This time last year I was “bricking it!” The previous November, in a fit of madness I had signed up for the Paris Roubaix, Hell of the North Sportive. I had convinced myself id have plenty of time to train and get fit for it and then Christmas had hit with all the usual cheese, port and chocolate.
By March, due to a combination of snow, hail, more port and more cheese I hadn’t managed anything over a few 60km rides and some commuting to and from work and was genuinely considering not going. Two week’s before we were due to leave things got worse, I injured my lower back lifting a table into our new house and could barley walk, never mind cycle, so it really was touch and go wither I would be heading off for Hell. I was due to be taking part with my good friends, and friends of The BCR Graeme and Iona. A message from Iona asking me what Tom Boonen would do and the fact that The Hell of the North is the most iconic race on the entire calendar (not an opinion, a FACT) was enough to make me toughen up, stop whining and get on with it.
So two days before we were due on the start line I jumped in the van for the drive through to Graeme and Iona’s new flat in Glasgow. When we all met we were all excited but also nervous, you hear so much about how brutal the cobbles are and how many crashes, injury’s occur during this race you’ve got to think it’s a bit mental wanting to take part, but if your into cycling and your in the know, Paris Roubaix and Flanders trump everything else, every time, they really are the pinnacle of the cycling year so the excitement was more prevalent than the nerves. Also, what would Tom Boonen do?
From here it was a 4 hour drive down to Leeds, my back was getting worse, but what would Tom Boonen do? A short stopover in a hotel including carrying bikes up 7 flights of stairs, my back was getting worse but what would Tom Boonen do? Up at 5am and onto the bus. Then stops every hour or so right down the entire country making something like 10 hours on the bus before reaching the ferry, my back was getting worse, you get the idea. By the time we reached the ferry my pain killer stocks were getting worryingly low but, what would Tom Boonen do? Stock up on the ferry, that’s what!
For me it was simply slightly wider tyres, 28c Gatorskins to avoid punctures if possible, double bar tape and my secret weapon, extra padded weight lifting gloves!
The ferry journey was 2 hours and then we had another 4 on the bus in France making a total of 16 hours bus journey. Although an epic journey in pain, it was made a bit quicker by all the other cyclists heading for hell. We met guys from Leeds, Manchester, London and various other places, all feeling the same mixture of nerves and excitement before heading over the precipice. All asking themselves, what would Tom Boonen do? As you can probably imagine, much of the chat was around bikes and specifically wither there had been any adaptations to people’s bikes for this particular event. Over the years the pro’s have had sponge seats, suspension forks, wider tyres and various other attempts at making the cobbles more barrable so part of the fun of taking part is working out how your going to approach the pain. For me it was simply slightly wider tyres, 28c Gatorskins to avoid punctures if possible, double bar tape and my secret weapon, extra padded weight lifting gloves! Other people had gone for specific bikes, wider still tyres, less pressure in tyres etc but everyone on the bus was completely amazed by Graeme’s decision to use his single speed bike. Bonkers seemed to be the consensus which was a judgement I believe Graeme ending up making himself!
Bang, my bikes rattling, my jaws ratting, I’m banging about bouncing up and down and clattering on full speed
To the event. Thankfully it was a crisp but sunny morning as we again got onto the coach, this time it was only a couple of hours to the start line and as with travelling to other rides, this journey was over in a flash. I was doped up and although my back was still sore, I could feel it through a fog of painkiller and the adrenalin was starting to kick in. Our coach dropped us off about half a mile from the start and as we cycled towards the line, gradually the streets got busier and busier with cyclists. There is always something exciting about cycling abroad, all the big races you watch on TV are in Europe, generally Italy, France or Spain and I always think there is something special about cycling with thousands of other cyclists speaking one of these languages. Also means I don’t need to speak to anyone when im knackered.
confidence and speed help you roll over them a lot easier than you do if your tense and struggling
So we rolled off gently for the first few miles but it wasn’t long before Graeme, who is an light spring hare on the bike sped off into the distance, Iona and I rolled along a bit further before we gradually drifted apart in the crowds and then it was onto the first cobbled section. Now as you approach, you are genuinely worried, the story’s about broken bones and the legend of these cobbled streets are in your mind and you cant help but think this is going to be hellishly grim but thinking, what would Tom Boonen do? I sped up on the slightly downhill approach and rattled into it as fast as I could. Bang, my bikes rattling, my jaws ratting, I’m banging about bouncing up and down and clattering on full speed. It’s a busy section and although im in a bit of shock I seem to be passing people and faring a lot better than everyone around me so I push on and after a few minutes its over and you release onto what feels like silky smooth tarmac. It was a short section and only 2 star, 5 star being the worse but my confidence has been given a boost and I’m now enjoying myself and looking forward to the next section.
I was enjoying it, I was high, I was hyper but the constant banging, bouncing and brutal jarring gradually wears you down and it does get hard
Over the next hour or so, through however many sections I start to get into the swing of it, I think the fact I do a lot of mountain biking helps and I’m used to picking lines over roots, rocks and whatever else. Lots of the professional looking roadies were clearly really struggling with the constant jolting and having to pick lines, avoid gaps in-between cobbles and keeping their line in the crowds. I also think that its true what they say about the cobbles, confidence and speed help you roll over them a lot easier than you do if your tense and struggling. Most of all through I think that weight helps. Unlike Graeme the Hare, I’m more like a Hippo on a bike and the combination of my weight and, still being fresh, a bit of power really helped me fly though the morning, so much so that not long before the first feed station I looked into the distance and actually saw Graeme bouncing around over the next section, we caught up over a drink at the station and then normal service resumed with him disappearing into the distance again, however me actually catching him at all was a sign he was struggling over the cobbles on his single speed and it does show that the route is more for the bigger, powerful rider as appose to the fly weight climber. Its also pan flat!
After that initial 3rd of the route things got a bit more like normal and the excitement begins to wear off. The sections of cobbles blend into one and the wearing down process kicks in. For the first few sections I was enjoying it, I was high, I was hyper but the constant banging, bouncing and brutal jarring gradually wears you down and it does get hard. I cant really differentiate between any of the sections from here on in apart from Le Trouee d’Arenberg, The Trench. Images of the first world war, fighting in the trenches, barbed wire and mustard gas come to mind and watching the pro race every year, fighting to get in position under the famous bridge and then the carnage as they hit the Trench isn’t dissimilar. Ok, that’s ridiculous but its sometimes pretty bad! I personally made it through unscathed but it was definitely the worst section in the whole route. The trench is through the middle of the d’Arenberg forrest and the surface of the cobbles is therefore wet and almost mouldy, its slippery as ice and this combined with the camber and the gaps, bumps and holes in the cobbles makes for absolute carnage. I witnessed 3 crashes around me as I went through this section, two separate guys sliding off to the right and through the tape landing on the dirt track and 1 guy coming down right in the middle of the cobbles, at the peak of the camber taking out 3 of his mates in the process. Having cycled through here I’m looking forward to watching the Pro’s through this section even more than previously!
To be honest, from then on in it was hard, due to lack of fitness I’m really struggling by this point and its just a case of plodding on and finishing. The cobble sections now that I’m exhausted are much harder as I don’t have the energy or power to rattle through them and I seem to feel every bump and jolt. The things that help in this event as appose to others through are the crowds along the route. The pro race is the day after and the route is already filled with camper vans and fans out to watch and they cheer and encourage everyone as if it’s the actual race, it makes it a fantastic atmosphere and a special event. My one regret regarding this is that I actually passed Didi the Devil cheering me one with his Trident and I never stopped to get a picture with him.
One more incident that happened not long after this was someone trying to cut me up around a corner, I just held my line and he crashed into me and hit the deck. I just kept on cycling, hope he was ok.
I dug and finished the route and I’m so glad I did, the end in the stadium is amazing, again, like on the route there are fans in a day early cheering you on and all the other participants who have finished hang about to cheer people over the line. You come into the stadium, just like you have seen on Eurosport and do a lap to the cheers of the spectators. Some riders are waving, riding round no handed (not me after a previous incident in another event) and some go for a sprint finish but it’s a real festival atmosphere in which to finish. The weather was great and it felt like a real achievement to have completed the route of one of my favourite races. I really would recommend this event to anyone.
Just for information, if you ever do the event yourself, it doesn’t finish there. The next day at the pro race, if you have completed the sportive and have your medal they have a special section in the centre of the velodrome for you with beer on tap and a perfect view of the end of the race. Seeing the world champion ride into the stadium and hearing the roar of the crowd for him and the only rider able to hang onto him till the end just topped off a fantastic trip and I also picked up my souvenir cobble, just like Tom Boonens.
The miracle of all this was that from crossing the start line until the next day my back was cured, like Jesus curing a leper, Tom Boonen had cured my back! A 17-hour bus journey put paid to this however and it was almost a month incorporating massive amounts of drugs and two trips to casualty before I could even sit on my bike again! Worth every bit of pain, anyone up for Flanders next year?
Want to get into the spirit of Paris Roubaix. Come along and join us at the Canalside Pub And Grill and see the race hit the velodrome. What would Tom Boonen do?