Advertisement

Sign up for our newsletter

Advertisement

Paris-Roubaix 2021: Route, start list and all you need to know

Cyclist magazine
1 Oct 2021

Key information about the 2021 Paris-Roubaix, which will place on Sunday 3rd October 2021: Route, riders, TV guide & cobbled sectors

Paris-Roubaix Challenge Sportive

A pain more engulfing than the one endured on the cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix will not be experienced while riding a bicycle. This is a fact that I am now certain of.

I’m negotiating one, for it could be any, of the 28 cobbled sectors that make up the 170km route of the Paris-Roubaix Challenge, and the unrelenting punishment has turned my face into a grimace – a teeth-baring contortion akin to an old English gurning competition – and my hands are clamping the bars tighter than a pair of mole grips.

For one embarrassing moment I hear a small groan escape the gaps between my grinding teeth, and I feel a dollop of something – it could be sweat, it could be saliva or snot – land firmly on my dust-encrusted thigh.

None of this matters, though. Any ideals of maintaining style were abandoned some time ago, along with the ability to stick to a chosen line or resist the temptation to ride in the gutter.

The only thing I can think about is the banner I can see through the dusty haze, hung across the road to mark the end of this clattering torment and the start of the tarmac-smooth salvation that lies ahead. 

The history of Paris-Roubaix needs no retelling. The name alone conjures images of dust-caked faces and bone-shattering crashes from down the years. The race is almost as old as cycling itself, and it is always one of the most exciting spectacles of the pro calendar, but it is hard for the armchair viewer to understand exactly what the riders are going through when they blast onto the cobbles.

This is why I’m here – for enlightenment, to experience the reality of trying to pedal across roads that are entirely unsuited to bicycles, and to comprehend the pain, fear and exhaustion that riding on cobbles inflicts. I’m learning quickly. 

Dawn of the dead

The day begins at 5.45am, at a hotel breakfast buffet being rapidly harvested of carbohydrates by a marauding bunch of MAMILs.

The gates of the Challenge officially open at 7am, so after filling my stomach to just the right side of uncomfortable, I give my bike a once-over and make the early morning dash from my hotel in St Quentin to the start in Busigny.

The 170km route all but follows the pro race’s parcours inch for inch (albeit without the preceding 100km), but there are 140km and 70km options too, both of which start from the Roubaix velodrome. 

A misty and cold scene greets us upon arrival. Gaggles of riders sit perched on their car boots and point us in the direction of the sign-on.

The foggy shroud allows no more than a dozen metres of visibility, but gradually some sort of communal village building comes into view under an inflatable gantry.

It spills out groups of riders, tottering around in cleats and clasping steaming polystyrene cups of watery coffee, before joining the masses in their uncomfortable wait for one of the precious few Port-a-loos to become vacant.

I receive my entry pack along with a handful of sweets, then proceed to attach the number to my bars and ‘sector guide’ to my Pinarello’s top tube – while trying not to pay too much attention to the length, frequency and severity of the cobbled sectors it cruelly details. 

I’m feeling anxious, although I can’t pinpoint exactly why. A glance around the bustling street confirms I’m not alone, as I catch the eyes of a few riders, momentarily detached from their bantering circle of Lycra-clad friends and alone with their thoughts. Their faces reveal underlying doubts about our impending ride.

It’s not the 170km length: I’m sure I can handle that. It’s not the bike either: the same Pinarello DogmaK will be ridden by Team Sky in the pro race tomorrow. It’s not even the legs: they’ve served me well so far.

No, it must be those sinister cobbles – the reason we’re all here – that are fuelling our communal sense of apprehension, and I get the feeling it’s a suspicion that’s going to be painfully justified. 

I scramble to join a mass of riders about to leave, preferring the shelter of wheels to ease myself through the first few undulating kilometres.

It’s a little before 8am, with the temperature still low, and my gilet is proving of little hindrance to the cold morning haze as we coast out of Busigny into the unknown. 

Stoned to death

Despite this not being a race, there is a definite change of pace as we near the first cobbled section, and the drop-off in conversation only confirms that things are about to get serious. 

To avoid potential collisions I make my way to the front of the group as a banner looms overhead, signifying the start of ‘Sector 28 – Troisvilles à Inchy’, and no sooner have we passed under it than the first thundering
waves of stone break under our front wheels. 

The craggy shards have more in common with a rock garden than a road, with an intertwining maze of crevices vanishing into muddy, tyre-swallowing depths that are all but unavoidable.

I try to steer my line towards the smoother central crown of the road, a meager channel of reprieve wide enough for just one rider, before it falls away on either side into two parallel seas of jumbled stonework.

Once over the initial shock, I find some space, some rhythm, and start to negotiate my way forwards, trying desperately to keep the all-important momentum going. 

Maintaining speed over the cobbles is essential; without it every separate stone becomes a tyre-impeding obstacle. So I adopt a gung-ho approach, stomping on the pedals, following the direction my bike dictates, and hoping for the best.

Successfully negotiating a chosen line through this carnage borders on miraculous, and changing gear is nigh-on impossible. But by the end of the 2.2km induction I’m amid a small bunch of cyclocross riders (why am I not surprised to see this lot revelling in the ordeal?), and if it weren’t for my severe oxygen debt I’d be inclined to breathe a long sigh of relief. 

The ensuing succession of sectors passes by in a similar fashion. They are all harsh and exhausting, but the excitement, novelty and hardships of each installment leave me craving the next as soon as I have recovered from the last.

Most riders seem to have found themselves in groups of ten to 15; either cooperatively going through-and-off, or letting a couple of rampaging pedal-bashers lead from the front.

My own company has the sportive demographic well represented, with road bikes, cyclocross bikes, mountain bikes, carbon, steel and aluminium all contributing to an eclectic mix of styles rolling through to poke their noses into the wind.

We even pass one heroic individual aboard a wooden velocipede, swinging his legs nonchalantly while clattering over the cobbles, with nether-regional consequences I dread to even think about. 

The first food station appears in a petite village square, and all but a determined few stop to gorge on the various forms of sugar-laden fodder and fill up their bidons from industrial irrigation containers.

There’s even a mechanic sheltering under a gazebo, puffing on a cigar and dressed in blue overalls naturally, but also on hand to deal with any non-terminal bike injuries the conditions may have inflicted.

As for fixing morale, I bump into Cyclist’s photographer Geoff taking a few snaps: ‘Those cobbles look brutal,’ he chuckles through the car window. ‘Because they bloody are!’ I bleat, while rolling off into the mist.

After the stop I notice that the number of groups has dwindled, and more and more riders are resigned to riding alone at their own manageable pace as fatigue kicks in. We’re no more than a third of the way through the distance, and yet the ride has already become a game of survival.

Trench town rock

Paris-Roubaix wasn’t always like this. When the race started it was indeed a fearsome endeavour, as the road quality was shambolic, whether on cobbles or not.

But after the First World War, from which the race picked up its ‘Hell of the North’ nickname owing to the apocalyptic scenes the battles left in their wake, the roads were repaved to a substantial quality.

As a result, Paris-Roubaix lost its attraction, and the routes we pass over today are those which organisers were forced to go in search of, in a bid to reinvigorate the perilous heart of the race.

More sectors pass. I’m aware they have names, but by now they are starting to blend into one, possibly because the rattling of my brain within my skull has rendered me incapable of distinguishing between them.

The misty shroud has lost none of its opacity either, and as I trundle on alone, through grassy fields and past dilapidated red-brick farm buildings, a positively Dickensian air descends upon the landscape.

A ghostly apparition ahead morphs into the hunched figure of a fellow rider who looks up briefly from his own suffering to bear witness to mine. Having exchanged weary glances, we drift silently apart until he is lost again in the mist and I continue on alone down the grey roads, past the brown fields.

Soon enough I find myself surrounded by derelict mining machinery, and my brain is still alert enough to inform me that we must be in the Arenberg Forest.

As I ride through the wastelands of abandoned rust-green metal and occasional piles of slag, I begin to call up memories of old Roubaix stories.

For it was in these mines, under the Arenberg trench itself if the legend is to be believed, that Jean Stablinski laboured before turning professional as a cyclist, and who eventually went on to become a key initiator of the Trouee d’Arenberg’s maiden inclusion to the race in 1968.

‘Paris-Roubaix is not won in Arenberg,’ he once said, ‘but from there the winning group is selected.’ Gulp. 

The Arenberg trench, or simply ‘The Trench’, is 2,400m of bike riding that no one can prepare themselves for. Its brutality is unparalleled in any of the 28 sectors of Paris-Roubaix. If there was a competition for the least bike-friendly surface imaginable, then this would be on the shortlist. 

The bunch in which I enter The Trench immediately thins to one solitary line of riders, jostling for position on the central crown once again.

My handlebars ricochet back into my palms relentlessly, like some sort of crazed pneumatic drill, while my glasses slip closer to the end of my nose, obscuring my vision slightly, but there’s little I can do about it as it’s impossible to remove a hand from the bars. 

The pain is exhaustive, absolute, and one I’m not used to dealing with. We all know what oxygen debt feels like, what lactic acid feels like, what bonking feels like, and can for the most part deal with them accordingly.

But the searing, breathtaking pain currently being doled out to my arms and hands by the incessant blows is quite simply unbearable. I’m not in control – I am a passenger at the mercy of my bike, and of the road – if you can call it that. 

We soldier on, and after five minutes eventually reach the end of our affliction, grovelling over the final few yards before emerging out of the forested nightmare into a vivid picture of the devastation it’s caused.

Some riders collapse over their bars as soon as they reach tarmac, before being nursed out of the way by a team of marshals. Others muster the energy to find a small patch of seclusion in which to dismount and lie star-fished next to their steeds.

Upturned, broken bikes stand in the middle of groups of concerned, head-shaking riders, and the surrounding bins spill out as many inner tubes as they do energy gels.

It’s like the aftermath of a battle – something that this area has more experience of than most, dotted as it is by the graves of soldiers who fought over these muddy fields during the First World War. 

The good news is that the sun has burnt through the remaining wisps of fog, and with the Arenberg Trench behind me I tell myself that things can only get better from now on.

Maybe it’s just a trick of the mind, but improve they do, and with the sun high in the sky, the cobbles pass under my wheels with a relative sense of serenity, and my legs rejoice in a second wind of enthusiasm.

I feel that Roubaix’s back has been broken. Or then again, maybe I’m just delirious from the continual pummelling my body is undergoing.

The brief lull in suffering allows for some sightseeing though, and I notice the famous abattoir the route passes through at the start of the Orchies sector like some twisted omen, as well as the graffitied bridge over the ‘Pont Gibus’ cobbles – newly reinstalled as of 2013 thanks to the restorative labour of Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix, the group of fans who keep the roads of Roubaix in their hellish state.

Yet the respite is short lived and my exuberance is deflated – along with my back tyre, forcing me to reluctantly pull over and change the pinch-punctured tube.

It’s now that it becomes apparent just how pitiful my dexterity has become as a result of the day’s exertions, as I painfully fumble around with tyre levers and valves, my throbbing, swollen fingers barely able to unfurl from their petrified, bar-gripping state.

It’s then like salt in the wounds as I clamber back on to my bike, only to realise I’m about to encounter the day’s second, and final, five-starred sector: Le Carrefour de l’Arbre. 

Out of the frying pan…

This section is one of the timed primes, but no sooner do I apply the power than my head hangs back between my shoulders and I, along with the masses, head for the gutter in tired desperation.

The dirt is the dry, billowing dust synonymous with Roubaix editions of recent years. It cakes my bike and body, tickling the back of my throat as I gasp for air, and turns into viscous channels of muddy slime as the sweat runs off my face.

The pain has reached a climax and, despite what I’ve been told about staying loose while riding cobbles, I find myself gripping harder and harder, my knuckles turning white in a bid to somehow squeeze out the pain.

It’s a futile struggle, and I’m spat out the end of the Carrefour de l’Arbre barely able to release the strangle I have on my garroted handlebars; my hands either scared or rattled stiff. 

The remaining three sectors are a tiresome drag. They’re not hard enough to warrant excitement, but not easy enough to be insignificant; they are a necessary evil, and for that very reason seem almost representative of the day’s struggles.

The final, ceremonious sector that precedes the velodrome is sporadically pavéd with smooth plaques, nestled between the cobbles and adorning the names of Paris-Roubaix victors past.

So it’s in the company of Lapize, Merckx, De Vlaeminck, Moser and Boonen that I make my modest entry onto the fabled track, and while my name will not be joining theirs on the stones of Roubaix, at least I’m a little closer to appreciating the mettle required to gain such an honour. 

sport.be/parisroubaix