Showing Jorgen Leth’s classic film A Sunday in Hell on the coach as we drove through France seemed like a good idea at the time.

Half-way through the movie and the images of the rear-end of the field in all manner of distress accompanied by the bombastic choral soundtrack left me wondering if it was such a bright idea after all. The bit where Freddy Maertens is howling with pain and writhing around on the ground was the final straw; I buried my nose in the newspaper and watched no more.

It is hard to relax when the longest, hardest day of riding you have ever done is less than 12 hours away. The full distance 255-kilometre route was out of the question in my mind (respect to colleagues Lionel Birnie and James Shrubsall for doing the big one) so I signed-up for the 190k option.

A half a night of sleep and then back in the coach to the start point at Bohain-en-Vermandois. We were on the road soon after six and cruising towards the opening rendezvous with the pavé.

Some sections of cobbles are more memorable than others. The very first stretch, the 2200m Pavé de Troisville will live long in the memory of anyone who rode the sportive – downhill, wet, muddy and slippery as hell. Bodies were flying in every direction and a surprising number were hitting the deck, landing in the squidgy stuff and emerging covered in mud. This was shaping up to be a very interesting day in the saddle. Welcome to Hell.

Conditions seemed to improve with every sector – which is just as well as the carnage at Troisville did not bear repeating – and we got the hang of riding the cobbles. The advice from experienced riders was to attack them in a big gear and stay on the crest of the road, and it was absolutely correct. Amble onto the stones in a twiddly gear and you will get bounced all over the shop, as I found to my cost during one unfocussed attempt. There were occasional points where you could venture over to the edge in search of a smoother passage, but they were few and far between. The risk of hitting some unseen object lurking in the large puddles made it safer to stay firmly in the middle of the road.

Anything not firmly attached to your bike will come off during Paris-Roubaix; that is a given. Bottles, spare tubs and various assorted tools littered the pavé but my ‘cross bike seemed to be holding up very well – until the left-hand pedal dropped off. I reached into the saddle pack for the multi-tool, only to find it had disintegrated into its constituent parts. Thankfully, there was an experienced mechanic on hand to re-thread the pedal and we were back on our way.

What can you say about the Arenberg that hasn’t already been said? The seven sectors preceding it lull you into thinking you’ve got it licked; that everybody is making a big fuss over nothing; that it is just a matter of approaching it in the correct manner; hit ‘em hard.

And then the Arenberg looms into view. The number of bystanders swells, curious to see what the uninitiated will make of the legendary 2400m of suffering. And you do hit them hard, turning a big gear, only to find that this is a whole new level of roughness and normal rules do not apply. The local road layers either had one hell of an off day, threw the stones in the air and left them exactly where they landed, or were sold a duff load of cobbles in the bar at Wallers: “Pssst, Pierre. Wanna buy beaucoup de pavé? Tout shapes and sizes. Pas cher.”

Whatever happened, the Arenberg certainly lives up to every bit of its fearsome reputation, and how the pros batter across the top of the road surface at twice the speed we were traveling at is beyond belief. They also do not have the option of brief respite on the accompanying cinder track (it is fenced-off during the race) which I was only too glad to use when it all got too much. Hats off to those riders who insisted on riding the whole sector on the pavé as a matter of principle.

The four checkpoints provided a welcome break and a banquet every time, although the overwhelming choice of sweet snacks and lack of savories was bizarre. It wasn’t until the third stop at Beuvry-la-Foret that sandwiches and baguettes were on the menu, and they were devoured with gusto. This being France, there is presumably a law restricting the provision of lunch-style food to between the hours of 12 and two, and to ask for a jambon baguette at ten- past-two would be a faux pas of immeasurable proportions. I swerved the curious looking green liquid on offer and filled my bottle with the mysterious ‘boissons énergétiques’ – a big mistake. It left my system soon after (I’ll spare you the graphic details).

The last ten sectors flew by as the numbers counted down on the markers leading onto the pavé. The Carrefour de l’Arbre was a walk in the park compared with Arenberg, with big crowds lining the track and enjoying a beer in the sun.

Hitting the final 300m stretch of cobbles leading up to the velodrome it really hit home that we were doing an epic ride – the multitude of times you have seen those closing few hundred metres on the telly brought vividly to life. An attack on the left-hand side by riders who had, up to this point, been team mates – thanks, guys – left me scrabbling to get back on a wheel as we swung hard-right onto the track and sprinted for half a lap with what very little remained in our legs.

A quick wash-off in the famous showers, a bottle of Belgium’s finest beer and an hour spent lazing in the sun swapping stories, then back on the bus to Blighty.

Simply the best and hardest day on a bike ever.

This is NOT Ian Cleverly. He’s going the wrong way, for a start, and looks nothing like him

IAN’S BIKE

I rode a Guerciotti Kangeroo ‘cross bike with 28mm Conti Gator Skins on 32-hole Mavic Open Pros – a perfect combination, especially seeing others on close-clearance road bikes getting clogged with mud on the early cobbled sections. Specialized Phat gel bar tape took the worst of the sting out of the front end and the whole package coped admirably with anything thrown at it.

The one mechanical incident – which could have had dire consequences – was the left-hand pedal unthreading and coming away during a particularly gruesome stretch of cobbles. Thankfully, the thread was OK and I was back on my way in a few minutes.

No major changes required for next time, just a more thorough check-up beforehand. Especially the pedals…

We would have a picture of Ian’s bike, but he’d already packed it away by the time Lionel and James reached the velodrome.

RELATED LINKS

Paris-Roubaix sportive home page

Ian Cleverly’s Paris-Roubaix sportive experience

Lionel Birnie’s Paris-Roubaix sportive experience

James Shrubsall’s Paris-Roubaix sportive experience

The readers’ Paris-Roubaix sportive experience

EXTERNAL LINK

Official Paris-Roubaix cyclo-sportive site