Human Race Staff Blog: Nick’s Paris-Roubaix Challenge
20th April 2016
Courtesy of my friends at ASO (partners with Human Race on a variety of projects), who own the majority of the best cycling events in the world, the Paris-Roubaix has recently crept onto my radar; both professionally and personally.
The event is, alongside some of the other ‘cobbled classics’ truly unique in the world of sport. In an era when controlling conditions and technology advances homogenise the talent and viewing experience increasingly; to stage an event for these remarkable thoroughbred athletes on their amazing machines, on terrain that has no earthly purpose for anything with wheels, is one of those wonderfully quirky moments in our lives that sport fortunately still offers us.
Paris–Roubaix is one of cycling’s oldest races. It is known as the Hell of the North or the Queen of the Classics – and both with good reason.
The reason it piqued my fancy as an amateur cyclist who loves a challenge (often without the requisite training) was exactly that – it seemed like a quite ridiculous challenge. I tried, and failed, to explain why it appealed to a variety of friends and family. Of my usual group of 6-8 friends who happily take on infamous European mountains each year; only one other (Barnaby) would join me.
I wont bore you with the admin bit behind the scenes, with the exception of our key preparation of the handle bars. This, we felt would be something that could soften the blow of the 18 cobbles stages that we would have to overcome, over 52km – all within the 145km sportive.
Everyone I spoke to who had done it mentioned the brutality of the ride on the upper body. Bone-shuddering, joint-manoeuvring, muscle-reverberating. As a result we decided to purchase two sponges and some handle bar tape to soften our bars. This would make all the difference. With an added dash of Blue Peter and a twist of Heath Robinson – we had ourselves ready for Saturday morning 07:30 departure, safety pins covering our jersey pockets due to everything being expected to fall out otherwise. We were deeply under-prepared, fabulously unaware and nervously excited.
The first 50 km were mercifully flat. We dipped in and out of pelotons and felt we were bang on the speed we wanted to go. We were very mindful of reserving energy – not really knowing how much energy we would need for the brutality that lay ahead.
All the while, we knew we were getting closer – to what, we didn’t really know.
And then the moment came. We didn’t stop to consider or study the first cobbled challenge. We simply rolled straight into the most absurd, dangerous, crazy, exciting, challenging cycling you can possibly imagine. The famous Trouee d’Arenberg stretch of cobbles were doing their best to challenge every physical sense I possessed to help me operate a bike. My back wheel was continually slipping – I was beginning to assume I would fall, rather than hope I wouldn’t. It was such a ridiculous experience that all I could offer alongside my heightened senses, coupled with determination and belligerence, was to giggle. Nervous, excited giggling. The cobbles were shaped like the teeth of one of my early attempts at pumpkin carving for my kids. Some were like cycling straight up a curb.
There was a ‘cowards lane’ alongside the cobbled stretch which some cyclists opted to take, but there wasn’t anything in me or Barnaby that even considered it. We were there to cycle cobbles and cycle cobbles we would.
When we got to the end of Arenberg; Barnaby and I hugged each other. Laughed at the absurdity of it, and kept on rolling.
Mercy once again came to our rescue with the fact that these were the most difficult cobbles out the way. 5 stars of raw brutality.
We were now being hit with regular stretches of cobbled attrition. Some less than a km, some 3.5km. Some windy cobbles. Some double cobbled sections with a tarmac middle to lull you into thinking they were finished, some slippery cobbles, some not actually too bad. When I say ‘weren’t too bad’ I still mean you would get off your bike and walk on any normal Sunday morning ride.
It’s definitely a psychological challenge. Martin Johnson, he of World Cup winning captaincy and famed for his physical and mental strength, rode this year and told me he had to have a word with himself to keep going.
Our psychological game plan, which we discussed in advance, was to just keep going. Not to think too much about what lay ahead, but to keep rolling. It seemed to be working as we were ticking off cobble after cobble, and we seemed to still have some strength. We had some races on sections against each other. Sometimes you felt you had good strength and rhythm and other times far less so. When it was there, it was good to try to attack and imagine the glories of the Belgian Greats who had been there so many times – and keep coming back for more.
It would be fascinating to understand the mind set of the Paris Roubaix greats – because one thing I am very sure of, is that they are impressively hard individuals.
We finally got to the famed Roubaix Velodrome. Being a Trustee of Herne Hill, I feel a kindred spirit to Roubaix. It was a great way to finish, but the track becomes insignificant in comparison to my multiple friends; ‘les petites pavettes’; Pavé, the Cobbles. They have taught me about myself.
I have to say I enjoyed it, which is certainly not a word at the top of everyone’s list when describing the experience. It certainly isn’t for everyone on two wheels, but I will be back for more. It is something I will cherish for the rest of my days and I would love to go back to challenge myself once again.
We finished the weekend watching the Pros. Many a more fluent word has been written by cycling journalists so I won’t try to describe this part with the exception of the fact that the only element of the professionals that I recognised in myself was the expression on their faces. Every man, when they flew (over cobbled turbulence) across the Arenberg cobbles – they grimaced in pain. The same grimace as mine.
CEO, Human Race