From the comfort of your couch on the other side of the world, I bet you’ve caught yourself thinking – those cobbles in Roubaix look tough but I bet they’re not as bad as they say. I know, I’ve thought the same thing. Well, I can now say from experience, they are.
It’s like nothing else on earth. Bone shattering and soul shaking. The cobbles of the Paris-Roubaix are an unrelenting hell.
Until now I’ve graded the difficulty of a ride by the meters of elevation gained or average seed, but after completing the Paris-Roubaix Challenge, that paradigm has shifted.
I lucked into doing the challenge really. I was planning a trip to Europe with my girlfriend and I did what every red-blooded cyclist does and tried to sneak in a visit to a bike race. I picked Paris-Roubaix. For me, it’s the king of the classics, the one that really gets my blood going and with Australia’s Matthew Hayman winning in 2016, it just felt right.
My girlfriend asked, ‘can’t you ride the cobbles before the pro’s do?’. ‘I’m not sure’, I replied. Sure enough with a frenzied Google search and equally swift application I was signed up for the Paris-Roubaix Challenge.
The organisers of the pro race, ASO, also manage the challenge so that level of professionalism was evident. I was kept well informed (in English) from the very start to the day of the ride. I also opted to hire a bike in favour of lugging my own around Europe for three weeks to only use it once.
The ride is based out of the famous Roubaix Velodrome, which hosts the finish of every edition of the race. I was able to collect my registration and hire the bike all in the same location which made life easy, all while getting in a few sneaky laps of the velodrome.
There are three courses on offer, 70km, 145km and 172km. All courses take in some of the iconic cobbles, but only the 172km version takes you through all 29 secteur de pavé. So naturally, I chose that one.
At the start line the temperature was a bleak 4 degrees and I’d never felt more like a fish out of water when I looked around and saw the Belgian and French riders with bare arms and legs. I was wearing every piece of cycling kit I own, plus a pair of borrowed gloves and I was still freezing!
That feeling of being out of my depth was further cemented on the first cobbled section, Troisvilles à Inchy. I felt like everyone was passing me as I bounced along trying to remember every bit of advice anyone gave me about riding the pavé, but none of it mattered. You just have to go for it and try everything until you get it right.
As I went through the subsequent sectors I tried going fast and I tried going slow. I tried high gears, I tried low gears. I tried every hand position you can think of. After all that I discovered the big secret about making the cobbles easier. You can't. All you can do is smile until you get to the end and then rinse and repeat for the next section. Because if you don’t smile, the cobbles will beat you.
As I write this, I’m not sure the magnitude of the ride has truly sunk in. It was really something special. These are the very same roads the likes of Bernard Hinault, Eddy Merckx and Roger De’Vlaminck rode on and the same ones that the next day Tom Boonen would attempt to make history by winning a fifth Paris-Roubaix.
Approaching the Trouée d'Arenberg (Arenberg Forrest) I just had to stop and take it in. The sight of the trees being split by this brutal section of cobbled road just sent shivers down my spine. This road has been decisive or even just plain destructive in so many editions of the race. And it sure lived up to expectations, with nowhere to escape its 2.4kms of hell on wheels.
Finishing the final tough section, Carrefour de l'Arbre, the organisers were kind enough to place a photographer at the end to capture all the jaw-rattling goodness. From here it was an easy albeit ginger ride into the Roubaix Velodrome for a hero-style welcome. Friends and family were there to welcome riders but instead of the famous cobblestone trophy, riders were greeted with beers and burgers.
Riding Paris-Roubaix is a once in a lifetime experience. For fans of the cobbled classics, it is a must. You cannot truly appreciate what the pros are going through until you have done it yourself.