A two-third circumnavigation of Roubaix velodrome and the wave of euphoria is all-consuming. I’m never doing that again….I’ll be faster next year….am I welling up?….a Sunday in Hell for the pro’s and a Saturday in heaven for us. Don’t adjust your saddle height – it’s Paris-Roubaix.
The Queen of the Classics was born over a century ago, in 1896. In the spirit of the times, early editions were brutal enough, but the race really came of age when confronted by the challenges of a post-war landscape devastated by artillery, and a road network contorted by heavy fighting machines. In honour of the dead, men desperate to make a living wrenched and clawed over endless kilometres of jackhammer pavé, locked in ferocious battles to win a pig, a gigantic cheese, or a barrel of wine.
It was then that the ‘Hell of the North’ gained its fearsome reputation, one which has endured to the modern day. A race for ‘Flandriens’, a race steeped in folklore and superlatives, scene of epic duels between the Gods of cycling, and now a well-organised sportive for the wistful of eye and competitive of temperament – a romantic’s dream made reality for 45 Euros. For this reasonable sum you enjoy fleeting joint custody of 109 historic miles, including 29 sectors of cobbled tracks (30 miles, give-or-take).
The annual ritual begins as soon as you cross the finish line. Once home, motivation to ride ‘normally’ can be elusive, but summer passes, then arrives that glorious day when you smell the cold. Its seven degrees and time to start thinking about Roubaix again. Next is November’s registration rush….December….my God I’m fat…..January….training after work in the cold wet dark of North Yorkshire, can’t see the rain clouds or salt slurry - the occasional rear-wheel scare on a greasy corner sharpens the senses.
Now you’re committed and the foreplay can start: February…..mileage up....March….that ride when you boil in the bag….‘Classics Specials’ in the mags; De Vlaeminck, Museeuw, Kelly, Boonen, Cancellara - mud-plastered ‘hard men’, life-sentences of coal mining or farming the waterlogged clay narrowly avoided; secret and superstitious lives filled with drugs, booze and lucky socks; dubious life priorities glossed over in the slickest of copy; inspirational black and white pictures of waterlogged fields and rutted tracks snaking away towards brooding skies, industrial buildings crowding the frame. Here be glistening cobbles and grit waiting for your face and collarbones. Are you up for it? Yeah, but I’m not keen if its wet.
After Christmas is long forgotten the facebook banter begins…. “Its just a trip” “I’ll be spinning it out” “not competing this year” “done no training” “been ill all winter”….None of this counts of course, because the long road to Roubaix has almost unravelled. Then it’s two weeks to go and you can’t cram the training. Now you fully acknowledge that it will be just like every year, an internal race, you against you last year, or the year before, so sup it up and fit the big tubeless tyres! Double bar tape….nope….special saddle….nope!
Friday 05:30: pack the van, A1, Dartford charge, Chunnel, +1hr, Dunkirque, Sat Nav, roaming charges …..Lille (which exit?), park the van, hotel, “where’re we keeping the bikes?”….Leffe….chewing through the third ‘grande’….
It is 4:30 am. A sleeping northern French city is enveloped by deliciously cool pitch-darkness and it’s a mile between your hotel and the shuttle busses. Lightless, and with a dangerously swinging kit bag, you join the scores of cyclists converging like migrating salmon, silently gliding towards a common unspoken destination - you wouldn’t do this in Leeds. Where’s number 22? Jesus, can’t they park them in numerical order?
Once boarded, an inconceivably long hour and a half separate you from Busigny, the start village. Rolling along the motorway, nervous flickering glances precede a groundswell of SPD’d feet shuffling towards the bus toilet, bib-shorts unhooked in preparation. The scenario is now steeped in tradition - that sorry little plastic cupboard becomes the dustbin of dignity and nemesis of the faint-hearted. Let’s move on.
As the coach heads south a misty dawn is revealed, moisture clinging to ploughed fields and a weak blue somewhere overhead, heralding the promise of a umpteenth consecutive dry Roubaix. You inwardly rejoice, while sadistic ‘fans’ curse, their prayers for a return to the ‘70s and ‘80’s glory days of human carnage thwarted for another year at least.
The fleet of dutch coaches invade a small battened-down village whose shutters won’t do much to keep out the euro pop pumping from the start line. Out of the coaches (“no, after you”), and the place looks like a battle scene from Rapha versus the Euro anoraks. Ranks of stealthy carbon warriors stare down their noses at fatigued aluminium, mountain bike pedals, jazzy bar tape and saddlebags. There are game faces all around, but Shearsy is laying down the dance moves – you smile nervously and join in for a nanosecond. A group of familiar shirts gather for photos and tactics, hoping that some of the carefree attitude rubs off. It doesn’t. We’re all worrying about bowel movements, eating enough, the long day ahead, and some are worrying about cobbles, but not me. I flippin’ love them.
Are we all here? OK, stick together until the first feed stop. ‘Bang’….Neil winds up the cranks and the pace goes past comfortable. Smooth roads sweep along with the odd gentle rise. The selections are being made already, but you know you’ll be seeing most of these faces and arses again.
9 miles in the bag, then swings into view the glory of Troisville. The first sector is a rude awakening for the uninitiated and cobbles are a great leveller, literally. Big Al forward-rolls into the first drainage ditch like he’d practiced for it….bottles and bodies go skittering towards verges from the high crest. Heart rate up to 170, can I get past? A few twenty-niner mountain bikes push past, but you’re starting to feel strong, fast and at home. The early cobble sectors are an ecstasy of effort, pain and endorphins. We’re flying this year, risking impossible overtakes and bunny hops, sand and gravel swerving, rock-hopping manoeuvres you’d never dare in the wet. Everyone is on form, average speed staying high.
You can start to get the measure of the other riders in your concertina. Gangs of clowns race to the cobbles then slam on the anchors, you gamble on passing left or right, sharp focus on body language, looking for weaknesses, anticipating gaps. Other riders cruise to the cobbles then explode in to max effort, rampaging along with tuts and shouts to the hapless newbies or mal-coordinated. Tense exchanges are heard around you – ignore them – focus on squeezing speed from the jagged edges, ride light. Cooney and Brownlee start to grin, and Rich is ripping up the rule book; training for Roubaix on a Wattbike – who’d have thunk it? Feather blows out the back with a gracious shout of encouragement and we all start to scan the horizon for a feed stop.
Almost too soon, the Arenberg trench hoves in to view – mining works to the left, spindley bridge overhead, mayhem between an endless corridor of trees just starting to bud. The gradient rises gently towards the end and it hurts, every cobble hurts. You feel like you could walk faster; Rob is like a metronome, I’m grinding to a halt. Time to regroup.
In the middle third you can sense riders slipping in to the doldrums, close to exhaustion, waiting for the fuel to kick in….”caffeine cola tablet from your own shop Mr Dunkley?....thought so”. Most of us ram Belgian waffles and bananas into our gasping cake holes, but soon the cocktail of sugars bubble and churn inside….sloshing around as you swing from crest to gutter. Shears has turned on the afterburners and Young’s gone after him….all the best Pete!
Most of us resurface from the mini-midi-bonk, seeking out the iconic Mons-en-Pévèle and Carrefour de l’Arbre sectors, which break the ride’s back. Then it’s a blur, a slog. A strong homing instinct spurs the bedraggled group to a pace that ramps up over the motorway bridges at an ever-increasing tempo. If you saw the end on TV you wouldn’t call it racing, but we are; we’re racing to stay together, we’re racing to get off our bikes, we’re racing to the burger van like meat-seeking missiles, were racing for glories to bore our family and friends with. We burst in to the velodrome….
See you there
Thanks go to: Neil Dunkley, Rob Harrison, Dave Cooney, Peter Young, Paul Feather, Paul Shears, Richard Fell, Alan Brownlee, and Alastair Little for their company, thoughts, and photographs.