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Paris-Roubaix Challenge sportive review: Mud, cobbles and crashes

30 Jun 2020

A heavy crash, but the logistics and attention to detail made the trip to ride the Paris-Roubaix Challenge sportive one to remember

Words Jack Elton-Walters Photography Sunwoo Kim

Watching cycling is one thing, in truth it's a great way to spend a whole day, especially now some of the biggest races are being shown live on television from start to finish. But actually going there, riding some of the route yourself and then seeing the pros ride the same roads so much faster is an unrivalled experience for cycling fans.

There's a cliche around cycling, the gist of which is that most of us will never play tennis at Wimbledon, rugby at Murrayfield or fail to live up to unfounded expectations when playing football at Wembley, but we can all take on the slopes of Alpe d'Huez, or ride the cobbled roads of Paris-Roubaix, as Cyclist did back in 2018 with Katusha Travel.

Prime position ahead of the sportive

Travelling market

Fully-supported cycling tours and trips are far from new, but Katusha Travel is a new player in the market. Moving on from just sponsoring a WorldTour team - with the help of a shampoo brand, Katusha has expanded its offering to cover travel and kit – sport and commuting – to complement its work with top professional racers.

Katusha Travel provides trips to some of the biggest races, but you won't necessarily be able to do the same ride two years in a row. In 2018 the Classics trip went to Paris-Roubaix and the stage race visit was to Paris-Nice, but this year it could be the Tour of Flanders and Tirreno-Adriatico, for example (check with Katusha Travel for where you might actually be able to go).

The Katusha Cafe, which gives out free coffee to participants at the start of events, was also present in Roubaix and then tours many of the biggest races throughout the season.

Team bikes at the service course

Arrival and service course

Roubaix sits in the far north of France, pushed up against the border with Belgium. It's an otherwise unremarkable town that comes alive for one weekend of the year.

Such is its proximity to Flanders that Katusha had arranged for us to stay over in Kortrijk, itself a centre for cycling in the region.

We were collected in nearby Lille by Damien, travel manager of Katusha Travel, who welcomed us to the trip and gave a quick rundown of plans for the rest of the day.

Crossing the border with ease in a way that should be celebrated, the first stop on our package tour was Katusha-Alpecin's service course on the edge of Brakel.

From pro bikes hanging along the wall of the garage to the range of clothing in the showroom, this might be a relatively small presence but Katusha's whole package is showcased for intentional visitors and passers-by alike.

From here, the first ride of the weekend commenced in the direction of Kortrijk, the hotel and a pre-cobbles dinner.

Viatcheslav Ekimov, third at the 2003 Paris-Roubaix

A star appearance

Unknown to the attendees beforehand was the presence for the entire trip of a retired pro with pedigree on the cobbles.

Now the president of the Russian Cycling Federation, Viatcheslav Ekimov has continued his association with the brand after heading up the WorldTour team for a number of years before switching jobs.

As well as three Olympic gold medals, Eki also finished third at the 2003 Paris-Roubaix, and watching him on the pave that level of skill is still clear to see. Skip to 2:30 in the below video to see him riding (full Katusha-Alpecin kit).

Comfort over speed = speed

Given the choice in advance of a Canyon Aeroad CF SLX Disc 9.0 SL or Canyon Ultimate CF SLX Disc 9.0, both equipped with SRAM Red eTap, I'd gone for the latter in mind of the battering I took from the cobbles the last time I visited Roubaix.

As we set out from Brakel, I noticed I was the only rider who'd made this choice.

The highlight of our 56km point-to-point ride was an assault of the Oude Kwaremont. Reaching the top of the cobbled ascent, only Mathieu Danel, a core member of the senior team as Katusha sports product and merchandising manager and a very strong rider, was still with me.

I'm attributing a not-insignificant part of this to my bike choice: comfort and control on top of the cobbles certainly helped me maintain a fair speed, even with my heart rate well into the red. My choice appeared to bode well for the far harder ride to come.

Upon arrival to the finishing point of the ride, we took up residence in the trip basecamp, a strangely configured modernist hotel attached to a windmill.

Paris-Roubaix Challenge: Go fast or crash trying

Gathering the next morning, dressed head to toe in Katusha kit (not Katusha-Alpecin pro team kit, obviously), the group boarded the mini-buses and made for France. Was that the border? Who knows, on we go.

Katusha Travel had positioned its cafe, vans and bike rack right next to the start line of the Paris-Roubaix Challenge sportive and our bib numbers had been collected for us the day before.

It might not be a race, but with some nervousness in the group such proximity to the start and having the logistics sorted were small touches that went a long way.

Numbers pinned on and start line photos taken, we were off. Opting for the medium route which starts and finishes at the Roubaix Velodrome, rather than an A to B route like that taken by the long course, the opening 50km takes riders along main roads and over smooth tarmac in a southerly direction before the rudest possible introduction to the cobbles: the Trouee d'Arenberg.

Ruder still was the fact that due to heavy rain the day before, the first half of the famous trench was closed to riders and instead we were sent down the smooth path to the side.

About halfway along the cobbles became accessible and so began the day's first assault. This was the third time I'd ridden on the Arenberg, and the second time I'd done so on wet, muddy cobbles.

The uneven surface and ice-like wet cobbles made for a cautious, and in truth, pretty slow ride to the main road at the end. Overtaken by mountain bikers – each to their own but what's the point in doing this on a mountain bike? – it was hard to follow their line, as I found out later in the ride.

We regrouped at the support van for the first drinks and snack top-up, but no one needed wheel as we'd got through this first test with tubulars intact.

This was the first time out of five that the van was waiting at a pre-destined location. With all of us riding Zipp wheels with tubular tyres – the best choice for comfort and control on the cobbles – the logistics of the day may not have gone as smoothly had any of us punctured away from a van rendez-vous.

As it was, there wasn't a single puncture all day. Just one heavy crash.

Stay upright because cobbles hurt

After getting into a rhythm on a number of secteurs things went awry on Secteur 15: Tilloy to Sars-et-Rosières.

Gutter puddles and surface mud, resulting from the rain over the previous few days and people riding in the gutters despite entering a cobbled sportive, made for an at times treacherous parcours.

Added to that was my own poor decision to chase down a mountain biker who was gliding over the cobbles and past everyone else riding that sector.

Forced by some questionable cornering from a rider up ahead, Mr MTB and I dived into a gutter puddle before returning to the cobbles on a muddy corner. Error.

As soon as my front tyre made contact with the mud, out it slid. I bumped across the width of the cobbles and into the neighbouring field.

Torn knee warmer, cuts plus a bruised and swollen leg, but incredibly my shorts were unscathed (except the blood soaking into them from the scuff on my thigh).

A separate review of those will be on the site over the coming weeks.

Somehow, this was the only secteur all day where the GoPro was on still rather than record mode, but the final image makes for an interesting view of my descent to the hard cobbled ground.

Eki was the first to catch-up and found me still attached to my bike laying in a field. He told me later that he thought he was 'going to have to put me over his shoulder and ride to the end of the cobbles.'

As it was, I eventually got up and rode very cautiously to the end of that secteur. Choosing to ride on I attempted two more lengths of cobbles but it became apparent that my day might not pan out the way I'd expected.

Despite my left leg taking the brunt of the impact, it was my right wrist that forced me to reconsider my ride.

Unable to hold the bars properly over the pave, I could no longer overtake the riders ahead and was forced to stick to the crown of the road at the pace of those in front, with the bike jumping around even more erratically than usual below me.

The next time we saw the van, I made the far-from-easy decision to climb off and take up residence in the second row of seats. Disappointed, dishearted and feeling like an idiot for racing off and then crashing on a corner, I sat there thinking my day was done.

The pace in the riding group was now slowing as the attritional nature of the cobbles took its toll, so mechanic Steven, driver Thomas and I had quite a while to wait at the next meeting point.

Once the group was with us, Thomas asked if I might want to ride the final 12km and get the velodrome finish. I pondered this idea for a few minutes before jumping out of the van and putting my shoes back on.

Steven got my bike down from the roof and it was time to ride once more. Feeling generally fresh but obviously pretty bashed up, I took the wind for my ride companions who by now had done 40km and as many as nine more secteurs than me.

Hitting Secteur 2 at Willems I ignored the pain in my leg and pushed on for one last flurry on the cobbles. It was tough but I resisted the urge to grovel in the gutter and got to the end of a length of pave that you feel might go on forever.

All that was left now was the roll in to Roubaix and half a lap of the velodrome. The pros do one-and-a-half laps, and previously the sportive did a full ride round, but sportivistes are now stopped for medals on the pro finish line.

I joked that my medal should be chopped in half, but it was better to finish on a bike than in a van.

Our vans and bike racks were back where they'd been that morning, another welcoming touch from our hosts that allowed a bit of rest (or a bit more rest in my case) before the journey back to the windmill in Belgium.

One last ride

The next morning our riding group was down to just three, and everyone was surprised that I'd opted to take part. With shorts over self-applied bandages, I was glad of the easy pace of the ride and felt much better afterwards having ridden off some of the stiffness down my leftside.

This ride took place on wet roads under a light rain, proper Belgian conditions, but by the time of the pro race started hours later and a couple of hundred kilometres further south, the sun was out.

Even so, the first half of the race was characterised by the mud and wet cobbles which influenced the race.

Privileged treatment

For the Paris-Roubaix pro race later that day, Katusha Travel had secured us access to the guest area alongside the velodrome. We were treated to a buffet, beers and soft drinks all day.

Sat in sight of a television and a large screen, following what was going on during the race was easy.

While we were sat there, Eki recalled his first time of riding into the famous velodrome, although despite its fame it was an unknown for a youngster from the Soviet Union.

Arriving solo during the 1989 Circuit Franco-Belge, which ran on the morning of Paris-Roubaix, he was unaware of the pro race to come and couldn't believe such a crowd had turned out to see him win.

Only later did he learn of the pros coming through that afternoon, on a day won by Belgian Jean-Marie Wampers.

It's an experience like this that added value to the trip and is the kind of thing you're unlikely to find outside of cycling.

The day was won by a dominant Peter Sagan, finally taking home the commemorative cobblestone that had previously eluded him.

From there it was a short drive to the Lille Eurostar terminal for an evening train home to London. Battered and bruised and wondering if I'll ride the cobbles again.

Yes, yes I will.

Ride the cobbles

For those looking to head to Paris-Roubaix or any of the other Classics this year, there are a number of companies offering package tours. There is also the option of a self-made trip.

However you decide to do it, a visit to the Classics is a must for any cycling fan.