For those wanting a little more, this is the second in an increasingly egocentric set of ride reports (next up is my visit to the corner shop for a newspaper. And possibly a loaf of bread) so…..
Long winded version
Outside of the Grand Tours, the One Day Classics hold centre stage. And of those, the five ‘Monuments’ (Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Giro di Lombardia) are king. And separating out further are the cobbled classics – the Tour of Flanders (or Ronde van Vlaanderen if you want to go all Flemish) and Paris-Roubaix. And lets throw in Gent-Wevelgem for good measure.
But the one that has always stood head and shoulders above the others, for reasons I’m not sure I can fully articulate, is Paris-Roubaix, ‘Queen of the Classics’, first raced in 1896. Why does it stand out? Images from the 70s, 80s and 90s and impossibly filthy riders covering incredibly rough ground in appalling weather? Perhaps. The fact that Belgium has almost twice as many winners as any other country? Probably. For whatever reason, the names Roger de Vlaeminck, Johan Museeuw and latterly Tom Boonen, the Beckham of Belgian cycling, have always been synonymous with Paris-Roubaix.
So when fellow forum member Gareth, based in Brussels, asked if I was up for the Paris-Roubaix sportive, run every two years, I didn’t hesitate. Here’s what happened.
The first dilemma was what distance to do – the 255km that the pros cover, the 177km ‘Essential’ that includes all the pavé (note that it isn’t cobbles but pavé) or the shortest route that is charmingly described as for the least trained? For me 110 miles with all the cobbles was enough – I suspected I wouldn’t need a 50 mile warm up on Northern French roads.
The next question was what bike. Seeking advice from here and looking deep into my soul I selected a early 90s Zullo SLX with Chorus throughout and the concession of some gel under the tape on the tops and 28c tyres. I overlooked that I had never ridden it for more than 5km at a time, had fitted a different freewheel and was using Look pedals for the second time in 20 years. With new cleats. And second hand shoes that I had never previously worn.
Arriving in Brussels after a tortuous 11 hour train/Eurostar journey I was feeling ready – nervous, excited, scared. Having reassembled the bike I took a quick 10km spin. The cleats were in the wrong place and my brief experience with capital city cobbles did not inspire confidence. Still, too many Belgian beers on the Friday night and the potential to score some Pot Belge made me hopeful. However the Pot Belge proved elusive and all I was offered was the promise of some ‘mystery meat’ post race.
All too soon it was the night before with a pizza to carbo load and oh, just one more port please. The temperature on the drive to Northern France was 30C which didn’t bode well.
All too soon it was Sunday morning at 6 a.m. The weather was cool but my stomach was rumbling worryingly and this was more than pre-match nerves, the anchovies from the previous nights pizza had rallied in the valley in my gut and were on the move. I purged myself before we left the hotel, twice, and by the time we arrived at the sign on I was at fighting weight. Sad to say I then disgraced myself at the squat toilet facilities at the sign on and started the event wooden legged and shame faced.
After a 15km warm up we hit the first section of cobbles. I’m not sure how to sum it up but my vision was so blurred after 300m that I was sure that the dire warnings my mother gave me in my teens were coming true – I was sure I was going blind. Exciting the first set of cobbles was no mean feat either as it was downhill, although only about 6%. Sounds easy? But where to put your hands – on the drops isn’t an option as you can’t get a decent grip, on the hoods will batter the webbed part of your hands and on the tops offers no hope of braking. Fortunately I’m a brave descender and had single pivot brakes so I breezily bounced down. Excellent, only 27 secteurs to go and my stomach was feeling very settled.
We now settled into a rhythm of undulating smooth tarmac before rattling through cobbled sections in as big a gear and as fast as we could. The longest section was 3,700m which doesn’t sound too bad until you try it. At least it was dry though and the biggest challenge was plumes of dust. Just as I hit a road section however it started to rain. At first I was pleased as this fed into my Patis-Roubaix fantasies and I imagined I was a Belgian hardman, hammering along. But the rain continued and got harder and harder until it was biblical complete with thunderclaps and lightening and the roads were awash. Fortunately it only lasted for two and a half hours.
We were now at the second checkpoint and the awfulness of the Arenburg Forest awaited. Luckily although the cobbles were as slick as a mole it had stopped raining and the sun was at least out to dry us if not the pavé.
On we trundled, with the awful realisation that we weren’t yet half way through. At the third checkpoint I marvelled at all the Colnagos and tried not to think of the awfulness that awaited in the next 40km. I also realised that I’d not changed out of 53×17 in over two hours.
Rolling out of checkpoint 3 I was actually starting to feel a bit chipper, no doubt fortified by some rather slices of tasty sausage and some strange green drink on offer (was this Pot Belge?). I did reflect however that although we’d done 13 sections of cobbles in 110km, we had 15 sections left in only 67km and I feared that the worst was being saved for last. Hitting the first section of pavé was a literal jolt as my forearms felt as if they were being hit with red hot pokers – I literally couldn’t hold the bars tight enough to steer a straight course. After the first couple of minutes it eased though and I continued to effect what I liked to think was a British Cancellara pose. However the cobbles came so thick, fast and brutally in this section that it’s best to gloss over it but I must confess that at one point I did change gear amid audible obscenities, repeated mantra like.
Arriving at the last checkpoint with ‘only’ 27km to go I was feeling hopeful but my legs were tingling from the bumpy progress and my palms were blistered, again as my mother had warned me. Still, it was only 15 miles so it was surely in the bag? Over the next couple of hours my upper body was battered although there wasn’t a mark to be seen, almost as if I had been beaten up by the Romanian secret police in the mid 80s. I emerged from each section of pavé with hands shaped like claws and with a sore throat from my Pavlovian swearing. What had been 25kph over the cobbles was now a sorry 14kph. And finishing one 2km stretch only to start another 1.7km section with only the width of a tarmac road for respite didn’t help. Still, nearly there.
And then, almost as if by magic, we were at the velodrome after 7 hours of riding. The relief was palpable and the Stella Artois offered at the finish was very welcome. Sadly the queue for the legendary showers was too as I’d been looking forward to soaping up in de Vlaeminck’s immense shadow.
So what did I learn?
- an old bike can stand up well to the rigour of riding on cobbles with the only problem a dry and squeaking chain at the end
- an old rider, less so
- it’s a great event, steeped in history
- it’s best to ride the cobbles in as big a gear as you can turn and avoid freewheeling whenever possible
- those doing it on full suspension mountainbikes are missing the point
- beer afterwards has never tasted so sweet
In summary, a great day out that will linger long in the memory. I never did get that mystery meat though.
To read more discussion along with ride reports from GarethL and other forum members please click here.
Zullo SLX complete with merckx style ‘classics’ stem