The conventional wisdom say to hit the cobbles hard and fast, best way to ride them. What they don’t tell you is that it is really really really hard to do that. Think the hardest turbo interval sessions you do, 5-8 mins in length. It’s that kind of effort while you are being violently shaken and trying to steer any kind of line and avoid other riders, debris being launched off bikes as they dance all over the cobbles and pot holes. Then repeat 28 times. Mentally and physically exhausting.
So the day began very early with a bus ride out to Busigny for the start of 172Kms, 28 sections of pave over 55Kms (we miss out the pretend last one) and 6000 riders! Weather could not have been better, warm, dry, a south east wind. Met Ciaran and Jamie at the start which is not crowded (we were all on different buses), and you set off whenever you like. So perhaps not as big a razzamatazz as some events with mass starts, but a lot less stressful than starting with thousands of others!
The plan was to get round, we didn’t care how long, just finish in the velodrome. So no racing around, a long day planned, save the legs for the pave, stay together and help each other.
After a nice 11k warm up we hit the first section of pave, my first ever, and what a shock to the system. Nothing prepares you for the bone and bike rattling and how difficult it is to maintain any kind of speed, your legs burn. You try and pick a good line trying to stay on the crown, but that’s not easy with everyone else having the same plan. Then you need to pass slower riders and try and judge the best route to stray off the centre and swing round them as the rougher sections are even harder to ride. Going slower is not an option as that just makes things even worse! After 2.2Km it was over, first section conquered. It was awful and it was only *** (sections are rated 1 – 5 stars), there are harder and longer to come, and lots of them!
There are 3 timed sections and the first of those is early on. Ciaran and I came to the end to find Jamie missing. So we waited and waited and then after 20 minutes Jamie appeared – 2 punctures in the same section. We all thought the same things, is this the start of things to come for us all? Thankfully not, as these were the only punctures of the day and other than Jamie shipping a chain once, no other mechanicals! We were very very lucky. The whole route is littered with folks changing punctures, bikes in bits and sadly the aftermath of a few bad looking accidents!
We made our way round, taking it easy on the tarmac, slogging through the cobbles. By the first feed stop (6 sectors down) my hands were raw with blisters and bruises (how do you even get bruises on your hands?!). Thankfully Ciaran had some tape and I taped my hands under my mitts to stop rubbing – pretty sure without it I would not have made it round.
The pattern of taking it easy on the tarmac and slogging through the cobbles continued relentlessly. I confess I did get goosebumps in the ride up to Arenberg as we passed the old mine, but was so pleased once it was over.
The rest of the ride was just a slog, after any initial enthusiasm, the love of cobbles had well and truly gone and we just wanted to get round. Sectors, villages and tarmac came and went as we ticked them off, counting down to the end. The last ***** section is Carrefour de l’Arbe, 17Km from the end. Get through that then surely we will finish okay. It was awful, legs and mind tired, trying to find a line in the gutter on the edge, I touched the side and down I came, narrowly avoiding taking Jamie out too. Thankfully I was not going at Sagan speed and was more like the slow motion fall at the traffic lights we have all done! No harm done, me and bike okay, lets get this over with!
After the last section, we were home and dry, just had to navigate through the traffic jam in Roubaix (no closed roads for us) which was a bit hairy.
Then, there it was, the Roubaix velodrome and we cycled in the path of all of the greats, it was utterly amazing. We rolled round the track and crossed the line together. I was in bits, physically and emotionally.
Slumped on the track, the ever wonderful Team Wheelers DS Lindsay went off to get the beers in. It tasted fabulous. As we sat there we all said the same thing – thank god we all finished it as there is no way we are ever coming back to do that again.
No official time for the event, just the 3 cobbled sections, but those that had working Garmins, tell me it was 6:26 riding time and 7:28 elapsed time. Couldn’t care less what the time was, we all finished 🙂 The only century ride I have ever done all in the big ring, but one of the toughest ever!
Organisation was fine, although not in the same league as some of the other events I have done. It was well marshaled but no food and drink at the end and closing (or coning off a lane) of the road for the last 2-3Km would be a lot better. You should try it, just the once, just to appreciate it, as no words or video or TV can truly explain the feeling. It is like no other bike ride, truly unique. Many times we said, how on earth can you race on this, it is phenomenal what the pros do.
Was deeply saddened to hear on Monday of the tragedy that struck and the death of young pro Michael Goolaerts. Such a sad reminder of how tough and sometimes dangerous our sport can be. Thoughts are with his family, friends and teammates.