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A day on the Paris-Roubaix cobbles

Sam Challis
3 Apr 2018

A personal account of riding the famed Paris-Roubaix pavé for the first time

For anyone taking on the Paris-Roubaix Challenge sportive this weekend, here's a look back at our staff writer Sam's ride on the cobbles. For more about Paris-Roubaix, see our comprehensive guide for all you need to know.

Riding the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix

I rode the cobbles today. It was my first time; my pavé innocence was beaten from me, abruptly. The Trench of Arenberg first up, we were told. Nothing like in at the deep end I suppose.

On my journey there people asked where I was going. 'I’m going to ride the cobbles,' I said. 'Have fun,' they said.

They all smiled the same way when they said that.

It was cold and overcast before we began. The short spin to the Arenberg Forest was enough to provoke anticipation in the group. There were many virgins today, it seemed.

A left off the road and the Trench was revealed. Tree lined but dead straight. No bends, nothing to conceal the totality of its menace. The end was in sight, but it was a very long way away. Have fun.

I’ve heard the stories, read the accounts and pored over the guides of the Roubaix sectors. Vicarious knowledge goes out the window within 100m on the Arenberg.

The surface on that 2.4km stretch can only be described as violent. The shock of plunging onto the irregular ground feels like a slap in the face. And a slap in other places too.

Speed immediately drops and hands that were so determined to be relaxed rigidly clench the bars: a futile attempt to retain control of a bike that is now bucking and sliding as much as it is rolling.

At least the ludicrous novelty of riding on a surface this ridiculous means it flies by. Boredom never factors on a Roubaix sector.

Finishing a sector is like coming up for air. All of a sudden you can ride a bike again, a skill that you were convinced you’d forgotten in the moments before.

The juddering vibrations cause hands, thighs and mind to feel as if they’ve been liquefied. They all swirl around for a time until your senses return.

The heavens of tarmac between sector hells give your addled brain and stunned body a chance to regroup. The contrast is such that you could be on a hovercraft.

All too soon the tranquillity is broken as chaos descends once again. On the course a sector is never far away.

Your world is reduced to the sector crown five metres in front. Not that the crown is often any smoother, it just lacks the unsettling camber of the tracks – they’ll have you off in an instant.

Don’t look up the road, mind your own business. Cobble by cobble. They say ride a big gear, they say ride quickly.

The pavé doesn’t really care what they say. Just push the pedals and what happens, happens.

You’ll lose bidons, you’ll lose inner tubes, you’ll lose skin. But I guarantee you will be smiling come the end. Have fun.