Paris-Roubaix, the Hell of the North. Over 250 kilometers in length including nearly 30 sections of France's most brutal cobbled roads. If you could roll up the entire essences of cycling and package it into one race it would be this one - the Queen of the Classic's. Why? Because it's hard, oh is it hard! We're all very familiar with the race's famed cobbled sections, the boulder sized stones with unforgiving jagged edges. We've all watched the video reals of tires popped, rims shattered and bike frames broken. But truth be told - as I would soon find out - unless you've experienced these cobbled sections first hand you just don't know how vicious they really are. Pictures alone simply won't do it justice.
Saturday, the day for us mere mortals to take on the cobbles of Roubaix for ourselves. It was one of those rare Spring blue-bird sky mornings in northern France that just made you eager to take on the day. My Slovenian friends (who I had met cycling last summer - see past Slovenian blog post) and I kitted up. I made sure to slather extra chamois cream on, after all I had heard many a horror stories about men's under carriages beaten and battered from the cobbled abuse. I pumped up my 25mm tires, 80psi in the front, 85psi in the back, tightened my shoes, then clicked on my helmet. I sat, waiting for my compatriots to finish readying themselves. One took a swig of plum flavored vodka before hopping on the bike. A bit aggressive I thought, but a move I would soon regret not doing myself. Finally we rolled to the Roubaix velodrome for the start.
Off we peddled, weaving through twisted streets picking our way out of town. Soon we were riding in Flanders fields, farm land surrounding us with the odd World War 1 bunker poking its head up from the tall grass like a meerkat surveying its surroundings. So far not a cobble in sight. I rode on, conversing with fellow riders and then found myself chatting it up with a Belgian - local to the area. He glanced over at me and said "first time riding Roubaix huh?" "Uh... yeah, how'd you guess?" I said curiously. "Because you don't have any gloves" he chuckled. I wittingly replied "well, it's my best Tommeke impression" for Tom Boonen was famed to have ridden Roubaix without gloves. But inside my heart sank. Unlike Boonen I'm no hardened Belgian who's battled through multiple tours of duty. I knew I should have had my gloves, but foolishly had forgotten them and was hoping above all odds they weren't really all that necessary. Oh how wrong I would be.
More time passed and soon I could sense we were coming up to our first pavéd section. There was clamoring up ahead, I noticed bikes parked and people mulling about almost as if trying to muster up the courage before stepping through the gates of hell. What's all the commotion about I thought? Then something caught my eye, it was THE bridge, the iconic stout structure indicating we were at the Arenberg Forest one of the most famed and feared sections of cobbles. Like the others before me I slowed to a stop, then I picked out the makings of a beer tent across the way and bee-lined over, opting first for some liquid courage.
Fifteen minutes and a pint later I was back on form. Bring on this so called Forest of Arenberg I told myself. My Slovenian companions and I headed straight for the cobbles. As we got closer the stones loomed larger and larger, growing from mere rocks to boulders. Their jagged teeth poking up from under the mud like the jaws of a Great White. I tentatively rode in and was immediately gobbled up and spewed straight into the gutter. I feared crashing and had to dismount. I'm such a puss I thought. Regaining my composure I got back on my bike and tried once more. Again, I was dejected straight off the road. Okay, this is ridiculous, I'm better than this I said to myself. I hopped on my steed one last time and began to hammer, mashing the pedals, gaining enough momentum to keep myself going. The bike was chattering uncontrollably. I felt as if I were in a bull ring trying to tame a wild bronco. Boulder after boulder came, I pressed on, with some rocks so large and gaps so wide I felt as if eventually I would just be swallowed whole into the bowels of cobbled hell. Finally I broke through, hit smooth pavement, then stopped. Like a sailor with sea-legs stumbling on dry land after months at sea I felt the lingering vibrating effects throughout my body despite being back on paved roads.
From that moment on the cobbled sectors came fast and furious, one after the other, with sometimes barely a chance to catch your breath from the last beating. Each time through left me with that same lingering bouncing feeling as if I were still on the pave. I made like the pro's and rode the crown of the road every time. But never the less, the hammering effects of these battered farm tracks took their tole. I constantly changed my grip on the bike to avoid the blisters that were beginning to form on my hands. It hardly made a difference.
At one point I took my focus off the rocks in front of me to survey the landscape. There were bikes and bodies everywhere, like casualties of war. Some riders were repairing flats, others simply hunched over their handle bars or lying on their backs in complete exhaustion. I sympathized with them but pressed on, assuming we were through most of the cobbled sectors by now. We were barely a third of the way.
By now my hands were riddled with blisters and each bone felt as if it was systematically beaten with a heavy wooden mallet. I kept switching my hands from the top of the bars, to the hoods, to the drops, but there wasn't a position that was comfortable. I begged for the cobbles to stop. Like a hung over college freshman staring down an empty bottle of Captain Morgan's the morning after an all night bender I was repulsed by the sight of my handle bars - vowing never to forget my gloves again. What I had originally thought would be a lovely escapade through French Flanders was turning into a death march.
Finally we were getting towards the end. But as with any hallmark finish to an epic ride the worst was yet to come - the Carrefour de L'Arbre. At 2,100 meters in length with savage cobbles it's the last top rated 5 star sector and just 15km from the finish. I hit the sector hard. Bike rattling, hands screaming in pain, I pressed on harder, vowing to give the sector its proper respect by riding straight down the middle rather than opting for the slightly easier gutters. Physically I was spent, but emotionally I was back on a high. There's something to be said for riding over the same iconic stretches of road that have played host to cycling's great races. I reckon it's akin to a Yankee's fan running the bases at Yankee Stadium. You've had the TV images seared in your mind a million times but here you are now reveling in its physical presence.
At last we arrive back in the Roubaix velodrome. I ride my lap as is customary in the race and unceremoniously claim my finishers medal. I'm spent, beaten and battered and ready for a hot shower and a cold beer. Not long after my Paris-Roubaix adventure is all said and done I begin to reflect back on the day. More than being mildly satisfied with my own achievement I'm in much greater awe of the pro's who will ride their own race the next day. With a much longer distance to ride, a greater number of cruel cobbled sections, and faster leg sapping speed, these guys will endure much more than I did.
Watching the pro race the next day and drawing on my previous days' experience I viewed every sly wince of pain and every punishing peddle stroke from the pro's with all that much more empathy. I kept thinking about how easy they make it look, but the reality is they were enduring even more wrath and pain from Flanders' barbaric and unforgiving cobbles than I had. They were right in the sweet spot that makes up the essence of cycling. That spot where the will of the mind is in a fierce battle with the fatigue of the body. The place where cycling dreams can be made and broken in an instant. After all this was the Hell of the North.