It’s been a long time coming. 12 months to be precise. A return to the beautiful misery of the cobbles and the rattle and hum of suffering bike parts.
We left Cardiff at the crack of dawn. It’s a bit of jaunt to Dover and the first battle is traffic. We’re running the gauntlet of some of the country’s true traffic blackspots, the M4 and fear inducing M25, but survive relatively hassle free. A ferry trip leads to French motorways, which leads to Roubaix and the velodrome. It was so familiar that it felt like we only here yesterday. What’s french for Déjà vu?
We collect our numbers and leave. Travel to our destination – with fine hosts over the border in Wevelgem, Flanders – and prepare for a 3.45am wake up call.
It arrives. We’re tired.
Buses head off from the stadium on the 1hr 40 trip to Busigny. Rain splatters across the windscreen. I regret listening to the forecast and favouring gilet over waterproof. Our arrival at the start is chaotic; a town overrun by cyclists. It’s a wonderful thing. The start line is visually dominated by an inflatable arch and aurally dominated by banging Euro-house music. Oh the residents must love their 7am Saturday morning wake up call.
I feel slightly apprehensive, but bullish. The memory of last year’s crash being marginally trumped by a rapidly descending red mist. We settle into our rhythm. The first section of cobbles is Troisvilles to Inchy, 2.2km of bone jarring; a mere tenderiser for later segments. This particular one strikes the tone; we do our own thing on the cobbles, regroup at the end and head to the next section.
The day continues in this vein. Road. <Steel yourself>. Cobbles. <Regroup>. Road. <Steel yourself>. Cobbles. <Regroup>.
Then we arrive at Haveluy à Wallers, cobbled section #18 – the 10th you experience – on which I crashed the previous year. We wait briefly for John and can barely believe our eyes as wave upon wave of cyclists hit the cobbles, skid on mud and crash to the ground. No amount of yelling ‘slow down!’ or its internationally recognised symbol (waving one arm around like a solitary chicken wing) has any effect. Fortunately none appear to be very injured, but at least 15 or so riders have got close and personal with pavé.
This did not effect my confidence. In fact quite the reverse. Determined that this section of pavé would not defeat me for a second year, I rode like an idiot, gritting my teeth and upping the tempo. Passing the spot where I went down, Craig shouted to remind me that I wanted a photo. ‘Nah. Not now’ came my reply. Popping onto the tarmac and feeling waves of brief euphoria, the 2015 event was truly under way.
I don’t think anything fully prepares you for the cobbles, with the possible exception of being a pro, getting finely tuned kit for free and the paid opportunity to train on them with seasoned coaches. We’re not, so we don’t, and your body finds this out pretty quickly. Nowhere is this more pronounced than at the Arenberg forest. Cobbles rise out of the ground like zombies rising from the grave in George A.Romero’s classic movies. If you’re going to come a cropper anywhere, it is HERE. Not point being timid though. That doesn’t help. Best to keep the power and cadence high and keep caning it. Craig and I play cat and mouse, jockeying for position (he beat me by one solitary second) and during a short sprint to the side I nearly lose it, bike skewing horizontally to a chorus of ‘whoa!’ from the rear. I correct and continue. Much to our disgust there are riders using the adjacent spectator area – lying behind a boundary rope – to utilise a pancake flat gravel path and avoid the cobbles altogether. What is the point of that? This is THE iconic section of the Paris-Roubaix course. Even now, with my fingers still tingling and my back occasionally twinging, I still fail to understand.
We survive the Arenberg and real progress is being made, even if it straight into a howling headwind, uphill.
As the ride continues, speed drops, arms feel like jelly, backsides are numb, legs are leaden, bikes squeak like a well chewed dog toy, but never does enthusiasm wane. Mile after mile, cobble after cobble, inching closer to the velodrome. To finish here is such a privilege. The road to Roubaix is now busier and busier with Saturday traffic, though you can feel the call and the summons of the stadia. The pace amongst all of the surviving riders is reversing and getting quicker now that the end is in sight. At the entrance I hear words of encouragement from Jules – after breaking both legs in a caving accident last year and enduring around 9 months of ops and physio, he chose the shorter distance as his first event back(!). Chapeau. – and see the steep banking of the velodrome. Donald and I ride into the finish, with Craig and John following in rapid succession. My word, that medal was hard earned.
Huge thanks to the organisers of the Paris-Roubaix challenge. Also huge thanks to the crew of Jiffies who made the trip so worthwhile. Later in the week: imagery from the pro-race.