Well, that was brutal!
A group of Sole Cyclings finest headed over to France for what many people believe to be the toughest of the one day classic Cycling races.
If you aren’t familiar with the Paris-Roubaix story and legend then it’s worth an hour of your day to look through Google and some of the iconic images. For the pro riders it’s 280km of all out racing on some of the toughest roads around, including 55km of cobbled sections, split into 29 sections, all graded from 1-5 in terms of difficulty…but all absolutely savage!
I had seen this race as a kid on TV and it had always captured my imagination, maybe because of the nickname ‘the hell of the north’, maybe some of the images of riders covered in dust and mud and collapsing over the finish line, maybe the sheer distances involved or maybe just because of some of the hardest cyclists in the world just relentlessly going at each other over such a tough course…whatever it was, I knew one day I had to do it!
And so it was, on April 8th 2017, our little band of intrepid cyclists woke up at 3.30 in the morning to catch the bus to the start line with thousands of other amateurs from around the world to take part in the 175km version the day before the pros.
Once we got to the start in Busigny it was about 8.30am and ahead of us lay the same 55km of cobbles and a finish on the Veledrome in Roubaix, just over 107 miles away, that all those heroes had ridden in the past. I think that’s one of the brilliant things about cycling, that huge history, all those stories of people riding massive distances on a variety of bikes, and that ability to ride the same routes as your heroes. This was essentially the same as taking a group of your mates to Wembley for a kick about on the pitch the day before the FA cup final…and I can’t see that being an option for many!
The cobbles themselves were absolutely brutal. The first section of ‘pave’ at about 10km into the race was a steep learning curve, with bottles, gels, tools and assorted other bits strewn all over the road after having been shaken loose from riders who were quickly realising that the cobbles are far harder to ride and far bumpier than our professional counterparts make it look on the Sunday! We had done our research and were running low tyre pressures, wider tyres and double bar tape, but it was still a shock to the system!
There were a few epic bits of the ride, the Arrenburg Forest section, the first 5 star monster, was memorable for being tough, super tough, with no respite, and being a timed section, there were riders flying all over the place hoping to lay down a decent marker. The section through Carrefour De l’Arbre was also incredibly hard, much tougher than I had expected (and I had expected the worst!) and I will admit that, despite promising myself that I would ride every inch of the cobbles, that I did venture into the gutters for a 30 second respite on a couple of occasions. Your arms, hands and bum take a hell of a battering. It’s brain freeze inducing, anger rising, frustration boilingly repetitive, and at just over 3km in length, it’s enough to make even the pros search for the easiest line over the grass banking!
So, after 6 hours and 15 minutes I found myself entering the Veledrome for the final 200 metres. It was great to ride on that hallowed track, knowing that you were in the wheel tracks of all those super hard riders before, and knowing that 24 hours later, riders like Peter Sagan would be racing on the same ground. I made time to film the finish on my phone, and then mustered the energy to throw both hands in the air as if I’d won the main event…which to everyone who’s done it will know, it very much feels like you have!
A huge thanks to all the guys who came along to share the trip, and to all of those who we met on the route and rode with, even just for a few minutes…it’s the shared agony that makes it so special after all!