Paris-Roubaix Challenge 2019

I travelled down to France at the weekend to ride the Paris-Roubaix Challenge with a few friends. 175km and over 50km of the infamous cobbles. I had no idea what to expect.

We arrived at the Roubaix Velodrome on Friday afternoon to collect our race numbers. The organisers were busy hand-painting the advertising signage on the track – it was like a scene from ‘A Sunday in Hell’ and seemed magically grass-roots and low-key for such a famous monument of cycling races.

It was a cold and early start on Saturday for our event. But once the sun came out it warmed up – we couldn’t have asked for better conditions really. Paris-Roubaix always seems a better spectacle in the mud and rain, but I was pretty happy to be riding it in good conditions. It can rain next year!

There were 3 of us from Chew Valley CC taking part. Unfortunately we were down to 2 after a couple of hours. A snapped spoke the cause of an early retirement. The brutal cobbles take no prisoners.

The cobbled sectors lasted much longer than I’d expected. There are 29 sectors of “pavé”, covering over 50km. I think in my head, after watching the professionals fly over the cobbles I was expecting the sectors to be about 500 metres in length. If I’d done the maths I could have worked out that their average length is 1.7km. Some of the sectors were up to 4km and felt like they took all morning to get to the end!

Before the event, people I’d spoken to had recommended hitting the cobbles at top speed and trying to maintain that momentum. Initially this “momentum” lasted around the halfway point of a sector before my speed started to drop. But by the end it had declined to the extent that I was bouncing along at a snail’s pace, like Superman exposed to Kryptonite. Fortunately my fitness is good at the moment so I managed to get back up to speed between the sectors and finish the event in a fairly respectable time.

We’d made a pact to ride down the centre of all the cobbles. “We didn’t come all this way to ride in the gutter” etc. etc. It turns out that this macho BS approach is very British … and also very foolish. By the end of the ride I was unashamedly riding in the gutter with everyone else. The cumulative effect of hours on the cobbles takes its toll on your body. At the end I confessed to this sin within the confines of the Velodrome and was granted forgiveness by the monks of Roubaix!

I rode 28mm tyres at about 90psi. It was like holding a jackhammer for hours. Lots of people were riding wide-tyres gravel or full-suspension mountain bikes. Initially I thought they were cheating. But by the end I realised they were smart!

Things that hurt the most: my hands felt like they were on fire; my biceps felt like they were about to be torn from my arms; my head felt like I had a splitting hangover from being shaken around so much. My bum and legs also felt the pain.

Finishing in the stadium was a great climax to a long day in the saddle.

It was a good experience … but possibly only needs to be experienced once.

We headed to the Arenberg Forest the next day to watch the pro race. We walked the full length of the 5* pavé before the race. The cobbles were terrifyingly uneven. It was hard work just walking along them. If I’d done this as a recce before our ride I would have had nightmares about riding on them!

We had a bit of time to kill before the race arrived. In preparation for the cold weather I’d brought some thermal tights. I decided to go for a run in them, also wearing my cycling jersey and cap. It seemed like the Euro thing to do! Plus they had a handy little pocket in the front to hold my phone!

The atmosphere was great fun. Loads of singing and cheering. And when the race arrived and the pro’s hit the cobbles at full gas it was incredible. An exciting end to a fun (and very tiring) weekend away.

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