The Paris-Roubaix Challenge: the thin line between love and hate

Pulling onto the smoothness of the velodrome in Roubaix in front of applauding strangers, I felt like it was one of my greatest rides.

A few kilometres earlier, however,  my legs hurt, my hands hurt – everything hurt. I’d lost a contact lens behind my eyeball and I felt like sitting on the side of a French farm track and having a quiet moment with myself.

The Paris-Roubaix Challenge, a sportive based on the legendary spring Classic, is a ride that can span the entire spectrum of emotions within 170km.

The sweet rewards of completing the Paris-Roubaix Challenge

I knew it would be tough: 170km is a fair distance, after all, and the cobbles would surely take no prisoners. The day’s constant headwind didn’t exactly help but it was still a great ride.

It started badly with a 4am alarm call and a battle to get some porridge down my throat before a dawn coach trip to the start. As we got our bikes out of the admittedly brilliantly-packed coach trailers, there was an air of expectation as we shivered in two-degree temperatures.

The start in Busigny was somewhat of an anti-climax as we rolled out of the village in ones and twos, and began our adventure on surprisingly rolling roads. As ever, the organisation was great, with marshalls and gendarmes in plentiful supply at road junctions. Later on, the food stops were overflowing with bananas and waffles.

Among the various languages there was a fantastic camaraderie as riders passed and were passed as we neared the first pavé section. Soon, the air would turn blue in even more languages as the first cobbles hit. I’ve ridden Flandrian cobbles a few times and, to me, when climbs are involved, the ride is as hard as you make it. However, the flatter roads and pavé sections of the Roubaix Challenge I think are arguably harder – you know you need to hit the cobbles as fast as you can but you lose speed so quickly. I felt like a cartoon character, amusingly lassoed by someone behind me as my speed fell away.

Some of the names of the pavé sections were familiar as we slowly ate into the distance. The most feared, however,  the Arenberg Forest, was one we knew would spit us out with 100km of the ride still to go. You can see the mine workings from miles away, and the train crossing barrier emerges as you approach. I felt like a hero as I hit the dead straight section, passing the cheering folk at the side of the road.

At various stages over a Leffe the previous night, we decided that we really should ride as much of the cobbled sections as possible rather than ‘cheat’ and ride the smoother gutter or grass to the side. This high-minded attitude soon deserted us as we darted for any smoother surface we could see. In general, in the dry it was better to ride the central ‘crown’ of the cobbles. However, with so many other riders this wasn’t always possible. While I love all the tech articles about the measures taken by pro mechanics and manufacturers to combat the pavé, it’s always going to be hard!

After a few hours, the ‘distance covered’ reading on my Garmin computer gradually caught up with the ‘average heartrate’ number so I knew I was getting there (I love it when you set yourself a target distance to treat yourself to your last bit of food from the back pocket). Suddenly, I saw the section of pavé that we had ridden in our Friday recce and I knew this was our last section: one that that led to the final 10km into town. All of a sudden, the pain subsided and the banter ceased with the locals with whom I’d ridden in a mini grupetto. The ‘wannabe pro’ feeling was spoiled a little, however, by being held up at traffic lights as we neared the velodrome.

Up ahead, I could see our final signpost pointing us to turn right onto the track itself. It is amazing how much energy you can suddenly find when you know you are within the final kilometre: the track felt velvety smooth compared to the previous 169.5km, the finisher’s medal felt like a victory, and the local beer in a plastic cup at the finish tasted like nectar.

My advice to those considering the Paris-Roubaix Challenge next year? Do it. Sometimes you will hate it, but the majority you will love. I have watched pro racing since family holidays as a toddler but have rarely felt such admiration as on the next day when I saw the speed at which Taylor Phinney led the bunch through Arenberg.When an Orica-GreenEDGE rider stopped at the entrance to the forest and turned his bike around muttering under his breath, however, I knew exactly how he felt.

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