I can pinpoint precisely the moment I stopped coping and started surviving. I rolled onto the smooth, oh, so deliciously smooth, tarmac at the end of the 13th sector of pavé, a 3,000-metre long beast that sapped my strength more than the 12 that preceded it all together.
It wasn’t just that I was tired, or in pain. I was actually still turning the legs over reasonably well but, for the first time, more people were passing me than I was passing.
And James was dropping me on the cobbles. I was drinking water like there was no tomorrow, my contact lenses had dried out and one was starting to slip, blurring my vision even more than the constant jarring.
I felt empty and trapped, with no option but to just keep going. There would be only two short kilometres of smooth road before the next battering, another 3,000-metre section, Mons-en-Pevèle, one of the worst of the day. Then there would be 11 more sections. Eleven.
BEFORE THE RIDE
We travelled down to a town called Villers St Paul, one of those Parisian overflow settlements that’s all out-of-town shopping centres and ring roads and no centre. Our hotel, an Ibis, was next to a drive-thru McDonald’s and a Resto Marché, an establishment owned by the supermarket chain Intermarché. Imagine if Tesco did restaurants, but better.
James and myself had enlisted the help of our friend and former colleague, Patrick Trainor, to drive a van to carry our luggage and spare us the coach journey back to the start after the ride.
Saturday was spent kicking heels and spinning the legs. The anticipation built steadily as we tinkered with the bikes, went for an hour’s workout and killed time buying way too much bottled water in the supermarket. Where did we think we were going? This was the Hell of the North not a trip to the desert.
Shortly before we set off to Cambronne to sign on, a Spanish man approached us and asked if we could give him a lift to the start. Alfredo didn’t speak much English, or French, so we communicated with smiles and borrowed sentences.
Sign on, despite the size of the queue, was painless. The organisation was spot on and people were processed quickly.
On the way back Patrick, something of a military historian, took us on a detour into the woods to see the site where the armistice was signed in November 1918. In this clearing the Germans and the French made an agreement for peace. Quite what Alfredo made of it, I’m not sure.
There was a little bit of time to kill before dinner and then, after fuelling up on the Resto Marché’s all-you-can eat buffet, it was time for bed. My heart sank as we realised the hotel was hosting a wedding party that night. Please don’t be rowdy, please don’t be noisy.
Up at 3.50am, just as the bride was heading to bed. I passed her in reception. Me in my cycling kit, her in her wedding dress. Me punch-drunk from too little sleep. Her actually drunk from a long night on the vin. At least they hadn’t been doing the conga in the corridors all night.
I forced down as much food as I possibly could, but I quickly felt bloated and heavy. Alfredo, by contrast, was cheery. Laughter had become his favoured method in overcoming the language barrier.
“Is not raining eh? Is good. Good.”
He was wearing the full ProTour leader’s kit. White jersey, white shorts, deep tan. He looked like Oscar Freire, but I decided to call him Flecha, which he seemed to appreciate. He paused and I could tell he was trying to think of a British cyclist.
After a while he said, pointing: “Ah…! Cavendish!”
Yeah, okay mate.
THE FIRST THREE HOURS
Alfredo had a whistle around his neck, presumably for use later in the ride to warn riders when passing them on the cobbles.
“Pweeep-pweeeep.” We were off, shortly after 6am.
James and I had talked about our strategy. Stick together, look out for each other, but most importantly don’t get carried away too soon.
We were extremely fortunate that within five kilometres we had settled into a nice group of about 40, led by a large group of Italian club-mates. The pace was keen but comfortable.
The first hour flew by until I knew I’d have to stop to empty the old bladder. James was enduring a similar groundswell but the thought of saying goodbye to this group, which had become something of a comfort blanket, troubled me.
We resolved to be quick and chase back on, which we did. I towed James up and we slipped back into the group.
As we neared the first checkpoint, at Bohain-en-Vermandois, the roads got slightly hillier and the group began to fragment. We’d been sitting in the final third and so missed out as the front couple of dozen moved away.
We hesitated perhaps a bit too long before deciding we should go across to the faster, smoother group. Alfredo was in that group up ahead.
I committed the cardinal sin. I didn’t check that James was on my wheel before accelerating. It wasn’t until I was nearly across, after a good kilometre or so of effort that I looked behind to see James in no man’s land. I was furious with myself for wasting our energy so carelessly, but I did the decent thing and dropped back before pacing James up. For the rest of the ride I was to wonder if I’d have enjoyed another couple of sections of pavé if I had not made that effort.
At the finish: “What do you mean you’ve left your wallet at the start?”
ONTO THE COBBLES
I am familiar with the Paris-Roubaix route from years of watching it on television and in the flesh. I have stood on the corner where they turn onto the first section of cobbles at Troisvilles. They sprint for the ideal position near the front, take a deep breath and then hope for the best as they plunge onto the first downhill section at top speed.
There was no way I was going to attempt any heroics. The goal was to get over the first couple of sectors without anything bad happening.
Troisvilles was not wet, as such, the cobbles were just honey-glazed. Shiny, slippery, covered in a film of greasy mud. The front wheel slipped sideways and after three hours of riding on autopilot at an average of 19 miles an hour, it was a shock to the system. Suddenly I needed to be alert, my upper body had to be relaxed but ready to react to any unexpected movement underneath me.
As we’d approached the cobbles, a group of British riders, including a guy in a Somerset Road Club jersey came flying up the outside. The first casualty of the cobbles I saw was that blue and red Somerset jersey. Fortunately he was not hurt, but others were not so lucky. In the first three sections I saw a man down with what looked inevitably like a broken collarbone. I also heard the ambulance siren behind me.
I thanked my lucky stars that I’d been able to dampen down my own enthusiasm. I felt good at that stage but had kept my eagerness at bay and ridden across stoically. The cobbles are to be respected, not faced down aggressively, because when push comes to shove, they will win.
Too many people went down in front of me to take anything for granted. Others simply came to a stop in the middle of the road.
James was not enjoying these early sections. His Campagnolo brake calipers were clogging with mud, whereas my Shimano Ultegra were not. He had to stop to pick the mud out with his fingers more than once.
There are no words to adequately described the horror of the Arenberg forest. The only deal I made with myself was that I would ride every metre, no matter what, but would allow myself to seek the coward’s line on every other section.
I am glad I took the punishment, but I can perfectly understand those who opted for the cinder track.
Each bump and jolt is a solid, dead sound, accompanied by a thumping whack. There’s nothing for it other than to grip the bars, sit squarely in the saddle and take it.
A good few riders passed me on Arenberg and to every one I said ‘chapeau’.
Up until Arenberg, I’d felt pretty good. A hundred miles covered, nine of the 28 sections chalked off. I’d eaten well and kept hydrated and everything was going to plan.
But from Wallers onwards, James was able to call on experience and endurance that I simply had not managed to spirit away in the bank.
The brutal section at Hornaing, all 3.7 kilometres of it, started the slow cracking process. Mentally I was weakening too. Before I had managed not to look at the Garmin on my handlebars. I’d avoided counting down the hours, the kilometres or the sections.
Suddenly all I could do was think “17 to go… 16 to go…”
I’d been leading James onto the pavé and subtly opening a gap on him, without actually trying to. Now the boot was squarely on the other foot and I was left shoeless, picking gingerly over the stones.
The feed at Beuvry-la-Foret after 115 miles was a blur. I know I ate a lot but my brain was just running through the obstacles that stood between me and the last checkpoint, at Cysoing.
Forty kilometres, eight sections. Forty kilometres, eight sections. I can ride 40 kilometres. Can I ride eight sections?
Pavé Madiot (1,400m), Pavé des Chemins des Abattoirs, better known as Orchies (1,700m), Pavé du Bar et du Nouveau Monde (3,000m), Mons en Pevèle (3,000m). You bastards. You absolute, unrelenting bastards.
This was my lowest point of the whole ride. A stretch of 20 kilometres that included 9.1 kilometres of cobbles. This was the moment Paris-Roubaix cracked me.
It wasn’t just the pain in my hands and my dry throat and eyes. I was slowing severely on the cobbles, which makes the punishment ten times worse. If you can speed over the top, almost coasting the crown of the road, you can avoid a lot of the more severe bangs and jolts. Rolling slowly means you feel Every. Single. Stone.
From here on, it was a case of survival, grimacing and ticking off the sections, wincing whenever there was a section longer than a kilometre.
Somehow I managed to find a second wind in the final ten kilometres to Cysoing. James, the diesel, was towing me and I stuck resolutely to his wheel. He wound the pace up a bit, nothing dramatic, but certainly faster than I’d have managed on my own.
In the warm, dark hall at Cysoing I grabbed an armful of food. When a woman brought out a tray of cheese and salami I took two full handfuls and a stack of bread and made some shoddy-looking sandwiches like some demented trauma victim who hadn’t eaten for a week.
James went to the toilet for a number two, and while he was away, I damn near fell asleep. A delightful light-headed feeling washed over me from the top down. I could feel my pulse in my fingertips – the only proof I was still alive – and my eyelids felt heavy.
“Just have five minutes… no one will notice…”
Then I got the full head loll, that moment when your neck muscles spring your head back up into position and I could no longer escape the reality of where I was.
Like a member of the living dead – think Michael Jackson’s Thriller video with more Lycra and less energetic steps – I remounted and pushed on.
I remember precious little about the final 28 kilometres. The Carrefour de l’Arbre hurt, I am sure about that, and I do remember thinking how unfair it was that the Gruson section, every bit as bad as l’Arbre, comes immediately after it, but the rest has slipped away in a muddle of pedal revs and pavé.
The velodrome should have been my moment of triumph but in truth I just felt relieved it was all over. It took us nine hours and 55 minutes in riding time.
Never, ever again.
Well, not until 2010.
I rode a carbon Pinarello FP5, kindly provided for the occasion by Phil Griffith’s company, Yellow, on the proviso I tried not to break it.
I’m glad to say it more than adequately stood up to the battering, although things almost didn’t go too smoothly. The bike came equipped with a pair of tubular-clad wheels – not the ideal equipment for the Paris-Roubaix sportive.
I swapped them for a set of Mavic Ksyriums, courtesy of Patrick Trainor from Evans, and fitted 25c Continental Gator Skins.
Other than that, the bike was as standard. The only other modification was an extra layer of bar tape on the tops.
The bike offered a very comfortable ride and held together. No punctures, which seems almost a miracle, and only two minor mechanical glitches. One when the chain got clogged with mud after the Pavé de Quievy, the other when the pin holding the headset worked loose, but this was rectified immediately with a multi-tool.
Lionel’s Pinarello FP5