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Big Ride: Paris-Roubaix

Henry Catchpole
6 Apr 2017

Cyclist travels to northern France to discover what it takes to tackle the brutal cobbles of the Hell of the North

So far in my life, road cycling has not been a violent sport. No one has headbutted me in a sprint finish or thrown a bidon in my face, and thankfully I haven’t crashed too often.

Instead, like most riders, smoothness has been what I’ve sought, whether it’s with a fluid pedal stroke, a creamily well-executed shift or a perfectly rounded hairpin.

Yes, I occasionally punish my legs and lungs on big hills, but for the majority of my time on the bike the world glides by without too much struggle.

That’s exactly what it’s like now as we cruise though a small French village, sleepy on a Saturday afternoon.

William, Alex and I cycle along chatting, with nothing more than the occasional manhole cover to warn each other about.

There’s the hum of tyres on tarmac, the gentle zizzzzz of a freehub as we coast towards a junction, the mellow arc as we swing right down a side street… and then there they are, 100 yards ahead of us, uneven and unyielding.

Some of them are wet and glistening, some of them are unseen, covered entirely by mud. We’re about to hit the cobbles.

The chatting stops, we line out, crank up the pace, take a deep breath and try to stay relaxed as the first impact looms. The violence is about to begin.

The romance of Roubaix

I think we all have fantasies about what sort of rider we might be if we were professional.

Some will dream of soaring on Alpine passes, going for a stage victory in a Grand Tour, while others will transform every sprint for a 30mph sign into a charge down the Champs-Élysées.

But for me and my relatively slow cadence, the dream while slogging away on the turbo trainer or into a wintry headwind has always been to imagine that I could one day be powering across pavé, perhaps on a lone escape while the remnants of a peloton tried to hunt me down all the way to Roubaix (their chase would be in vain, obviously, since we’re dreaming).

In short, I have always wanted to ride the cobbles of the Spring Classics and in particular those of Paris-Roubaix.

You really should be careful what you wish for – particularly when it’s so accessible. Lille is just an hour and 20 minutes on the Eurostar from London and the journey, even on a Friday night, really couldn’t be much more stress-free.

William picks up me and photographer Paul from the station and drives us to his house, where he proceeds to introduce us to a selection of extremely potent Belgian beers (including his own, named Malteni in deference to Eddy Merckx’s old team). 

As an Irishman who moved to France 15 years ago he has the most fantastic conglomeration of an accent.

He came to Lille with intentions of racing at an elite level on the Continent with the Roubaix team, but got a job in engineering almost immediately and has raced for fun ever since.

He now runs Pavé Cycling in his spare time at the weekends (along with Alex, who will be joining us in the morning), taking people out to experience the cobbles of Roubaix and Flanders.

He’s currently coming off the back of a fairly full 'cross season and looks worryingly fit and mysteriously unaffected by the beer. 

After a couple of looseners while supper’s cooking, we reassemble the bike I’ve brought with me, rejecting the standard wheels in favour of a set of beautifully butch box-section Vision Arenberg rims complete with distinctive 27c Vittoria Pave Evo CG tubulars.

The tubs are more for durability and grip than anything else, but they should also help cushion the blows of the cobbles a little, and I have a feeling I’m going to need all the help I can get in the morning.

After a good night’s sleep, bikes and camera gear are loaded into Alex’s wife’s Citroen Berlingo. We head south towards the village of Haveluy, from where we will follow the last 70-ish miles (106km) of the 2013 Paris-Roubaix route (bear in mind the actual race clocks up nearly 260km), taking in 18 sections of pavé before we end up in the Roubaix Velodrome.

This is the first time that any of them have tackled the cobbles this year as their winter has been as miserable as ours, but it’s still plenty cold enough to justify overshoes and leggings. 

As I fiddle with quick releases and water bottles I realise I’m actually quite nervous. The idea of trying to pilot skinny tyres (27c or not, they still look skinny) over cobbles and stay upright suddenly seems very daunting.

For the first time since I was wearing short trousers and attempting to guide my blue bike the length of my parents’ garden (start at the shed, round the paddling pool, avoid the apple tree and push on for the fence at the end) I’m genuinely concerned about my ability to cycle and stay upright.

What if my bike-handling skills aren’t up to snuff? What if I fall off? What if I can’t get going again? So much doubt. 

Luckily the plan is to tackle an easier section first, but as we head down the road towards it we’re faced with a sea of muddy water.

Although this wouldn’t normally stop proceedings, it would compromise the photos somewhat if we’re all a light shade of brown from the word go.

So we head to the second section of pavé, which just happens to be the most fearsome of them all – the Troueé d’Arenberg.

Trench warfare

Now I’m really nervous. My first taste (hopefully not literally) of cobbles is going to be the famous, full-on, five-star stretch through the Arenberg forest.

It’s a section that was suggested by Jean Stablinski, who raced professionally in the 1950s and 60s and also worked in the mine that lies deep below the forest.

The Arenberg Trench is seen as the first big test of any Paris-Roubaix and the pros approach it in a headlong downhill rush at 60-70kmh.

We’re not quite doing those sorts of speeds as we ride past the brooding remains of the mine on the outskirts of Wallers, but I still feel like we’re going too fast. 

‘Try to hold the bars loosely,’ says William. ‘Stay in the drops or on the cross bar. Not the hoods.’ I nod, and try to ease my vice-like grip.

After the vast open horizons of the rest of this part of France it feels claustrophobic heading towards the darkness of this narrow, foreboding corridor into the forest, and although the 2.4km passage between the trees is arrow straight it also looks never-ending. 

There’s a barrier across the entrance to stop traffic so we have to squeeze round the end and then hop up onto the cobbles.

Instantly the bike seems to take on a life of its own beneath me and I feel like I’m being pummelled.

I aim straight for the pronounced crown of the road where it should be smoother, but it’s narrow and feels like cycling a lumpy tightrope.

Instinct and fear makes me attempt to look at the cobbles about a foot in front of the wheel but my vision is so blurry at this distance I’m forced to look up and further ahead. 

As we head under the iconic metal bridge that spans the cobbles like some industrial ‘Welcome to Hell’ banner I’m not sure how I can keep going.

I feel like a passenger as the bike jumps around wildly, my head a noisy blur from the battering, but with every gained yard there’s a dawning realisation that, despite being tense with terror, I haven’t actually fallen off yet, so I relax a fraction and try to push on.

William passes me and shouts, ‘Use a bigger gear,’ which flummoxes me because, such is the assault on my hands and arms, I hadn’t even thought about my legs and pedalling up to this point. 

I try to do as he says and change gear to slow my cadence but even this proves a nightmare because the bars are jumping around so much that I can’t find the small lever behind the brake.

I seem to be stabbing wildly with my index finger while still clutching the drops – it’s like trying to thread a needle on a boat in a storm.

Even when I do eventually find the lever and push, I’ve no idea how many gears I’ve ended up changing because you can’t hear the delicate clicks in the cacophony. 

By the end of the 2,400 metres my arms are completely pumped and there’s a buzzing numbness in my hands from the vibrations.

Despite the cold I’m also boiling hot from the effort. After a moment to check my brain hasn’t rattled clean out of my ear holes we set off on a blissfully smooth road towards the next section and I find I’m smiling and chatting excitedly about the madness of what I’ve just survived.

The next section, Pont Gibus with its famous broken bridge, is one that’s been reintroduced for 2013 after a five-year absence.

After surviving Arenberg, this four-star section feels almost manageable and I attack it with much more confidence and speed.

The cambers and subsidence are wild in places but I’m enjoying – yes, actually enjoying – this section. 

A bit more respite on the road and then, just as the lactic acid is receding, we dive onto another stretch.

My rear wheel slips alarmingly coming into it and as we head out through the bleak, ploughed fields the pavé of this sector is frequently covered in patches of thick slimy mud.

A group of cycling fans, Les Amis de Roubaix, look after the cobbles and repair the really badly damaged sections, but for most of the year the cobbles’ only groundsmen are the local farmers whose tractors and trailers shape the sections of pavé during their daily routine – exacerbating the crown here and ripping out a pothole or two there.

At this time of year the agricultural traffic naturally brings the mud with it too, which has the benefit of filling in some of the holes but, as I’m finding, the mud also makes traction tricky.

William tells me the worst thing to do is to try to coast through a muddy section – you must keep pedalling. Even when you’re slipping around try to keep turning the cranks and push through it.

As the morning slides past I realise that my legs feel good and with each section I’m growing in confidence.

I’m learning to switch my hands from the drops to the tops (but not the hoods) every so often just to send the pain to different muscles, and I’m much more relaxed now too, which helps.

There is something immensely satisfying about moving across the tops of the cobbles at pace. Each bump saps a little crumb of speed so it’s imperative I combat this by driving forwards with each pedal stroke.

It’s a bit like the gritty futility of battling into a headwind, except because you know that each section of pavé is relatively short and the hard effort will be finite you can push yourself that little bit deeper.

The final surge

‘You see the red farm across there?’ says Alex. ‘That’s the end of Mons-en-Pévèle.’

This is not good news, because a) Mons-en-Pévèle will be the second of our triumvirate of five-star sectors, and b) the red farm looks a worryingly long way away.

At 3,000 metres it’s not only rough (it’s where George Hincapie, then of the Discovery Channel team, snapped a fork steerer and crashed heavily in 2006) but also one of the longest sections, and it’s where I feel fatigue creep in as I bounce around trying to pick a line through the carnage.

I’ve used up a lot of nervous energy learning to ride the cobbles so far during the day, and because I was staying understandably tense during some of the earlier sections, my arms, hands and shoulders (not things I’d normally worry about on a ride) are all starting to pay the price.

And of course it’s a vicious circle, because the more I weaken, the more I feel the need to cling on.

It’s worth mentioning too that while I have the luxury of picking whichever line looks the least horrific, most of the riders in the Paris-Roubaix race won’t be that lucky.

They will be jostling for position, having to hop around to hold a wheel or avoid a crash, or worse still simply being forced to just stay where they are and deal with whatever nightmares come at them.

As we go through the day, Alex and William seem to be forever saying things like, ‘This is where Frank Schleck broke his collarbone when the Tour used this section,’ or, ‘That’s where Chavanel crashed.’

It’s sobering stuff that keeps me alert, but they also say things like, ‘This is where Cancellara attacked,’ and ‘Boonen won the race in this section,’ which inspires me to dig a little deeper. 

Occasionally, William and Alex also make comments such as, ‘This next section starts off uphill,’ or, ‘I don’t like that bit because of the climb.’

This never fails to perplex me because every time I look around, the fields of northern France seem to stretch out like the proverbial pancake towards the horizon.

Bedfordshire isn’t exactly hilly but compared to this it feels like the Pyrenees. The biggest hills we encounter all day are the bridges over the autoroutes, yet when I check my Garmin at the end of the day I discover that we’ve ascended over 700 feet.

I can only assume that it’s got confused and added up all the bouncing up and down over the cobbles.

To be fair, I’m quite confused too, because the path to Roubaix does not run straight and true. Instead we’re weaving back and forth, east then west to take in different sections of pavé.

There’s no wind today, thankfully, but if there was I would never be able to guess which way it was going to come from next. The ride is a strange mixture of rural French serenity interjected with cobbled brutality.

It’s a bit like watching a nice gentle episode of The Great British Bake Off that keeps being interrupted by Gordon Ramsay storming in to yell expletives at everybody. 

I swear too as we hit a right hand bend slightly too fast and my front wheel slides off the crown and nearly folds underneath me.

With more luck than judgement the bike stays upright but it doesn’t help my heart rate.

There’s a veritable quagmire of mud on some sections and I start to realise that Arenberg was actually in quite good condition, partly because it’s largely closed to traffic.

Not that you’d want to take your own car down most of these sections anyway, as the Berlingo keeps proving; its underbelly sparks off the stones as it bottoms out. I wonder if Alex’s wife knows this is what it’s being used for?

The bikes, now plastered in mud, have taken a serious beating during the day too. Initially it’s terrifying hearing the chain slap and feeling the battering the frame’s taking but I’m getting used to it. I’ve treated mountain bikes more gently in the past.

The last five-star section is the Carrefour de l’Arbre and by the time we begin bouncing across the pavé I’m really suffering.

With its bleak long straights through featureless fields there really is no place to hide and I feel horribly exposed as every lumpen jolt resonates through already aching muscles.

We turn the sole 90° corner with a watery sun finally breaking through beneath the clouds as it sets.

Then I just keep looking towards the famous lonely bar standing on the horizon at the end, desperately willing it to get a little closer and for the thumping to stop. 

I can honestly say those 2,100 metres are every bit as tortuous as any steep climb I’ve ever cycled, and when I get to the end it actually hurts trying to uncurl my fingers from around the handlebars.

The name ‘Hell of the North’ actually came from the appearance of the devastated northern French landscape after the Second World War, but for any pro who has to ride this for 260-odd kilometres at breakneck pace, it must genuinely feel like descending into Hades. 

The last real section of pavé can be eased slightly by jumping from one side of the road to the other and using the flatter sections on the apexes of corners, but that takes some effort and I also need to watch for occasional bits of traffic (unlike pretty much every other section).

Then it’s just the run in to Roubaix, down the long straight avenue towards the Velodrome. 

If you were on a lone escape and being hunted down, like Johan Vansummeren being chased by Fabian Cancellara in 2010, this stretch must feel as if it takes an eternity.

But that’s why I love the self-contained, winner-takes-all nature of a one-day race. There’s no room for conservative tactics – you’ve got to bury yourself in the pursuit of glory because by the time the sun
goes down someone will be the victor. 

Such commitment should be rewarded with a proper final flourish and Paris-Roubaix gets it. The Velodrome seems so smooth after all those cobbles, but it’s a fantastic finale.

It’s a while since I’ve ridden on banking and it seems really quite steep, but it’s fun and somehow we cajole tired legs into a bit of a sprint to the line.

I really do urge every serious rider to go and experience some muddy, scary, violent, ancient farm tracks in northern France.

It’s a unique experience and one that should be on your list every bit as much as the Tourmalet or Ventoux. 

How much did I love riding the cobbles? Put it this way – as I sit here typing this my fingers still ache so much that it is a very real effort to fully clench my hands into fists.

The agony of it is still tangibly fresh… and I can’t wait to go back.

• Looking for inspiration for your own summer cycling adventure? Cyclist Tours has hundreds of trips for you to choose from

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