My alarm woke me at around 4 am. Today was the day of the Paris-Roubaix Ride. I was to attempt to ride the final 180 km of the course of the toughest one-day race in cycling: Paris-Roubaix. The race is famous for it’s 29 secteurs of pavé, or cobblestones, which help it retain its nickname “the Hell of the North”. I had signed up several months ago, and had really no idea what I was getting myself into.
I had pre-packed all of my jersey pockets the night before, so all I needed to do was through on my cycling clothes, don my helmet and head out. I had a bite to eat, but it wasn’t long before I was riding through the dark and deserted streets of the Lille-Roubaix conurbation. The weather was promising to be fairly warm, which helped lift the spirits. The day began with a 10 km ride from the hotel to the Roubaix Veldrome, where the finish of the event would be many hours later, and a little bit further to a large supermarket carpark. Here, there were a dozen large trucks with volunteers loading thousands of bikes in the dead of night as people arrived. Everyone had a designated truck and coach, but there was absolute chaos of people trying to queue to get their bike into their respective truck. Each truck could only be loaded one bike at a time so it was taking quite a while. Eventually, my bike was loaded, and I went and sat on my coach and tried to get a little more sleep.
I was sat on the coach for an hour as bikes were still being loaded, and when everyone’s was eventually loaded, all of the trucks and busses headed off in convoy to the tiny locality of Busigny. This took around an hour and a half drive, during which the sun finally rose. There wasn’t any designated coach parking in Busigny, instead, the coaches and trucks parked along the street, and there was again chaos as everyone was trying to recover their bikes.
Eventually, I collected my bike and rode around to the start line. There wasn’t a mass start, people were just leaving as soon as they arrived at the line. A mass start would have created mass chaos on the first cobblestone secteur. There were to be 29 cobblestone secteurs in total, with over 50 km of cobblestone to negotiate between Busigny and the velodrome in Roubaix. Even though the profesionals would start 90 km away in Compiègne, all of the cobblestone secteurs were after Busigny, so I was going to feel every single cobble the pros would feel.
Nonetheless, the first 10 km were on smooth asphalt. Very quickly, groups began to form as some people were eager to draft behind others to save energy. The first secteur of cobblestones arrived just outside the village of Troisvilles and connected to the neighbouring village of Inchy. Each of the secteurs had been assigned a star rating by the organisers based on how long the secteur was and how rough the stones were. There were only three 5-star secteurs on course, the toughest category. Most of the secteurs were 3-star difficulty, including this first one. The first thing that struck me was simply how large the cobblestones were. City streets around England and elsewhere in Europe, including Cambridge, have cobblestone streets, often to make them look pretty and appeal to tourists. But these roads were maintained as centurys-old farm lanes, and the size of each stone – and the gaps between them – were much larger than in city centres. There simply is not the need to maintain them as they usually receive rather little traffic. I rode the first, slightly uphill section in the middle of the road, out of the tyre tracks formed by tractors and cars using the road, and avoiding the ruts and potholes.
By the end of the first secteur, I was already a little shaken, but had been concentrating on not hitting the riders in front of me. But only after another mile or so, we were already on secteur 28 (secteur numbers count down towards the finish), and would complete a total of 5 secteurs in rather quick succession. Each of these had a slight uphill or downhill gradient, sometimes a mix of both, which contrasted against the flat gradients of the latter secteurs. Honestly, the gradients were welcomed. Downhill sections gave you the speed to glide over the tops of the stones, whereas uphill sections gave you something to power against as you climbed. It was the flatter parts where the stones bit hardest. On one of the downhill sections, I had to swerve around the first crash of the day, someone whose wheel had jarred against a gap between the cobblestones and had fallen off.
There was now a bit of respite before the first feed station at Verchain-Maugré. In the town square next to the church, marquees had been set up with people serving all manner of fruit, biscuits, liquids and pastries. I stopped for a while and stocked up on my food supplies. I was also carrying some energy gels in my jersey pockets to try and keep my sustained during my ride. The next challenge was the back-to-back-to-back secteurs around Quérénaing. These roads had a few cars on them who were trying to negotiate the cyclists who were taking up most of the narrow roads. It was around here that my wrists first started to hurt, but I powered on and made it to Haveluy, through a section that was rather built-up. The biggest challenge was approaching.
But first, the section of Haveluy á Wallers. This secteur was the second with a 4-star rating, and large parts of the road simply seemed to be missing. It was here that I saw the second crash, someone came off trying to negotiate the right hand bend in the middle of the secteur. I, still, stayed on both wheels.
Secteur 19, known as either the Trouée d’Arenberg, or the Forest of Arenberg, is by far the most well known, and most difficult, secteurs of the event. Rather than negotiating around fields and farms like the rest of the secteurs, the Forest of Arenberg is a dead-straight, mile and a half long road slightly uphill through a dense forest above an abandoned coal mine. The cobbles are some of the roughest in northern France, and are maintained to be poorly maintained. Every year in the professional race, there are usually several crashes on this section, as they hit the section at over 50 km/h. The sides of the road feature smooth, gravel paths, but temporary fences prevent the pros from using them as substitute. I was excited to ride through, but was disheartened to see that the race organisers were directing everybody onto the gravel paths on the side of the road. We all rode along in single file, at least a few hundred metres along the road. Then, they started directing us back onto the cobblestones for the last two thirds of the secteur. Because this secteur was in a forest, the surface had not dried out like the rest of the secteurs, and so the surface was caked in mud. It was incredibly difficult to get any traction to move forward, and at least a couple of people in front of me hit the deck. Through sheer determination and power, I pushed on to the end, but was now sore through my elbow and shoulders from the incredibly rough road.
The suffering didn’t end there. We turned left and faced a block head wind for a few kilometers, before turning onto the next secteur. This one was kind of fun, there were several corners through the secteur and it featured a railway crossing and went under a bridge. But it was secteur 17 of Hornaing á Wandignies where I really started to hurt. This was a 4-star section that just seemed to keep going and going. Most of the secteurs to this point had lasted only two or three minutes, but this one went on for six or seven, and by the end of it I was exhausted. I shook my arms out to try and recover sensation, but gritted my teeth and continued.
There was no respite to be found. Secteurs 16 through 12 arrived one after another, and required focus and determination to push through. Finally, I arrived at Secteur 11, Mons-en-Pévèle, the second 5-star secteur. This one was slightly uphill, and included many potholes, but had a bark larger than its bite, and I made it through with no problems. The next secteur was less than a kilometer long, and before I knew it, I was at the second feed station in Templeuve with only 8 secteurs to go. I stocked up on supplies for the last 30 km.
By now, each secteur was hard work. I would ride in the middle of the road where I could, but often had to resort to the sides of the roads or off the roads entirely. Occasionally, someone in front of me would ride to slowly and I would feel all of the bumps, but going around them would mean hitting potholes and ditches, so I had to wait and pick a moment carefully. A few secteurs later, and I arrived at the final 5-star secteur, the Carrefour de l’Arbre. The cobbles here were so rough, so much more than any other of the race. By this point I was completely exhausted. I could barely manage to cope with the side of the road, where there were no cobbles, and I limped my way through to the end, including the ‘bonus’ secteur of Gruson tacked onto the end. It was hard an painful, but by the end, I knew I only had one more serious secteur to go.
Just outside of the suburbs of Roubaix was the last secteur: Willems á Hem. I was so exhausted by this point and struggled around the edge of the cobblestones. Every single bump would send a shooting pain through my arms and shoulders and all I wanted to do was yell at the stones. But soon it was over, and we were riding into Roubaix. The final few kilometers passed by quickly, and before I knew it, I was on the Avnue Alfred Motte, a double lane avenue that leads into the velodrome. There was a 300m ceremonial secteur in the middle of the avenue, but as the road wasn’t closed to traffic, the course didn’t direct us onto it.
Finally, we had a right turn off the avenue, and then a sweeping left corner around a private road, then through the gates and on to the hundred year old velodrome of Roubaix. We could cycle half a lap of the velodrome, before finishing beneath the tall stands of the stadium. The surface was wonderfully smooth, and the famous site came with it a sense of accomplishment. I had done it, I had conquered the cobbles. I crossed the line with my arms in the air and collected my medal from the volunteers at the finish. I quickly met Jacqueline who had come to the finish line to greet me, and then found a place to lie down on the grass in the middle of the arena.
After taking a while to relax and soak in the atmosphere, it was time to leave and head back to our hotel. We left the velodrome and cycled the final 10 km back to our hotel, where I took a much-needed shower and got changed. Finally, we rode into the centre of Lille and found a restaurant on a cobbled street in the middle of town. I didn’t care what I had to eat, I just wanted food to help me recover from the 200 km I had ended up riding over the course of the day. It was very easy to fall asleep that night, back in our hotel.