself. Once rolling I knew I wasn’t going to abandon and I was so wet now what did it matter? I have heard that people will seek a ‘special place; in their head to go to when under pressure. I think I found that ‘special place’ that day.
The pave was now in a dreadful state being covered in mud and flooded in many parts, the latter making it almost a life and death choice whether to ride through them. The biggest problem I had now was overtaking riders – in the dry the less confident can elect to ride on the packed mud strip adjacent to the fields, but in the wet these become hopelessly slippery and I saw a number of riders fall into the corn fields. Thus riders struggled on the brow at a very slow pace, simply lacking the confidence to speed up and they became mobile chicanes. When overtaking I had to dip into the water logged pot holes and I tried not to dwell on whether there was a deep chasm below. I was switched many times as I kept as close to the rider on the brow as I could, and many an elbow was brushed. I was once in a group of fifteen big Dutchmen hammering along, and when they hit the pave they slowed as if a brake had been applied. Hand on heart; I overtook more people this day than did I
It was hard graft, and extremely hard on the mind. After two previous rides on the Sportive I can state with some confidence that this edition was the hardest by far. It was indeed brutal.
The heart of the matter
Now well into the third part of the sportive the rain abated and the sun appeared, and I was now bearing down on some of the worst pave of the ride, where the pro-race is lost or won.
One section that remains carved in my mind is dedicated to two time winner Marc Madiot at Beuvry La Florest; it is 2400 metres long, has been badly cut up by local farming traffic and was stupidly hard. I could feel my tyres almost bottoming out as cobbles jutted out from the wet mud and sent shock waves through my hands, which already pained were now screaming for mercy. Thankfully the mix of mud and bad pave forced the less sure footed to walk and my way was surprisingly free of people to thwart my progress.
Smell of frites
Cysoing is where the race and the sportive get hard-core, and after a quick refuelling at the time checkpoint I hit the ‘Pave Duclos Lassalle’ section (named after the two time winner). I knew I was truly on hallowed cycling ground – ahead lay the terrors of Carrefour de l’Arbre. Although running near to empty I had survived my earlier moment of self-doubt and a second drenching from heavy rain. I shouted out loud, “I can almost smell the frites and beer in the Roubaix Velodrome, and nothing is going to stop me now.”
The entry to Carrefour follows a section of indifferent tarmac and here is where the likes of Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellera will be ready to pounce and hit the nightmare that is Carrefour at full speed cresting the pave with thousands of fans screaming in their ears. For me it was less noisy, but I did have to overtake a very talkative Frenchman who was blaspheming with almost every rotation of his pedals. The rough stuff of Carrefour was just too much for a lot of riders, and many walked on the side whilst others struggled on the pave. It was very, very much a battle to get past them and I had many a moment as riders tumbled or switched across the pave into my path. It was certainly the hardest section.
The transfer onto the run up to the cafe l’Arbre follows a tight turn, and once more I saw a few riders veering off into the fields. I was in a line of over 70 people as we approached the cafe, a hotbed during the pro race and where Thor Hushovd crashed out from the lead group in 2009. With flood waters lapping the crown of the section and many having taken to their feet, I found it impossible to overtake and resigned myself to feeling every cobble, as I rode it at near snail’s pace.
Now past the cafe, that featured a good number of spectators and helpers, but well short of the tens of thousands who will grace the spot during the race. I went past a long line of riders, taking my bike through a number of deep puddles which I knew from previous experience did not have pave broken underneath (this was my third ride of the sportive). Sadly further up the route the waters cleared and the smooth section of gravel was revealed to all and I was almost taken off as a rider veered down suddenly into my path. No contact was made and he apologised in French, but I had hit a sharp curb-edge and I suffered my first puncture in three editions of the Paris Roubaix Sportive.
I sat down in the mud and began to change my tyre, my hands were so sore that getting the tyre off the rim was a major struggle, but at this low moment Neil and Gary from the London Phoenix rolled up and gave me their encouragement and a spare inner tube, just in case. I will be eternally thankful to Lezyne for creating a great mini pump as it took me only five or so strokes to get my tyre up to pressure. I needed all the energy I could muster and struggling with a tyre can bring any tired cyclist close to breaking point. Previously I had passed many riders mending punctures and had wished them no ill whilst thinking, “Thank goodness it’s happened to them and not me!”
The worst is over
The worst of the pave was now over and my Garmin had run out of battery; I was also in need of a major recharge. So close but yet so far… The course now weaved through the suburbs of Roubaix and stopping at traffic lights almost did for me. Their interruptions made it impossible to maintain a pace and I have to admit to taking some liberties with the French Highway code in my quest to finish (though I was never reckless).
Entry to the Roubaix Velodrome felt odd, in the race the place erupts as the fans expectations are quenched, but I felt a little self-conscious as the many people lining the entrance were bound to be disappointed to see me and not their friend or relative. Nonetheless I had triumphed and that was enough for me, and I did get a few cheers, although not as many as Cancellera or even the bloke who had his whole family out to greet him.
I steered my bike to a stop and fell onto the ground as fatigue completely swamped me. It took me some time to regain my composure and when I finally got to my feet, it was only to fall into the arms of a friend, “It was brutal”.
Later I picked up my cobble trophy, drank my free beer, visited the famous Roubaix shower and changed in the cubicle dedicated to Jan Jansen, a winner in 1967.