When a man who rides 100 miles in under 4 hours tells you the event you’re thinking of entering is the toughest day he’s ever had on a bike, the sensible thing to do would be to listen, consider, and not enter. Duncan Schwier, Graeme York, Matt Johnston and I decided that Stephen Campbell was over-exaggerating, and entered the Paris Roubaix Challenge anyway. What could possibly go wrong? Well…
 
The run-up to the event had been fairly inauspicious. I’d broken a wheel on our final week-before-the-event gear check ride over the extreme stress test environment of…Cobham, so that meant a new set of wheels whose first ride would be 210km over the pavé. Graeme had finally beaten a recalcitrant shop into submission and was riding a whole new bike whose first ride would be 210km over the pavé. Matt had just decided he wanted a new bike and bought one whose…you get the idea. Dunc simply broke out the ‘crosser (note to self – take note).
 
I’ve occasionally pondered an equation for faff; and my thoughts were clarified over this last weekend. I think it’s this:
 
F = t x {(n-d) + m} , where
 
F is total faff time;
t is average faff time per rider;
n is number of riders;
d is number of days old of newest piece of cycle equipment;
m is distance from front door in miles.
 
Suffice it to say we left the gite a little late, although Strava rejoices in the fact that of the 12 riders ever to cycle from the gite in the arse-end of nowhere in Northern France to the start line in the arse-end of nowhere in Northern France, I am the 4th least slow.
 
There’s no ride that provokes equipment debate like the Paris Roubaix and in particular, tyre choice is a hot topic. My puncture 200m before the start line then did not inspire me with confidence. To be fair, I had a bit of a strop. To be fair, also, the team pulled me through (read – got into the queue for the one toilet and left me to fix it, swear and flap my arms about a bit like it would make a difference). And then we were off! For 200m. At which point Matt realised he had left one of his gloves in his rucksack. He went back to the start to find the other member of the Michael Jackson Remembrance CC while the rest of us did what we did best and urinated into a gutter. Inauspicious is with two “s”s, right? And then we were off! For real! A slight moment at the first junction until we spotted the yellow “PR” stencil spray painted on the road and then it was Follow The Yelllow Brick Road all the way to Roubaix. If I Only Had A Heart (that went above 175bpm).
 
Anyway, you don’t want to hear about the gently rolling countryside that’s less flat than you think but affords a most pleasant prospect, you don’t want to hear about the beautiful rays of sunlight bursting through the retreating clouds, and you don’t want to hear about the WW2 cemeteries that put a hard bicycle ride into perspective. You want to hear about the cobbles. The first sector comes at 22km (tip – change computer to km so you know when the stones are coming. Not that you’ll care after a while) and even in the muddy early morning after a night-time thunderstorm, it’s bloody brilliant. We’re all laughing and giggling and making motorbike noises (or was that just me?). The second sector pops up and the form starts to show. Matt goes into mountain bike mode, puts his head down and is gone. Dunc employs his cyclocross buttocks (so he tells us) and is also gone. Graeme, as ever, just gets on with it. I’m finding the novelty has worn off quicker than my seatpack strap which has just given up. I stop, stick it in a non-existent space in a jersey pocket, and crack on. 3rd sector. Novelty gone. Wet, muddy, minimal traction, other riders, sketchy. I’m being overtaken by riders in the small chainring so I change down. I’m no more comfortable; just going slower. We regroup at the end of the next sector – while Graeme and I try to unclog our frames with sticks, Dunc shows off his bloody elbow; acquired after Matt stopped to take a photo on a corner and told him to put the power down. He did – just a bit too far down. I’d laugh if I weren’t so rattled by all this.
 
We crack on and settle into a rhythm – hit the pavé; regroup at the end. It’s beginning to take its toll and 50k in I start to feel the effects. Hmmm – only a quarter of the way through. Luckily there’s the first feed stop with lots of sort of mouthwash-style mint energy drink (the French riders lap it up). We poke bikes with sticks, load up on bananas and move on. More of same. Smooth; rough; smooth; very rough. I slowly realise my forearms, wrists and fingers are beginning to hurt. My solution is to get right on the back of the saddle and let the front of the bike float over the top as much as it can. Graeme appears to be having similar issues but has a much simpler solution – he simply rides the whole sector with his hands off the bars like a Shoreditch fixie hipster in rush hour. I decide that’s a great idea and try it for about 30 metres before careering towards the gutter, swearing. Hands back on then. At least it’s dry up top – I can’t imagine what it’s like in the proper wet.
 
Second feed. More mouthwash for les locales. Matt has selflessly dropped back to look after his mate Alex who has decided this will be a suitably gentle introduction to continental riding. We don’t see them again until the end. Stevie C had told me to carry extra chain lube and I’d ignored him because I know best, obviously. So it was that despite the double dose of Juice Lube Wet in the morning, all three of us are running dry. Luckily, monsieur le neutral service has a bottle of some evil concoction which he applies liberally to chains, chainrings, jockey wheels, cleats, bolts, frames (I think he might, just, possibly have had just one small pastis first thing, just as a digestif you know, it’s good for the health, oh OK, just one more small one, I have to go and do some intricate work with sharp implements and drive in the middle of 1700 cyclists so a third would be foolish oh go on then etc). I don’t know what the evil fluid was – it was an absolute bastard to clean off but it got us through to the end of the ride so fair play. Dunc had, in a moment of madness, stripped his seatclamp bolt mid faff (see equation above) and so was riding with the saddle nose in the air within 50m of the start of each sector of pavé. Monsieur le neutral service was sadly unable to resolve the issue which means the cobbles become even more challenging for Duncan as the ride goes on. Graeme makes the English language even more rich by telling me that he has “sticked” my bike and got the mud off.
 
And then after some fairly non-descript residential roads we see a gap in a dark forest and a lot of people milling about. Was someone hurt? Not yet, but this was the start of the infamous Tranchée D’Arenberg. It does  have an atmosphere about it, this place – it’s dark, damp, and narrow, and in the rain in a race it must be just horrible. The cobbles are the hardest yet and my recently-full bottle flies out of its cage. Luckily I had listened to Stevie C about the metal bottle cages, bend them a bit tighter still, and crack on. Meanwhile, Alex and Matt have their own mechanical issues. Alex was wondering why he was getting steadily slower, and he’d pulled in at the second feed to find that he’d broken a spoke and taco’d his rear wheel. Monsieur le neutral service is only able to help so much (!) as he doesn’t have any spare spokes, so they get the wheel so it doesn’t rub and ride on. They ride through the Arenberg, offering people hard cash for wheels or spokes, but no joy. They eventually find a group of Dutch riders who had brought their own support crew with them (I’m guessing people who’ve ridden P-R once and are therefore never, ever riding it again), including a well-stocked spares kit. They blag a spoke. But there’s no cassette removal tool so our intrepid pair ride back to the second feed with the spoke where monsieur le neutral service is able to fit it. So Matt gets to ride the Arenberg again, the lucky boy.
 
Back up the road we’ve got into a nice rhythm, Graeme, Dunc and I, which is only disrupted by the most outrageous instance of wheel sucking I’ve ever seen. The three of us are sharing the work well, when we’re joined by a rider who is quite content to sit on the back while we take turns. Fair enough – he’ll do his turn I think. No he won’t. For a good 30 minutes he sits there. We even try to drop back and force him to the front but he just rolls into the middle of the road, sits up and takes a swig from his bottle. My own racial prejudice rears its ugly head – he doesn’t utter a word and he’s wearing plain kit but he’s behaving like an arse and he’s not wearing Dynamo kit so therefore he must be French. Eventually he flies past on the next section of pave and pisses off down the gutter. Good riddance.

 

Another feed stop. Salami. Oooh. Funny how your body tells you when it’s had enough sugar. Two thirds of the way through – about 45 miles to go. Struggling now – whether I put my hands on the tops, hoods or drops it’s hurting so I resort to steering the bike through will and hips alone. I really have had enough now and Dunc and Graeme wait for me at the end of each sector, partly because they’re gentlemen and partly because they’re enjoying seeing my pain. I’d give them a piece of my mind if only I could catch them. A rider has a blowout and hits the cobbles hard right in front of us – he has his clubmates with him and looks in pain but flesh wound only. Dunc stops, allegedly to make sure the rider’s OK, but I suspect to a) have a rest and b) stop his saddle from sterilising him.

Final feed. Surely a feed stop only 30km from the end is overkill? Nope, more salami, oranges and lots of water. We don’t stop for long – that won’t help the pain. We know what’s coming and want to get it done. We hit the Pavé Gilbert Duclos-Lassale – the name rings a bell with me and I wonder out loud why one of the early French aviators has a sector named after him – perhaps he was born here? No-one answers – all too tired. And then we hit 5 km of almost constant pave beginning with the aptly-named Pavé de la Justice and moving through the Carrefour de l’Arbre. I’ve had it now. I’d pig-headedly decided that I was riding all the crown and was not bailing out into the gutter, no matter what happened. I have one of those existential crisis moments where I ask myself what’s the point of it all. I could just get into the gutter and it would all be so much easier. I slow to 8km/h as that seems to be the only speed that my hands and fingers will tolerate. I consider stepping off the bike and then see two grinning idiots at the side of the road up ahead, offering what sounds like a mixture of encouragement and abuse. It turns out to be just that, for it is of course Dunc and Graeme, armed with camera, recording my suffering for posterity. I can’t even force a smile but at least don’t get off. The Pavé de Hem is the last one and in terms of condition it’s the worst of the lot – bloody great big potholes and big sharp-edged cobbles. We get through it and pick the pace up a bit for the final drag into Roubaix.

I do find myself with a lump in my throat as we cross the start line into the velodrome and receive the bell. Some attack the banking with vigour; I’m just content to cruise round and take it all in. I am not in the habit of taking a camera phone into the showers but I make an exception today. I’m just beaten to Merckx’s changing cubicle by Graeme so I sulkily find the nearest free one which turns out to be… Duclos-Lassale (earlier on I was of course thinking of Santos-Dumant, French aviation history fans).

All in all that was definitely my hardest ever day on the bike – Mr Campbell had it right – A week later I still have blisters on my palms like a one-night subscriber to one of the higher-numbered Sky channels. Having now ridden it, it is impossible not to be in total awe of the pros who race it at top speed in foul conditions – there’s no amount of specialist equipment and training that will really prepare you for it.

Time is a funny thing – a week ago I was saying “never, ever again”. As I write this I find myself wondering what to do to the bike to make the front end more comfortable. Almost as if I’m considering doing it again. Someone stop me please.

Dunc’s Flickr feed here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/duncanschwier/sets/72157645038286836/

This also from Dunc:

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today, in the sight of God and this company, to 
witness and celebrate one of life’s greatest moments. The marriage of this rider and the cobbles of Paris Roubaix.
Paris Roubaix is an institution ordained of God, and it is not to be 
entered into lightly or unadvisedly, but reverently, deliberately, and only after much 
consideration. You are committing yourselves 
exclusively, the one to the other, for as long as you both shall live. 

 

Steve
 
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