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Event Review

REVIEW: Paris-Roubaix Challenge 2014

by Nick Gregory

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The Paris-Roubaix Challenge 2014 

Essentials 
Getting there: Booked as part of a long weekend with Roubaix Rides 
Date: Saturday 12th April 
Distances: 170km, 140km or 70km 
Entry fee: €35.00, €30.00, €25.00 
Participants: 3,000  
Start: Busigny (bus from Roubaix)  
Feed stops: 3 on the long route, all well stocked 
Catering: Free coffee at start, hot & cold drinks and food at the finish 
Timed: Yes, with individual times for certain sections too. Track-able online
Signs: Way-marked route (black arrows on yellow and pink signs), map issued and motorcycle marshals out on the course 
Photography: www.maindruphoto.com 
Roads:  This is Paris-Roubaix... Cobbles, cobbles and more cobbles

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Wherever you look there seems to be no shortage of sportive organisers claiming to offer participants 'the genuine pro experience'. Whilst many do an admirable job of trying, with neutral service vehicles, closed roads and post-event massages, more often than not they don't quite match up to their billing. 

The Paris-Roubaix Challenge didn't have any of these things; and yet, in many ways, it offered much more insight into the world of pro cycling. For what it did have was suffering, and lots of it. Suffering on 'roads' not made for bicycles; on roads that less than 24hours later would inflict the very same suffering on the world's best riders (albeit at much greater speed). 

As you are tossed like a rag doll across every one of the 28 bone-rattling sections of cobbles that make up the 'Hell of the North', it is impossible not to be blown away by the sheer brutally of the event, and the super-human strength and determination possessed by those for whom this is a job. Not just those who cross the finish line with their arms aloft in victory, but those who simply succeed in reaching the iconic velodrome in Roubaix, and those who fall valiantly by the wayside trying.

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The infamous Arenberg cobbles

Having arrived at the hotel fairly late after our recce of the cobbles on Friday evening, dinner was a swift affair and night-before prep was kept to a minimum. Still, somehow it was gone midnight by the time head hit pillow, and with a 4am alarm set it was never going to be the best night's sleep. 

We were staying about 10km from the finish in Roubaix, but those of us who had opted to take on the long route of 170km (and all the cobbled sectors on the pro route) had to get the bus out to the start in Busigny at 5.30am. Staggering down to breakfast with 10 minutes to spare, I stuffed my face with enough bread, cheese, ham and pain au chocolat to feed an entire ravenous peloton. Then felt utterly sick. Luckily it was a long drive. 

Mick - our driver-cum-ride companion for the weekend - was confident he knew where he was going; which was good, because his general distrust of sat-nav, combined with a fondness for old cartography meant that the only form of navigation we had was a map that was printed before the motorway we were travelling on had been built. Luckily Mick's intuition was spot on. Never in doubt. 

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What awaits...

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A real buzz at sign-on

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The Skoda arch

The start was remarkably calm. Sign-on was being hosted in a disused and semi-derelict school, which in the thick fog and cold mist made for a somewhat intimidating setting. The registration pack included all the usual - map, emergency contact card and rider number to be zip tied to handlebars. One nice 'pro' touch was the top tube sticker listing the numbered cobbled sectors and the km at which they appear. However, the list seemed so long I feared my frame might not be big enough... Although I never actually tested it myself, the organisers also claimed to be offering a 'follow my ride' feature that enabled others to follow your progress by going to the event website. Nice touch - particularly with so many travelling from overseas. 

Having smashed down a complimentary coffee, and then another for good luck, and one more for the road, I then discovered the only organisational fault - the toilets, or rather the lack of them. Four portaloos on the road outside was the sum total of it, and a 20 minute wait ensued. 

Eventually I met up with Michelle and Paul - some friends who had also travelled out from the UK for the weekend - and we were on our way. We rolled past the DJ playing some outrageous euro-pop at 8.45am, over the timing mat and under the inflatable Skoda arch to rapturous applause from all 3 of the locals who had decided to get out of bed to enjoy the spectacle (or tell the DJ to pipe down.) 

It was cold. Really cold. Having checked the forecast - which looked promising - and been conscious of the need for extra padding around the hands I had opted for two pairs of mitts as opposed to full-finger gloves. As the day wore on this would prove to be a good call, but for now, my hands were freezing. 

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In case the cobbles weren't tricky enough already!

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The first feed

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Fill your boots time

We hit the first cobbled sector after 14km and it was every bit as bad as I feared. In fact, for a horrifying moment I thought I'd got a rear flat at the very first time of asking. Luckily it was a false alarm, and as it turned out, the Bianchi Infinito CV I had been given to test ride for the weekend would be utterly faultless throughout. The bike was designed for days exactly like this, and the CounterVail (vibration dampening) technology genuinely does work, making the task in hand significantly easier and more 'enjoyable'. What's more, it looks bloody stunning too. 

By the time we reached the first feed at Verchain-Maugré it seemed inconceivable that the 6 sections of pavé we had covered - including Quiévy à Saint-Python, the longest on the entire route at 3.7km - represented less than a quarter of the total cobbles on the route. Hands were bruised, and fingers had to be uncoiled from the bars in order to fill up the bottles and scoff a couple of waffles. 

Back on the road we made good use of the mini-pelotons that were a common theme throughout the day. Unlike sportives in the UK, the relative lack of traffic - combined with a much more accommodating attitude towards cyclists - meant that groups of 20 or 30 riding two abreast were dotted all over the route. We latched onto the back of one and made the most of a tow into the next section of pavé 5km up the road. 

Mindful that the infamous Trouée d'Arenberg sector was just over the horizon, my attention strayed momentarily from the task in hand. The result was a somewhat erratic change of line which the unforgiving cobbles rapidly punished me for by jettisoning one of my drinks bottles into a nearby ditch. Deciding that 50km of pavé was quite enough already, I opted not to turn back for it, but instead condemned it to a bumpy grave. 

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The railway crossings have made a cropper of many pros' attempts at victory over the years

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Michelle digging deep on the pavé 

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Open fields - luckily it wasn't too windy

Sure enough the Arenberg was just around the corner, and sure enough it was every bit as fierce and unrelenting as one imagines. In fact, what I hadn't perhaps appreciated from watching the race on TV is just how long it is - nearly 2.5km - dead straight, with a noticeable incline towards the end. Along with the Carrefour de l'Arbre and a couple of others, it was one of the 'timed segments' within the event. Frankly, this couldn't have been further from my mind though as I concentrated on keeping the bike upright and avoiding a mechanical. 

It's hard to explain just how bad the surface is in the Arenberg. Attempting to steer the bike becomes almost pointless; it's just a case of guiding the bars gently, pedalling like hell and hoping you keep going in a vaguely straight direction. Even judging this became pretty difficult though, as my eyes was rattling around in their sockets to the extent where I couldn't really see. 

I should say however, in terms of bike setup, I was running 25mm tyres at 85psi. In hindsight, having heard that the next day the Omega Pharma - Quick-Step team of race winner, Niki Terpstra were running 30mm tyres at 60psi, perhaps I opted for a more aggressive setup than was necessary. Nevertheless, as I mentioned earlier, no punctures - so I'm certainly not complaining. Of course another way to avoid punctures is to avoid the cobbles altogether. Now I don't like to pour scorn on anyone's efforts, but going through the hassle of getting to Arenberg and then riding on the tarmac footpath six feet from the cobbles as some were doing...? 'Going to McDonalds for a salad' springs to mind... 

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The Trench

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Ouch

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Safely through Arenberg

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Taking on a gel and recovering post-Arenberg

The cobbled sections count downwards from 28 - Arenberg was 18 - and the next 10 seemed to fly by fairly quickly and (relatively) painlessly. By now the sun was out and I felt I had the measure of the pavé, or the easier sections of it at least (and compared to the Arenberg most seemed to now fall into that category!) They came thick and fast though, and whilst the route is more or less flat, the repeated pounding took its toll. By the time we reached the final feed - set at the foot of the famous windmill at Templeuve - the legs were sore and cramp seemed ready to rear its ugly head. 

Nevertheless, with 130km already in the bank and just 7 sections of pavé to go, the end was in sight. Knowing that the next stop would be the velodrome, and that therefore this would be my final chance to fuel my now irrepressible Belgian waffle addiction, I threw caution to the wind and opted to carry on returning to the food stand until it was made apparent I was no longer welcome. Has anyone ever been barred from a sportive feed station?! Anyway, with a sugar-induced additive count that Lance Armstrong would have been proud of I joined the others and we set about dismantling the final leg of the ride, cobble by cobble. Finally, I allowed myself to think of the finish. 

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Sector 16 - Hornaing

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Dust made breathing tricky at times

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The famous windmill at Templeuve

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Even the bottles took a battering! (yes, those are the waffles in question...)

There was however, one final sting in the tail; it was as fierce as anything to date and came in the form of the back-to-back sections of Camphin-en-Pévèle and the Carrefour de l'Arbre. With just 500m of asphalt between them, these two rough farm tracks are the epitome of what Paris-Roubaix is all about, and have often provided the stage for race winning moves. Combined they total 4km of the toughest cobbles on the entire route, and with nearly 50km of pavé already conquered, this deadly duo nearly finished me off.  

The next 5km were a blur as I attempted to recover from the effort required on the Carrefour. During this time however, we ticked off the final section of cobbles meaning that from here on in it was tarmac all the way. Buoyed by this knowledge, we zipped through the industrial outskirts of Roubaix until the velodrome was almost in sight. 

A relieved smile finally broke across my face as the realisation that we were going to make it dawned on me. None of us had punctured, none of us had crashed. We'd all survived. It might sound like hyperbole, but with this event, that really is the aim. It's also the appeal of it though, and whilst there are other events out there which are longer, or more mountainous, there is nothing quite as attritional as the Hell of the North. It truly is one of a kind. 

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End of the Carrefour

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Some chose to pay homage to the event's history

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And relax...

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..Ambushed!

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Somehow

The road to Roubaix is brutal. Of course, for the professionals, that level of brutality is expotentially greater than it is for the give-it-a-go amateurs, but having battled the same cobbles 24 hours earlier the 3,000 plucky enthusiasts that reached Roubaix have certainly gained a window into that world. 

The brutality and pain isn't always physical either; having reached the finish line, posed for the obligatory photo on the 'podium' whilst receiving my medal and pretended to be Cancellara for a few laps of the velodrome, I was sitting having a beer at the entrance to the track an hour or so later when rider 2237 rolled in. By now it was gone 6.30 - the official cut off time - and the rider arrived to find the podium packed away and the medal presenters long gone. Having spent what must have been 9 or 10 gruelling hours in the saddle, the banks burst and they were in tears at the gates to the velodrome. 

This, perhaps more than anything, summed up what Paris-Roubaix is, and what it means - the scale of the challenge, and the sense of achievement.  

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Would have struggled to get that one home..

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The famous Roubaix velodrome showers 

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Bianchi Infinito CV - the saddle bag may have struggled, but the bike was faultless throughout

Thanks to Roubaix Rides for providing us with a place on their weekend trip to Northern France for Paris-Roubaix. Their package includes entry to the event, return coach travel from the UK for you and your bike, three nights' accommodation in a 4* hotel in Roubiax and return transport to two separate points on the route to watch the pro race on the Sunday. There were also optional led rides on Sunday and Monday morning.  

Next year they will not only be running a trip to Paris-Roubaix, but also the Tour of Flanders and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Head to roubaixrides.cc to sign up for email alerts when places become available.


Official Review

1. Feed Stops (correct foodstuffs and energy drinks, the right many, well spaced) 9 out of 10
2. Timing (correct and easy to use) 10 out of 10
3. Signage (Clear, concise, maps, profiles, route card) 8 out of 10
4. Facilities (HQ, Parking, Toilets) 8 out of 10
5. Support (Sag Wagon, Outriders) 9 out of 10
6. Friendliness / Professionalism (Sign-in, marshals, support) 10 out of 10
7. Website - ease of use (Online and postal entry, clear concise) 10 out of 10
8. The Course (Area of outstanding beauty/scenic, quiet roads, cleverly designed?) 10 out of 10
9. Would you recommend it. (Would you ride again?) 10 out of 10
Overall Rating 93.3%




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