At 7:30 am on a cold wet morning, I set off with 4,499 other hardy souls to ride the Paris Roubaix Challenge. In a nutshell it’s a sportive run the day before the professional Spring Classic, in April. Starting from the sleepy town of Busigny, it offers 170 km of mixed terrain, including all the cobbled sections, that the pros ride. For those of a nervous disposition there are shorter options available. Would I do it again? You bet I would! I loved it, for all it’s attrition and the range of emotions that make up the Paris Roubaix classic.
The first sector of cobbles are like an obstacle course. Bottles, some still attached to the cage, pumps, saddle bags and spare tubes lay strewn across the track. After a while you realise that your eye balls are rattling in your head and the crown of the cobbles, just doesn’t look in focus any more. At one stage I swear my head just hurt from the constant jolting. The mud, grass, tussocks and stones at the side become a seductive alternative. After this experience, I wouldn’t bat an eye lid, if someone suggested I rode my best road bike through my local woods.
All too soon the Trouée d’ Arenberg appeared in the distance. There’s a sense of impending doom and excitement. Camper vans are squashed into every available space, there are hoards of spectators lining the route. Cyclists nervously look around, plucking up the courage to enter this legendary section. I was beside myself, I was there! This is the iconic bit, that you always see on T.V. These are the cobbles I had been watching ‘Cobbles Cancellara‘ hack along during those Sufferfest, four minute intervals.
A liberal covering of greasy mud, ensured the full Arenberg experience. I scooted around some poor soul receiving medical attention, in the middle of the track. The challenge is to find the smoothest line and avoid riders and debris on the floor. I pedalled as though my life depended on it, moving from the crown of the track, to the off camber and sometimes even ploughing through the mud at the side.
When I think back, the whole thing really makes me smile. What type of perverse person, would ever think that this was a good route for a road race? After this classic section you kind of think you’re in the clear, but there are still many miles to cover and more pavé to rattle over. The last part just becomes ‘mind games’. Your hands feel sore and your arms pulverised. Signs for Roubaix, pick the spirits up and a lap of the legendary track, makes you realise it was all worth it.
Here’s a list of the changes I made to my bike to help both machine and body make it to the finish. I am pleased to say I finished both puncture and blister free!
* Double taped handle bars
* Tight fitting bottles cages which always keep the bottle under tension
* Vittoria open pave 27mm tyres
* Fi zik Antares versa saddle with a groove
* Spare tubes, pump, tools etc stowed in deep back pockets
* Pearl Izumi gel padded track mits
The only other thing I would suggest that you consider is; the long option from Busigny to Roubaix is a point to point route. There is a bus to transport both you and your bike to the start from Roubaix at 5:30 a.m, but it fills up very very quickly. Ideally you need a driver to drop you off in Busigny. The drive from Busigny back up to Roubaix takes about an hour and a half.
On reflection, it was a tough, amazing experience, requiring determination, a bit of courage and preparation. I can’t encourage you enough, to have a go. Can you have the same thing on your bucket list every year??
Well that’s next Easter sorted out for me!