Paris Roubaix Sportive Trip 2014
A major part of the sportive is not just the support of the banner waving locals, but also the race support offered by team mates, friends and relatives. Some come well prepared with full spares whilst others rely on friends and family members with a spare wheel and some food in hand. Others ride unsupported. We came across a rider from Corley Cycles walking back up the pave with a broken bike; sometime later we saw him sitting in a support car of a Dutch club. This was probably echoed across the event as people looked after each other no matter what nationality or affiliation.
On the subject of clubs, I took pleasure in noting the club/team names such as Laurel & Hardy Fietsen, from Doodlinberg (or something to that effect) or Team Volcano from Iceland, including one Belgian team who seemed to be sponsored by the local chef…
We dropped off our full distance rider’s at Compiegne and I journeyed onto my start to embark at 7.30am at Bohain, for the middle distance ride of 180km, which features ALL the pave sections undertaken by the pro’s.
I and some two and half thousand riders rolled onto the French tarmac under a warm and sunny sky, and whilst the ‘long’ rider’s had some 80km of tarmac to ride before they hit the first section of pave at Troisvilles, we had less than twenty before our lives were ‘turned upside down and inside out’ on the pave.
The first section at Troisvilles is over two kilometres long and goes down hill. Although hard on the hands, this first experience of the pave is relatively smooth, though if you’re not careful the bike can get away from you and items will spill across the track from pockets or from the bike.
If you watch the pro-racers they will soft pedal after each section of the early stuff, and this is what we did to allow some recovery before hitting the next relentless succession of pave.
The art of riding the pave is to hold the bars lightly, ride on the centre brow and push a gear with some resistance. If you spin too much you are in danger of losing your chain or breaking a mech, and pedalling too hard will see you lacking pace and you thus feel every cobble. The slower you go the worse it is, the knack is to find a happy balance that will see you to the finish.
Many of the early sections are rough; this is where the wearing down process of the race begins, and where the domestiques will be working to keep their team leaders out of trouble and ready for the hard core of the race; the infamous Tranchee d’Arenberg and onward to Cysoing where the race is decided, particularly at Carrefour de l’Arbre.
As we approach the Arenberg Forest, now riding in a large peloton of some 60 riders, the heavens opened and what had started as a warm sunny day now saw us assualted by almost unbelievably heavy rain; ‘God with a pressure hose’ was how one rider described it. With over 90 kilometres to go and the worst of the pave to come, we all faced the prospect of a ‘hell’ of a ride.
The flat landscape of the Arenberg, once a large mine at the industrial heart of northern France, is marked by cone shaped slag heaps and abandoned mine workings. Today the area suffers economic hardship and the roads built for work now find their greatest role as the place for heroes to do battle. The Arenberg mine is now a tourist and heritage site, and a control point for the sportive. Despite some new work the interior of the mine building is dark and smells of age, conjuring up a sense of foreboding, the coming struggle and melancholy. The rain pounding outside compounded the self-doubt that many were feeling as we stood on the verge of riding one of the most famous sporting locations in the world. Your average football fan cannot play at Wembley but we can ride the Arenberg Forest or Tranche. It was with a heavy heart that I climbed aboard my bike as rain streamed off my helmet and stung my eyes.
The Arenberg Forest is a sombre place at the best times and when the race is on, full to the brim with fans as they seek the thrills and spills that the forest provides. The pave looms up before you and the old railway bridge that straddles the pave frames it perfectly. Just under two and half kilometres long, the cobbles here are more like riding over a rock garden and underneath the pave is a miners’ tunnel which has caused the pave to bow at the centre. The first kilometre the pave falls downward and the last upward. I have ridden the whole of the Arenberg many times, but never in such heavy rain and I’m not ashamed to admit that I popped onto the footpath to the side for the middle section. Made from coal dust, myself and the majority of riders were soon caked in the the stuff; my lovely pink Rapha rain jacket had almost turned black.
I returned to the pave for the last kilometre and I made grunting noises signifying my effort in conjunction with an array of grimaces as I pushed myself to the limit. My reward was to hit the tarmac at speed and to gain a whole heap of praise from a large group of spectators. It was very much appreciated I can tell you and I felt like a pro.
Now tired, and struggling a bit in the heavy rain I did question my ability to finish and my mind began to select random notions in my head, all very much incoherent streams of thought, and when I punched myself in the face by mistake looking at my watch, I decided to stop and pull myself together. I spent just a few moments standing in the rain thinking about my ride and I worked out a game plan: firstly, I would stop thinking that the distance counter of my Garmin was ticking over too slowly and to stop fixating about it and secondly I decided to get back on the bike and ride, and importantly work to maintain a line of coherent thought – ‘think bike, think ride’ I said to myself. Once rolling I knew I wasn’t going to abandon and I was so wet now what did it matter? I have heard that people will seek a ‘special place; in their head to go to when under pressure. I think I found that ‘special place’ that day.
The pave was now in a dreadful state being covered in mud and flooded in many parts, the latter making it almost a life and death choice whether to ride through them. The biggest problem I had now was overtaking riders – in the dry the less confident can elect to ride on the packed mud strip adjacent to the fields, but in the wet these become hopelessly slippery and I saw a number of riders fall into the corn fields. Thus riders struggled on the brow at a very slow pace, simply lacking the confidence to speed up and they became mobile chicanes. When overtaking I had to dip into the water logged pot holes and I tried not to dwell on whether there was a deep chasm below. I was switched many times as I kept as close to the rider on the brow as I could, and many an elbow was brushed. I was once in a group of fifteen big Dutchmen hammering along, and when they hit the pave they slowed as if a brake had been applied. Hand on heart, I overtook more people this day than did me.