The Arenberg. For passionate road racing fans it needs no introduction. Its name alone conjures up an iconic image of the world’s best racing cyclists battling along one of the toughest roads ever to feature in a cycle race.
The Trouée d’Arenberg, to give it its full name, has been used in Paris-Roubaix only since 1968. Its 2,400m length cuts an arrow straight path through the Arenberg Forest, pinned in at the sides by the tall trees of the forest and is an imposing sight when approached from the neighbouring village.
Since its inclusion in the one-day cobbled classic, the Arenberg has come to be one of the defining points in the 256km race. While it doesn’t decide the outcome of the race when it enters the famous velodrome in Roubaix, it’s here that a rider’s day can go from supreme to hell a moment.
“Paris–Roubaix is not won in Arenberg, but from there the group with the winners is selected,” famously said former professional Jean Stablinski, who suggested to the Paris-Roubaix organisers that the road be included. How did Jean know about the road? He worked in a mine under it.
Ahead of the Paris-Roubaix Challenge recently, we headed to the Arenberg on the Thursday preceding the professional race in the hope of seeing some of the pro teams having a recce of sections of the race course, including the Arenberg. We weren’t disappointed. Watching the likes of HTC, Saxo Bank and Rabobank rocket over the pavé, even at a steady training pace, was eye-watering to behold.
Interestingly, it was clear to see who the experienced members of the team were – they took position at the front of their group and rode calmly over pavé, like it wasn’t even there – while behind the young guns, future talents, were hanging on, bouncing over the pavé. Shock and amusement evident in their faces, nervous laughter greeting us was we heckled them on.
Thrilled and inspired by this sight, we emptied the van of our bikes, pulled our shoes on and clipped our helmets into place, pulled on some gloves and hit the pavé. I chose to take it very steady, slow even – I’ve only ever ridden one section of pavé before, several years ago on a steel touring bike, so my knowledge of the Paris-Roubaix cobbles compared to the smoother Tour of Flanders cobbles is limited – and tried to keep the speed down. Within a metre the reason for the cobbles’ attraction is immediately apparent.
On paper it’s ‘only’ 2.4km long, but god almighty, it feels like forever the first time you ride it. The bike is skittering around underneath me, the tyres scrabbling for grip on the uneven cobbles, the rims pounding into those jutting out at odd angles. It’s rough. Tough. Brutal. A minute passes and my hands, which I’m trying to use to gently grip the bars, are beginning to hurt. It’s like being in the washing machine fast spin, I’m being shaken about like a leaf, rattled left and right. This is insane I mutter to myself, through clenched teeth.
I feel like I should be on a mountain bike with several inches of suspension travel, it’s equivalent to riding through a rock garden. The impacts the bike is being subjected to are such that I suddenly become worried for the integrity of the frame, the wheels, the handlebars – how can they possible withstand such torture? But the bike survives the pavé and I don’t even puncture on this first experience of it, even despite hearing the rim clatter the stone.
When you first enter the Arenberg, the road descends ever so slightly, make it relatively easy to pedal at a good speed. I feel fast. But about a third of the way along it levels out and the effort required to keep the pedals going rockets up. Before too long the road tilts up, only ever so slightly, but with my Powertap sending wattage figures through the roof as I maintain a pedestrian 19-22mph speed, it makes a startling difference. 400, 500, 600, 850 watts, I’m staggered that I have to this hard just to maintain this current speed. The muscles in my legs are burning, the effort intense.
The cobbles become more uneven along this latter stretch too. There’s holes, dips and hollows, the cobbles come at you really fast, no time to weave around searching for a smoother line – fact is there is no smooth line – just got to take the punishment. The front wheel is being pushed to its absolute limits. Anyone who really cares about their bike will be horrified at the sound track to riding the Arenberg. The metallic sound of the rim smashing into the cobbles, the spokes twanging, the chain slapping on the chainstay is an eye-opening, buttock-clenching audio backdrop to riding one of the most feared roads in Europe.
Remembering tips and advice on how to ride pavé from magazines over the years, I try to ride as fast as I can. The faster you go the more the wheels will glide and skim over the cobbles. Slow down, and the wheels will bump and bounce off them more noticeably. Riding fast on such brutal pavé is more easily said then done, though. It’s easy to see how the big brutish powerhouses, riders like Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara, Franco Ballerini, Andrea Tafi all do so well, and have each won, on this toughest of stages.
I reach the end of the pavé. Rolling onto the smooth Tarmac of the road that follows this stretch of cobbles, the sensation is unreal. My arms and legs are tingling, my feet hurt from the abuse, my heart rate is through the roof, my breath heavy and laboured. I collapse over my bars. Five minutes it’s taken me to ride the Arenberg, and it’s been harder than even the hardest interval on a turbo trainer.
Dribbling a little, snot handing out of my nose, sweating pouring down my forehead, I’m grinning insanely, laughing out loud at the sheer stupidity of it. But yet, I turn my bike around, and head back for another go.
The cobbles have a strange appeal. Nothing can prepare you for the Arenberg. It doesn’t look even remotely rough or brutal in photos or video, but ride it for yourself and you’ll instantly have huge admiration and respect for the pros. On this sector alone, racing it at top speed as they do, they earn their money without a doubt in the world. I doff my hat.
Some people talk about famous mountains you have to climb as an avid road cyclist. Well, just make sure that alongside the Alpe d’Huez, the Col du Tourmalet and other such famous roads people often say you have to ride once in your life, you list the Arenberg. It’s an absolute must-ride.
Impressed with that? Want more? Watch Fabian Cancellara ride some cobbles to see how it really should be done.
Thanks to Neil Webb for doing the filming (and for not coming a cropper as he rode one-handed behind me on the cobbles).