It’s the Paris-Roubaix this weekend. The ‘Hell of the North’, the ‘Queen of the Classics’, it’s one of cycling’s most legendary, unique and best races.
It’s one of the oldest cycling events (seven years older than the Tour de France), and one of the toughest. Riders cover over 260 kilometres in a single day, 50 of which are on pavé – cobbles. These aren’t the pretty, clean cobbles that lie neatly in town centres. They’re big, bumpy and uneven. They’re usually wet and slippery, making steering hard, and covered in mud, so you can’t see the holes left by missing stones, or the sharp edges that puncture your tyres, although you can feel them as they rattle your teeth, blur your vision and batter your hands and feet.
But these are loved cobbles. Each stretch has its own name. There’s the Tranchée d'Arenberg (Arenberg Trench), the Mons-en-Pévèle, or my two favourites: the Pavé de la Justice and the Pavé Bernard Hinault. Local volunteers go out to clean the cobbles, repair broken stones and turn out year after year to watch the race. The race trophy is a cobble mounted on a stand and it’s not uncommon for spectators to steal stones from the course as mementos.
The riders don’t always feel the same way. Whilst a good result here is treasured and a win is huge, they’ve described the race as ‘torture’ and a ‘stupidity’, and the organisers as sadists. Bernard Hinault said ‘It's not a race I like, I don't think I ever will.’ Massive crashes are a regular occurrence, punctures are a given, and broken bikes and bones are not uncommon. It is, perhaps, no wonder that a film about the race was entitled A Sunday in Hell…
Why then, did we decide to ride Paris-Roubaix for a holiday? I’ve no idea, but I’m very glad we did.
The Pavé de la Justice, right at the end - one of the easier, faster and best stretches of pavé.
The first thing we learned about Paris-Roubaix is that it doesn’t start in Paris. It starts in Compiègne, 60 kilometres north. Compiègne is a pretty little town where the armistice was signed at the end of the First World War. There’s a terrible pizza restaurant near the station (really terrible) and a cobbled town square – nice, even cobbles which are easy to ride when posing for a pre-ride photograph. Good job they were easy, as riding across them and off for a few practice laps around the station car park was Amy’s first time on a road bike.
The initial kilometres out of town are pretty dull: long, straight roads with not much to look at. Worse, being long and straight, you can see things like hills, albeit tiny ones, coming from miles (sorry, kilometres) away. The roads are also busy. Although French drivers are, as a rule, pretty courteous towards cyclists, an endless stream of cars and lorries rumbling past is never pleasant. Still, we were on holiday, in France – which means pâtisseries – and the villages had amusing names, like Ham, so were we enjoying our riding. It got even better when we got off the busy roads and stopped for cakes in St Quentin.
The second thing we learned about Paris-Roubaix is that cobbled roads aren’t easy to find – particularly if you’ve only brought a small road map of the whole of France and traced a rough route onto it in pink marker pen. The majority of them are tiny, unmarked and often look like dirt tracks. It’s a world away from the fresh tarmac laid each year for the big tours. No wonder the pro riders love this race. As a result, we were forced to resort to guess-work at every junction. With our entirely useless map and the potential for getting lost becoming a certainty, this was mildly stressful. Luckily it was also surprisingly effective, merely adding to the sense of adventure and exploration. It wasn’t long before we hit the first stretch of cobbles.
When your map is a bit rubbish, you're on the hunt for cobbles and you're basically lost, a closed road is a minor distaster.
These were ‘friendly’ cobbles. Evenly-spaced, clean and gently rounded, they were merely a delight to ride. You couldn’t really sit down, brake or steer (we’d picked a rainy day to ride, obviously going for the full Paris-Roubaix experience), and going over 15 mph (whatever that is in kph) resulted in worrying rattles from the bike and blurred vision, but, compared to what was to come – these were easy.
Popping out at the other end, we were greeted by a huge pile of turnips and a muddy farm track, With cobbles poking through the mud. Was this us? Were the next 50 kilometres going to be on dirt tracks? Progress would be slow … Luckily the third thing we learned about Paris-Roubaix is that everybody in northern France knows the race, and knows where it goes. Old men in the street, old women walking tiny dogs and young men rushing home with bunches of flowers – ask anybody which way the race goes and you’ll get a detailed stream of directions for the next 20 kilometres of riding. Luckily, they cover things like roundabouts and taking the premier rue a doit in GCSE French, so I was ok. (I’m lying. Amy is fluent in French. I just cowered in the background and nodded.) We even got a ‘Chapeau’ off one chap!
Turnips avoided, we continued to guess, ask and rattle through the French countryside for a few hours. There were casualties. My favourite water bottle was gone, lost to the bumps and jolts and three punctures needed fixing – the first of several, which would eventually write off two brand new tyres. But we were seeing a side to northern France we’d never seen before, discovering how popular this race is and experiencing exactly how tough being a professional cyclist can be.
Muddy, rough and full of glass and puddles. Ah, the Paris-Roubaix.
At this point I should confess that, despite our obvious prowess on bikes and elite fitness levels, we’d brought overnight stuff with us. Just on the off-chance that we wouldn’t complete the entire 260-kilometre course in one day. Unlikely, I know. And so, as it began to get dark, we started to detour further and further off the course in search of a hotel. Several villages and two towns later, we found one, in a town whose name I’ve totally forgotten but which might have been Le Quesnoy. By now it was totally dark and it was raining. Happily, luck was on our side once more and we found a hotel which, despite being on a busy road junction, opposite a station and looking like the dodgiest pub in town, turned out to have an award-winning Moroccan restaurant. A small local beer later and Amy was almost asleep. A large plate of food and a green tea later and I was too.
Day two was the real pavé day. There were uphill cobbles and there were downhill cobbles. There were stretches of cobbles interspersed with sections of road which were so covered in mud and broken tarmac that they were just as tricky to ride. Neat cobbles and ugly cobbles. This was unlike any ride I’d ever been on, and it was about to get better. The race grades sections of pavé according to difficulty, and when we hit the Arenberg Trench, we saw why.
he Arenberg Trench is the most famous pave in cycling. You can’t really describe it as a road. The holes in between the cobbles are bigger than the stones. The cobbles themselves are jagged and pointed blocks. There’s grass growing between them. It’s two-kilometres long, dead straight and heads both up and down hill. The race hits the section at over 50 kph as riders attempt to hit the front, often with disastrous consequences – pro riders have broken legs on this stretch. Obviously, riding it is a fantastic experience. It looks harder to ride than it is – you just have to get going and try not to steer! It’s pretty jarring to ride, let alone ride fast (obviously, I had a go) and you’ve got to admire anybody who hits it at race-pace.
As you approach Roubaix, you can feel the excitement building. You know that it’s here that the race is going flat out, with breaks going off the front and the chasing peloton trying to get back in touch. You know that the finish line is close, and the cobbled sections are coming thick and fast. Each section is marked now – there’s now getting lost – with a sign which gives its name and length. Riders’ names on the road in faded paint let you know that the real stars of cycling have ridden this way before you – Boonen, Cancellara … The urge to hit the cobbles flat out, to imagine what it must be like to race across them, is irresistible.
This really was good fun. We'd recommend it to anyone. Honestly.
It’s also painful. Despite what people tell you, it is definitely NOT easier to ride cobbles fast. The jarring is unbelievable, the arm pump unbearable. There’s the constant worry of puncturing and, this far into the course, every rattle marks a real concern that some vital component has worked lose. Even so, you hover off the saddle, pushing harder and harder, looking for the best – the smoothest – lines, dodging and hopping the holes and hanging on for grim death. It’s utterly fantastic.
The outskirts of Roubaix snapped us back to reality. You’re not a pro and you’re not riding closed roads. They get to head down the dual carriageway into town. You need to guess your way through a series of dead ends and back lanes before hitting town in a typically-French rush-hour of honking horns and frantic driving.
Having survived that, we went in search of the famed velodrome in which the race finishes. Sadly, our luck finally ran out and, despite finding it, we could do little more than peer through locked gates and the back of the grandstands as night drew in.
Nearly there! Two-hundred-and-fifty-odd kilometres down, nine do go!
And so, soft-pedalling through Roubaix and into Lille, our adventure was over. Memorable on one level for the sights seen on a ride through northern France, it had also been a hunt for fabled sections of pavé which had, thanks to our useless map, only been possible thanks to guesswork and asking locals – but which had, as a result, become a proper adventure and revealed how popular this race is. We had ‘enjoyed’ some ‘unique’ terrain and had a bit of an eye-opening insight into what it takes to complete one of the most famous road race ever (quite a lot!). And what a race. It’s obvious now why the Paris-Roubaix has such legendary status.