Like everyone who’s ever ridden, I’ve experienced some hard days on the bike. My first ascent of Alpe d’Huez was emotional, and brought with it a self-realisation and belief - that often you are better than you think you are. I’d only got back on the bike six months earlier, and was really unsure if I was capable of reaching the summit. I did it with a sense of surprise, if not shock, and not a little relief. Rounding the final switchback the tears began to flow as I realised I was actually going to do this and for the first time that day I enjoyed the fact that the fans were cheering me - acknowledging the effort that climbing such a mountain requires.
An ascent of the Col du Madeleine the following year, in blistering heat, when I ran out of water two-thirds of the way up also sticks in the mind. The pub at the top and a swift pint was a decent reward for the suffering though. In terms of a single mountain, Ventoux was my worst, and I guess in many ways my best day on a bike . . . that mountain very nearly defeated me, a total grind, pedalling squares for hours. Passing the Tommy Simpson memorial was a surreal experience. I had planned to stop and leave my bidon - as tradition dictates. But as the shrine came in to sight I was suddenly overcome with a sense that if I stopped there I might not get back on my bike, and through blurred vision and with a little wobble, I pressed on to the summit with a tip of the cap. Chapeau Tom.
And the day we rode to Briançon from Valloire, tackling the mighty Galibier and Lautauret, both ways in one day - that was just a slog that lasted ALL DAY LONG.
But Saturday 6 April 2013, was surely as tough a day as any of those. There was no great climbing involved, and relatively short at 170 km (105 miles in old money) - of which 52.3 km was the infamous pavé of the Paris-Roubaix course. 27 secteurs of the biggest, meanest cobblestones you could wish to never see. This is no Coronation Street. Stones as big as your head, battered and churned-up by the farmers of the region using these lanes to access their fields with their tractors, in various states of repair - some OK, others not so.
Thursday evening I was on my regular “chain-gang” training ride with the Liverpool Century Road Club. I arrived back - having been battered by the wind and chilled by the cold 3C. I had a missed call, a text AND an email from Mr Fitz. He’d booked a hotel near Roubaix. His intended travel partner had just pulled out. He was riding the Paris-Roubaix Challenge on Saturday.
Would I join him?
My head is not normally functioning that well after the “chainy”, in itself always a hard effort, but this was a lot to take in - especially as I had another errand to run before I could even eat. I wasn’t sure if it was even feasible to get there and back. A quick check of the P&O Ferries website revealed it could be done. A 5 hour drive to Dover, a 90 minute crossing, a 90 minute drive to Roubaix from Calais, and I should just about make it in time to register for the ride before it closed at 7pm on Friday evening.
After getting the ferry booking confirmation back I emailed Fitzy, who had already texted to say he was going to bed due to his 6am start. We were on. I would see him in Roubaix, given a fair tailwind. I slung some LCRC Club kit in my bag and hit the hay some time after midnight, my head full of scrambled thoughts of what kit and bike to take.
The alarm appeared to go off about 5 minutes before I went to sleep . . . it was actually 4 hours but it was going to have to do. I dressed quickly and grabbed the Giant TCX from the garage. It was still set up for riding ‘cross: knobbly tyres and MTB pedals. No bottle cages, no tool bag, computer, pump or spare tubes. Trying to get my brain to function at 05:15 after 4 hours sleep. THINK! If I was to forget pedals or tubes or pump or whatever at this point the effort and expense would all be in vain. Fortunately I had made a “to do” list the night before. Unfortunately I’d forgotten I had made a to do list and had left it on my desk.
I chucked the bike in the back of the car, with a couple of GP Four Season Continental slicks - I would change the tyres at the hotel later. I found some Shimano SPD SL road pedals and chucked them in a bag with some tools. Robbed the bottle cages off my road bike, along with the saddle pack and pump. Grabbed another spare tube. A couple of 750 ml bidons and every bit of SiS bars, gels and drinks I could find in the house. I was about to head off when I remembered the computer. I still needed to find a magnet for the wheel sensor. Somehow located a spare one in the garage and put it in my pocket. Grabbed a mug of tea and hit the road around 05:50.
The drive to Dover was relatively smooth, and I managed to get onto the ferry prior to the one I had booked. Unfortunately there was a “medical emergency” on board, and the crossing was delayed by an hour due to missing our berth in Calais. It was about 5 minutes after getting on board that I remembered how seasick I get. I’ve even been ill on the Mersey Ferry before now. But my mind must have been so preoccupied that the 2.5 hour crossing had little effect. A quick visit to the shop to buy a GB badge for the back of the car and those silly stickers for the headlights so I didn’t blind the Frenchies - SO much to think about.
The drive to Roubaix was really smooth. Called Mr Fitz en route and he was already at the velodrome. He’d registered me and picked up my ride number. We met at the hotel just outside Roubaix and unloaded the bikes. There were a bunch of Dutch guys in the hotel bar drinking Leffe. They sniggered at my ‘cross bike - which they appeared to consider was somehow not in the spirit of the occasion. What do the Dutch know about riding bikes . . . ?
Bikes unloaded, we made a swift visit to the supermarché across the road. Here we panic-bought all kinds of stuff that we didn’t need and would later dump. But it seemed like the right thing at the time. This is what happens when men are put in charge of food buying. Always.
Next we set about finding an Italian restaurant to do some carb-loading. The pony-tailed maestro on the hotel reception found a place in “downtown” Tourcoing and wrote the address down for us. It was a short 5 minute drive and we arrived around 6pm. It appeared to be closed. Not just the restaurant, but the town. An encounter with a waitress through the restaurant window established that they would open at 7 bells. Via the medium of international sign language Mr Fitz managed to gesticulate our desire to “manger”. We would return later, after finally managing to find somewhere to have a coffee and a Stella. But not before being accosted by two French student girls with clipboards, mistaking us for locals and wanting to do some kind of survey. Do I look French? Their recommendation for the best place to eat which was currently open - Subway. Merci Mademoiselle, but non merci.
Neither Mr Fitz nor I speak much French. When Mr Fitz attempts to speak French he invariably speaks German. Some observations from our visit to the restaurant.
We demolished a massive pizza, a massive salad and two massive lasagnes. And a cheeky glass of red each. And a gallon of San Pellegrino. We rolled ourselves out of the restaurant and back to the hotel - to set about some bike mechanicing.
Fortunately Mr Fitz had the presence of mind to remember to bring a track pump...which assisted the tyre swap. But not before I’d managed to blow a tube - to the amusement of the Dutchies in the next room, who gave a loud cheer. I blamed Fitzy’s track pump for having a faulty pressure gauge. Much spanner-monkeying later, machine tweaked and tuned, I finally turned in around midnight. Kit laid out for the morning - ready to go.
Mr Fitz is “kind of a big deal” in the pro cycling world. And he’d taken his preparation for this ride quite seriously. He’d even arranged a special meet-up with a pro team mechanic, to get some tips on how best to survive Roubaix. Fortunately, I had no time to prepare, to ponder on tyre selection, tyre pressure, bike choice, ride strategy, what to eat, when to eat, what to wear, blah blah . . . My only guidance was a conversation I’d had with Roger Hammond a couple of years earlier when some of the lads had discussed riding the Tour of Flanders sportive. I asked Roger what he thought of amateurs wanting to ride such a route. “Seems like a really good way to wreck your bike” was his muted response. Those words have stayed with me. Hence, there was no way I was taking my half decent road bike, and that was pretty much the sum total of my pre-ride thoughts. “On this occasion,” I argued with Mr Fitz, “ignorance is bliss - I really do not want to know what I’m letting myself in for. I’m just going to take it as it comes. If I analyse it too much I might not bother.”
For the second time in 2 nights I got up what seemed to be before I went to bed. Another 4 hours sleep bagged and the alarm was letting me know it was 04:30. 8 hours sleep in 2 days didn’t feel like ideal preparation for riding Roubaix. The weather forecast was not encouraging. 1C at the start at 07:00 and a maximum of 3C. I pretty much dressed in every bit of kit I had brought. A long sleeve base, short-sleeve jersey, long-sleeve jersey and a gilet. A buff and a winter hat. 2 pairs of gloves, leg-warmers and overshoes. Looking every inch the classic sportive-riding nob. Mr Fitz upstaged me on that front in natural wool hat and a Rapha jacket.
We loaded the car and made the 90-minute transfer to the start in Busigny. As we drew near to our destination the snow at the side of the road added to the nerves. Neither of us had brought full-on winter kit - but we’d just have to manage. A quick call of nature to lighten the load followed by stuffing bars down our throats to the point that any more would have made us sick. A final photo - accompanied by slightly insane “what the hell are we doing” laughter...and we headed for the start line arch and immediately hit the road without any sense of ceremony.
Within minutes fingers and toes were frozen to the point they could not be felt. We jumped on the wheel of a couple of Spaniards - both riding Specialized Roubaixs - surely these guys knew what they were doing. They even had a support vehicle. They soon dropped us.
It wasn’t long before we hit the first secteur of pavé - a cheeky little 2 km intro rated 3* for difficulty by the organiser, 5* being the hardest. There was not really much that I’ve ever experienced before on a bike that could prepare you for that. As the front wheel bobbled over the jaggedy cobblestones it quickly became apparent that gripping the bars tightly - for fear of letting go - was not going to be a long-term strategy - it just hurt too much. The vibrations reverberated through my whole body, especially the legs - calf muscles in particular seemed to dislike the high frequency wobble. I made it through the other side intact - and looked around for Mr Fitz. Nothing. A minute later he emerged. Both his bidons had been launched from their cages by the ferocity of the vibrations. He had been concentrating so intently on the road that he had not even noticed at first. The prospect of riding 160 km more with no bidons was not attractive, so he’d gone back to locate one at least. But it had to go in a back pocket as it would not stay in the cage. For the remainder of the ride we shared my bidons.
Both somewhat shell-shocked we spent the next “smooth” section discussing how intense the pavé had been, and how we might tackle the next secteur. I think we were both more than a little intimidated that we still had another 26 secteurs to negotiate. But we didn’t talk about that.
As we passed through those early secteurs we quickly discovered that there’s a very good reason why the pros often seem to prefer to stick to the channels along the sides of the pavé. Whilst it can be tricky to negotiate the curb stones that edge the cobbles, and some of the ground can be soft, or loose, it’s infinitely more comfortable than the bone-shaking vibrations of the pavé. It requires complete concentration: a few centimetres either way and you risk face-planting the stones - and that can never be good – or, slightly less life-threatening, going head-first in to a ditch. When the channels were too dangerous, or simply non-existent, invariably the next least jaggedy place to ride was along the crown of the pavé - straight down the middle. Either side the tractor wheels have rutted the pavé loosening the cobblestones and creating all manner of holes and nasty obstacles to negotiate. There is certainly an art to finding the route of least resistance. It’s not an art I think I mastered. Mr Fitz told me afterwards, “before the ride I was determined to smash those cobbles, tackle them head-on, there was no way you would see me riding in the channels . . . but after one secteur I’d had enough already.” He was not alone.
There was a feed station after secteur 23, so we made a swift pitstop, piss-stop and shovelled some carbs inside. Refilled the bidons and were quickly on our way again.
After the first few secteurs were survived with nothing more than a large amount of discomfort and jettisoned bidons and bars from pockets our discussion switched to thoughts of the first 5* secteur rapidly approaching - the Arenberg Trench. One of the most infamous stretches of pavé on the Roubaix route. It was hard to imagine it could be worse than anything already experienced. But in the event - it was. At 2.4 km, it is far from the longest secteur, but the stones here are absolutely huge and so unevenly distributed that the height difference from one to the next is massive: they appear almost like stepping stones, great ravines in between each one. It was absolutely horrible. It seemed that I could even feel my brain smashing against the inside of my skull - and that my fillings might have been shaken loose from my teeth. I really don’t think anything can prepare you for 5* pavé - not even lots of 3* and 4* pavé. Some riders opted to get off the rocky stuff and ride on to the pedestrian pathway at the side. I emerged through the other side feeling like I’d just gone a couple of rounds with a cage fighter. It’s fair to say, in this moment I felt no sense of achievement whatsoever - I just wanted to get this bastard ride done with before it beat me. It was becoming a war of attrition. Mr Fitz was shell-shocked too - we both looked a bit white. On we pressed, through the grey gloom, the biting wind and the near-freezing temperature. One thing that was good about the vibration of the cobbles: it seemed to warm you up a bit at least.
The middle of the ride gets a bit hazy. All I can really remember is that Mr Fitz had 3 flats in a row and we spent at least half an hour, probably three quarters, stood by the roadside in the freezing cold, trying to fix a puncture with fingers so cold that you couldn’t feel them. By chance, some Frenchies who were watching the ride saw our plight and from nowhere conjured up a track pump. Bravo monsieur! Having blown 3 tubes Mr Fitz only had one more spare. I also had one spare, but it was another reason why we needed to stay together and look after each other. It would be tragic to get so far and then have to finish the day in the back of the Broom Wagon because you ran out of tubes.
When Fitzy had his blow out, for some reason his computer got knocked out too. So I was the only one who had any idea how far from home we were, and I counted down the clicks like an over-enthusiastic primary teacher. With 50 km to go Fitzy looked at me and kind of shook his head. ”I’m done” he said. I wasn’t feeling too hot myself to be honest, but this wasn’t really what I wanted to hear. We made our target the final feedzone. Let’s get there and see how we feel. Another refill, much needed piss-stop, and stretch of the back and neck, and we were ready to hit it hard again. So there’s just 7 more secteurs to go, we told ourselves (we were wrong - there were 8) and so what if it included the 4* Camphin-en-Pevele and the historic 5* Carrefour secteurs - consecutively - we could do it . . .
So, we dug in again. By now it was almost impossible to hold the bars on the pavé. My hands were so battered and sore, and I had pain shooting up my wrists and lower forearms. If I held the bars in the same place for any length of time I found my fist closing shut, and I was virtually unable to open my fingers. The only option was to constantly change your grip every few seconds. And after several hours on the bike my neck too was almost stuck in position. A constant regime of finger and toe-wiggling, stretching, eating, drinking and concentrating on not crashing had really worn us down mentally as well as physically. And by now my “gooch” was giving me grief too, from the constant hammering. I guess this was partially my own fault - as I’d left the saddle on my 'cross bike - a bike I’d never ridden before for more than 2 hours at a time. Even the liberal application of Century Riding Cream at 04:45 that morning was not enough to spare me, and I had to adopt an out of the saddle style for the final few secteurs.
As we left what we thought was the final secteur, our spirits were raised: that’s the hard bit done, it’s smooth road all the way home, we were going to do this, we had survived without any major incident . . . no crashes, no broken limbs or smashed teeth. Our joy was short-lived as another secteur of pavé loomed into sight. “I thought you said . . .” Glances were exchanged, but nothing was spoken. Nothing else for it - just man up and get through it. We ploughed on, painfully slowly, seemingly riding through every single cobble in turn. I’d heard my friend and sport masseuse Peta McSharry tell me that her technique was to “glide” over the top of the cobbles. Look at me - do I look like I was built to glide? No. I ploughed through the cobbles - feeling every single jolt, wobble and bobble. Emerging from that secteur we were more cautious. Was THAT the final secteur - or was there yet another one lurking? As we dragged ourselves closer to the outskirts of Roubaix the area began to look more built-up. We almost overshot a tight 90 degree right-hander and Mr Fitz did well not to stack it into a fence. The junction seemed to herald the start of yet another covert section of pavé. Our hearts sank, but it was only momentary, as we quickly realised it was just some fancy decorative feature at the junction. Within 20 m the pavé was gone. This time for good.
For the first time in maybe 7 hours or so our spirits were really lifted. As we headed in to downtown Roubaix not even the heavy traffic - the first we’d seen in a whole day of riding - could spoil the experience. Going under the red kite signalled just one kilo to go, and suddenly a little spring returned to the legs. And before you could really prepare yourself for what was about to hit, we were inside the velodrome - on the smooth hallowed surface. People were cheering us and a sense of fulfilment, and sheer relief began to wash over us. Mr Fitz hugged the Cote d’Azur like it was his first-born, but I was keen to ride the banks, and ventured high above the thin blue line - those sessions on the Knowsley track giving me the confidence to be a little more adventurous. Although I quickly dropped down to the comfort of the red sprinters line, in case I suffered the indignity of a slip and fall in the Roubaix Velodrome - that was not the memory I wanted to take home after 170 km of battering myself.
As we approached the finish line, Mr Fitz extended his hand and I grabbed it with what little energy I had left. And as we crossed the line together the handshake became an embrace and we free-wheeled together to the end, hugging each other, absolutely exhausted. We managed to stay upright until a young French lady had awarded us both our medals, before Fitzy collapsed in a heap on the grass in the track centre.
As we were preparing to leave I heard my name being called, and looked around to see Ms McSharry - looking fresh as if she’d just completed her normal Club run. “Come on, let’s get a beer” she said. She’s some lady - hard as nails.
Our riding was not yet done for the day. We still had a 5km transfer back to the hotel to negotiate. This however was completed without delay, or disagreement or any form of wrong turning, or misdirections whatsoever. And it was no one’s fault. Because we didn’t go wrong. Much. And tempers were not lost. But it just might have been a bit further than we’d hoped.
As we arrived back at the hotel we spied the Dutchies - still drinking Leffe in the bar. I THINK they did the ride . . . but I cannot be certain.
That night, after a shower, and retrieving the car from Busigny, we headed back to the thriving metropolis that is Tourcoing. Being Saturday night it would surely be bouncing. It was not. We found a restaurant that was serving “Pavé de Rumpsteak” and washed it down with a pichet de vin rouge - all ordered in our now customary Freutch.
The next day we could not even look at the bike. So we spent the morning exploring the velo club at the Roubaix Velodrome and mooching around the team buses, waiting for the real event to arrive. We got some dubious takeaway food from the “No Stress Burger Bar” and were abused by a Napoleonic gendarme with small-man syndrome. Welcome to France. We found a suitable viewing place inside the velodrome, watched the race unfold on the big screen and witnessed one of the most exciting finishes inside the velodrome that I can ever remember. Cancellara is a monster - incredible ride once again. So lucky to have been there to see it. At the end he even threw in a “Fitzy” on the velodrome turf.
With a ferry to catch and a 5 hour drive back from Dover we could not stick around at the finish too long. So we saw the first few groups arrive then headed to the car and the weary trudge home.
A completely crazy weekend. Thursday evening I had no inkling of even watching Roubaix live, never mind riding it. But sometimes the best things that happen really are the most unexpected. If I had stopped to analyse what I was attempting I probably would not have done it. Made some excuse about prior commitments or logistics or expense or whatever. Happy that I was able to just throw myself at it and not worry about consequences. Fortunately I had done a half-decent block of training in the last couple of months, that gave me a fighting chance. But that was not planned - just lucky I’d done it.
And on the ferry home, for the first time I was able to sit and contemplate. And I thought about the pain and discomfort I had put my mind and body through. I wondered why I could not take the grin off my face when I’ve just done something so brutal and horrible to myself. It’s totally counterintuitive that you should derive enjoyment from this.
I remembered that - now tarnished - quote of Armstrong, which he claimed would drive him to a threshold that other people could not reach: “pain is temporary, but quitting lasts forever”. But I don’t like that any more, because it seems to me, on reflection, that’s a negative driver. Yes, the pain is temporary, but for me it’s not the fear of failure so much, but the sense of achievement that lasts forever. The self-knowledge that you gain from pushing yourself in to places that you were not sure you could go – that’s pure gold, in fact its worth more than gold, because it can never be spent or taken away.
The other thought I had was with regard to Taylor Phinney’s quote the other week, speaking in an interview in the Wall Street Journal about his race at Tirreno-Adriatico. On the penultimate day, he finished dead last. Many others climbed off to save themselves the pain. But Phinney rode on through the pain – to no avail, as it happened, since he finished outside the time cut and was forced out of the race – but he cited his dad’s Parkinson’s disease as a driving force: “I knew that if my dad could be in my shoes for one day—if all he had to do was struggle on a bike for six hours, but be healthy and fully functional—he would be me on that day in a heartbeat,” Taylor Phinney said. “Every time I wanted to quit, every time I wanted to cry, I just thought about that.”
Taylor’s father, Davis Phinney, would later say that hearing those words from his son was better than any medicine he could ever have.
So yes, I caused myself a lot of pain on Saturday. Some think I’m mad. At times I thought I was mad. I’m still in some discomfort today - two days later, and I expect to suffer some side effects for a few days yet. But what is this pain? It’s nothing compared to the real pain I would feel if I didn’t have the opportunity to do such things: to seize these opportunities when they present themselves.
So thank you Mr Fitz for affording me the insane notion of riding Paris Roubaix Challenge with no notice or preparation. It was one hell of a ride at the Hell of the North, and it was a privilege to be there at your side the whole way. Well, mostly a little bit ahead of you, but hey, who’s splitting hairs here . . . Despite the beating my body has taken, I actually feel refreshed and invigorated. But the next time you have such a notion, maybe consider sharing this gift you have for imposing suffering on others even more widely. I’m sure your other mates could benefit too next time.