Dave Fitz went continental again, this time taking on the challenge of the cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix.

Paris-Roubaix: A Monumental Challenge

Dave Fitzgerald

I once read an article about Paris-Roubaix that described it as holding a pretty special place in the history of cycling. That much is true. First held in 1896, it has endured as one of five Monuments in one-day cycling, along with Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Milan- San Remo and Giro di Lombardia. It is also undeniably the hardest and most terrible of them all. The legends of cycling have done battle here. The roll of honour is studded with the glittering greats of times past (Merckx, De Vlaeminck, Moser, Kelly) & present (Museeuw, Boonen, Cancellara). It's been my ambition for some time to cycle in the shadows of the greats and experience the challenge of the roads where their legends were forged.

The professional race takes place in April each year and covers 255km. The weather at this time of year is notoriously unpredictable and can often have a major bearing on the race. It's a two-act play. Act I covers 85km on tarmac over a pretty flat course that the Pro's eat up at a comfortable pace. Then the racing starts. Act II covers 170km over a mix of tarmac and the infamous cobbles (pavé in French). Almost one third of this part of the course (55km in total) traverses surfaces that are simply not suited to bicycles. It's hard to describe – more about that later – but it's a test of endurance, capacity to suffer, resilience and needs a great deal of luck to come through unscathed.

Act II is also offered to amateurs as an experience of a lifetime called the Paris-Roubaix Challenge.

The cobbled sections are given a rating according to their level of difficulty, two stars being the easiest and five stars being the cruellest, most difficult unpleasant experience you would ever wish to have on a road bike (there are three of these 5-star delights). With three different routes, you can take your pick according to your level of fitness and perceived “ability” (I use this word loosely) over the cobbles.

  • Option 1 Short Route: 70km – a circular route that starts and finishes in Roubaix – which includes the last 7 sections of pavé, including the Carrefour de l'Arbre (a 5-star beating);
  • Option 2 Medium Route: 139km – a circular route that starts and finishes in Roubaix - which includes the last 18 sections of pavé, including the infamous 5-star Troueé d'Arenberg (really not fit for cycling on under any circumstances);
  • Option 3 Long Route: 167km – the full monty. While the long route does give you a shot at all of the cobbled sections in the pro race, the logistics can be a challenge as it's a point-to- point route which requires transport to the start. Helpfully, the organisers offer a shuttle transfer service to the start line if you are prepared to get up very early. The ‘race' (It's not a race!) starts in a village called Busigny and thereafter covers the same terrain as the professional race.

Naturally, I opted for Option 3! Paris-Roubaix isn't necessarily a ‘must-do' on every road cyclist's bucket list. If you're a cyclist, you probably have some capacity for discomfort, pain and the odd day of suffering in the saddle. But 55kms of riding the pavé of Paris-Roubaix punishes and pushes you into the far reaches of the sufferfest pain cave and puts you in harm's way that you might otherwisechoose to avoid. More about that later. There are 4,500 confirmed entries in total although I've no idea how many are doing each route.

Preparing for the Pavé

I spent a good bit of time over the winter reading and researching the history of Paris-Roubaix. There are a couple of classic sources I bought:

  • a lovely coffee-table book called Paris-Roubaix: A Journey Through Hell by Phillippe Bouvet, Pierre Callewaert, Jean-Luc Gatellier and Serge Laget, a quartet of France's leading cycling writers, offers stunning coverage – in both words and pictures – of the race.
  • a DVD documentary called A Sunday in Hell, by Jorgen Leth that follows the 1976 Paris- Roubaix. Featuring Merckx, De Vlaeminck, Martens and Moser, it is regarded as a masterpiece, possibly best cycling film ever made.

Of course, with hindsight, it probably wasn't the smartest thing I've ever done to leave publications with such disturbing titles lying around the house, advertising the challenge of the event! There's an interesting history to the race itself. Why does Paris-Roubaix have all these cobbled sections? At the time cycling races took off in the late 19th century (Paris-Roubaix was first run in 1896), most roads were cobbled, or simply dirt. The race probably wasn't much different from any other; it wasn't until after the First World War that mass modernisation took place, leaving lonely sections of cobbles in between long stretches of tarmac.

In fact, for a long time, cobbles were seen as being associated with backwardness and the past, an association that the north of France didn't really relish (wasn't the race's nickname, ‘Hell of the North', bad enough?), so mayors would pave over any remaining cobbles around their towns and the pavé became harder and harder to find. By 1965 only 22km of the entire race (nearly 255km) were cobbled. A shift in perception happened in the sixties and, with the discovery of the Arenberg Trench (among others), those evil sections of pavé would become an enduring symbol and a Paris- Roubaix without cobbles today would be unthinkable. One of the worst sections, the Moulin de Vertain was only discovered in 2002. Not long but awful, this stretch of pavé is a testament to the new love organisers and locals show their cobbles. The road had been covered over by dirt for years and all but forgotten, but a certain Madame Farine recalled that her mother used to tell her of a cobbled road nearby. Out came the diggers and, sure enough, a new, nasty section was born. It has big cobbles, sitting at all sorts of unnatural angles, jagged corners just waiting for you to puncture on them. It's hard to believe that anyone would look at this and think it would be a good idea to walk on, let alone race over it on a road bike. But then again, there aren't many exercises in agony quite like Roubaix. The Moulin de Vertain fits in just right.

George Hincapie once wrote about Paris-Roubaix: “One thing that's unique about Roubaix is how you feel in the days after the race. If it was wet, nine out of ten times you get sick, because you're literally eating shit the whole time—there's rain and mud spraying up from the wheels in front of you and there's fertilizer and stuff in it. If it's dry, then you might not get sick from the dust, but you just have this feeling that you've been run over by a train.”

The long road to Roubaix - via Brussels & Cologne

I had originally planned to fly to Brussels (nearest airport to Roubaix for flight direct from Dublin) and drive across Belgium to Roubaix. However, a work commitment required me to detour via Cologne so the early part of my trip involved a 600km drive across Belgium, Netherlands, Germany and back again to France to the finish line in Roubaix. The weather en-route was spectacularly good for driving. Bright and sunny but not too warm. Augurs well for race day methinks! I passed some very famous place names along the road, stirring the palate as I tripped past signs for Leuven (home of the Stella Artois brewery) and Grimbergen (original home of Norbertine monks who brewed this famous Beer ‘dAbaye). The smell of hops roasting was fabulous.

I arrived at my hotel at noon on Friday. Located in Tourcoing – about 5km from Roubaix – it was easy to find, clean and ‘compact' (couldn't swing a cat in it). As it was too early to check in, I headed off to the nearest supermarket to stock up on provisions. The nearest was a magnificent Carrefour about 5kms drive from the hotel. I got everything I thought I needed, had a quick lunch and then headed to Roubaix for registration. The centre of attention is the Velodrome Jean Stablinski. It's quite remarkable set-up. They have the classic old outdoor velodrome on which the final sprint of the race will be contested on Sunday. They also have a magnificent state-of-the-art indoor velodrome. Two velodromes side by side in Roubaix. And Ireland has none. This place is dripping with cycling history. There's the club house of Velo Club de Roubaix, its walls covered in cycling memorabilia, signed jerseys, caps, posters of the legends of the sport. There was the obligatory coffee at the bar (save the beer for tomorrow) and a few photos.

The roll of honour in Velo Club de Roubaix

I headed out to the old track to soak up the atmosphere. There was a great festival mood in the place. The merchandising tents were doing a good trade, people discussing bikes and gear, a great mix of nationalities all sharing a common passion for cycling.

The outdoor velodrome in Roubaix

I picked up my registration pack, race number, bus ticket and souvenir t-shirt. Almost done, I returned to the Velo Club where I had seen souvenir cobbles for sale. Ordinarily this is awarded to the winner of the Pro race. However, I promised myself a reward if I successfully completed the challenge – my very own cobble stone. I know I was getting ahead of myself a bit, buying it in advance. Call it extra motivation, call it an impulse buy. Whatever! I had my cobble. Now all I needed to do was earn it. All done by 2:30pm, I headed back to my hotel to assemble my bike.

Bike Setup

I brought my winter bike – although I've been so impressed with it that it may well become my year- round bike. It's a Canyon Endurace CF 9.0 SL with Shimano DuraAce compact chainset and an 11- speed cassette (11-28). I made some minimal modifications to the kit, based on recommendations, and everything worked a treat.

Wheels: Something sturdy is the first obvious answer, though I saw plenty of people running with carbon rims. My choice was a set of DT Swiss 23 rims which have a slightly wider rim profile than standard.

Tyres & Tubes: Bigger is better, but similar to the wheel issue, if you go too big you'll compromise rolling resistance. The extra width will help prevent your tyres from slipping down into the troughs between the cobble stones. The larger carcass will give a bit more cushioning and make pinch- punctures less likely. I chose Vittoria Pavé Tyres 700 X 27mm. The tubular version of this is really popular with the pros. The tyre is strong, light and flexible (320 Threads Per Inch) and has fantastic grip on the sides as well on the top – just what you need when trying to ride over slippery stone. I also went with a slightly larger than normal tube 700 X 25-32 to work with the larger-volume tyre. One great tip was to put talcum powder between the tube and tyre, which helps the two to shift around and significantly reduces the risk of pinch punctures. I also went with slightly less pressure in the tyres (95psi) to aid traction and boost comfort a little, without risking the tyres being too soft and pinching. The Pro's do test rides at different pressures to find what optimum is for them. Theamateurs take a calculated guess and go with it. Some riders go with even less pressure (80psi) but when the pilot is 90+kgs, the wheels need a bit more air!

Bottle Cages: I replaced my standard carbon bottle cages with stainless steel cages (Arundel). They are easy to bend for a much firmer grip of the bottles. There are all sorts of pro tips for keeping bottles in cages – like fixing sandpaper to the inside of cages to grip the bottles – but the stainless steel ones worked brilliantly. It's hard to describe the vibrations that the bike (& rider) endures over the cobbles and I saw hundreds of bottles ejected all over the place.

Saddle & Saddle Bag: I went with my standard Fizik Arione saddle because we know each other intimately well. However, I paid attention to the observation that saddlebags will vibrate and bounce all over the place. Types that clamp/clip to the saddle are liable to break their mooring in the storm and get swept away in the flotsam & jetsam of the cobbles. I saw several happen before my very eyes. A great tip was to opt for a saddlebag that attaches under the saddle with Velcro straps or similar closure - a wise choice and will likely be more resilient against bouncing. I got a suitable bag that was large enough to carry 2 tubes, tyre levers, multi-tool, 2 compressed gas capsules & inflator. Again, it worked a treat and showed no signs of wear and tear at the end (apart from being filthy).

Bar Tape: I didn't bother with gel inserts or double-wrapping handlebar tape. I've no doubt that it would have helped to absorb some of the battering from the cobbles but my bars are already a pretty big diameter and I didn't want to risk not being able to close my hands around them when they got stiff, bruised, blistered and sore – which they inevitably did!

Excessive friction and loosening bolts: As a general rule, you can expect that the repetitive vibration and impact will create extraordinary friction where cables meet the frame. The risk is that paint will begin to rub away and potentially expose what's underneath (carbon weave or steel depending on your frame). I looked over the bike and wherever there was potential exposure I applied some electrical tape to the ‘at-risk' spots. All the cables and bolts need to be checked and secured. This is where a torque wrench is handy because not all of the bolts on your bike will need to be tightened to the same force. I'd had an issue on a ride earlier in the year when the seat-clamp kept loosening and the seat-post kept slipping so I made sure that was going to stay in place. Apart from that, I didn't tape anything down and I relied on my standard frame-mounted pump and out-front Garmin mount doing their jobs – which they did admirably.

I had one minor incident when I was putting the final touches to bike assembly. As I was finishing inflating my rear wheel, the track pump snagged on the tube valve and broke off the top piece of the valve. Big dilemma. The tube was inflated to the right pressure but as the valve was now broken, I wouldn't be able to inflate it again. So, should I take a chance and go with it, or replace the tube straightaway. I hadn't considered this scenario and was only carry two spare tubes. So, cue another trip to Carrefour for a spare tube and baby-size talcum powder. I'm pretty sure I got some funny looks from the checkout person for my shopping assortment. Anyway, back to the hotel, change the rear tube, inflate (more carefully this time) and this time I'm good to go. I threw on shorts and shoes and went for a little spin down the road to make sure that everything was working perfectly. Satisfied that we're ready for business, I brought the bike up to my bedroom (I wasn't going to leave it in the car overnight), tucked it in and headed out for an early dinner. I found a lovely local pizzeria serving hearty pasta which hit the spot. A short evening stroll back to the hotel and I was ready for bed.

What to wear to the party?

This was always going to be a function of the weather and I erred on the side of caution with a long- sleeved jersey & gilet, shorts & leg-warmers. The challenge for the long route – or at least the way my logistics worked out – was to have the right gear to stay warm from 4:30am when we met for the coach-transfer – on a nice warm comfy coach for 2 hours, then standing around in the cool morning rain at start-line until 8am then through the ride and to the finish – with whatever the weather threw at me (rain, wind & sunshine).

The only thing I did differently to a standard ride at home was to wear two pairs of gloves - winter gloves over a pair of regular finger-less gloves – for added padding and protection.

The long journey to the start line

Rise at 03:45. That's early. There was no time for breakfast at the hotel. The organisers (ASO) have very helpfully organised a shuttle service from the finish at the Velodrome in Roubaix back to the start line in Busigny. You can purchase this option in advance for €30 when registering for the event and it sells out fast. At sign-on you are allocated a bus number. The only downside is you need to be at your allocated bus at 5am on the morning of the event so they can load the bikes into special bike-transport trailers and get under way by 5:30am. It was spectacularly efficient. There must have been at least 30 coaches, all pulling away in convoy at 5:30am. The early start presents all sorts of nutritional and bio-rhythmical challenges. I get to the Velodrome at 4:30am and have first breakfast in the car – two Flahavans porridge pots with honey & banana, a mug of coffee and some fresh brioche rolls and more banana. Once I'm settled into the bus journey (two hours long), I force feed myself second breakfast – fresh baguette with ham & cheese, more brioche & bananas and bottles of water. It's really really hard stuffing yourself at this hour of the morning but I know that I won't eat properly again until after the race. There are three feed stops on the course and my strategy for the day is to refill water at the third one (after 130km) but otherwise to feed on gels, bars and high- energy fuel. The upside is that I'll be able to keep moving and avoid the crowded foodstops. The downside is that my jersey pockets are stuffed with gels & bars. I've brought a few extra on the basis that I'm bound to lose a few to the cobbles during the day.

15% chance of rain - who'd have thought?

The only apprehension I had during the week leading up to the event was about the weather. I was watching the forecast on WeatherPro, on YR.NO, on Accuweather and the consensus was for the day to start cool and to gradually warm-up. A 15% chance of rain. OK, I'll take those odds. As the coach wended its way through the dark Northern France countryside, dark lanes and dark fields, people were lost in their own thoughts and running through their checklists. After about an hour, we began to see some oncoming traffic and their headlights picked up the rain on our windscreen. A murmur reverberated around the coach. As the day dawned and the grey light pulled back the shadow of the night, we could see clouds and drizzle and dampness everywhere. The chatter started. 15% chance of rain - who'd have thought, huh? Nothing to be done about it now. I'm glad I've opted for long sleeves & leg warmers.

Of course, the final piece of the jigsaw before the start will be finding a loo. Those who are familiar with endurance events are well versed in the need to ‘go before you go'. The very early starts can play havoc with normal bathroom habits. Oftentimes, it involves queuing in the cold for an inadequate number of overused portaloos. Watching cyclists using portaloos before an event is pure comedy. Picture the cyclist, ready to go to the start, jersey pockets bulging with stuff, entering the loo, only to realise that to ‘perform', they need to take off their jersey – over their head – to slip off the bib-short straps to take care of business. There's no loo roll, the loos don't flush, there's no soap, the taps don't work. Have you ever tried to undress in a portaloo? What often happens next is that some of the jersey pocket contents slip onto the floor or into the loo itself – not sure which is worse – and then the poor cyclist has to decide what to salvage. The casual observer outside will hear a physical struggle, language not fit to print and then see a flustered, half-dressed cyclist emerge unnerved and in need of some composure before approaching the start line. Fortunately, our luxury coach was equipped with a loo. A bit like the aircraft variety, it was cramped but clean, warm and available. I picked my moment and, with a Cavendish-style sprint, I utilised the facilities just before our coach pulled into the starting village. Now I'm ready to roll.

Busy in Busigny

The organisers have thought of everything. Close to the start line, they are offering to take any unwanted gear from the bus-ride, tag it and return it to the finish line for collection later. That's great service. It does make for a lot of congestion around the start. I spent about 15 minutes in a big queue to get past the baggage depot – only to realise that wasn't actually the start line. That was further up the road. So, this was it. Mount up, spin up a small hill in the village under the Skoda arch. It's now 8am. It's a rolling start – no-one says ‘Go!' so you cross a mat, hear your beep and you know it's started. Well, this is grand, I thought, I've made it to Paris-Roubaix, I've trained hard for it, I'm not bothered about the rain, so let's give it a lash. How hard can it be? Hard......

The first 13km is benign. The route takes us out and around Busigny and heading north. The roads are deserted. After all, it's 8am on a wet Saturday. The rolling start means that there isn't a battle for position on the road and there isn't any racing (yet). It's open roads but the marshalling at the start is pretty good.

Troisvilles is the first sector of cobbles. With hindsight, it's not the hardest, but it's my first. It's a rude awakening if you've never ridden over cobbles. Even if I had ridden a city bike over the wet cobbles around Dublin Castle it would never have prepared me for this. I've got a very helpful sticker on the top tube of my bike which has a list of the cobbled secteurs, numbered from 27 down to 1, showing each ones length and difficulty rating. This is number 27. It's three stars, it's 2.2km long and it's hard. It's lumpy, wet and slippery. My eyes are rattling in their sockets, my arms and shoulders are trying to detach themselves from my body, my hands are thumping off the handlebars with every stone I hit. I can't tell what is happening to anything in my shorts because it's all gone numb by now. There is already gear everywhere on the sides of the path - bottles, broken saddlebags, broken chains, broken saddles, broken seat post clamps, broken riders.

The Parcours

The big risk is falls & mechanicals. In the pro-race, if you find trouble, you will be sorted out by your team mates or your team car – even if it takes a few minutes for them to get to you. Whatever you need, they have. New wheel, new bike, off you go. In the amateur set-up, you're on your own. The first challenge is to find space to make your repairs. If it happens in the cobbles, you have to get off the track and out of harm's way - so you are literally standing in a field, muck up to your ankles, trying to change a tyre or worse.

Smashing it in the big ring

I'm trying to remember the consistent advice on how to ride the cobbles. The technique is to keep hands lightly on top of the bars and smash it in the big ring. For many of the wet and slippery secteurs, you're not really in control of the bike. It takes 100% concentration all of the time to pick the right line and try and power over the rough stone with as much pace as possible. Braking or changing gears are not advised. Attempting to drink or eat on those sections is asking for trouble. Coming across slower riders is a problem because if you stay behind them you lose all momentum. If you want to pass, you need to depart your preferred line (on the crown of the centre of the road) and slide down into the rough rutted gully, power past and then try to get back up onto the crown again without wiping out. I was very tentative for the first few secteurs but after a while I got braver/more proficient and towards the end I was riding like Kelly (well, I thought so....). I had a ‘moment' on one of the second or third sections when the path was going downhill and bending sharply to the right. I was on the outside of the bend and the slope was falling away (reverse camber) on wet cobbles. Don't brake, lean down on outside pedal, pick a line, think positive thoughts, pray a little, phew. Wouldn't want to do that again.

One of the songs that used to rattle around my head as I trained was the chorus to the tune of a Kaiser Chiefs hit (Ruby Ruby Ruby Ruby). Now it's an ear-worm and I can't get it out of my head all day.

Roubaix, Roubaix, Roubaix, Roubaix
Do you, do you, do you, do you
Know what you're doing, doing, to me
Roubaix, Roubaix, Roubaix, Roubaix

Along some of the cobbled sections, occasionally there is a margin of flattened grass or tarmac to the side of the path where it's possible to ride – and when you watch the Pro's racing, you can appreciate why they might take that line to gain an advantage. However, if you're doing the route as a challenge, I don't understand why you would choose to ride in the margin. Sure, it would be easier. But, then you're not riding the cobbles, you're riding on grass or tarmac. What's the point? I could do that at home.

There's a rhythm to the race now. Before every secteur, there's a bit of jostling for position. Those pushing on don't want to get stuck behind slow traffic in the centre of the path so everyone is scrambling to get to the start of the pave first. If you get stuck behind slow traffic, you're faced with a choice – tucking in and going slow or taking a chance, taking a line down into the broken rutted side and powering on to get ahead. You have to get back up onto the crown of the path and you need to get sufficiently ahead of the guy you're passing so you don't cause a pile-up. I'd like to say that it's a smooth acceleration but when your body is shaking like a bobble-head it's not very elegant – just hammer down and go. At the end of the secteur, as riders exit the cobbles strung out in a line, some congregate to wait for their friends, take on some refreshment and catch their breath. Others ride on, looking to latch on to a train and barrel on to the next secteur.

The morning wore on. I began to muse on things. As you do. I thought about mountain bikes. Mountain bikes have their place. On mountains. There were all sorts of road bikes in this event. Full carbon setups, retro steel bikes, cyclocross bikes, a tandem or two. A marvellous variety. And then there were mountain bikes. Big fat tyres and big wide bars. Taking up the centre of the track with noroom to pass. Why? I don't recall Roger De Vlaeminck (4 victories) or Sean Kelly (2 victories) or Tom Boonen (4 victories) or Fabian Cancellara (3 victories) sitting up high on a full suspension mountain bike with motorbike tyres, pootling along, hogging the road. Mountain bike set-ups in a road race are not in the spirit of the event. They emasculate the cobbles, take away their meaning, reduce them to rumble strips. Down with that sort of thing.

Open roads means the rest of rural Northern France is going about its business of a Saturday. The local villages were busy with locals - as is their wont - visiting the boulangerie, the tabac, the charcuterie - driving slowly, turning or stopping without signalling - I suppose just like they do every Saturday morning. Perhaps they weren't expecting lots of cyclists hurtling through their town, disturbing their peace. Perhaps they don't care! It certainly gave rise to a few near misses.

Marshalling at junctions ranged from excellent to poor. No marshal is better than a bad one - at least you'll take responsibility for your own safe passage through junctions instead of being waved through by an incompetent in a YJA (Yellow Jacket of Authority). Giving someone a high-viz vest does not a marshal make!

Anyway, open roads meant open Pavé too. I came across pedestrian tourists, taking photos of the legendary cobbles, walking on the legendary cobbles, crouching down to touch the legendary cobbles. I have no truck with them doing all that - as long as they're not directly in front of me as I try to steer my way over the lumps and bumps at speed. The only way to ride the pavé is at speed (20kmh+) and to keep up momentum. Slowing down and speeding up are difficult. Braking is madness. Passing slow riders is inevitable, necessary and risky. It requires absolute concentration all the time. You need to stay in the moment, every moment. That is very tiring. There's no pootling along on this surface. I came across several cars and camper vans (almost all were Dutch) performing ridiculous manoeuvres in tight spaces with legions of cyclists trying to get past. I came across - or rather nearly cycled into - a very large tractor & farmer (not sure if he/she was very large too, I didn't dare look up for fear of the menacing equipment in tow). The tractor was heading down the centre of the cobbles, coming at me. There was barely a bike-wheel's room between the tractor's massive wheels and the ditch. Fortunately I squeezed by, shoulder brushing off some bit of the equipment in tow. Phew! On on.

The Legend of Arenberg

I can't honestly say that I recall the detail of every section of pavé that I rode over from number 27 down to number 19. I do know that they varied in length, difficulty and suffering. The one that I was most ‘intrigued by' (dreading?) in advance was number 18 - Trouée d'Arenberg, also known as the Arenberg Trench. Its reputation precedes it. But, I mean, how hard can it be? I was an old hand at this stage. I'd ridden two 4-star sections, I'd ridden a 3.7km section and the Arenberg is only 2.4km. Bring it on.

The first thing you have to contend with is the entrance. It's slightly downhill on a wide tarmac road and suddenly it narrows to a cobbled track. It's not a bike path, it's an amusing assortment of rocks and mud in an arrow straight line for 2.4km, slightly uphill. It's wet, it's muddy, it's slick, it's treacherous, it's comical. The best way to visualise the Troueé d'Arenbereg is to imagine that you gather up a load of lumpy rocks from a builders yard, throw them down in your back garden, dump a few barrow loads of topsoil over them, get out the garden hose and spray them until mucky, reverseyour car randomly over them until they are somewhat buried – and then get out your bike and try and cycle over them. At speed. For 2.4km. Madness. Yep.

It would be patently untrue to say that I was in control of my Arenberg experience. I kept low, forward over the bars, applied as much power as I dared and guided my bike vaguely in the direction of travel. I saw a lot of spectacular falls. I saw one irritable guy giving everyone around him abuse for not getting out of his way. He tried to force things, had a spectacular wipeout, picked himself up, tried the same stunt again, wiped out again and then left the cobbles to cycle the remainder of the Arenberg on the tarmac path to the side. Quitter!

After Arenberg, I felt I could tackle anything. I reached the end of the secteur, hit the open road and took off. It's fair to say that the most famous sportives – certainly the mountainous ones – favour the emaciated climbing types. I always marvel at how they climb with such ease while I'm blowing hard at the back. I might catch them on the downhill, I might catch them on the flat but as soon as the road rises up again, there they go again. If you're over 6 feet tall and 90kg+, this is pay-back time. Paris-Roubaix is my kind of terrain. Stick it in the big ring and smash it – over cobbles, over tarmac, over cobbles again. A couple of times on flat sections, I became aware of a string of skinny lads tucking in behind me. I looked around and gestured for them to come through. They were having none of it! It reminded me of the story of The Little Red Hen - no one wants to share the work but everyone wants to eat the bread. “I'm not having that” I thought and I rode off the front and left their skinny selves to pick a new windbreaker. I had to enjoy the moment because I know when I do the Orwell Randonee or the Wicklow 200, I'll be watching them disappear into the distance again. There were still 17 secteurs to master but none was as difficult as Arenberg. From time to time the course veered into a freshening breeze which added to the challenge but generally there was enough relief at the end of each pavé to be ready for the next one.

The support along the route was massing for the Pro race (taking place on the following day) and we got the occasional bit of encouragement – especially along the marquee segments. After the last cobbled section, there is about 13km of a run-in to Roubaix. As the route comes into the town, there are a lot of traffic lights and, as it's an open road event, there's a lot of stopping and starting. However, the entry into the velodrome was special. Just to ride onto the track and go around the banked bends made it all worthwhile. They're pretty steep if you're not going fast. It would have been a shame to fall off in the velodrome – which fortunately I managed to avoid.

So I crossed the line in one piece. No mechanicals, no punctures, no falls. Bruised hands and a numb undercarriage but in great spirits. Ecstatic. A phenomenal spin and a generous slice of good fortune to come through unscathed. I finished in 6 hrs 11 mins, averaging 27.1kmh. My goal was 7 hours so I was delighted with that. I was also pleased with my relative performance in Strava stats. The tyranny of Strava. Who cares, right? Well I guess I do, it does bring out the competitive streak. Of course, there are things that Garmins & Strava don't capture: the blisters on palms of your hands, the soreness of your arse, the shuddering and juddering of body parts, the suffering, the fear of the unknown when travelling downhill on wet cobbles and wondering how you'll negotiate a sharp turn with reverse camber without braking, the joy of finishing. Of the 607 long-course riders who put their race-day stats up there to date, I was 6th in my weight category (85kg to 95kg), 10th in my age category (45 to 54) and 51st overall. Reasons to be pleased.

Chapeau to the other Orwell Riders who completed the challenge: Eugene Dillon, David Maher, Paul Perry and Matt Williams. We met variously during the day and it was great to see a friendly face at the end.

I stowed my bike in the car, had a protein shake for recovery and retired to the bar at the Velo Club de Roubaix for a well-earned beer, followed quickly by the best burger and frites I have ever tasted. Ever.


As I shook, rattled & rolled like a rag doll over every one of the craggy, jangling, bone-jarring secteurs of pavé, I can appreciate that this is no ordinary bike ride. This is a test of balance, of concentration, of commitment, of endurance, of survival. This is the Hell of the North. And I did it by choice. Perhaps I'm a bit mad. It is impossible not to be blown away by the sheer brutally of the event, and the super-human strength and determination possessed by the professionals, those who race it, those for whom this is a job, those for whom this is to put bread on the table. And not just the winner, the guy who gets the souvenir cobble and the cheque. I think about those who simply finish, who battle to get their leader home, who bury themselves trying, who get into a breakaway to get their sponsor some press coverage. Courage! Chapeau! This is no ordinary race. This is the Hell of the North.


Saturday evening was a quiet affair. I went out for a great celebratory dinner in the same pizzeria as the previous day and had an early night.

I was delighted to be awarded the coveted cobble stone back at the hotel (ok, I bought it for myself as a souvenir) and had a few delightful Belgian beers at the presentation ceremony as I packed up my gear. The cobblestone is really heavy and I know it's going to be interesting at the airport check-in.

Sunday morning dawns bright and cheerful. It's early as I drive back through Belgium to the airport, the fields of Flanders bathed in dew, glistening in the early morning sunshine, benign & beautiful. I'm tired and sore but happy. What a day that was!

Everywhere along the route, as I pass, over bridges and down quiet country lanes, I see cyclists out in singles and groups, doing what cyclists do. The Sunday spin is on.