One Saturday in Hell

One Saturday in Hell.  Paris Roubaix Challenge 2015
Matt Latham
April 11-12, 2015

Every cloud, they say, has a silver lining.   Finding myself in an unplanned exile back to the North of England in mid February, and wrapped up in 7 layers of sweaters and thermals, I was getting seriously grumpy.   After a few weeks, I was ready to give my life savings for the opportunity to get back and ride just one Saturday Kranji.

But then February gave way to March and, as a young man’s thoughts turn to San Remo and Het Nieuwsblad, a voice began to stir in my head.  It seemed to have a Belgian accent.  It’s Classics season, you’re stuck in Europe with time on your hands.  Get out there you fool, and go see some of it!  And so, on a cold but sunny morning in early April, I found myself waiting in a motorway service station on the M6 in Cheshire, horribly unprepared, for a coach to Roubaix.

I won’t bore you with the tale of the journey, other than to note a word of advice – don’t take the ferry from England to France if you can possibly avoid it.  There is a perfectly good reason they built the Eurotunnel, and I now realise it was a clever ruse by the English to create a way to get to France which would be kept free from marauding groups of French schoolkids, who seem to travel in packs of 400 on ferries, at a minimum decibel level of 200.  Anyway, having survived the onslaught on my ears, we emerge into a grey evening in Calais harbour, and on to a short trip down the motorway to Lille and Roubaix.

Staring out of the window at the passing landscape gave an inkling of what was to come that weekend.  This was not the France of sun-kissed Alpine passes, the lavender fields of Provence, or the urbane Parisian sophistication of FRANZA.   This was The North.  Le Nord.  Les Ch’tis.  Where men are men, and sheep are afraid.  Or maybe that was New Zealand.  Anyway, once an industrial and coal mining heartland, what is now most noticeable as you cross the region (other than the nuclear power stations along the Channel coast, cleverly positioned such that the radiation from any disasters will blow straight across to England), was agriculture.  And poorly maintained cobbled farm tracks.  More of which shortly.

Beautiful scenery of Le Nord

Beautiful scenery of Le Nord

My preparation for this had been utterly hopeless.  It turns out that most serious coaches do not recommend heading into the Cobbled Classics off a base of almost no riding at all for two months.  Oh well, just enjoy the experience, I kept telling myself, and forget about any aspirations of doing a respectable time.  My bike prep had been only slightly better.  Having realized two days before I set off that perhaps the 23mm tyres, which had last seen action on the Changi Coast Road half a lifetime ago, might need changing.  A few desparate mouse clicks later, I secured what must have been Wiggle’s last set of 28mm Conti 4 Seasons, and that would have to do.  My travel buddies looked incredulously at me as I wheeled a spotlessly clean bike with carbon wheels into a hotel lobby in Roubaix.  They had all brought hard, weatherbeaten looking, mostly aluminium, winter training bikes.  I know what they were thinking.  Soft banker from Singapore – he’ll last about 5 minutes…

Saturday – riding the Paris Roubaix Challenge

And so, Saturday came.  The English talk a lot about the weather, but even I was struggling to make sense of this one.  Minimum 3 degrees, maximum 15, with a 50% chance of rain, said the forecast.  I had already brought almost my entire cycling wardrobe, but I was in serious difficulty here.  Long sleeve winter jersey, or short sleeves and arm warmers?  Rain jacket, wind jacket, or both?  Or maybe a gilet?  Full length bib tights, or normal shorts and leg warmers?  And that was before we even got to gloves and hats.  In the end I went for merino base layer, long sleeve winter jersey (and of course the ANZA club jersey over the top!)  Bib tights, thick overshoes, and rain jacket in the pocket.  Then realized I’d forgotten to put the heart rate strap on first.  Undress, dress again.  Christ, it never took this long to get ready for a ride in Singapore!  Last check in the mirror, the Luca Paolini fan beard was nicely trimmed and looking good.   Final touch, ANZA club cap under the helmet, and out the door.

There were 3 routes on offer for the Paris Roubaix Challenge – 163km, 141km or 70km.   The 163km route included all 28 of the cobbled sections from Sunday’s race, but had the distinct drawback of starting over 100km away, and would have required a 6am bus to the start, so I opted instead for a civilized alarm call and a proper breakfast, and had signed up for the 141km course, which included 18 of the cobbled sections, including all the famous “5-star” sections, and started in Roubaix, doing an out-and-back loop.

3km ride across town to the start – and it wasn’t hard to find – there were riders everywhere, and all heading in the same direction.  The Roubaix Velodrome!  Now I was properly excited.  Nearing the start village, the traditional start to any European sportive could be heard belting its noise across town – the unmistakable sound of finest Eurotrash house music, accompanied by A VERY LOUD AND VERY EXCITABLE ANNOUNCER FROM A.S.O.

In the start village, failing to avoid the ASO Announcer

In the start village, failing to avoid the ASO Announcer

Picked up my race (sorry, ahem, sportive) number and timing chip, and put the directions sticker on the top tube.  Made the fatal mistake of passing too close to LOUD A.S.O. ANNOUNCER GUY.   “ANZA CYYYYYYCLEEEEEING… WHERE YOU FROM… EETALY?”  “SEEENGAPOOOORE… EES HOT NO?!?!”

Eventually escaped the clutches of LOUD ANNOUNCER GUY and got to the start.   Curious thing about European sportives, most of them are not mass start, so you were free to start anytime from 7am to 10am and set off whenever you like.  It struck me that this was a much safer approach than many events I’ve ridden before, and I might recommend it to Metasport for Bintan Cat 3 this year.  Remembering my finest wheelsucking techniques honed over several years of the Changi 32, I hung about until I spotted a group of Americans heading for the start, who looked like they might present a reasonably large barrier to the wind, and shiftily attached myself on the back as they passed under the start banner.  Sadly it turned out these were the sort of Americans who had actually done a bit of training, and before we were out of Roubaix town centre, I was already off the back.   Oh man, this is going to be a long day.

Heading south away from Roubaix, the suburbs gave way to countryside, and very soon I met a permanent companion for the day – the wind.  Unlike the English who separate their farms with delightful hedgerows and stone walls high enough to block the wind, the farmland of Le Nord is open and windswept.  And of course always a headwind, whichever direction I was going.  I tried and failed to hang on to several groups that came past me, although I did manage an entertaining few minutes in a bunch of enthusiastic and very amusing Dutch guys, before they too got bored and shelled me out the back.  A passing farmer on a tractor heading the other way offered some plaintive encouragement… “Bon courage!”.

And then, just as hope was starting to fade (I’ve only done 28km, I haven’t even seen any cobbles yet, and I’m already flagging!) the first food stop.  Ah, here is something the French know how to do properly.  Le Ravitaillement.  This was not a simple roadside water stop with a few mini bananas if you were lucky.  There was a stand offering Belgian waffles.  And another with locally made honey cake.   I considered pulling up a chair and settling down for the 3 course €12 set lunch, but thought I might be struggling to finish before dark at this pace, so polished off a waffle, stuck a slice of cake in the jersey pocket, and headed on.

At this point wind gave way to a persistent drizzle and I stuck the rain jacket on – the first of what seemed like several dozen clothing changes.  The kilometers were passing slowly, and I was riding mostly solo, but this was only an appetizer; the main course was still to come.

45km in, round a sweeping right hand bend, and suddenly – crowds, cars, caravans, flags, souvenir stalls… this was it.  The tenth sector of cobbles for the pros tomorrow and the brave souls doing the 163km route today, but the first sector for me.  A sharp 90 degree right hand turn and I was on it.  The Forest of Arenberg.

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Sector 18 – Trouée d’Arenberg

An old commuting road for workers at the Arenberg mine, this sector was first introduced into the race in 1968, and the story goes that the race organizer, Jacques Goddet gasped in horror, and said “I asked for cobbles, not potholes”.  It was almost instantly christened “Le Tranchée” – after the First World War trenches that gave the whole area, and the race, its famous name, “The Hell of the North”.

Now where’s that app for reporting potholes to the LTA when you need it…?
Now where’s that app for reporting potholes to the LTA when you need it…?

2.4km long, the first of the “5-star” sections, and generally considered the worst of all of the 28 cobbled sections on the route.  A nice gentle introduction, then.  I was totally unprepared.  I had been inundated with helpful advice on how to ride the pavé since announcing my foolish intention to do this event.  Keep the power on.  Stay in the centre on the crown of the cobbles.  It’s easier if you go faster.  Keep your hands on the tops of the bars.  Don’t grip the bars too hard.   Just float over the cobbles.  Yeah, right!  The only way I can describe it, is as if I had suddenly been handed a pneumatic drill.  The bike, my whole body, my helmet, glasses, everything was shaking like it was about to fall apart.  The one key item of bike prep I had totally forgotten also suddenly announced itself.  Bottle cages – you need strong, metal ones, bent inwards to stop your bottles from rattling around like mine were now doing in their flimsy plastic cages.  It was all a blur.  I was definitely still pedalling, and was fairly sure I was still moving forwards, but it felt like all my teeth were about to fall out and my eyeballs were rattling around in the back of my head.

Grimacing for the camera on the Arenberg
Grimacing for the camera on the Arenberg

In truth, despite all the good advice, unless you can sustain power way above threshold for several minutes while you’re being shaken, rattled and rolled, you’re not going to be riding across that thing at any decent speed.  And at my out-of-shape, untrained amateur pace, the main battle was simply staying upright, with my wheels sliding left and right across the mud which fills the gaps between the cobbles.

And then there’s the crashes.  After a couple of hundred metres, everyone was brought to a complete stop for a couple of minutes as an ambulance was parked on the cobbles, tending to the latest casualty.  There must have been thousands of dollars of broken bits of bike strewn here and there.  Eventually I made my way through.  Strava tells me it took me a whopping 14 minutes in the end to squeeze through the carnage (the race tomorrow would do it in sub-4!), but I stayed upright, and made it out the other end.  Right, quick bike check, nothing broken, and all my teeth still in place, I headed back onto the road.  One section down, just 17 more to go!

Feeling a bit pleased with myself, I was determined to do this thing “properly” and ride all the pavé sections without using the gutters, the grass banks or the paths by the side of the cobbles which occasionally offered some relief.  My principled stance lasted about 2 more sectors, and by the third or fourth, I was desperately seeking out every gravel path and gutter I could.  The pavé sectors all have star ratings, and there are three “5-star” sections, but the main difference seemed to be that the “easier”(!) 2 and 3 star sections were just a bit shorter, and the gaps between the cobblestones were a bit less muddy – but they were all pretty horrible.

I was devising ever more creative tricks in my head to keep me going as the pavé sectors counted down, 17… 16… … 11… now only 10 to go, come on, you can do this.  Every sector promised the prospect of a puncture, a crash or a broken wheel and the end of my ride, so as I ticked them off, I was quietly offering a word of thanks to the folks who built the Trek Domane that I was riding.  I think when they designed it for that Cancellara fellow, they had in mind it would be ridden just a bit faster across the pavé, so mine was holding together and nothing broken… yet!    91km done now, and the next 5-star section, Sector 10, Mons-en-Pévèle.  Successfully negotiated, more snail pace than race pace, but we’re still going.

Fans in motorhomes get the best spots at the end of the cobbled sections days in advance
Fans in motorhomes get the best spots at the end of the cobbled sections days in advance

The sectors came and went, and the support was ever present from the roadside – mostly crazy Belgians and Dutch in motorhomes who had been parked up in the best spots for days and had the barbecues going and the beers flowing.

A couple more quick stops to take off the rain jacket, then put it back on again, eat a bit more honey cake, then it’s here, 120km in, the next, and mercifully the last of the 5-star sections.  Sector 3, Carrefour de l’Arbre.

Camera face on again – at the final 5-star section, Carrefour de l'Arbre.

Camera face on again – at the final 5-star section, Carrefour de l’Arbre.

Bike check again, we’re still in one piece… now just two final “easier” 2-star sections to go.   Sadly we didn’t get to ride the very last “1-star”section coming back in to Roubaix, which the race took the next day, so I never did get to fulfill my hope of riding under a genuine A.S.O. Flamme Rouge.

But never mind, by this time my excitement was reaching fever pitch (or maybe it was vibration induced shock) and in my head I could hear Carlton Kirby and Sean Kelly talking me in, this unknown 40-year old neo-pro from Singapore, riding in his first Paris-Roubaix, about to take a famous win in the queen of the classics.

1km to go, and here’s the road approaching the finish, famous from seeing it 1000 times on TV, arrows painted on the road, pointing one way for les Autos, the other way for les Coureurs.  And then, a final right turn and… Oh My God, I’m On The Roubaix Velodrome!!  Deciding I had to have a go at a “sprint, despite being numb in almost every bone and muscle in my body, I headed up the banking at the top end, down the back straight, wound it up to, er, at least 28km/h and… completely failed to spot that I’d already gone through the finish (it turns out that while the pros do one and a half laps, we only got to do half a lap)  So sadly I never got the money shot with my arms aloft in ANZA jersey across the finish line.   But I’d finished, in one piece, both the bike and I had survived the Arenberg and all the rest, and I had ticked one off the bucket list and ridden (almost!) a lap of the Roubaix velodrome.

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Failing to get the arms in the air across the finish –but at least managing to get the jersey in the official photos!

There’s definitely a bike under that mud somewhere

There’s definitely a bike under that mud somewhere

Sunday – off to watch the real Paris Roubaix

Sunday brought clear blue skies and bright sunshine (pah, those soft pros – we got to ride a proper Paris Roubaix in the rain!).

And we’re back on the Arenberg, this time on the other side of the barriers, with about 3 hours till the race is supposed to come past, and this time with walking boots and beers – all much more civilised!  Discover that one of our group works in marketing for Sky Sports, and there are vague discussions of entry to a Sky drinks thing afterwards, so I quickly rechristen the Luca Paolini fan beard as a Sir Bradley fan beard, and grab a Go Wiggo sign to wave.

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I’ll do anything to get into the corporate hospitality

 

Turns out we made it just in time, the spaces on the barriers rapidly fill up, and soon it’s elbows out and fighting to keep the viewing spot.   But we’ve got a prime spec, almost at the end of the Arenberg.  I’m trying to follow it on Twitter and the ASO website and somebody has managed to get Eurosport Player going on their phone.  There’s a howling tailwind, and the race is way ahead of schedule.  Something about a level crossing, but nobody’s quite sure what.  There’s a nine-man break up the road, they’ve got about 7 minutes.  And apparently Wiggo is off the back of the main bunch…

Then the rumbling noise in the distance.  The first helicopter appears over the horizon.  Then the first of the advance motorbike gendarmes.  A couple of advance cars.  Then the dust cloud, and the noise grows louder as the first of the cars hits the Arenberg.   The race convoy appears, some more ASO cars, and then the yellow moto with the time gap on the chalkboard.  And the break is here, 1 man first, a few seconds ahead, followed by the other 8.   Everyone cheering, “Allez”… and then, quiet… for 5 minutes.   Then the crescendo again, this time much louder, as the main bunch thunders through.  Trying to spot the main contenders.  We manage to identify a few of the big names from Quickstep, there’s Terpstra and Stybar, and then we see Degenkolb, and we manage to spot Luke Rowe, Stannard and Thomas from Sky.

Then, a noise I hope I never hear again on a bike ride, as a carbon front wheel simply collapses and folds in two, depositing a Bretagne Séché rider hard on the deck right in front of us.  Wiggins comes past and then an AG2R rider swerves to avoid him.  The Bretagne rider picks up his bike and runs for the end of the sector.  The next day, we see almost the same photo, taken by a press photographer standing next to us, across the sports pages and the internet, even the BBC website.

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Right in front of us on the Arenberg – Bradley Wiggins avoids a crash as Belarussian Yauheni Hutarovich from Bretagne Séché goes down as his front wheel folds in two. The same photo taken by a press photographer next to us made most of the sports pages the next day.

The bunch goes through, and then it’s a mad dash back to the bus for us.  The race has got 100km to go, and we’re going to the velodrome to catch the finish.  Up the A23 motorway, then a clever bit of navigating from the bus driver, through some back streets, and we’re dropped 1km from the velodrome.  Can’t really walk very well after yesterday but… Run!

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Make it to the barriers high up at the top end, and I’m about 3 back, but I can just about see.  The leaders are about 10km away, and we get to see the final run in on the big screen, accompanied by frenzied commentary from our good friend LOUD A.S.O. ANNOUNCER GUY who’s clearly been doing his voice exercises overnight, and is back on top form today.  Lead group comes into the velodrome, I want Stybar to take it, but Degenkolb’s in third wheel and the result never looks in doubt.

What a weekend.  By Monday I can barely stand up and the pain in my hands from my pneumatic drill session on Saturday is slowly heading up through my wrists.  RTI editor asks if I might knock up an article about the trip.  2 weeks later, I’ve recovered enough strength in my hands and wrists to type again.

The mud has now been cleaned off the bike, but there’s still this directions sticker on the top tube and… oh, I know that Rule #75 says that Race numbers are for races, and I must “Remove it from your frame before the next training ride because no matter how cool you think it looks, it does not look cool.”

But… this top tube sticker says 45km – Trouée d’Arenberg ***** and 120km – Carrefour de l’Arbre *****.  So if you’ll forgive me, it’s staying on the bike for a little while longer.

 

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