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Paris-Roubaix: A Sunday in Hell, a Weekend in Heaven - with Roubaix Rides

by Nick Gregory

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Paris-Roubaix: A Sunday in Hell, a Weekend in Heaven - with Roubaix Rides 

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"The most horrible race to ride, but the most beautiful to win."

That was how King of the Classics, Sean Kelly described Paris-Roubaix to Rouleur Magazine. The Irishman was one of the most prolific one-day riders in the history of cycling, claiming nine victories in the Monuments, two of which came in Paris-Roubaix. Speaking more recently to Lionel Birnie on The Cycling Podcast, Kelly was asked to compare the cobbles of the Hell of the North to those of another of the Spring Classics - the Tour of Flanders. His response was clear: "It's like putting a premiership soccer player in a rugby match." 

The name - The Hell of the North - stems from the area's association with the atrocities of World War One; but the race, in its own way, is a war. A true test of not just fitness, but resilience and the ability to suffer. "If you're not aggressive, you're not in the race," the Irishman continued. "You need the luck, or rather not to get the bad luck."

After all, this is a race where riders not only have to contend with more crashes and mechanicals than usual due to the unforgiving pave, but can also be held up at level crossings for passing trains. Or not, as was the case a few years ago when the breakaway decided to jump the barriers and ended up getting disqualified. Any rider that hopes to reach the iconic velodrome in Roubaix first and emerge victorious in front of the frenzied, baying crowd must be both strong and lucky in equal measure. It is the best survivor who wins. 

It's a race that harks back to a bygone era. Tom Boonen - the joint most successful rider in the race's history with four wins - said of the Queen of the Classics: "The cobbles of Paris Roubaix are from before the war, then they dropped some bombs on them during the war, and we have to ride our bikes over what's left." Matter of fact, to the point, and accepting of the inevitable carnage that follows. 

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I was travelling out to Northern France for the biggest weekend in the professional cycling calendar with Roubaix Rides. Our trip - which departed on Friday and returned on Monday - would be highlighted by participation in the Paris-Roubaix Challenge on Saturday, and a full day's spectating during the pro race on Sunday. 

However, preparation for the trip began in earnest earlier in the week. After receiving advice from former Paris-Roubaix winner, Magnus Backstedt for a Cyclosport feature on how to ride cobbles, I quickly realised I would need to make some adjustments to the Bianchi Infinito CV I had been loaned for the weekend. Household pipes uninsulated, and handlebars looking significantly beefier than before, I was on my way to Dover to meet the rest of the party. 

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Arriving in Calais late afternoon, we headed straight to the cobbles for a brief recce of the pavé before checking in at the hotel. This was both reassuring and terrifying in equal measure. It provided a great opportunity to fine tune the bike set-up and make any necessary last minute adjustments, and having come through it relatively unscathed I felt more confident about what awaited; however, the cobbles were every bit as brutal as I had feared, if not worse. 

This probably wasn't helped by the fact that the two sectors we chose to recce were 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 just about as tough as Paris-Roubaix gets. Still, in at the deep end 'n all. 

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