You all know how much I’ve been looking forward to the Paris Roubaix Challenge Trying to not get too excited leading up to it. Well. It was absolutely bone judderingly fantastic.
5:36:19 and 75.46 miles.
Max speed 30.71mph (must have been us entering Arenberg!)
Average 13.6mph (no auto pause).
Colnago World Cup 2015 on Continental Grand Prix 28mm tyres (90psi). Double wrapped bar tape – Bontrager Gel Cork over Colnago.
Castelli Nanoflex Bibshorts, Castelli Nanoflex legwarmers, merino socks. Orange Giro mtb/cx shoes.
Castelli diluvio overshoes.
Sportful long sleeved 2nd skin baselayer.
Borrowed red spring jacket.
Bioracer Medway Velo jersey.
Ana Nichoola winter gloves from 3 years ago.
Having two support cars made a hell of a lot of difference – and it seemed to be a common factor with a lot of people, having back up by the side of the road. After dropping the others off at the start in Busigny, we made out way to the first rendezvous point – the end of the timed section at Saint Python. It was chilly, but clear with barely a cloud in the sky. Plenty of wet grass to walk through as we walked a short distance down the cobbles to wait for the others. Sparkle’s cowbells were a great idea, even with Tom managing to drop the clapper.
It’s a proven point however that laser eye surgery isn’t always great as Tom managed to confuse a 6 ft plus guy with rather wide shoulders riding toward us with Rob.
Soon however Rob did appear, jabbing his hand at the guy in front and gesticulating wildly.
But as he didn’t appear to have a mechanical or be in serious pain, just a bit more loopy than usual, we let him carry on and waited for the others
They regrouped at the end of the cobbles where Rob proceeded to explain his gestures were not part of some strange cobbled madness. The guy he was pointing at was Juan Antonio Flecha. Yes that Flecha.
They all set off again, with Neil (@HooRoubaix) having had a puncture a slight bit behind.
Then onto the first feed station. Which is where I started from. Rob, Sean and Steve were the first to appear and after I quick chat, I set off in front of them. I’d got quite chilly and whilst I desperately needed to warm up, I wasn’t going to go on a burn out mission in the first few miles.
That first section of pavé – no. 21 – Quérénaing à Maing warmed me up considerably. There wasn’t a huge amount of people going onto it at the same time as me, so I was able to hold my line on the crown and ramp up the speed a bit. I’d forgotten quite how rattly everything is, but quickly remembered hands on top of the bars, hold them very loosely and power forward. Ironically it’s not unlike cx – I find myself riding harder and faster over the cobbles than I do on the smooth tarmac in between. In my head it’s SPRINT sprint SPRINT sprint SPRINT. Because that is exactly how it feels.
I heard Rob’s voice next to me as I rode toward pavé n°20 – Maing à Monchaux-sur-Ecaillon, and I gestured Steve to go ahead just before we hit it. I know they are faster then me, and they gradually rode away for me. Knowing Phil and Neil were still behind me was quite heartening.
Heading up the tarmac after a couple of sections was great. Legs had started warming up and I’d got warmer.
I can’t remember why, but I was looking down rather than up as I left Demain. A quick glance up showed flashing lights and a metal level crossing barrier/pole already lowering in front of me. You wouldn’t think it but I was going far too fast to stop, so grabbing the brakes I manged to chest it pretty hard… and not fall off. A rider coming up behind me was the only person to see it, and as he pulled up alongside he was chuckling away. A *beep beep beep* heralded the arrival of our minibus and trailer behind. I think I turned around and waved, although I’m not too sure!
Phil and Neil both managed to catch me up before the next cobbled sector n°19 – Haveluy à Wallers. We rattled over it, in the middle as there wasn’t much room on the sides, and as we came out the other end, Phil informed me the next section was n°18 – Trouée d’Arenberg as he caught sight of the iconic coal mine that marks the first sight of the Trench. Turning into the bit of tarmac leading up to it was frankly unreal, crowds already gathered some behind barrirs, some in front, Belgians, French, British just starting to have a party that lasts all weekend.
As Phil says – ‘Nothing happens before Arenberg.’
I’m pretty sure my words were ‘Jesus Christ here we go!’ and then ‘let’s hit this hard at speed.’
As we sped onto the first few cobbles ‘oh hell’ went through my head as we attempted to ride them hard and fast. Nothing quite prepares for the complete irregularities and huge gaps, let alone the fact that it was wet and muddy. All sectors (apart from Troisville) had been dry so far. A glance at the old Garmin showed 23mph as we entered the dank forbidding forest.
Then the sounds you dread to hear. That distinct sound of a bike, then another going down, lycra going off route in front as riders are unable to hold their original line. I could see one down, and another, a hold up on the section where you dread to stop. I can honestly say I did not touch my brakes, but had to stop pedalling as there was only a narrow space on the left to squeeze through. I’d lost the speed I needed then, and ended up juddering to a stop, I managed to get going again, and get back over, but with people going down all around, and no chance of getting back up to speed, we ended up going up the right hand side. Jumping back on a bit further up, we managed to ride the rest of it. Despite more and more riders going down all around me, both Phil and I managed to stay upright.
I saw Sparkle and Lee at the end, and we managed to pull in by Tom. I failed totally to open an energy bar with teeth or gloves, and Tom took pity on me opening it for me.
I remember setting off again, knowing Phil was forced to ride a bit slower as I’d just started to have a bit of energy lag. And I certainly remember riding sector no 16 Hornaing à Wandignies (4 star rating 3.7km), no 15 – Warlaing à Brillon (3 star, 2.4km) and n°14 – Tilloy à Sars-et-Rosières (4 star, 2.4km) as they were one after the other in fairly quick succession, and certainly not easy to ride!
A quick stop at the feed station. Honestly oranges have never tasted so good! A visit with the support team around the corner to pick up some more bars and gels. And off again.
We ended up riding a sector, slowing/stopping the other end (mostly for me!) and waiting for each other, trying to figure out without looking at the top tube sticker which sector was next, and how long it was and how many stars it was rated. The answer was… no idea… and it didn’t matter. Over and over again, I knew (and told Phil repeatedly) that we would be fine when we got to sector 5 – because I knew it from last year.
I’d just ride the cobbles (or the side of the sector if available!!) as hard as I could – churning the best gear I could. Which was fine until you really are tired, and just don’t quite have enough energy to get past the slightly slower rider in front without blowing up. Every bit of road into the headwind was slowly draining me, and the last feed station was more than welcome. More oranges, bananas, orange energy drink, and off again.
I’ve no idea how much crap we talked, as the energy levels slowly burnt down, but it was a lot. Idle thoughts become voiced questions as you get more tired. Mentally I loved every second of it, although finally seeing the entry to sector 5 – Camphin-en-Pévèle (4 star, 1.8km) was a hell of a relief, then seeing both James and Helen Standen picked the mood up a bit more. I think I knew at this point that we would make it. The Carrefour de l’Arbre (5 star, 2.1km) was not too bad, until we turned the corner into that sapping headwind. Phil dropped me here as I struggled along first the right then the left, then just pushing along and trying to blank it out of my mind as a few cars came past rather closely! Eventually I reached the end, and pulled to a stop by Phil, using one of his gels as I was out.
I can’t pretend the last two sectors were easy – although we rode Gruson on the gravel at the side. Well until I got nearer to the end, and an ‘I WILL do this’ filters into my brain, and I get back on the cobbles. Same for sector 2 – which I still profess to personally dislike. This time it was easier, riding proper lines through and off the corners, and hammering the last section right down the middle.
The last bit we knew was all tarmac, so the sheer relief as I think we laughed was huge. Well until we got to 5km to go where they had decided to route us over a few meters of new cobbles – that was just like… what? Why would they do that!??! How? Just… disbelief doesn’t cover it!
We ended up on the banking in the velodrome, but finished safely. I still can’t get over doing it! No punctures or mechanicals for the entire group! A celebratory drink after nearly had me on my knees. Dehydrated, drained and very very tired..
I can’t thank Medway Velo enough. Especially Rob Kennison for talking me into it, Phil Booth for riding with me and looking after me without complaint. Also the drivers – Anthony and Lee, soigneurs Sparkle & Tom Kennison, and the other riders; Sean, Steve, Neil and Ian. A great group that got on really well, especially when chasing the race the next day, and so many laughs on the way home – as the minibus massive managed to catch one ferry, and the car crew got stuck at passport control! Guys, you were absolute diamonds, and I’m proud to have been part of it!
Thanks also to Continental Tyres – for the Grand Prix GT 28’s. Never had a moment of doubt with grip on the damp sections being so important. They rolled through everything and barely looked used! So impressed, definitely a go to for next time (which might well be June!)