There was a Charge of the Light Brigade moment entering the first cobbled sector at Troisville. The dead straight road leading to the 2.2km opening stretch of the rough stuff descends gently, giving the rider sufficient momentum to freewheel briefly and take in the unfolding carnage.
Bodies to the left, bodies to the right, bodies in front. Cycling’s equivalent of Lord Tennyson’s doomed six hundred – or a fair few of them – had fallen at the first hurdle. The bi-annual event impeccably organised by VC Roubaix takes place in the summer, with (generally) correspondingly dry and mud-free conditions, yet a veneer of moist slime on the pavé was wreaking havoc.
Some hit the deck hard within yards of leaving the tarmac. Others struggled to hold a straight line and bounced, victims of their own transfixed stares, into ditches either side of the track. Bottles littered the ground; muddied riders surveyed their machines for damage, clasping bruised hips and sporting battered egos; one chap appeared to be heading for an early bath, destined never to experience the legendary utilitarian showers at Roubaix.
The previously jocular nature shared by our group of eight on the opening road section dissipated in an instant. Silence descended as we each focussed on a route through the chaos and wondered how the hell we were going to manage the next 160km without falling to pieces.
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred
The curious thing was we all emerged unscathed. Or maybe not so curious. Those with cobble experience had prepared the Roubaix virgins the night before. Attack the pavé sectors and recover on the road, they said. Keep the hands on the tops, nice and loose. Use the body to steer, not the bars. Ride on the central ridge and avoid the gutter, unless you can clearly see there are no hidden potholes lurking in the puddles.
And it works. We blasted through the sector and back onto tarmac, conversation returning in an excited babble as we re-grouped briefly – a big part of the enjoyment of the day, I felt: we were pretty evenly matched for speed and rarely had to wait around for long. Anyone in a big hurry could always find a faster group to latch onto but, truth be told, we were passing a lot more than being passed, especially on the cobbles. All those winters of cyclo-cross were finally paying off.
The choice of equipment was paying off, too. A ‘cross bike shorn with 28mm Conti Gator Skins, bar-top brake levers and gel inserts under the bars may sound like overkill, but worked to perfection. We pushed on, gaining confidence with every section of cobbles, passing the occasional water bottle, saddle pack or tubular, their owners presumably blissfully unaware of the loss.
The feeling of smug satisfaction with our progress was gone in a flash. The left-hand pedal, you will no doubt know, is designed not to come undone, due to its reverse thread. Well, mine did. At speed. On the cobbles. It was a hairy moment, pushing down on the crank and hitting stone with pedal, but I managed to keep it upright with an ungainly hop, skip and skid manoeuvre.
The multi tool in my saddle pack had disintegrated into its constituent parts. Thankfully the rather better-equipped mechanic in our midst knew to insert the pedal from the reverse side of the crank to overcome the stripped thread situation – a tip well worth knowing – and we were back on the road. Anything not firmly attached to the bike (and even things that are) will rattle loose during Paris-Roubaix, so be warned: tighten up.
The infamous Arenberg Forest was looming large, just when we thought we had this thing licked. Jean Stablinski is the man to thank for this particularly fine (or gruesome, depending on your outlook) stretch of appallingly uneven stone. The 1962 World Champion and ’58 Vuelta winner was a former miner who had worked far below the dead straight road that starts by the pit gates, the tunnels apparently having a bearing on the subsidence of the cobbles. Quite why the great Stablinski thought it a suitable surface to run a race over is unclear. Presumably he could handle it.
I, for one, could not. The summer version we rode allows the luxury of leaving the pavé (or even skipping it altogether) for the adjacent cinder track. The ASO event in April, taking place the day before the race, will have barriers in place, leaving no alternative but to grimace and bear it. Everything you have heard about the Arenberg is true – with interest. I walked the length of it at last year’s Tour and close inspection brought home the random nature of the stones, misshapen rejects jutting out at all angles, cobbled together. Prepare to be shaken.
The consequences of cycling and taking murky substances are well catalogued. The risks are plain for all to see. A curious green energy drink supplied by the organisation looked like something Barry Manilow might sip at the Copacabana, so I plumped for the clear boissons énergétiques – and paid the price soon after.
The rattling of the Arenberg speeded the evil potion through my system and I was crouched behind a hedge soon after. Sorry to be so graphic, but take your own tried-and-tested energy products or suffer the consequences.
Some determined chasing to rejoin the group and the remainder of the ride flew by, even the notorious Carrefour de l’Arbre – a totally different prospect on a dry, sunny summer’s day to a wet and windy April.
The comrades on wheels transformed to deadly enemies approaching Roubaix velodrome, attacks going on either side of the pavé, blowing the group to pieces before the famous, spine-tingling right-hander onto the banked track. Getting out of the saddle to sprint for the line and flumping straight back down again brought home the sheer exhaustion from an amazing day.
A beer or two, the ultimate in rudimentary showers and that all-important mounted cobblestone. It really does not get any better than this.