Ever since Saturday I’ve been wondering how I can express what it is like to ride at full speed over huge, jagged cobbles on Paris-Roubaix. I’m sure I won’t come up with anything that could ever substitute the real thing…if you dare to try it! I have read several books on the subject, and have seen all the documentaries there are out there, I’m sure…and still I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Good thing I like surprises.
Our group split up Saturday morning, with the Brits going off early to start the Paris-Roubaix Challenge, a cyclosportive in its inaugural year. Myself, Youenn (a French guy living in San Francisco, and my roomie at the gîte) and Alex warmed up with a ride over to our first section of pavé, the Arenberg Trench. We were ‘lucky’ not to be doing the race since Arenberg was not on their route for some reason. Here I am, pre-damage, at the gate (it is closed to cars to protect the nastiness of the cobbles).
The Arenberg Trench is 2.4 km long and is arrow straight. The cobbles were laid during the reign of Napoleon and have not aged well, I can assure you. This section has been used in the race since 1968 and has seen an impressive amount of carnage in its 43 years, including a mechanical in this year’s race that was the beginning of the end for one of the big favorites, Tom Boonen.
Why? First, it is narrow, so it needs to be attacked nearly single file. It is also long and there is a bit of an uphill from around the middle on, so attacks can happen (although very nearly never decisive, since the section is relatively early in the race). The cobbles are in truly disastrous condition as well, so speed is needed to get over them. Want proof?
Alex joyfully informed us how hard and painful it was all going to be before taking off in front of us at a scary speed. The minute I hit the pavé I knew I had entered a whole new world of pain. Going slow was impossible, so I gunned it for the whole length, straight down the middle. It was like riding over a rolling earthquake. There must be some shock absorbed by the bike, but there was plenty left to attack my butt, wrists and brain! My helmet was bouncing around uncontrollably, my arms shaking like jackhammers, my legs screaming already with the force I was asking of them. It was really, really awful.
Then something happened. I began to realize that I wasn’t going to die probably, and my innards weren’t going to drop out my ass, and I started to enjoy this intense punishment. The adrenaline rush was, after getting over the fear, pretty cool. Then it was over and I rejoined Alex at the end, grinning sadistically. Only 14 more sections of cobbles to go…
After a few more the front of the sportive caught up with us. The roads weren’t closed, so were just tucked in and raced along with them. Since the race was on from that point on, I didn’t get many photos. Here is one of Youenn at the end of one of the sections.
For those of you who race (or watch races even) you’ll know how a climb can explode a group of riders. The cobbles are just like that. Alex was always with us on the tarmac between sections, but once we entered into the cobbles he shot forward like a slingshot. I did my best to keep up, but there was no hope, even on the short sections. I can see how a strong rider like Cancellara can drop everybody on these things.
And speaking of big riders, if I never do lose all that weight I’ve been trying to, I think I’ve found my sport. I’m not huge, but I guess I’ve got enough weight to keep me more or less stable on the pavé. Youenn – very light – said he was having a hell of a time just keeping his bike straight, the cobbles bouncing him left and right.
And then it was suddenly all over, but not before one last, diabolical stretch called the Carrefour de l’Arbe, another 5-star section that is very often where winners make their move, as it was this year incidentally. We were lucky enough to witness that move the following day. This is the end of the section and the end of the sportive as well.
Anybody recognize this man? Sean Kelly, one of the all-time toughest cyclists and two-time winner of Paris-Roubaix. This sportive was his first time riding the cobbles here since the mid eighties, when he last last rode the pro race.
This is me, striking a cool rouleur pose, but not quite pulling it off somehow. I’ll work on it.
Before heading back to HQ we visited the Roubaix Velodrome, where the pros would finished the following day. Here’s the famous right turn from the last cobble section into the grounds of the velodrome. Think that arrow is big enough…?
Here are Pavé’s Flickr photos from Day Two.
Up Next: Mr. Patterson meets his match in Flanders.