Distance: 105.89 miles
Time: 7 hours 20 minutes 05 seconds
Average speed: 14.4 mph
Maximum speed: 32.5 mph
Odometer (at end): 1490.1 miles
Theo de Rooy: "It's a bollocks this race! You're working like an animal, you don't have time to piss, you wet your pants. You're riding in mud like this, you're slipping, it's a piece of shit..."
Interviewer: "Will you ever ride it again?"
de Rooy (without hesitation): "Sure, it's the most beautiful race in the world!"
PROLOGUE: CYCLO-KILLER, QU'EST-CE QUE C'EST?
Well over one hundred years old, the legendary Paris-Roubaix cycle race is held every Easter (provided there isn't a world war in progress). Northern France is pretty flat, so the difficulty doesn't come from excessive climbing, but instead lies in the otherwise innocuous form of 28 sections of pavé (cobblestones), representing some 50 miles of the 160 mile route. Often these are damp and awash with mud, leading to some interesting results... Nonetheless, professional cyclists somehow manage to navigate the tortuous and treacherous course at daredevil speed.
The race is popularly known as l'enfer du Nord (the hell of the North) or, simply, ‘a Sunday in hell’. But it's not just the pro cyclists who get all the fun. Every two years the Velo Club de Roubaix Cyclotourisme organise a massive event, involving over 2,500 participants, where ordinary people (loosely defined) can tackle something closely resembling the route of the race. It's also held in the (theoretically) more climatically favourable month of June but don't be fooled by the reference to cycle tourism: it is no holiday.
In January, John began to make noises that we should participate in the 2008 edition of the 'cyclo' event. I did a little research and, when my suspicions that Paris-Roubaix involved considerable amounts of suffering were confirmed, I readily agreed. Moreover, the whole package – travel, accommodation, entry fee – cost just a little over £100 each. Easy on the wallet, hard on body, bicycle and sanity.
Our touring party initially consisted of four riders, with Lidia and her mum offering to provide support. By the time the event came around, however, external factors had reduced our team down to ... the dynamic pairing of John and I. Lidia's dad's bike had gone AWOL, so he would join the two ladies in the support vehicle.
Our preparations basically consisted of ordering 20 inner tubes, given that the cobbles foster a high puncture rate. We also rode a century ride around Suffolk last month: although this proved we had the fitness, it didn't really test our mental fortitude (though John did have to listen to me rambling on for the best part of seven hours - much like he had to during Paris-Roubaix).
Anyway, the fateful weekend finally arrived - in the meanwhile Lidia and John got married, and I'm sure they won't mind me pointing out that I've, so far, managed to hijack nearly half of the weekends they've spent as man and wife with my cycling demands.
Derek and Gill of the Willesden kindly lent me a bike bag, so on the Friday night I took my Condor apart and bagged it up, along with the inner tubes, various changes of clothing and, optimistically, a couple of chapters of my PhD. On the Saturday I got up bright and early and made my way from Shotley to St. Pancras under ominously leaden skies. I must say that, with bike bag, sunglasses and clutching a coffee, I must've looked quite the convincing globetrotting cyclist. Either that, or I looked like a moron (it's a fine line, after all).
Lidia and John soon joined me at St. Pancras, carrying a gigantic bag which could've easily fitted three Lidias in it. We made a quick dash to M&S for food, and bumped into Pia, one of Lidia's LSE friends who was at the aforementioned wedding. We checked in - and I have to praise Eurostar for making it very easy to get bikes in bags through their x-ray machines - and got another coffee. Lots of excitable chatter, and I think Lidia and John got a word in edgeways too.
Soon we were flying out of London, briefly stopping at the glamour spot that is Ebbsfleet International, before plunging into the channel tunnel. I barely had time to drink another coffee and mess up the crossword!
We were met at Lille by the Panico parents. The sky was still gloomy, and we were staying in quite a modern, functional part of the city. Nonetheless, we had arrived and we could start to focus on the ordeal ahead. We began assembling our bikes straightaway, accompanied by more coffee. It soon became clear that my level of bike chain maintenance did not meet up to Mr. Panico's exacting standards. He tut-tutted, admonished me sharply, and set about cleaning my drivetrain.
Once the bikes were in one piece, John and I headed out for a test ride. My gears weren't working. I couldn't recall the exact procedure for fine-tuning the indexing, which probably made matters a lot worse. We returned to the hotel with me in a grim mood, which got progressively worse as the combined power of our touring party proved unable to get me shifting properly. Moreover, as I lounged around Mr. Panico suddenly grabbed my leg, slapped it about a bit, declared his approval and revealed that he used to shave his.
Me: ‘Why did you stop?’
He: ‘I got a fiancée’
My mood was lifted by Mrs. Panico providing a large dinner of pasta, cheese, salad and various other tasty items. After dinner, I was knackered but had one last fiddle with my gears and – just about to give up - I gave the barrel a completely arbitrary twist. The gears started shifting perfectly. Bon! I was now ready for whatever the Paris-Roubaix could throw at me. Or so I thought...
Five go mad in northern France indeed. We all got up just after five o'clock in the morning (four o'clock BST) and, after some much-appreciated coffee and breakfast, we poured into the car which was also now packed with bikes, food and maps. It was a bit chilly and the sun remained conspicuous by its absence. We left Lille and got onto the motorway: the terrain was even flatter than Suffolk and, once off the main road, we passed through several sleepy towns, shutters down. I became animated at the sight of a field of cows, but then realised how early it was and returned to quiet grumbling and surveying the monotonous scenery.
A small group of cyclists hurtling the other way provided a visual clue that we were nearing Bohain, which was where John and I were to start our adventure (we'd chosen to cut off the first 50 miles, because they didn't involve cobbles and were therefore pointless miles).
We parked and quickly assembled the bikes, and were soon looking for the signing-on point. The town was much more lively than the others we'd passed through, and there was brightly coloured lycra everywhere. I was chastised for cycling on the wrong (left) side of the road, but managed to locate the sports hall, which was jam-packed with cyclists from France, Belgium, Holland, Britain and elsewhere. We signed on, and I went off to the bathroom where I managed to successfully execute my first fall of the day: a slippy floor plus cleats plus my general instability equals trouble. Unfortunately, Mr. Panico witnessed my ineptitude and helped haul me back on my feet. Fortunately, I was not hurt except for pride. I grabbed a free coffee, chugged it down and, noting John’s eagerness to get going, we tied our numbers to our bikes and set off on the road to hell.
The first ten miles went really quickly which did nothing to prepare us for what was to come. Lovely smooth asphalt, and we overtook several groups on the road. One Norwegian guy was really wrapped up - it wasn't that cold!! - and I was enjoying my first experience of continental cycling. A few early-rising townsfolk were standing in their doorways watching us pass their houses. The weather was cool and the sky was still grey - not inspiring, but certainly comfortable for cycling in.
The first section of cobbles - the Pavé de Troisvilles - caught us unawares. We hit them at 20mph and immediately realised this was unsustainable. Bone-jarring bumps, the front of the bike became like a pneumatic drill, the tyres struggled to grip the slimy surface, braking caused the bike to buck and slide alarmingly. My bottle flew out of its cage, prompting us both to stop and gather both it and our senses. I suggested cycling along with one foot uncleated: John scoffed at this suggestion and sprinted off, fearless. I had to follow his example, in order not to lose face. Rain over the preceding days had given the cobbles a liberal coating of mud, making them hazardous as well as uncomfortable. We soldiered on at a much reduced pace, rarely doing anything above 15mph. The uphill sections were alright as you could create a bit of grip, but descending - as shallow as the gradients were - was a nightmare because braking was so risky.
We soon learned the necessity of picking a line through the cobbles: the middle was the best bet, as the sides were slippery and rougher. As the day wore on, the cobbles became even more of an ordeal (although, mercifully, they'd mostly dried out by the end) and it was impossible to take your mind off the pain - you had to concentrate on the five metres in front of you and your brain becomes so jolted and frazzled that you can't think of anything else.
Quite a few people do this on mountain bikes, which I personally think defeats the object. In photos, the cobbles don't look particularly hard and would be easily dealt with on a suspension bike with fat tyres. The whole point of Paris-Roubaix is that you do it on a road bike, i.e. something designed to be fast and unforgiving on normal roads, and therefore devilishly uncomfortable on any form of broken surface. It didn’t help that one group of mountain bikers were riding like morons. Indeed, though the rumours that continental motorists give bicycles a lot more respect were quickly confirmed during this ride (though no cars were allowed on the cobbles), I was slightly shocked by the poor road sense of many of the cyclists. I guess not having to worry about the traffic so much fosters this attitude, but it was a bit unnerving - hardly anyone looked behind them before pulling out, and on the cobbles they were overtaking very closely, usually preceded by 'Weeeeelsden, gauche!'
In between the cobbled sections, we noticed John’s bike making a collection of interesting noises: whirring, squeaking, rattling. These were precisely the noises my body was making on the cobbles. Our spirits were still strong, but we wondered whether our bikes would stand up to the punishment.
SWEET SOLESMES MUSIC
When we arrived at the checkpoint at Solesmes, Team Panico was waiting for us. Mr. Panico, buzzing with energy, set about John’s bike, cleaning off the mud and fiddling with the headset (it used to be his bike). We muttered about the cobbles (which had caused my seatpost to slip), and ate a few waffles, washed down with a bright green energy drink that looked like, tasted like and probably was mouthwash.
Suitably refreshed, we headed back onto the road. Mr. Panico had advised me to use the big chainring on the cobbles, and – as ever- his advice proved sound. In fact, I got too cocky and, inevitably, slid off on a patch of mud. My right hip was cut up a bit, but I was secretly quite pleased: I was now liberally splattered in mud and looked like an authentic competitor. I also attracted more attention (and laughter) from spectators after this.
The next crash was less amusing. We were off the cobbles, and passing through more small towns, when I suddenly and completely lost it. I still don’t know what happened, but we were approaching a slight kink in the road and my bike slid out from under me at 18-19mph. I couldn’t control anything, swerved across the road (thankfully there wasn’t any oncoming traffic), hit the kerb, my front tyre went ‘bang’, I went down, slid across the pavement, and bumped my head on a wall. I was up in seconds, though, and nothing felt too awful. My bike, however, looked a bit wrecked: a shredded inner tube poking out of the front tyre, gear shifter bent inwards, handlebars and saddle scuffed, rear wheel out of true ... was really glad to have John there, he checked out the rear wheel while I collected myself. A small gathering of people outside a cafe on the other side of the road just let us get on with it, as if low-flying Englishmen were an everyday occurrence.
Once we got on the road again, I took it a bit more easily, as things felt a little odd. My front tyre obviously didn’t have as much air in as previously, and the handlebars had started clicking, which triggered alarm bells, given I had a pair snap on me last year. My brain was also a little slow, and I relied on John to pick out the route for a while.
ANOTHER BRICK IN THE WALLERS
The next feed stop was at Arenberg, just before the notorious Tranchée d’Arenberg, a 2400m stretch of historic pavé. There is an ‘easy’ mud track on the side of the main cobbles, but the professionals are not allowed to use this. Plus, after being mocked by John for my 'one cleat' suggestions, I’d set myself the goal of cycling every bloody metre of pavé. It was hell, especially as my various injuries were starting to ache. I motivated myself by trying to remain impassive in front of the massed spectators, and by telling myself I was tougher than the guys who were cycling on the mud track.
By now we were forty minutes late for our rendez-vous with Team Panico, and as we sprinted the last couple of kilometres into Wallers, we heard our phones ringing in our jersey pockets. We eventually caught up with the team car, which was directing other cyclists at a junction. According to Lidia, this meeting was the low point for both the support team and the riders. I was in a bit of a foul mood owing to my earlier crash, John’s mechanical woes had flared up again, and everyone was a bit knackered. But there were still 60 miles to go. I had a look at my wounds a bit more closely and wished I hadn’t. Mrs. Panico gave me a trail mix bar, and told me I’d be fine (i.e. 'Ed, don't be such a baby') because I was "a big guy". So off we went again.
BEUVRY AND THE BEAST
After leaving Wallers, I brightened up a bit and started picking up the pace on the asphalt. The pattern seemed to be that John and I would streak away from bunches on the normal roads, only to have them all re-take us on the cobbles.
Although one of the earlier bits of pavé was 3700 metres, it was relatively early on so we didn’t notice the distance so much. At Hornaing, we had another 3700 metre section, which didn’t seem to end. By the time we got to Beuvry, only 16 miles since we’d last met up with the support team, we’d covered another 8 miles of cobbles. Ouch. At Beuvry I drank more bright green energy drink, mixing it with bright red energy drink to make a weird purple brew; I also had some chocolate and some orange segments. Tres Bien.
Fed and watered, my spirits were definitely on the up, although I flagged a little when John’s bike required further emergency repairs just as we were setting off. By now, I just wanted the whole thing to be over as quickly as possible. I was not regretting participating, but important bits of me were getting sore and I was ultra-tired. I now started to recall that I’d done a lot of cycling in the weeks prior to this event.
The sun had also come out, but this was not necessarily a good thing. Riding quickly on the normal roads created a cooling breeze, but on the cobbles the heat was relentless, and I was getting hot and bothered, and was sweating and swearing (and occasionally singing) under my ragged breath.
By now, we realised that every time the route deviated from a main road, we’d be in for some pavé, and the sections were now coming thick and fast. The sun had brought out more spectators, though, and it was nice to have people shouting “Allez!” at us, and I made a point of waving back to all the children who were looking at us in bemusement and, perhaps, awe.
By this point, my body was shattered. My hands now just felt like painful stumps, my arms were shaken to pieces, my head was floating away, my bottom was not in a good way presumably because my seatpost kept slipping, my hips ached and now my feet decided they wanted to join the party, and began to hurt as if they’d been stamped on repeatedly.
AND YOU CAN TELL EVERYBODY THIS IS CYSOING
Despite my physical woes, my resolve remained fairly strong. I have to admit there were some points where I thought "what the hell am I doing here?", but this feeling was (usually) brief and was evaporated by the enthusiasm of the spectators and the general ambience surrounding the event.
I even managed to put on a decent turn of speed as we approached Cysoing which was thronged with cyclists and concerned onlookers. According to Lidia, just before we arrived somebody had been rushed in on a stretcher and she’d been worried it had been one of us.
At Beuvry I had mentioned how much I’d love a coffee, and Mrs. Panico once again came to my rescue, even though she apparently has difficulties understanding me (who doesn't): she was there at Cysoing with a proper espresso, in a proper cup. This was the happiest moment of the day!
I’d also taken off my shoes (which Mr. Panico immediately set about with a screwdriver to get rid of some of the mud from the cleats) so my feet got a bit of a rest. I also discovered, on yet another trip to the toilet (my digestive system was being about as reliable as the rest of me), that I hadn’t put my shorts on correctly which had undoubtedly contributed to my, erm, seating issues. My seat-post had also slipped again, which meant I was riding in some very odd positions.
We only had about 20 miles left after Cysoing, but the Paris-Roubaix has a sting in the tail, with a few more sections of tricky pavé, notably the Carrefour de l’Arbre. This was where I nearly cracked, especially as I kept getting held up by a guy who fell off not once, not twice but three times ahead of me. Absolute suffering, I could no longer hold a straight line, I could no longer transfer any sort of power to the pedals. Oddly, as soon as I was off the cobbles I was fine again.
ROUBAIX, DON'T TAKE YOUR LOVE TO TOWN
As we approached Roubaix, I began to crank it up – this is where all the time trialling came in handy. When you know how far you’ve got to go, you can just go for it. The last stretch of pavé was purely ornamental and John, me, and a few others really caned it here. Without warning we were suddenly in the velodrome: noise, colour, applause and we got to do a lap, though we sensibly chose not to go up on the banking, having witnessed one guy come a cropper in front of us. At the end, we were greeted by Lidia and the rest of the team, and it was smiles all round, masking a whole world of pain. (As an aside, we later discovered a brand of bread called Pavé and, given the French word for bread is pain, this seemed apt).
We got our certificates, a free baguette and drink, and made our way slowly back to the car. We were pretty muddy, so we had to cover up before we were allowed in – Mr. Panico suggested I take off my shorts and was horrified to discover I don’t wear underwear under my lycra (erm, I told him of this fact, I didn't just whip off my shorts there and then) ... anyway, this is from the man who introduced me to cycling shorts through some memorably graphic expressions of concern about chafing!
Poor Mrs. Panico was wedged between John and I in the back of the car ... I guess we were pretty pungent by this point. We drove the short distance back to the hotel, and I’ve never been so grateful for a shower. I finally saw the extent of my grazes, which weren’t too bad except the nasty-ish bit of road rash on my left thigh.
I really cannot thank the Panicos enough for spending a day driving about while John and I did something which, by all accounts, was a bit insane. The enormous amount of food Mrs. Panico cooked was also much appreciated both before and after the ride. I also thank John for doing this with me: I think we managed to drag each other around and I was especially glad to have someone to ride with after the crash.
After a big dinner on the Sunday night, we all pretty much dozed off, though not before Mr. Panico delivered a lecture on how cobbled roads actually 'massage' the legs, while smooth rides tighten the muscles. I have a lot of respect for the man, but this was clearly insanity. Much like Lidia suggesting I spray deodorant on my wounds to prevent infection. Hadn't I suffered enough? I was having trouble picking up a coffee cup with my crippled hands, and I noticed John was having the same problem. In fact, our hands were grotesquely swollen.
On Monday morning, we got up to have breakfast with Mr. And Mrs. Panico before they headed off back to Toulouse. Lidia, John and I then headed into Lille in bright sunshine. The centre of Lille is lovely, lots of cafes. I couldn’t resist a Leffe for elevensies.
I then headed to the Cafe Voltaire where I sat for an hour reading some history. Lidia and John returned to join me for lunch, which consisted of a variety of crepes and a few more beers. The afternoon moved on, lazily, and we returned to the hotel, picked up our bags, and went off to catch the Eurostar home.
We left Lille at 5:40ish (4:40 UK time) and two hours later I was at Liverpool Street in time to witness the entire East Anglian mainline collapse owing to overhead line damage. An epic journey to rival the Paris-Roubaix followed, and I got home just before midnight: my parents kindly came to get me from Colchester. By this point I was a babbling wreck and could’ve done with a couple more Leffes.
It’s now Thursday, and I’m still sore! I usually recover quite well, but Paris-Roubaix leaves a definite mark. My hands still hurt, though not as badly as they did earlier in the week. Monday in Lille was quite nice, except I stiffened up if I stayed in the same position for more than ten minutes. This was always marked down as a recovery week, and I have certainly needed it. My bike is sitting, in muddy pieces, in the hallway. I haven't even contemplated cycling this week.
I didn’t ‘enjoy’ the Paris-Roubaix in the same way I enjoy cycling more generally. I am, however, extremely glad I did it: all this week I’ve been attempting to explain it to people, who seem impressed with the madness of it all. Even my supervisor has expressed some interest in my exploits! My dreams have started featuring cobblestones, and I am already contemplating doing it again in 2010, this time the entire 255km route - à cœur vaillant rien d’impossible!