No one who wins Paris-Roubaix will ever get any silverware for their trophy cabinet, but more monumental is the rock that represents the “roads” they get to race on. Pride of place for this little piece of rock pales in comparison to the size of the cobbles the Pro’s race over to get that coveted Pave.
A race steeped in history and won by the hardest men in cycling in my opinion, was never going to be a place for those of the fairer sex, but who can turn down the advice of the greatest classics winner, Sean Kelly, who told me “Everyone has to ride Paris-Roubaix once in their life”.
He was right. Despite my panicking before the race: about which bike to take; which shoes, gloves, kit, wheels, tyres; crashes; the weather, cold, rain and wind; big blokes wiping me out on the cobbles; punctures; did I have enough inner tubes; how many pairs of gloves to wear; what to put on the handlebars. The list goes on. Ok this is a little bit like most of my pre-race panics, but this one was amplified ten fold. In the end, all my decisions worked out. It was THE perfect day.
A cold, but dry day with a headwind left me with two goals for the day, hide from the wind and stay upright. I managed both well, bar one very elegant dismount in slow motion into a bed of nettles. My attempt to stay off the cobbles brought me in close quarters with the banking along the side of the road, I’d slowed down too much to glide over the top of the rough surface and had to correct my line of travel by shifting my weight out. That’s when my foot caught up in the banking.
With 19 sets of cobbles in the 148km sportive, they come think and fast, the learning curve is pretty quick on this ride – get your fuel in when the road is smooth – the last place you want to bonk* is on the cobbles. The faster you go the better the ride, slow down and you are thrown uncontrollably in every direction, both vertically and horizontally to the point where your eyes are going in opposite directions to your body and your arms feel like they’re holding up a washing machine on full spin. At this point the best place to be is in the gutter, quite literally. It doesn’t matter if you only have 3cm of “smooth” gravel to ride, it beats the cobbles and riding the thin brown line between ploughed-up fields and bone-shaking cobbles is a sweet place.
*(a technical cycling term to all those sniggering as they read this, it’s like hitting the wall in a marathon)
But don’t be complacent here, the chances of another rider moving into the space ahead of you is quite likely. They of course will now be moving slower than you and as your hands are gripping the top of the handlebars, your fingers are nowhere near the brakes. Thus, your best option is to look for options, either take the banking to the side, or get back on the cobbles, or just yell. I yelled and then took the banking on the left of a rider whose trajectory off the mound in the middle was timed to coincide with my passage on the inside of him. Others were not so lucky and for them the cobbles were an unforgiving surface to land on.
The end of the cobbles is a bitter-sweet experience, the silence is overwhelming, the relief of not being shaken about is met with the bitter reality that your legs are now two bowls of jelly and the headwind is a lonely place to be. Either you’re going to have to bridge the gap to the guys who came off the cobbles first or sit up and wait for the next group to catch you.
The road to Roubaix is strewn with punctured tyres and lost water bottles, so I have added a latent goal to the day – to arrive in Roubaix with the same number of items on the bike as at the start.
Having the same number of bikes as the Seven Deadly Sins gives one too many choices, however in the end it was down to two bikes, both from the Blue stable. The decision was easy, “Ride that one” Kelly said pointing at the Cross bike, which is the top end full carbon Blue Norcross EX bike. Both bike choice and kit choice worked well and I can gladly confirm that I arrived at the end having lost nothing bar the fear of riding cobbles. (I’ll blog up bike setup and kit choice later on).
The Arenberg Trench, feared and regaled in equal quantities, is every bit as much as the legend that is. Cobbles the size of footballs make up a path which looks like a game of hopscotch and had my eyeballs not been attached to a jack-hammer at the time, I’m sure I’d have seen craters the depth of the Marianas Trench staring back at me. I confess to making all of 30 meters along the cobbles before declaring a truce, waving my white flat as I surrendered to the gluey soil at the side of the cobbles.
The crowning glory to this ride was finishing in the Velodrome where Paris-Roubaix (the real race) finishes. I imagined all my cycling hero’s who not only conquered these cobbles, but had out ridden their rivals to cross the line first and take honours in this absolutely Iconic Monument of Cycling.
Put away your fears – get out a set of rollers, place them on top of your washing machine and set the spin cycling to 1000rpm, you too can train to ride Paris-Roubaix in the comfort of your own home. (Please don’t try this at home without the full support of a back up team and medical staff to hand).
So all that’s left to say is, how did I do? I didn’t bring any silverware home for the trophy cabinet, however I now have a little piece of cobble to add to the collection.
1st in category
143 out of 1419 starters (only 893 finished)
Ride time: 5:02
Temperature: 1 degree going up to 11 degrees
19 sections of cobbles
1 nettle diving incident
No loss of skin
No loss of any kit, not even an inner-tube
Thanks to Janet Pearch for the photos at the finish and on the podium, not to mention the support in getting us to the start line and picking us up at the end.