With the numbness in my body slowly subsiding & my eyeballs finally stopped rattling around my skull, I thought I’d give a ride report to share the exquisite pain endured before during & after this iconic race/ride. Rightly called the ‘Hell of the North’. It was a very tough ride & I feel Like I’ve been riding on a jackhammer for 4 out of 8 hours. The race was 165 kms of which 52km is cobbles – 27 sections rated from 3 to max 5 stars in difficulty. We also did an extra 5kms when following a bunch of Scotts who took a wrong turn.
But firstly my thanks to all who helped me have a crack at the ride. A leave pass from my beautiful tolerant wife who came to watch (shop), another stunning performance by my Giant bike, my old school mate from London who brought my bike to Roubaix, Brownie built wheels that withstood the punishment (unlike me), mtb training from Briony, Admin, binners & Zlatko’s bridge, advice & encouragement from many & disbelief that I’d even survive from others. Having a fellow ER & hobbit – Highlander join me to share the pain was special & an added bonus.
Although reasonably fit, my preparation was hampered a bit by sore shoulders I’ve had for the past year & annoyingly in the last 3 months has extended to my left elbow & although I can push down I have been unable to lift anything heavier than a beer with it. My main fear was not being able to hang onto the bike as that is a common reason why many do not finish. I also hadn’t ridden for 4 weeks & ate & drank lots of good uk & dutch & french fare. I gained 4 kgs.
Advice from an aussie pro-cyclist who had ridden it was ‘try & hang the f**k on’ – and then he went on to explain he didn’t finish it. A Dutch pro-cyclist I also met said ‘after ze 1st 2kms of cobbles ze will be wanting to make peace with your god’. Encouraging stuff given we had 50km of it!
Anyway excuses out of the way, I was determined to give it my best shot.
Now the Paris-Roubaix pavé consists of centuries-old farm tracks where uneven cobblestones stand proud with jagged edges, while many of the cobbles are missing, leaving gaping holes perfect for buckling wheels. It all adds up to a very bumpy ride, especially on road bikes. Mountain bikes would of course be more comfortable, but they have suspension & they’re rather frowned upon. There were lots of these though & around the 80km mark I got bumped off my bike by one who had swooped up the bank & tangled his handle bars in mine & I landed heavily on my left side & my handle bars got twisted, my hip has a huge bruise but worse I think it broke my timing chip.
This is the 3rd year of this ride & last year 1,500 riders started, but only 900 finished. 300 were never seen again presumed buried in the infamous Arenberg Trench. Of all the cobble sections that one was truely a nightmare – wet, slimy boulders with bikes flying in all directions. We followed an ambulance down the track to pick up one of two people who had i later heard had broken their legs. 2/3 of the riders bailed before half way & rode down the spectator path. My mtb training held me in good stead & I gunned it (12km/hr) down the middle. I was amazed watching the wheels on the bikes in front of me slip 10-15cm to the side each way every few meters.
What Bike & wheel tyres?
We tried hiring bikes from 3-4 different European/UK sites and soon as you mentioned paris -roubaix they turned us down, I suppose fed up with only getting a pair of ‘Bucky’ handlebars back at the end of the race and not much else. So we decided to take our own bikes – mine a Giant Defy Advanced 3 (2012 model) and Highlander his Trek Domane (2014 model) which were both supposedly up for the task. Double tape for the handle bars, double gloves, & double nicks to cushion the blows, but most importantly we needed wheels that would withstand such a brutal challenge.
Queue Brownie, some Belgium beers and a ‘grand design’ plan to build wheels fit for purpose. We learned a whole new vocabulary about tubes, tubeless and tubular with a min of 32 spokes, and ‘panzer’ treads etc. We chose Mavic Reflex wheels with 36 spokes and Vittoria Corsa SC 28mm ‘tubular’ tyres. The wider the better to try and not get caught too much in the crevices and tubular to minimise pinch flat punctures of which stories have people getting 11 or so of these. Thanks mate as we had no punctures & I really punished them by riding every section down the middle.
Race day: in ER lingo the PARIS-ROUBAIX for me was slightly more strenuous than a 3 Peaks challenge, but with 50km of it on rubble only fit for a mtb. Unlike the 3P though I feel like I’ve been run over by a French tractor, & my thumb & middle fingure of my right hand are swollen & feel like a hammer has hit them & I cant grip anything with it. Ironically the pave therapy seems to have fixed my left elbow. The race does not ride from Paris but starts well north of this at a place called Busigny. It does finish in Roubaix though.
Conditions were fine all week but on race day the nightmare unfolded & it rained, was a bracing 7 degrees and winds hit a gusty 25 knots. I was up at 4am & rode through Roubaix in nice weather to catch a 5am bus to Busigny. But 4 kms from busigny it started raining. I met Highlander at the start line at 7.30am. I wore thermal socks, booties, leg & arm warmers, long finger gloves & a waterproof gillet with zip back pocket so phone, pumps etc did not fly out. Some riders were just wearing shorts, thin tops and track-mitts in hardy Belgian (Flash/Turnip) style.
The first few kilometres took us through the streets of St Quentin and out into the rolling countryside of northern France. After only 12kms we hit the first pavé & we went from cruising along a wide tarmac road to suddenly hammering down a rough track just two metres across with bottles and pumps flying off bikes and bouncing around on the cobblestones. We heard cursing in 20 languages & added some Aussie of our own. Lots of riders got punctures and were forced to stop and every time we hit pavé another few tyres would go and there must have been a rider fixing a flat every 100 metres. I saw 4 riders crash during the day – 5 if I could’ve watched myself come off. I was travelling at 20km/hr – but luckily had double niks & a good jacket on so only had bad bruising. There must’ve been many many crashes as everyone else i spoke with either had one or saw lots.
Meanwhile, riders still moving started shaking their arms to try and counter the shockwaves coming up through the forks and bars. The pain and punishment metered out by the jagged stones was relentless. My elbow hurt real bad & had gone numb and I was struggling to hang on. Repeat the above for 20 more pavé sections.
After about 70km, we hit the Arenberg Trench – one of the longest, hardest and most famous treacherous sections of pave on the route. One pro rider once famously described this as like “riding across a ploughed field, covered in rocks that had been dropped from a helicopter”. Just add water & it was like a slippery slimy rocky river bed.
The cobbled sections kept on coming, and the constant switch from tarmac to pavé to tarmac and back again felt like interval training.
At 85km we stopped for lunch & was looking forward to some French cuisine. i was starving & could’ve eaten a meter long baguette. They only had quartered oranges & waffles in plastic packets. I inhaled 8 of them.
At this stage both highlander & i thought it wasn’t too bad after all & the rain had stopped.
I was wrong & the relentless pounding started to wear me down. Highlander though was still strong & it was good to have him with me. I cramped up bad & had to get off to stretch. Both legs cramped on every stroke for the next 40km & i was starting to doubt I’d make it.
I had one last card to play- the Z card. As we rode through the pretty town of bourghelles i spyed a pub & rode up the footpath into it. Highlander came back to find me ordering 2 belgium Leffe beers. They worked & the cramps dissipated.
With 20km it started raining with gusty winds that at one stage blew me off riding along the crown & into the tyre rut beside it. We then hit the other famously long and hard pave section the Carrefour de Arfour which wasn’t too bad but at 3.7kms long was very very tiring.
With the Carrefour done, it was just 15km to the finish with just one last stretch of pavé and the ride finished with a half-lap of the legendary Roubaix Velodrome. To my delight my wife, and mate & his wife were there to cheer me in. We were exhausted but elated.
A little swoop up the concrete banking & the intention was to finish together so I stopped peddaling so we could join up but heard highlander say thats not a good idea so dropped down to finish over the line. Before i got off my bike my mate handed me a Belgium beer & it tasted so good. A kiss from the wife & then I visited the open shower cubicles where all the greats have a plaque on them. I was in awe.
We’d covered the course (& it covered us) in around 8.5 hours. The weather was not ideal but we hadn’t punctured and we made it safely. Highlander had to leave with his tour group whilst my mate had booked us into a restaurant over the border in belgium. I could hardly sit down on the train to it & was very very weary.
Blue & pink we saw a tandem doing it so you’re up next. Satnav there were quite a few fixies so book that trip now. The most bizarre though was a cycle scooter. Two normal bike tires with a flat section low down between for one foot & the other pushes like a scooter. No idea if they made it.
The next day we followed the professionals which was a real treat although they got it easy and had good weather. We got a picnic lunch, wine & a great spot on the arenburg trench. I grimaced every time they hit the cobbles & watched one riders wheel break in 2. If only he’d used Brownie I thought. Another rider broke his collarbone & rode one handed the last part.
The next stop my mate had lined up was a pub in a lovely town where he’d stopped in yesterday to have a beer whilst hoping to have seen us go by. Guess what – the same pub I had played my Z card at & we missed each other by just 20 mins!
The Last stop was the roubaix velodrome where we caught the tailenders arrive.
I’m ever so happy.
See you in a few weeks.