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So Paris Roubaix has a bit of a reputation…….
The American television channel CBS covered Paris–Roubaix in the 1980s. Theo de Rooij, a Dutchman, had been in a promising position to win the 1985 race but had then crashed, losing his chance of winning. Covered in mud post-race, he offered his thoughts on the race to CBS:
“It’s a bollocks, this race! You’re working like an animal, you don’t have time to piss, you wet your pants. You’re riding in mud like this, you’re slipping … it’s a pile of shit.”
When then asked if he would start the race again, de Rooij replied: “Sure, it’s the most beautiful race in the world!”
In late 2015, my friend Tom sold me the idea of riding one of the ‘Monuments’ Rather than starting with something like Lombardia (beautiful climbs & descents, Italian lakes) or Liege Bastogne Liege (rolling Belgium countryside, smooth roads) we decided to jump straight into the ‘Hell of The North’ Its one of those fairly typical mates conversations that ends up with you saying those infamous words “how hard can it be”
We’d both done Tour of Wessex (3 days of 100 miles) the year before and classed ourselves as pretty able cyclists. The Paris Roubaix Sportive doesnt have any real climbing over the long distance of 100 miles. The famous pave (cobbles) that comes at various points over the route make Roubaix such a challenge. Its a unique event in the cycling calendar.
I started researching the history and reputation of Paris Roubaix. A great book is ‘To Hell On A Bike’ by Iain Macgregor, which lays out the history of the race and his own experiences in doing the Sportive.
Taking place the weekend after Tour of Flanders, in early April each year, Paris Roubaix forms part of the Classics season is the final race in the Cobbled Classics. The Sportive takes place on the Saturday and the Pro Race takes place on Sunday so one of the attractions of doing a weekend trip is riding the Sportive and then soaking in the atmosphere on Saturday evening and Sunday in Roubaix.
We both did a good amount of winter training with a bit more focus on hard, 100% efforts in an attempt to prepare for the sectors of pave. We then dropped our bikes off with a transfer company (we now use Sherpr who are excellent and take away the hassle of bike transfers) and headed to Roubaix in northern France on the Friday afternoon. The evening involved us getting our bikes unpacked and ready. I managed to break one of my stem bolts by overtightening whilst Tom couldnt get his back wheel on properly but by dinner, we were all ready to go. Our only tactic/hope for the next day was ‘no crashes, no punctures’
Its an early 5am start for the coach transfer from Roubaix to the start line for the long route in Busigny but the organisers have it all running smoothly and we were reunited with our bikes pretty quickly once the coaches had dropped off. There is unique, nervous atmosphere to riding Paris Roubaix that you cant help but notice. We were blessed with early morning mist & sunshine and whilst there is the normal cyclists banter going on, there is also the sense that this isnt just another sportive….
The first 30km or so are flat and steady and we chugged along pretty easily. All the time you are waiting for the first cobbled sector. Everyone says the cobbles at Paris Roubaix are unlike anything else (including Flanders) and until you’ve actually done them then its tricky to describe them. I really enjoyed the first few pave sectors – you go underneath the sign of the start of the sector (each has its own name and is graded out of 5 stars for difficulty) and immediately, everything starts shaking (including you!) Your heart rate spikes and the adrenaline kicks, you start pushing hard on the pedals and your focus reduces down to the next 15 yards as you try and pick the best / least bumpy line. You push and push before suddenly, you emerge at the end and its back to relative silence and heavenly smooth tarmac.
“Let me tell you, though, there’s a huge difference between the Tour of Flanders and Paris–Roubaix. They’re not even close to the same. In one, the cobbles are used every day by the cars, and kept up, and stuff like that. The other one, it’s completely different. The best I could do would be to describe it like this — they ploughed a dirt road, flew over it with a helicopter, and then just dropped a bunch of rocks out of the helicopter. That’s Paris–Roubaix. It’s that bad. It’s ridiculous.” – Chris Horner
In the bar the previous night, we boasted how we would try and ride on the cobbles for every sector and not drop into the smoother dirt tracks that line the sides of many of the sectors. This bravado went out the window after 2 or 3 sectors. You scrambled for the smoothest possible line of the cobbles, no matter where it takes you. Even so, we were both in good spirits. Tom was struggling a bit more than me but we were making good time….
Then you hit the Trouée d’Arenberg. Having been roughed up by the first few sectors of pave, the first 5* sector (there are 3 in total) looms large when you see the old Mine crane rising up. We were in a decent group but talking suddenly dropped as we prepared for the unknown. Riding the Arenberg Forest is like nothing I’ve ever done before. As soon as we hit it, we heard a lady fall off behind us (Respect is due since she fell off another 2 times before getting back on and eventually finishing the sector with us) The cobbles are normally a bit wet due to the trees blocking out direct sunlight and they are simply brutal. All outside considerations cease. The only thing that was important was getting to the end of the Arenberg. 8 minutes later, I emerged to find a grinning Tom – he had, in his own words, “found his mojo” My own thoughts were focused on the fact/horror that we still had more cobbled sectors to come including 2 more 5* sectors – Mons en Pevele & the Carrefour de L’Arbre.
Over the next 40-50 miles, we both had highs & lows. Tom lost his mojo pretty quickly before regaining it again over the Carrefour de l’Arbre. I geniunely thought about quitting due to the repeated battering of the cobbles. What makes Roubaix different from all the other Sportives is how it affects your mental state: You start off determined. Then the cobbles show their true colors. You take stock and resolve to carry on. The sectors then repeatedly punch you hard. You consider quitting and wonder if you will able to get to the Roubaix Velodrome.
And then that becomes your sole goal in life for the next few hours. Nothing else matters. I wouldnt have cared if I’d have fallen off my bike. Didn’t care or think about any other life issues. We just had to make it to Roubaix. Coming off the Carrefour de L’Arbre sector and knowing that its only 10 or so miles of relatively easy riding left, you end up high fiving and congratulating total strangers before carrying on.
All the camper vans are already in place along the sectors in preparation for the Pro Race on Sunday and whilst its not an officially closed road Sportive, there is virtually no traffic as far as I can remember. The locals come out to support and the feed stations have an epic stock of Belgium waffles. When you finally start entering the Roubaix suburbs, the relief is massive and you cant help but congratulate those others you are riding with. Entering the Roubaix Velodrome is such a great experience and its a quick spin around until you cross the finish line. We did get seperated heading into the town however Tom stopped and waited so we could cross the finish together. No punctures & no crashes – mission accomplished.
It was my hardest day on a bike in but it was also the best day on a bike I’ve had so far. The next morning, we went to the start area of the Pro Race and you can tell that the Pro’s have the same intrepidation about the race. We spoke to Rod Ellingworth from Team Sky and he said its one of the few races where all the riders are determined to finish, no matter where they place. Seeing the ridiculous speeds that they hit the cobbled sectors puts a new perspective on the risks they take and the atmopshere in the Roubaix Velodrome (with a few beers of course!) is superb. The 2016 Edition saw unheralded veteran, Matt Haymen, take the sprint victory against crowd favourite Tom Boonen. If you want a taste of the day then check out this youtube video from his team
We both agreed we’d be back to do Paris Roubaix again in the future. Staying in Roubaix is the best option since you can head out to see the race at an early point before heading back to Roubaix soak up the atmosphere before the race approaches the Velodrome. All Things Ride has packages with 4* Hotel, Guaranteed entry for the Sportive, OTE Nutrition and training plans so make an enquiry today (firstname.lastname@example.org) since spaces are very limited for the hotels in and around Roubaix.
‘Paris-Roubaix is the best race in the world and knocks spots off the Tour de France.’ Sir Bradley Wiggins.