The rolling lanes of South Yorkshire may be a long way from the bleak farm tracks of Northern France, but for Russell Downing his ride into the velodrome in Roubaix last Sunday will live long in the memory.
The 34 year old Net-App-Endura rider, back home and blasting around the local chaingang once again this week, finally realised his long-held dream to tackle the ‘Queen of the Classics.' Although 24 minutes behind Fabian Cancellara and Sep Vanmarcke, he achieved what 78 riders failed to do and completed one of the most demanding and iconic races in professional cycling.
"It definitely lived up to expectations," he told CW. "You see it on the tele and it looks great, and when you ride it its even better. The atmosphere at the finish in Roubaix is unbelievable. The feeling you get when you do a lap and a half is...unbelievable!
"I remember the last bit of cobbles. I looked down on my stem [notes] and it said it was 500m and I remember seeing it on TV and I knew it wasn't that hard. I came off the cobbles, and then it was a bit of a surprise to actually be in the velodrome!"
However Downing admitted his first Roubaix didn't quite go to plan. The first two hours of racing saw the bunch complete an eye-watering 94km as teams scrapped to place riders in the all important break. After being in an early unsuccessful break himself, he was called up to lead the pursuit of the next group of riders to escape.
"The first bit was a bit of a blur," he explained. "After bringing the break back it split on the first sector of cobbles and I was off the back from then. It was just survival really, which was a bit different to what I expected."
The following 26 sectors of cobbles, all 50.4km of them, were spent in a small group with fellow Paris-Roubaix debutants Luke Rowe (Sky) and Luke Durbridge (Orica-GreenEdge), the latter having shared the legwork with Downing in the first two hours.
"I was going into the Arenberg thinking, ‘Oh no, the Arenberg is the worst one of the cobbles and I've got 100km after that.' I think if I'd gone out of the back there then it would have been game over.
"I remember coming out of it and asking Luke [Durbridge] when the second feed was, thinking that I might have to get off. He said, "Oh I don't know when it is, don't worry about it.' I don't think he wanted to say anything."
Downing's Classics adventure concludes this weekend with the Amstel Gold Race but after being caught behind a crash at the Tour of Flanders and being called into chase hard early on in Roubaix, his appetite is far from satisfied.
"I never felt as though I shouldn't be here. The moment you think that you may as well not be there. We're all human and I've put in the hard hours of training to get where I am.
"I got to the races and I now know I can be competitive. I'll focus on the winter knowing what I have to do to be competitive in those races again."
Paris-Roubaix through social mediaGeraint Thomas reflects on crash filled Classics campaign
Fabian Cancellara digs deep to win Paris-Roubaix
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Richard Abraham is an award-winning writer, based in New Zealand. He has reported from major sporting events including the Tour de France and Olympic Games, and is also a part-time travel guide who has delivered luxury cycle tours and events across Europe. In 2019 he was awarded Writer of the Year at the PPA Awards.
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