Paris-Roubaix sportive


Sunday, June 8, 2008

125 days to go

January is over. There are now just over four months to go until the Paris-Roubaix cyclo-sportive and the closest I have come to making a connection with the great race so far is a training loop that goes past Roger Hammond’s old school in Amersham.

It’s called Dr Challoner’s and I’d like to know what they were teaching in games lessons in the early Nineties because by the time Roger reached the sixth form he was junior world cyclo-cross champion.

In comparison, I have never been a world cyclo-cross champion – junior or otherwise – although I can’t really blame the education system for that.

Roger’s title win resonates with me because it was seeing him win in Leeds in January 1992 that made me realise I was facing something of an uphill battle if I were to achieve my dream of winning the Tour de France.

The way I was progressing I’d already downgraded my ambition to perhaps winning a stage of Paris-Nice – and not a good stage either. It certainly wouldn’t be the Col d’Eze time trial or the one at the top of Mont Faron, but more likely from a lucky two-up escape on a day when the bunch took their eye off the ball, leaving me to outsprint a jaded old Belgian in the final year of his career with a devastating burst up the right-hand side of the road.

Not that I gave it all that much thought.

Winning the Tour was a dream I harboured in my early teenage years until reality finally bit and it was Roger’s world championship win that was the final slap in the face.

There was a period of about 18 months when I was 13 or 14 when I was absolutely convinced it was my destiny to become the first British rider to wear the maillot jaune on the Champs-Elysées.

I continued to believe the dream despite the absence of any discernible talent or the kind of character traits that would have made up for that lack of natural ability.

Riding past Roger’s old school, as I have done a couple of times in the past week, takes me back and fills me with that sense of dread and inadequacy that cycling tends to burden you with every now and then.

Basically, as I struggle to break the psychological barrier that is The Four Hour Ride, I am beginning to wonder whether I’ve bitten off more than I can chew.

I just hope that Roger’s training for Paris-Roubaix is going better than my own.

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Anyway, on the last Sunday of January my Paris-Roubaix training partner – James Shrubsall – and I headed to the Harp Hilly Reliability Trial in Hertfordshire for what I hoped would be a decent workout over 64 lumpy miles with a group to offer company (and a little shelter from the wind).

A combination of factors meant that we effectively paid a fiver each to ride round by ourselves for three-and-a-half hours and it left me with a sense that the good old Reliability Trial as we know it is in its death throes.

It wasn’t just the presence of the four grand dream machines or the sight of riders in shorts (it was four degrees for heaven’s sake) or the fact that there were a significant proportion of ‘summer-fit’ riders that led me to this conclusion.

It was the fact that, like at cyclo-sportives, there was a sense of every man for himself from the off.


road rides unless stated

2nd 2hr 15 (34m)

4th 1hr 30 (20m mtb)

5th 1hr 15 (17m mtb)

6th 2hr 30 (28m mtb)

8th indoor session

11th 1hr (15m)

12th 2hr 30 (35m)

14th indoor session

16th indoor session

19th indoor session

22nd 3hr (45m)

24th 2hr 40 (38m)

27th 3hr 30 (50m)

29th 2hr 40 (40m)

The first group we rolled out with were a right shambles. At one stage they were riding three abreast, so we eased off hoping to be caught by a more convivial crowd.

Fate intervened when my rear tyre went down and while we changed it, a huge, friendly-looking group, that would have offered us a nice ride for the first hour or so, rolled by.

So, we pretty much laboured into the wind by ourselves. Midway round the route I came a cropper, failing to stop in time and crashing into the back of a bus that had stopped on a bend at the bottom of a hill. It was my fault, I should have eased off when the bus passed us a kilometre or so earlier.

I got lucky. My bike survived with no more than bent handlebars and the only mark on me was a bruised left eye caused by the frame of my glasses.

It was a reminder that if you ride like an idiot, even for a minute, you can get hurt.


Continuing the nostalgia theme, the Reliability Trial had kicked off from the very clubhouse that almost put me off organised cycling for life when I was 13 years old.

I got hooked on cycling when I saw the Tour on Channel 4 in 1986. A couple of years later, my dad took me to my local club to see if I could join them on the Sunday run.

I leaned my Stephen Roche Fagor team look-a-like (I won’t say replica) MBK bike up against the wall and walked up the stairs.

Once there I was met by a grumpy man who told me I’d be welcome to ride if I could keep up – fair enough, you don’t become the English Bernard Hinault by getting an armchair ride – and stick to the rules.

And boy were there a lot of rules, concerning clothing, footwear, riding etiquette, bringing enough spares and tools to cope with just about every foreseeable mechanical disaster, some money for tea and cakes, and mudguards.

Obviously he didn’t seem to appreciate he was talking to a future Tour champion but it was June and to suggest using mudguards to a 13-year-old Tour obsessive was, to my mind, deliberately deflating. He may as well have insisted I join the club run wearing a dress.

But he was right about some things and I think there are some newcomers to the sport who would benefit from a quick introductory explanation of the basic rights and wrongs – just without the frown and patronising tone of someone who seemed to delight in puncturing the enthusiasm of a youngster.

Being an easily-discouraged 13-year-old I skulked out of the clubhouse that June evening and didn’t go back the following Sunday morning. I know this is where I let my cycling career go because if I’d had any kind of spine I’d have turned up in trackie bottoms and trainers, with a set of home-made mudguards panel-beaten from strips cut from the bottom of an old metal watering can and I’d have kicked his wrinkly arse all over the Chilterns.

That would have been a great anecdote for my autobiography but, of course, I just slipped away and rode mostly by myself and with a couple of similarly anti-establishment friends for the next couple of years.


I’d love to say I was delighted watching Roger win his title in Leeds that January afternoon in 1992, but I’d be lying.

Instead I felt empty. Here was a rider from my own backyard winning a world title Admittedly he was a year older than me but the chances of me getting my hands on a rainbow jersey in the next 12 months were slim. Cycling Weekly’s photographer visited Roger at his school to take pictures of him with his new jersey.

At my school me – and Chris, the only other lad interested in serious cycling – were laughed at, mainly because cycling clothing was ‘gay’. “Do those shorts come with a tutu?” I was asked once. To be honest they should have made more fun of Chris than me because he shaved his legs, but he was six foot tall by the time he was 14, so I bore the brunt.

It’s fair to say that in the intervening years Roger has opened the gap on me significantly. He will be among an elite group of favourites with a genuine chance of winning Paris-Roubaix on April 13. On June 8, I will be just trying to survive and make it to the velodrome in one piece.

The training, then, has been going reasonably well. A mixture of long-ish rides and sessions that I loosely call ‘interval’ work is building the endurance without turning me into a chug-a-boom diesel incapable of riding quicker than 15 miles an hour.

February requires me to do more of the same, three or four sessions a week – on the rollers if the weather is too lousy – to keep ticking over.

And by the end of the month I’ll be back at the Reliability Trials to dish out some stick.


Hell of the North blog part 2: 136 days to go


Official Paris-Roubaix cyclo-sportive 2008 site