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Roubaix Big Ride: Wind and rain for a battle with the pavé

In-depth
3 Jun 2019
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This article was originally published in issue 87 of Cyclist magazine

Words Stu Bowers Photography Patrik Lundin

The skies outside are heavy. The rain hasn’t yet arrived but it’s as inevitable as the beating we’re about to take on the cobbled roads made famous by the Queen of the Classics: Paris-Roubaix.

As I stir my coffee and peer out the window I can see a large blue tarpaulin covering a damaged section of barn roof across the street, flapping violently in the wind.

Its rope tethers are winning the battle to secure it for now, but I wonder how long they will hold out given the forecast suggests gusts of over 40mph today.

Were this any other Big Ride, we might have taken a rain check. After all, tomorrow’s forecast looks considerably more amenable. But here, waiting to do battle with the iconic pavé of Roubaix, the wind and rain seem appropriate.

In my mind I conjure images of the race from years past – mud-spattered riders with teeth clenched, their jerseys drenched brown with filth.

That said, I have to think back quite a long way to remember those conditions. The last wet Paris-Roubaix was back in 2002, so I guess we can feel a little hard done-by today.

The weather app on my phone suggests a 96% chance of rain. We take a deep breath, drain our coffees and step out into the bleakness of the northern French landscape.

Fun, fun, fun

With me is Heidi, an elite-level rider who competes mostly in mountain bike events, so she’s no stranger to riding on bone-shakingly rough terrain. Her bike-handling skills will no doubt come in handy, especially given the conditions.

Guiding us is Phil, founder of the Cent Cols Challenge, who lives just across the border in Belgium and knows this region like his own back yard.

On our drive over from Calais last night, pre-empting the fact that we were unlikely to be bathed in beautiful sunshine today, we discussed the concept of ‘Type 2 fun’.

Basically it goes like this: not all fun is created equal. Type 1 fun is simply a pleasurable experience – pedalling a bike effortlessly in stunning surroundings on a blue-sky day for instance, or maybe just eating something delicious.

Type 2 fun is defined as something that’s miserable while it’s happening but is fun in retrospect, such as climbing Everest. Then there’s Type 3 fun, which is basically not fun at all, ever, even in retrospect.

As I feel the line of cold, wet spray from my rear wheel soak through the backside of my bibshorts only minutes into the ride, and we get our first taste of just how challenging that gusting wind is likely to be, I’m already pretty certain which category of fun today’s ride is going to fall into.

Our intention is not to follow the Paris-Roubaix course. For starters it’s 257km long and we’re not up for that today, but we also don’t have the benefit of closed roads, so instead we will stick to quieter, more scenic routes while taking in the highlights of the great race.

That means a more agreeable 124km, looping around the countryside to connect 18 of the 29 official cobbled sectors. It adds up to 31.5km of pavé compared to the 54.5km ridden by the pros, but crucially we will ride all three of the five-star rated (toughest) sectors and four of the six four-star sectors too.

Our route begins literally a cobblestone’s-throw from one of those five star sectors – the Mons-en-Pévèle – a notoriously treacherous 3km sector that has two 90-degree bends.

On race day it comes too far from the end to be considered decisive, but it’s a sector that can sort the possible winners from the likely losers.

We could potentially start with this sector but we decide to save it until last. Instead we head north, which is also a blessing as the winds are coming from the southwest.

Our first sector appears soon enough, with a mere 700m of cobbles just beyond Merignies towards Avelin, rated as two-star. It’s a much more amiable way to ease us into the cobbles and loosen up our limbs before the tougher sectors to come.

Immediately, though, it becomes clear we’re in for something of a street fight today. The cobbles are damp and liberally greased up with mud, and there are lots of large puddles to contend with.

The ferocity of the wind becomes apparent as we hit the next 1.4km sector of cobbles near Ennevelin.

With the gusts whipping from the side, and with nothing but miles of empty fields surrounding us, there’s no shelter and we’re buffeted around from side to side. It’s a struggle to stay in control on the slippery pavé.

The optimal line is high on the pronounced crown of the road but Heidi and I are frequently forced into the gutters, where we’re at the mercy of unseen holes and rocks in the depths of the puddles. At times I feel like I’m leaning at 45 degrees, the wind is so strong.

At the entrance to the Moulin de Vertain cobbled sector is a restored 15th century windmill that’s a recognisable landmark on the Paris-Roubaix course.

Its sails are motionless as we pass, locked in place as they now are, but if it were still in use, I suspect its millstones would have no trouble grinding grains today.

After the first batch of cobbled sectors we get a period of welcome reprieve. The roads become smooth as we pass through the more built-up region close to the town of Cysoing.

We will actually pass through Cysoing twice today, because we’ve added an extra loop at the northernmost point of our route, necessary for one reason: the Carrefour de l’Arbre.

It’s the first five-star sector for us, but is actually the last five-star rated sector the riders encounter at Paris-Roubaix and as such is often a tactically decisive moment of the race.

Speed is your friend, non?

It’s generally accepted that the best technique for riding cobbles is simply to hit them as fast as possible. Speed is your friend, as is sitting on a relatively big gear so you can slightly unweight your saddle and use powerful pedal strokes to help you skim over the stones.

That’s the theory, anyway, but it’s not easy to achieve unless your name is Cancellara or Sagan.

There’s absolutely no chance of us doing any skimming today. When we arrive at the Carrefour the unrelenting wind has sapped our speed.

I’m convinced that my front wheel is being sucked into each and every cleft between the stones, and my body jerks violently as if I’m being electrocuted.

It’s not my first time riding the Carrefour de l’Arbre, but I’m again reminded there are cobbles and then there are Roubaix cobbles.

Strictly speaking, they’re actually ‘setts’, not cobbles, as they are rectangular hand-carved blocks, not naturally rounded stones. Although actually neither term really does justice to the devices of torture that line the road.

Forget any visions you may have of neatly shaped, carefully placed cobbles. Here they appear to have been hewn by a giant granite-chewing crocodile and some of the sectors look as if a farmer just drove along with the back of his trailer open, letting the stones spill out haphazardly, as if fly-tipping them into the mud.

When we finally emerge from the Carrefour back onto smooth tarmac, it feels as if we’re floating on a magic carpet. With our first five-star encounter under our belts and nine of our total ticked off we decide we deserve a snack, and duck into a local cafe.

We’re not yet halfway through the ride but the pizza oven we’ve happened upon in this small restaurant proves too much of a temptation. A quick snack turns into a more indulgent half hour of Type 1 fun.

Rejoining the route, we get 40km of cobble-free respite to aid the digestive process. There’s little we can do to escape the wind, though, as we head south towards the most famous of all the cobbled sectors of Paris-Roubaix: the Arenberg Trench.

Trench warfare

The word trench conjures images of war, and given the carnage this arrow-straight, 2.4km sector of grim-looking cobbles has witnessed in Roubaix’s long history, that’s not so far off the mark.

First introduced in 1968, the Trouée d’Arenberg was axed from the race between 1974 and 1983 as it was deemed too difficult.

Perhaps three-time Roubaix winner Johan Museeuw would have preferred if it hadn’t been reinstated when in 1998 he suffered a horrible crash here that shattered his kneecap and almost cost him his leg due to a gangrenous infection.

Then again, a bit of danger is all part of the appeal. Type 2 fun, remember.

The pros hit the Arenberg’s cobbles doing speeds around 60kmh. Our pace is a little more modest as our tyres once again bounce around the hallowed stones and we pass under the strip’s famous iron bridge.

The weather has now closed in. The Arenberg looks foreboding, hemmed in by bare trees, with the thin road disappearing into a cold haze far in the distance.

There are no beautiful views to look at, but that’s not the reason to ride here.

The first section of the Arenberg has only recently been resurfaced.

Not resurfaced in the sense that it has been neatly re-laid with its cobbles in smooth lines, but more that the worst of the muck has been washed away and some sand laid between the stones in an attempt to lessen the severity of the more cavernous gaps.

This is the work of Les Amis des Paris-Roubaix, an organisation – of which pro rider John Degenkolb is an ambassador – set up to maintain and preserve the cobbled roads, renovating them where necessary to ensure the race can still go ahead.

But not too well, of course. These sectors must retain their challenge and preserve the legend.

The roads may be hell to ride on, but it’s thanks to the efforts of the society that they exist at all, otherwise many of the cobbled sectors would likely have been lost, either to complete degradation or to tarmac.

Fortunately for us, the Trouée d’Arenberg is closed to traffic. Not for the sake of the race, but because beneath it lies an important and protected historical artefact of the region – a vast warren of mining galleries from its industrial past.

I’m grateful for that small mercy, although in truth we haven’t encountered a single vehicle on any of the sectors yet today.

The rain is falling hard now and the stones are seriously slick, covered in moss and mud, and maintaining a chosen line for more than a few metres is all but impossible.

There are moments when I’m sure I’m done for, as my wheels are suddenly flicked sideways by a crooked stone or gaping hole.

By some miracle we both stay upright. Even more remarkably, neither of us has punctured, and it’s with a sense of both accomplishment and mild relief that we exit the sector with bikes and bodies intact.

Casting each other a knowing glance, we can’t hide our grins. It’s a kind of elation akin to the feeling you get stepping off a particularly scary theme park ride, mixed with an added appreciation for what the pros will have to go through in just a few weeks’ time.

Heading for home

There’s not long to recover before we hit the day’s longest stretch of cobbles – a whopping 3.7km at Wandignies-Hamage. We spin along gently, both shaking out our hands and fingers in an attempt to relieve the ache that has beset our knuckles from gripping the bars so firmly.

That epic stretch is followed by two more sectors in quick succession, each 2.4km in length at Warlaing and Tilloy-Lez-Marchiennes.

It’s once these are dealt with that I start to wilt from the fatigue of riding the cobbles and the constant grind of the wind. I frantically consume a couple of gels but that doesn’t revive me, and by the end of the 1.4km Marc Madiot sector my legs are beginning to buckle.

We’ve covered around 110km and now I’m more surviving each sector than enjoying it, and I can sense that Heidi is in a similar state.

We are nearly home (if not dry) and there are only three sectors of cobbles and around 15km standing between us and what will be possibly the most deserved beer of our lifetimes.

There’s no chance for a gentle wind-down, however, as the final sector we have to tackle is the five-star monster that we avoided at the start of the ride – Mons-en-Pévèle.

It does its best to shake the last ounces of energy from our bodies, but just after we safely navigate the first of its 90-degree corners, we’re suddenly given a reprieve, as a large section of the road is basically missing.

It’s currently under repair by Les Amis, and thanks to the rain it resembles more of a lake than a road.

It feels a little sad that we’re forced to dismount on this, the final sector, given that we’ve managed to pedal every inch of the pavé to this point, but as Belgian pro Jo Planckaert once said, ‘When your legs are OK, the cobbles are OK, but when your legs are bad, the cobbles are the worst place you could possibly be.’

By now I’m firmly in the latter category.

We load our bikes back into Phil’s van. I notice the tarpaulin on the barn roof has now gone. All that’s left are frayed pieces of the orange rope that this morning had been clinging on so valiantly.

The roof is now at the full mercy of the weather, as we have been for the larger part of this epic day in the saddle. We are cold, aching and exhausted, but the cobbles have left us strangely elated. The epitome of Type 2 fun.

Bash Street Kids

Follow Cyclist’s Roubaix ride via the legendary cobbled roads

To download this route, go to cyclist.co.uk/87roubaix. There are too many turns and unnamed roads on this ride to describe it in detail, so the best way to follow in our wheel-tracks is to download the GPX link above.

Roughly, starting from Mons-en-Pévèle, head north to Mérignies and Pont-à-Marq. Then head northeast to Ennevelin and east around the outskirts of Templeuve, before going north again to Cysoing.

Make a loop around Bourghelles, Wannehain, Camphin-en-Pévèle, the Carrefour de l’Arbre and Gruson, then back to Cysoing via Bouvines. Follow a southeasterly trajectory for around 40km via Nomain, Aix and Saint-Amand-les-Eaux, then head towards Arenberg.

After the Arenberg Forest, take the D40 to Wallers then head west through Hornaing before north to Warlaing, Tilloy-lez-Marchiennes and Beuvry-la-Forêt. Continue on to Orchies and then west to Bersée. From here it’s just a few kilometres back to Mons-en-Pévèle.

The rider’s ride

Specialized S-Works Roubaix, £9,100, specialized.com

It seemed fitting to bring the bike Specialized named after the Queen of the Classics back to its homeland. This new version of the Roubaix is very different from its predecessors, however.

The second-generation Future Shock (2.0) is now hydraulically damped and adjustable via a dial on the stem cap. It provides a more refined ride feel up front with the added benefit that its firmest setting is practically a lock-out. It was superb on the cobbles, providing comfort but, perhaps even more importantly, improving control and stability.

The new Pavé seatpost also adds comfort at the rear, as well as helping to keep the bike well balanced. Specialized will say this bike is much more than just a cobble-slayer, but its aptitude over the hallowed stones is still mightily impressive. I didn’t get a single blister or saddle sore – unlike on previous visits here.

Read more about the Specialized S-Works Roubaix

First ride review: The all-new Specialized S-Works Roubaix  
New bike alert: Specialized launches overhauled S-Works Roubaix

How we did it

Travel

Cyclist drove from the UK via Eurotunnel. A day trip/overnight ticket costs around £90 return (for a van), so is a very cost-effective way for several riders and bikes to travel together.

Mons-en-Pévèle is about 140km from Calais (around 20km south of Lille), which takes around 90 minutes to drive from the Eurotunnel.

Accommodation

Cyclist used Airbnb to locate a small farmhouse in Mons-en-Pévèle, which for around £190 slept up to six guests.

Visit lilletourism.com for information about hotels and B&Bs in and around Lille.

Thanks

Huge thanks to Phil Deeker of Cent Cols Challenge (centcolschallenge.com) for planning a route that included the most iconic stretches of cobbles but kept us off the busier roads.

He was also a font of knowledge about the region and the race.