Paris - Roubaix,
| publ. 12 jan 2006 |
June 21, 2004. Straight after
the Giant Tour, Ben Atkins was at it again, this time at the
biennial Paris - Roubaix Cyclo, where, for the very first
time, he decided to go the full hog - yes, all 261
You can keep
your Tours de France, your Giros d'Italia, your World
Championships etc... There's only one race that's branded on
my must-see list each year, it's on the second Sunday in
April and it's the most beautiful sporting event on Earth.
The race is
of course Paris - Roubaix, 260 odd kilometres of hell over
some of the worst 'roads' that France has to offer. There's
never a dull race, never a lucky winner, although there are
always loads of unlucky losers... It means so much to me -
possibly a bit too much - that I proposed to my girlfriend
Liz by the side of the Cysoing cobbled sector this April.
Not content with simply
watching the brave hard men like Museeuw and Van Petegem - and of course
this year's worthy victor Magnus Backstedt - hammer their bodies over this
amazing course, every other June we can have a go at it ourselves in the
biennial Paris - Roubaix Cyclo, organised by the Velo Club de Roubaix.
There are three
distances to choose from: 120 km, which takes in most of the cobbled
sectors; 190 km with all of the cobbles; or the full 261 km of pure hell!
Two years ago I did the 190 km course - this year I was talked into doing
the full distance!
The hardest thing I
had to do on the Giant Tour last week was give back the bike. I would have
loved to have done this ride on the TCR Composite that I'd ridden in Germany,
but unfortunately it was not to be. My Battaglin Vortex (just like Emanuele
Sella's, but with Campag) wasn't really built for this kind of thing, so I
decided to leave it at home; I decided on my Battaglin Magnum training bike
which has done its fair share of cobbled
miles in the past. A few changes had to be
over 225 km down
This one's for Liz
made to the set-up to make
the ride a bit more bearable; my usual 23mm Michelins were substituted for
25mm Contis to cushion the ride a bit and I put on an extra layer of bar
tape to make the grip softer - I didn't go as far as many did though and put
sections of pipe lagging foam on the bars!
As the ride takes quite a few hours, the start
time for the full distance event is between 4 and 7am! The flexibility is
there because it's not a race; slower riders can start as early as possible,
whereas the faster ones can get a bit more sleep and still finish in time.
We took the start, in Cambronne-les-Ribecourt, a few kilometres north of
Compiegne where the pro race starts, at about 4:45am. It was still pitch
dark, and would be for a couple of hours, so the organisers insist that
everyone has lights at the start, we had some from a pound shop that we
could discard when it got light.
The trip was organised by Scott Budgen from
Pearson Cycles of Sutton, Surrey and I was the only one there who'd been
before. I did my best to forewarn them of the trials ahead, but as I'd never
before done anything close to that distance myself, I was in pretty unknown
territory too. Luckily, as most of the other guys are much fitter than me,
the pace began fairly gently and we rode for the first couple of hours at a
comfortable 30 kph or so.
"anything soft dangling anywhere near this
region can get a bit of a hammering from the saddle"
Before too long, we arrived at the first
checkpoint. As this was a randonee, we all had cards which we had to get
stamped by the officials by the door before we helped ourselves to the
plentiful supplies of cakes and drinks. We filled our bottles, and stuffed
our faces and set off again after leaving our lights with Dennis the van
Not far after the first checkpoint is the
first sector of cobbles, a 2200m stretch of hell near the village of
Troisvilles. This was where the other guys; Scott, Keith, Duncan, John and
Ian, found out what this was all about. I actually led over the first
kilometre or so until Scott got into his stride and flew by.
Once the cobbled sectors start they come thick and fast, the third sector at
Quievy lasts for 3700m, and by the time you reach the end of it you can't
feel your arms and your legs seem to belong to someone else. It takes a good
couple of minutes for the system to recover from the battering it receives,
and by that time you're approaching the next one.
It's quite difficult to describe the sensation of riding over these cobbles;
they're nothing like anything else I've ever ridden over, even the Flanders
ones aren't even close. You need to push a really big gear - spinning a
small one means you'll be bounced all over the place - so your backside
lifts off the saddle slightly. This can mean that anything soft dangling
anywhere near this region can get a bit of a hammering from the saddle as it
judders around. The feet get constant hits from everything you ride over,
passing the vibration up through the calves so that after a kilometre or so
you can't feel your lower legs properly. Your hands have to grip the bars
tightly, as the experience is not unlike holding a road drill. Loosen your
grip and it feels like someone is trying to break your fingers with a small
hammer. This vibration (the word vibration does not do it justice) is passed
through your arms, leaving them numb, and up via your shoulders to your
spine. If you can still manage to pedal and control your bike while this is
going on, you're doing well!
After 155 kilometres and the third control
point, we arrived at one of the most sacred monuments in cycling, more
important to me than Alpe d'Huez, the Forest of Arenberg! This place fills
me with awe every time I visit, this is the place where the action always
begins, with just over 100 kilometres to go the big boys always show
themselves here. It's also where Museeuw crashed and broke his kneecap, and
almost died. The fact that the surface is one of the worst in the entire
course just adds to its appeal...
The first few hundred metres of the sector is
slightly downhill and I carried most of my speed from the tarmac, until the
road flattened and seemed to become slightly uphill where all my momentum
was lost. After this it becomes a real struggle; if you can ride the cobbles
fast you can almost seem to glide over the top; if you're going slowly then
you seem to have to fight your way over each and every stone. There is an
opportunity to ride along the mud path at the side of the track - that many
riders take - but this would be cheating and I didn't come here to avoid
cobbles, I came to ride them. The Arenberg sector therefore took me a good
few minutes, but I loved every one of them!
The next sector was Wallers, where that old disused railway bridge is, this
is another famous site from watching the race all those years, so again I
was covered in goose pimples as I rode through.
By this part of the course the cobbled sectors come thick and fast and it's
difficult to concentrate on eating and drinking - it's not possible to do
either when hammering over the cobbles. I took a banana out of my back
pocket just as we arrived at the Hornaing sector - 3700 m long - and had to
ride the first kilometre of the sector with it clamped between my teeth
before we got to a small tarmac break in the middle and I could put it away
again. I quickly got it out again and forced it down as soon as the sector
was over, ready to face the next one. It's also difficult to keep drinking
as much as you can as I lost two bottles at various parts of the course as
they were shaken from their cages!
passed around 210 kilometres we were well into the realms of the unknown"
After umpteen cobbled sectors, I was
getting a bit 'cobbled out', so I decided to do what so many other riders
had been doing for ages and ride down the dirt at the side of the track.
Unfortunately this dirt strip was pretty uneven, so I found myself having to
lift myself over loads of dips and lumps. At one particularly large dip I
misjudged the lifting of my front wheel and got it tangled up, I flew over
the bars - apparently in a pretty stylish fashion! - and slid into a ditch,
a la Hincapie! Luckily I was totally unhurt so I had a good laugh at myself,
and swore that I'd never try and cheat the cobbles again!
By this time I was getting pretty tired; once we passed around 210
kilometres we were well into the realms of the unknown. The longest rides
I've ever done were just over 200km, so I was unsure how I'd manage it.
Luckily, apart from the few thousand tiny stone 'hills' that you have to
climb, the course is almost completely flat, so I was pretty sure I'd be
able to make it to Roubaix, no matter how exhausted I was.
As I passed through the village of
Cysoing I found myself on familiar ground. This is where I come every April
to watch my heroes, I always bring my bike over so I know these sectors like
the back of my hand. The Cysoing sector - dedicated to Gilbert
Duclos-Lassalle - is pretty reasonable for a few hundred metres when it
becomes a randomly-scattered collection of stones. I don't mind the
unevenness though, for it is here that I got down on one knee and proposed
to Liz, surrounded by drunken Belgians last Easter Sunday; passing this spot
gave me new impetus as I headed off towards Camphin-en-Pevele.
Pretty soon I found myself approaching the Carrefour de l'Arbre, and the bar
that's only open for one day a year - although judging by the number of
bikes leaned against its walls, it may have increased that to two days this
year. Once I was past this point I knew I'd made it, the Gruson sector -
classed as the second part of the Carrefour de l'Arbre in the pro race, and
to be used by the Tour de France this July - is pretty level and after that
there is less than 15 kilometres to the finish.
On the Hem sector - which is
where Museeuw punctured this year - I hopped from one bit of broken tarmac
to the other, just like the pros do, and caught up with an Italian guy who
I'd been riding with earlier. He offered me his wheel and wouldn't let me go
until we reached the velodrome, even when I slowed on the slight rise
towards the town centre and told him to go. We passed onto the sacred track
together in front of a pretty reasonable crowd and I tried to let him go
rather than beat him on the line. Unfortunately for my sporting plan though,
he decided to ride around the flat 'Cote d'Azur' at the bottom of the track,
but I wanted to try the banking. I cruised round the blue line halfway up
the track and had to be waved down by the photographer - otherwise I'd have
crossed the line out of shot!
As I crossed the line I got
my celebration for the camera sorted out. I'd been working in Dublin since
November before heading off to Germany, then came over here, and my fiancee
Liz has had to put up with all that, so this 'victory' was for her. I kissed
my ring finger as I rolled in and the cameraman caught it perfectly.
Not only is this the best ride in the world, it also has the best souvenirs.
All riders can buy their own 'cobble' mounted on a wooden plaque. Okay, it's
only about a quarter of the size, but as a symbol of my achievement it's
pretty appropriate. I collected mine and had some food, then got my stuff
out of the van and headed off for a shower.
I spoke to Roderick de
Munnick on the Giant Tour about the Paris - Roubaix Cyclo as he'd done it
last time. We both agreed that there are three essential elements for a
proper Hell of the North experience. Number one, the cobbles. Check. Number
two, the track. Check. And Number three, the showers. Here goes...