Paris-Roubaix – What It’s Like To Ride The Hell Of The North
Paris-Roubaix will be held in October, in 2021, a shift from its regular April date. The weather forecast for the toughest road race in cycling is looking juicy, to say the least; driving rain, gale-force winds, slippery cobbles… Sunday on the couch is going to be AWESOME. But what’s it like to actually ride Paris-Roubaix? This may be useless, but I’ll tell you anyway.
What is it like to ride the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix, the harshest one-day race in cycling?
I once did a solo mountain bike race in Colorado called Montezuma’s Revenge. In one section, you had to hike a steep, trail-less scree field, at night, to the summit of a 14er, carrying your bike. The course was unfinishable; the winner was whoever got farthest in 24 hours. Since then nothing I’d ever done on a bike had intimidated me. Until I signed up for the amateur Roubaix Challenge sportive.
I figured that as part of my preparation, I should ask what to expect from people who had. Their answers were un-illuminating, in the way that teenagers are told “You’ll just know” when they ask, “How will I know when I’m in love?”
Whit told me that there’s nothing to really compare it to; you had to experience it. Bill, typically gnomic, just said, “Roubaix is Roubaix.”
The faster you go, the smoother you are; the slower you go, the more the cobbles hit back.
I rode the “medium” Challenge route, 145km. You start next to the Velodrome André Petrieux in Roubaix and ride 19 of the race’s 29 cobbled sections (called secteurs), including all the famous ones. The secteurs are numbered, counting down as you get closer to the finish. You learn to quickly scan the banner arch over the entrance to each section for its number, distance, and a difficulty rating from two to five stars.
After 50km of normal roads, the first secteur is a nasty introduction: the famed Arenberg Trench, a 2.4-km long gash through its namesake forest, which is one of just three five-star sections. At the exit, dazed cyclists stand around and stare into the middle distance as they struggle to absorb the experience, and the knowledge that there are 95km and 18 more sections to go.
You cannot prepare for what happens to you. You just have to go for it.
So, what was it like?
I can’t really tell you. Here are some attempts:
- I’ve never operated a jackhammer, but I expect it’s a little like that.
- Trying to stay balanced in the saddle is like doing kegels while strapped to one of those 1950s fat-jiggling machines.
- It’s like riding a heavily washboarded section of dirt road, for a mile or more, except the washboards are uneven, staccato.
- In the rain, I imagine it’s like all of that, but on bumpy ice.
- And yet it’s not like any of those things.
There are American Roubaix-style events like the Boulder-Roubaix and Rouge Roubaix. They’re great. But they’re not Roubaix. At Roubaix, gravel and broken pavement are a respite – even the notorious cobbles of the Tour of Flanders don’t really compare.
Each secteur is a full-body interval – two or three or five minutes of total effort. Your hands will hurt, your ass will ache, by the end, every muscle in your back and calves will cramp. The faster you go, the smoother you are; the slower you go, the more the cobbles hit back. It’s cruel; it punishes weakness.
The smoothest line is usually in the gutter, the shallow dirt groove next to the stones themselves. Usually. The second smoothest (usually) is the crown of the road, which is often much bumpier. But ride the crown anyway, as much as possible, because you want the full experience.
You will curse your bike. You will feel like your bike is cursing you.
Passing riders takes planning, because there are at best three good lines, often crowded. Most people ride in the gutter, so you have to swerve out onto the crown to pass them. Pick the spot carefully: on many secteurs, the road features an outside row of edged paving stones next to the gutter that threaten to pinch-flat your tire or grab your wheel and take you down. Once you get on the bumpy crown, you fight to maintain the momentum that, in the gutter, would easily carry you past person in front of you.
Each Paris-Roubaix Secteur requires total commitment. If your focus wanders a half-second, you’ll smash the front wheel on a raised square-edge you failed to see and pinch-flat. Or you’ll slam your full weight down over the rear wheel on one of the thousands of sharp, v-shaped compressions, and wince as you feel the tire bottom – hard – on the rim.
You will pray for the tyre not to go flat. It will. You will curse your bike. You will feel like your bike is cursing you.
The Carrefour de l’Arbre – secteur 4, 2.1km, five-star – is the worst. On the Carrefour, if not long before, you completely abandon the crown for the relative relief of the gutter.
But the gutter there is narrow, hard against the row of sharp edge stones, and the crown is broken and uneven, much like your pedal stroke.
Once you’re past the Carrefour it’s the Gruson, and then everyone’s got the velodrome in mind. You’re flying along increasingly busy roads into the heart of Roubaix; a motley, ragged pace line of shattered souls – one tired mistake and you’re all on the ground.
Then, the velodrome! Painted arrows on the ground: left for autos, right for coureurs. Past the gates, facing the ancient grandstand. A right onto the fabled concrete banking. Sprint for the line, because.
That’s what it’s like to ride the cobbles. That’s nothing at all what it’s like. When you’re in love, you just know it.