Well this write-up about cycling the Paris to Roubaix race is long over due,
much like the fact this was my very first road event. I was drawn into this challenge by a certain, Stuart McIntosh who collared me into agreeing to the Paris – Roubaix under the premise it was his birthday celebration and with no idea of what it actually involved I agreed. How hard can it be I thought, I’ve just ridden 10,000km across half the planet what’s another 180km in flat northern France? More to the point it was only €30 and you get all the cake you can eat so I happily signed up.
A few weeks before the event we had travel arrangements in place and Stuart had sorted out a nice AirBnB place.
Stuart seemed to be quite concerned over kit choice, but I didn’t feel too fussed not really realising what lay in store yet and besides I had my trusty, uber comfortable Kinesis Tripster ATR so I doubted I needed to do much else to it. I fitted some new 28mm Continental Gatorskins as I like these tyres and I couldn’t afford the better Conti 4 seasons. I was using my CXLite disc wheels from Kinesis, which need 28mm+ tyres due to the width. Stuart was riding the fantastic Kinesis Ti Gran Fondo, we were very much team Kinesis, both of our bikes were going to be well suited to the rough cobbles of this race. He also had some amazingly fat Lizard skins extra padded bar tape and was running 27mm Vittoria Pave tyres, which I realised later are developed purely for cobble riding so an unfair advantage!
55km of cobbles seriously?
A few days before the event I looked at the website for the first time and noticed we do 70km less road than the Pros which is easy I thought, but I next read we do the full 55km of cobbles that’s 27 bone rattling Pave sections! The info also said take at least 4 spare tubes in something wider than 25mm and always use double bar tape. This all seemed a bit too much….well it wasn’t, luckily I had an extra bar tape to wrap around and I had the same wider tyres fitted that got me to China but what lay in store was a seriously rough ride!
I knew Paris to Roubaix was a classic event dating back over 100 years but I failed to realize just how big it really is both for the amateurs and professionals. The atmosphere was fantastic as we set off miles from Paris in Busigny into a misty drizzle and up a rare hill which was also a surprise.
Then after 5km or so we hit the first cobbles: section 1 of 27 – rated a 3/5 star this should be easy, but it wasn’t, it was brutal. Bumping along while constantly losing momentum and trying to avoid other riders was tough, the smoother raised camber in the centre was so wet and slidy I did a full 180 at one point. How could we cover 55km of this in a 170km race was beyond me. We both slowed for a breather at the end of section, checking bottles were still attached and nothing had rattled loose.
We flew along the perfectly smooth, pothole free roads overtaking lots of groups right through to the next Pave section and we soon learnt to just hold the bars loose and battle through. By the third section a smile had crept onto our faces, I was bunny hopping from the gutter into the middle and over holes before drifting corners while overtaking. It was awesome riding if you forgot how much more lay ahead. The next sections varied in roughness but we rode hard and had great fun. I was now thoroughly enjoying being out here riding this historic route with 4,500 other riders, I reflected that it really was one of those ‘must do’ routes for any cyclist.
However it was also about here that our frustration at mountain bike riders grew, well more Stuart’s than mine and for two reasons: Firstly why ride a road bike classic on a MTB, there’s better races you could enter on a MTB. Secondly why draft road riders on the roads then ride like an idiot cutting us up and barging past on the cobbles before drafting us again on the road? We adopted a 29er XC whippet and then his mate for a long stretch, despite my attempts to wave him past or pulling out across the road he tucked in for the long haul silently like a shadow.
We arrived at the first feed station in good shape and I stocked up on cake, waffles, honey biscuits and energy drink, I think Stuart would have kept going but I never miss free cake!
By now we were both struggling to hold on to the bars over the cobbles, a few sections later we were struggling to move our hands from a claw position. The cobbles had thankfully dried out and I was determined to ride the Arenberg trench non stop down the middle: a section of insanely rough cobbles through atmospheric woodland…. I punctured after 50 metres just before a crash blocked the route it was carnage and riders were all over the place. We made it to the end greeted by a crowd of people and didn’t cheat by riding down the spectator’s path like most. Then spinning slowly on perfect smooth tarmac we recovered our senses and we rode with a group of Welsh riders and a London bike club for a long section, neither of whom really took up Stuarts attempts at a conversation and both groups seemed rather determined. The field was overwhelmingly British, like us inspired to enter such a classic event. I got a second puncture not long after the final feed station which was a shame as we had finally dropped the group we had been riding with for a while only to be overtaken back!
The rest of the Pave sections were a struggle, my upper body ached all over and gripping was becoming harder and harder, I literally couldn’t pull the brakes on by the end of sections. We now opted for the smooth drains either side for longer, actively shunning the cobbles if possible. It was pure painful survival on the final 4/5 and 5/5 sections of unavoidable rough cobbles. Then just as the city of Roubaix appeared the rain started, it was heads down to the end as we dragged out a huge group leading from the front at a break neck pace. On one corner a chap lent over too far and lost traction sliding out to the verge, his leg was a bloody mess of grazing but otherwise unharmed.
It should have been a classic sprint to the Velodrome, but it was rush hour in Roubaix and the roads weren’t closed. dodging traffic was not a perfect end to the race nor was a wet velodrome where traction was minimal.
However we had finished and that was what mattered. Never again Stuart vowed, ‘Not even Flanders next year?’ I asked!
The professional race
Roll on Sunday and the sun was out and temperatures soared for Bradley Wiggin’s last ever pro road race with team Sky. The stage was set and we had a great viewpoint with a picnic set up midway through the route on an awkward chicane.
The crowds were out in force to support the riders and it was a great atmosphere as the caravan of sponsors drove past chucking out free stuff you never really wanted by were desperate to get.
A TGV train sprinted over the level crossing on the route just a few minutes before the dust and noise of the leaders roared towards us.
This was it and there they were. They passed at an unbelievable speed as if the road were smooth not irregular cobbles with large wheel sucking gaps. A burst of photos taken revealed Wiggo was in the main group not far off the small break away, sadly Geriant Thomas was clearly injured next to a team car and seemed unlikely to continue much further.
We dashed off towards the finish, queuing along the motorway to glimpse the race running parallel across the flat open countryside. We waited on the final small climb before the velodrome run in. The race looked all set with a three man break away containing John Degenkolb the sprinter as favourite. It was indeed a sprint but predictable finish with Wiggins too far back and looking totally spent.
Altogether a great weekend of riding and spectating. The feeling in my hands was almost back to normal after 24 hours, Stuart was still a claw man, but vowed to make our picnic spot Scottish corner and return next year building on what we learnt from this years ride. For me I’m not sure, maybe Flanders in 2016 but whether I can prepare myself for another cobble onslaught I just don’t know.
Kinesis titanium bikes were a clear winner, helping soak up the feedback from the cobbles, carbon would have been ruthless to ride but many did and survived. The slacker angled fork on the Tripster was a bit more compliant than the Gran Fondo but slower on the flat. Tyre choice was the big issue. The Pros used custom tyres made for the race. We agreed that tubeless tyres next year with about 80PSI rather than 100PSI and with decent grip on flexier aluminium rims would be an improvement. I wont run the CXlite wheels again as the extra width caused the tubes to be exposed to more vibration and therefore wear from the rim and I punctured twice.