Conditions are often made worse by cold winds, while rain turns the cobbled sections into treacherous quagmires, giving the race its devilish nickname: the Hell of the North. So it was unsurprising that a shiver of apprehension went down my spine as I lined up at the start of the Paris-Roubaix Challenge, the amateurs’ chance to sample this legendary route.
The shiver could’ve been something to do with the weather as well. It was still dark, and the temperature hovered around 1°C. I was wrapped in long tights, winter jersey, overshoes and gloves. I wasn’t the only one, but other riders were wearing just shorts, thin tops and track-mitts in hardy Belgian style.
It was still cold when the start-gun fired at 7.30am, but at least we were moving, as the first few kilometres took us through the streets of St Quentin (despite its name, the Challenge doesn’t actually start in Paris) and out into the rolling countryside of northern France.
With about 20km done, I got myself into a big group sweeping along a main road towards the town of Valenciennes. For wannabes like me, this is a near as it gets to the feel of a real race, complete with motorcycle outriders and wonderful traffic-free roads. But although I was enjoying the ride, I couldn’t help thinking about the pavé sections to come.
And that’s because the pavé of Paris-Roubaix is not at all like the pavé on the Champs d’Elysée, famously crossed by the Tour de France with barely more than a slight vibration. Oh no. The Paris-Roubaix pavé consists of centuries-old farm tracks where uneven cobblestones stand proud with jagged edges, while many of the cobbles are missing, leaving gaping holes perfect for buckling wheels.
It all adds up to a very bumpy ride, especially on road bikes. (Mountain bikes would of course be comfortable, but they’re rather frowned upon by aficionados, and anyway they’re too slow.) One pro rider famously described parts of Paris-Roubaix as like “riding across a ploughed field, covered in rocks that had been dropped from a helicopter”.
So when we reached the first section of pavé after 38km, it wasn’t a pretty sight. From cruising along a wide tarmac road, we were suddenly hammering down a rough track just two metres across. Several riders in my group seemed taken by surprise and hit the brakes.
To avoid them, following riders were forced to swerve. At the same time, bottles and pumps were flying off bikes and bouncing around on the cobblestones, while at least 10 riders instantly got punctures and were forced to stop.
With all this malarkey to contend with, the apprehension I’d felt at the start seemed justified, and I took it steady on the first few cobbled sections, and managed to get through unscathed. Other riders weren’t so lucky. Every time we hit pavé another few tyres would go bang.
On one particularly bad stretch there must have been a rider fixing a flat every 100 yards. Meanwhile, riders still moving started shaking their arms to try and counter the shockwaves coming up through the forks and bars. The pain and punishment metered out by the jagged stones was absolutely relentless.
But as I got further into the ride, I realised my bike was coping well with the rough conditions, and so my riding became more confident. I started attacking the cobbles, sitting back on the saddle, hands on the tops, pounding a big gear, just like the pros.
It seemed to work, although I never quite managed to apparently float about 1mm above the cobbles Cancellara-style.
After about 90km, we hit the Arenberg Trench – one of the longest, hardest and most famous sections of pave on the route. In wet conditions, it’s the most treacherous as well (in fact, even in the dry it’s still dangerous, as the crash in this year’s race showed) but by now it was mid-morning and the sun was out, keeping the cobbles mercifully dry and warming up the air nicely. Those hardy Belgians were laughing now, while I started to sweat in my overshoes.
But there was no time to worry about clothing. The cobbled sections kept on coming, and the constant switch from tarmac to pavé to tarmac and back again felt like interval training, and with 25km to go my legs were starting to flag.
I managed to summon up a last bit of energy to get me through the other famously long and hard pave section the Carrefour de l’Arbre, where I was also helped by the cheers from the spectators who’d come to see the riders tackle this famous section of the route, giving us a little flavour of the support enjoyed by the pros.
Sometimes it’s easier to ride off the beaten track
With the Carrefour done, it was just 15km to the finish. I displayed my best entente by teaming up with a small group of French riders, and we worked together as the route took us through the back streets of Lille to reach Roubaix.
There was one last stretch of pavé, then the ride finished with a half-lap of the legendary Roubaix Velodrome, once again giving riders a taste of pro conditions. I was exhausted but elated. A little swoop up the concrete banking before a fake sprint for the line was the perfect end to a most memorable ride on one of cycling’s most venerable routes.
I’d covered the course in a few minutes over five hours, which I later learned was enough to earn me 188th position overall. Even though it’s not a race, I was very happy indeed with that result.
But as one of the ride officials hung a finisher’s medal round my neck, I still had just one little worry at the back of my mind.
The weather had been good and I hadn’t crashed or punctured. I’d even enjoyed myself. So did this mean I hadn’t really experienced the Hell of the North?
Ah well, I’ll just have to go back and do it again next year.
Paris-Roubaix Challenge – choosing the right bike for the job
Over the years, the professional Paris-Roubaix riders have experimented with various bike adaptations to help them cross the cobbles as fast as possible. In the 1990s, some fitted suspension forks, while others used extra long frames, but neither idea caught on. More recently, several teams have been riding bikes with cyclo-cross features, which seem to have been more successful.
I rode the Paris-Roubaix Challenge with two buddies, and – just like the pros – we all had ideas on the best frame and tyres to use. Trouble was, all our ideas the different.
Aidan is the weight-weenie of the group, and rode a carbon Wilier GT. After the ride he said: “It was the lightest option, and very comfortable. There was more risk of damage though, not from riding over the cobbles, but in case I had a crash.”
John used a steel Genesis Croix de Fer: “The benefit for me was the strength of steel, and that gave me confidence. I’ve had alu and carbon frames fail, but I rode this bike knowing there’d be no problem. Yes, it was heavy, but not too bad on the day as there were no real hills.”
Velodrome and dry: the pain is almost over
My own choice was a titanium Qoroz Road Won, which seemed to give the best of both worlds – it was light and strong – so I had no worries about pounding it over pavé. It had a compact frame, with curved seatstays, and seemed to flex just enough to take out some vibrations on the cobbles, but without feeling too slow on the tar sections.
I also used 28mm Schwalbe Marathons, with an anti-puncture strip and toughened side-walls. A bit on the heavy side, but worth it, as despite the harsh conditions, I didn’t get a single flat.
Paris-Roubaix Challenge – behind the scenes
The Paris-Roubaix Challenge follows the route of the real Paris-Roubaix race, just as the Etape follows a stage the Tour de France, but there are a couple of differences too.
First, the Paris-Roubaix Challenge is shorter than the race (148km, compared to 260km), but most of the pavé sections are included, including the famous Arenberg Trench and the Carrefour de l’Arbre, as well as 17 other sectuers ranging from a few hundred metres to over 2.4km.
They don’t look very long on the map, but – believe me – they’re definitely long enough when you ride them! Second, the Paris-Roubaix Challenge has fewer riders – around 1,500 this year – than the Etape, making it a much more manageable event to take part in, although things may change as this sportive is in only its second year and bound to become more popular in future.
Blessed relief: time to get cleaned up
The event is run by ASO, the organisation behind the Etape and the Tour, as well as numerous other sporting events. After some hitches in 2011 (mainly omitting Arenberg and the Roubaix Velodrome) the organisers pulled out all the stops this year, and everything was perfect, with fully closed roads, a well-signed route, marshals on junctions and banquet-style feed stations.
Alexandre Maslin of ASO told me “The Paris-Roubaix Challenge was born with the idea that the roads of the legendary Queen of the Classics should also be open to everybody. With 19 cobbled sectors, including the famous Trouée d’Arenberg, and an emotional finish in the mythical Roubaix Vélodrome, the 2012 edition was terrific.”
To ride the Paris-Roubaix Challenge you can enter via the official website (www.parisroubaixchallenge.com) and make your own way there. Alternatively, you can get a tour company to arrange your ride, transport and hotels as a package. UK-based companies offering Paris-Roubaix trips include Sports Tours International (www.sportstoursinternational.co.uk).
Sportive sound bites
Andy Cox (37)
Sheffield Rec CC
“This was my first time doing the Paris-Roubaix Challenge and it was brilliant. I do some sportives in the UK, and I’ve ridden the Marmotte, but this was totally different. I was absolutely done in at the end, especially on the last few sections of cobbles, and then I had two punctures. It could have been worse, though. I saw loads of people have punctures near the start. I’m glad I wasn’t one of them.”
Richard Lofthouse (39)
From: East London
Eagle Road Club
“I did this ride last year, and I did it again this year because I wanted to do the Arenberg which was missed out last year, and finish in the Velodrome. So when I finished, I burst into tears. I rode my Ridley CX bike, and had just one puncture. I also carried a Camelbak of water so I didn’t have to stop. I had a bottle on my bike with my secret weapon for the last few miles – Coca-Cola!”
Aidan Leheup (52)
From Matlock, Derbyshire
“That was no walk in the park. I found it tough, especially at the end, but I had just enough in the tank. I’m getting too old for this kind of thing! I enjoyed it though, and my off-road experience came in handy on the rough bits. Riding a legendary route like this gives a great sense of achievement. I spent ages getting my bike right, and it paid off, and I’m glad to say I had no disasters.”
Number of riders entered: 1,500 approx
Number of riders finished: 896
Fastest time: 4 hours 19
Slowest time: 7 hours 53
Number of pave sections: 19