Hors Course

Five Rapha riders set out to ride the Paris-Roubaix parcours in early March 2011 as preparation for the inaugural Paris-Roubaix Sportive to be held one day before the pro event.

04 March 2011

Choose a line and stick to it

To watch a Grand Tour champion escape from the pack and up a mountain is to witness grace, beauty and perfection on a bike. To watch a Classics champion float over the cobbles evokes very different emotions. Riders of the former variety have earned such nicknames as ‘Eagle’ and ‘Angel’, whereas the latter rarely bring out the Romantic poets in their admirers as they pound the cobbles with extraordinary power and determination. The term ‘Raging Bull’ came to my mind after my own baptism of fire in the flames of the ‘Hell of the North’ last weekend.

A group of five riders had been asked to ride the Paris-Roubaix Challenge, as a recce for the real thing on 9th April. We were all cobble virgins and so even now, nearly a week later, 50 fingers are still tingling. I am a lightweight dreamer, both by body and nature. I prefer lettuce to steak. The cobbles were never very high on my list of cycling pilgrimages. I was happy to leave them to the heavyweight gladiators in search of life affirming physical combat. Which is why I took a while to get to sleep the night before we rode the infamous pavé.

Pump your legs as if your life depends on it

When riding a col, one has time to reflect, to assess and pace oneself, to assert some technique, some control over the demands of the climb. Occasionally the art of cycling is reduced to desperate digging, but the goal is to dance, to fly even, up these lofty, twisting roads towards the summit. When riding the cobbles there is no time for such dreaming. You are in a boxing ring and when that first bell rings, you’re instantly the boxer. Sometimes you’re just the punchbag. Rounds can last for anything from three to fifteen minutes, your feet must be quick. You float, numbed, on the smooth tarmac for a couple of minutes, then try to recover before the next round. Unless you know the course, you often have no warning before the bell rings again.

There are no rules and this is full-body contact. Cobbles fly at you as if in some manic video game. You barely have time to spot the really nasty ones, the ones that tractors have pushed over, sticking out sideways and leaving gaping holes beside them. You push those pedals as if your life depends on it. If you slow down, the cobbles seem to open up, exposing black holes ready to suck what remains of your feeble momentum. At times, the muddy gutter seems to offer you a shameful way out, out of reach of the punches. This may lead you straight into a trap (puddles hide potholes very effectively) but becoming a ‘gutter sucker’ at least allows you to claw back some momentum before you turn the front wheel back on to the cobbles.

Hold the handlebars and concentrate

As we slowly ticked off the sections, we gradually fumbled our way towards something that could loosely be called technique. We learned to relax our arms and shoulders, to push a bigger gear, to choose one line and stick to it and to look ten metres ahead to begin steering away from a really mean patch (you cannot ‘flick’ the bars on cobbles). We learned to resist the temptation to ease off before the end of the section, and to repeat to ourselves the essential Paris-Roubaix mantra: “Cobbles keep coming and I’m still riding!” In short, we learned that you cannot give in.

Having experienced it first hand, it’s easy to understand why this ride is described as ‘Hell’ but to arrive in Roubaix, to have survived this journey, is to come out battered, bruised but elated. We were fortunate enough to ride round the famous velodrome at the end of our recce and as we did so, the history of that place flooded our minds. As we rode the banked ends , swooping up and down on the smooth concrete, I thought back to those wild, exposed cobbled farm tracks. The Roubaix Velodrome is where the heroes receive their accolades from the packed crowds but it is on those cobbles, the harshest combat available to a road rider, that they earn their praise. “There is a lot of madness to all this,” Bernard Hinault once remarked of Paris-Roubaix. But it is this madness that will attract me back here one day to ride it again.