My knuckles are white as I grip the handlebars of my bike with all of my strength, jaw clenched tight and eyes locked firmly on the the wet and muddy cobbles in front of me as I bounce and slide from one to another hoping, praying, that I can stay upright. There is no time to look around at the landscape I am cycling through as any lapse in concentration and I know I will be joining several other riders who have already crashed. Instead there is just an intense concentration as I keep my speed as high as possible in a bid to survive another section of pave.
Paris-Roubaix is known as the 'Hell of the North' not for its twenty-seven sections of pave (totalling 52km of the 170km course), but instead for the landscape cycling journalists found on surveying the course after the First World War. And yet, with only three sections of pave completed, I couldn't help but think the race's monicker is suitably apt based solely on the terrain it covers. Having departed from Busigny to a backdrop of grey skies and drizzle it didn't take long, 13km to be exact, for the race to enter the 'hell' of the pave, from whereon the remainder was like nothing I have ever experienced before on a bike.
I approached the first section of pave with a great deal of caution, as despite a lot of miles in my legs prior to arriving in France none of them had been on anything even close to what greeted me in Troisvilles. Ahead I could already see three riders on the floor, all in considerable pain, and I was determined not to join them, at least not on the very first section anyway. As my front wheel hit the first cobble I had the advice of the many greats who had won this race before going through my mind, 'ride the cobbles as fast as you can and stay in the middle where they are smoothest'. This was easier said than done with riders all going at various speeds, fighting their own battles without worrying what I was trying to do.
By the time I had ridden the third section, rated four out of five on the difficulty scale, my confidence was growing and I was beginning to relish and embrace the cobbled sections and the unique challenge each one represented. It is the cobbled sections that give this great race its real identity, and whilst riding them was not easy I felt that with each one I successfully conquered I began to understand the race a little bit more, to know what it meant to those who had won it down the years. The likes of Eddy Mercx, Roger de Vlaeminck, Rik van Looy, and Felice Gimondi, not to mention Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara in more recent times, had all won Paris-Roubaix going over these exact cobbles, and now here I was taking them on myself.
Every section started to become a mini battle of its own, a sense of great achievement at making it through unscathed, one section closer to finishing, but also one section closer to the toughest sections on the course; Trouee d'Arenberg and Carrefour de l'Arbre. I knew that these two sections, both with full five star ratings, would make the rest of the pave sections look like tarmac road in comparison, and I wasn't wrong. Treacherous enough when dry the 'Arenberg Trench', as it is better known, is almost unrideable when it is wet. Here there is no one line that offers a smoother ride, instead the cobbles jut out at all manner of angles, throwing you around, testing your ability to stay upright to the max.
Conditions have been so bad here in previous years that it has been left out altogether, but not this year. Anything but a vice like grip on the handlebars and you lose control in an instant, and with every cobble hit the pain in your hands increases, making it harder to maintain control, but control you must maintain otherwise you will be down. Twice I almost fell foul of the jagged cobbles, twice I managed to hang on and save myself from becoming better acquainted with them.
he arrow-straight 2.4km stretch seemed to go on for all eternity, the end never seeming to get any closer as various riders dismounted, opting instead to take the footpath on the other side of the safety barriers. I would be lying if I said I didn't consider doing the same, but a voice in my head kept telling me 'this is Paris-Roubaix and you have to ride the cobbles'. So ride the cobbles I did, finally making it to the end, albeit in considerable pain and barely able to prise my hands off from the handlebars.
All I could think as I rode on was that I had merely managed to get through one of the two hardest parts of the race, and yet the professionals race through here at speeds in excess of 60kph. It wasn't just my body that was taking a battering on the cobbles, my bike was too and with 90km under my belt I encountered a problem that could have put an end to my hopes of finishing but for the help of a friendly bunch of Dutch riders.
I might not have come off in Arenberg but the strain on my bike had taken its toll as my chain began to slip on the cogs, and before I could really think what was up it had come off, a link bent totally out of shape. My initial thought was that my race was over, as whilst I had come prepared one thing I didn't bring was a spare chain or chain links. Not too far ahead I saw team of riders re-fueling by the side of the road and thankfully they not only spoken excellent English but also had the tools to help get me back on my way.
The break in riding - it took about 15 minutes before I was going again - seemed to take the momentum out of my legs as the next thirty kilometres were the toughest of the entire race. Whereas the distance had been steadily racking up on my Garmin before the stop it was now doing so at a painstaking rate. I suddenly felt lethargic as the cross and head winds hammered into me making every pedal stroke a real effort, I began to dread the cobble sections and the pain they entailed. I couldn't hold the wheels that were going past me and my moral began to drop, surely I wasn't going to not make it to the end, not having come this far.
It soon became as much about mental toughness as it was about physical fitness. I started breaking the race down into one kilometre sections, a sense of achievement every time I ticked off another of those remaining until I reached the end. And then, as the winds dropped and my speed picked back up again so did my confidence, gone was the demoralising feeling of battling the elements and in it's place a new found optimism that I was going to do this. Reaching the final feeding station, 33km from the finish, was the final boost in confidence that I needed. There may still have been some tough cobble sections left but the next time I would stop would be in the velodrome having completed the race.
More importantly I was beginning to enjoy the cobbled sections again, despite knowing there was another five star section to tackle. Having experienced the horrors of Arenberg I feared for the worse at Carrefour de l'Arbre, expecting another section of sheer hell, of jagged cobbles ready to take down those riders who were anything but a hundred per cent focused and committed. It was with a slight sense of relief then that this section wasn't as vicious as I had anticipated. I say slight sense as it was still a horrible ordeal, a series of sharp corners making it almost impossible to maintain any thing like the sort of speed needed to reduce the impact of the irregular cobbles poking out of the ground. Finally clear of of Carrefour I knew I was on to the home stretch with just two low category sections to go before the run in to the velodrome.
If I have one criticism of the ride it would be this; they didn't close the roads around the velodrome, so instead of pushing hard for the finish the last few kilometres were a bit of an anti-climax as riders picked their way through heavy traffic before entering the velodrome itself. Not to take anything away from the experience, as I loved it, but it did feel as if the ride petered out a little when I wanted to push as hard as possible for the finish and achieve an even better finishing time. As it was I came in thirty minutes quicker than the goal I had set myself, including the issue with my chain, so was delighted. As I crossed the finish line I could finally relax and let the waves of emotion wash over me, I had been to hell and back and survived to tell the tale.