When I was waiting in the Roubaix velodrome for Alberto’s arrival last Sunday, I couldn’t help overhearing (and being part of) conversations about riding cobbles. There were opinions, tall tales and heroic stories and the consensus seemed to be that riding cobbles is best done in a big gear. Alex from Oslo, who we had met the day before at the Rapha coffee van and who had finished the Challenge well, passionately exclaimed that climbing is so much easier than riding cobbles because you can never ease off on the cobbles. Now, I’ve been accused of being a big gear masher. Countless times friends rolled up to me yelling Spin!, which always helped… for about ten minutes until I fell back into my old ways.
While my natural preference is big gear/low cadence riding, I never cared much about riding cobbles. Cobbles were the reason I sold my first road bike, a 1992 oversized aluminium tube Cannondale. Back then I couldn’t stand riding large, round-washed, rattle-to-the-bone cobbles in Berlin and Potsdam. Nothing will ever make me wanna race the Paris – Roubaix Challenge. The entire time I was glad it was Alberto doing it, not me! I’m not a tough girl, I don”t like pain. A Day in Hell does not appeal to me.
Apparently there is an art to riding cobbles. Some riders fight the rough road and go nowhere while others just float over it. And there is the material question: 25mm tires or wider if your bike can accommodate it, low tire pressure (one girl at the finish of the challenge told me she rode as low as 60 PSI in her rear tire), very tight bottle cages (or better even tape your bottles to the cage), a stable bike geometry (long rake fork) and not too stiff.
I saw all sorts of bikes ridden in the challenge, from brand-new, high-end carbon road bikes to steel-framed beauties, 20 years and older. Riders rolled into the velodrome on mountain bikes, cyclocross bikes and even a tandem.
The Canyon Aeroad certainly does not fulfil any of the criteria of a Paris-Roubaix bike. Actually, I had several people ask me at the registration of the Paris – Roubaix Challenge in St Quentin, half in astonishment, half with disapproving disbelief, whether I would be racing the Paris – Roubaix Challenge on that bike. The rake adjustment feature on the fork could provide a little more stability but the stiffness of the frame and the deep-dish carbon wheels would be the worst possible gear choice for Paris – Roubaix, even though I saw Aeroads on the roof of the Katusha spare car the next day.
Although Alberto complemented me on my “cobble riding skills” on Mariaborrestraat, a cobbled sector in the Tour of Flanders, and the Koppenberg, the entire time I just thought to myself: don’t trash these beautiful wheels.
Then we arrived in Arenberg – Wallers in France on Friday night and on the eve of this year’s 110th edition of Paris – Roubaix, after the early rain had cleared somewhat and the skies looked less threatening, we rode 106 kilometres of the route, from sector 16 to sector 9 and back. Yes, we started off with the most mythical of all cobbles La trouée d’Arenberg, and at first I rode right through the middle, mainly because the barriers prevented any ‘easier option’ along the grassy or sandy edge. It hurt and I kept going only because I wanted to be able to say I rode the Arenberg sector. At that point I had no intentions to ride 16 cobbled sectors. I hate riding cobbles!
The next sector started. I played along. A mountain bike rider joined us for the next few kilometres. He spoke very little English but smiled a lot. Gestures and laughs made it clear that I envied him his suspension and fat tires. There were lots of mountain bike riders out on course but not many road bikes, only a couple of French kids on old steel frame road bikes, who we saw several times.
By sector 11 my hands were not just sore. It was real pain and the sector was so long and the cobbles seemed extra hard. With big gaps in between the single rocks, and the stones not round, smooth and aligned but edgy and rugged, all I wanted to do was turn around and find smooth roads to get back to the motorhome. This whole cobble riding business was stupid. The road had grooves, lumps, potholes (missing cobbles that left a sandy crater) and a crest right through the middle. Grass grew between cobbles and I had no idea how to ride on this. Even the smoothest line made your front wheel jump and your rear wheel stall your progress with every not-synchronised hit of edgy rocks. Motorhomes that lined the sectors became one long blur of white squares. The inhabitants of these motorhomes were all out of focus, walking the cobbles or practising cheering “on us”. That one time I looked up to try and judge how far from the edge they were… I almost crashed. They seemed so much closer. Riding cobbles demands concentration. I wish I understood what the old French man at the end of sector 11 called out to me. It was something “Mademoiselle” and then sounded like “go catch the guy in front of you”, which was not Alberto but another rider who turned out to be Australian as well.
As soon as we hopped off a cobbled sector, the smoothness of bitumen was intensified by the experience and the bike leaped forward and the speed picked up. Within meters the roughness and torture was forgotten and we flew through French villages, along French country roads, sucking in fresh air, all smiles. Villages in Northern France are pretty. Red brick dominates. Lime green arrows showed us the way.
We were on a mission to find that famous restaurant right on a right-hand turn of a cobbled section. Unfortunately, we could not remember, which of the sectors it was. Let’s just ride this one more sector!
A Boulangerie in a little town brought our wheels to a squealing halt. The sugar hit of the most delicious Almond Croissant got me all the way to sector nine and my Garmin showed 50km. We had to backtrack the already ridden sectors so Alberto happily complied with my turn-around demand but kept nagging me to put my gloves back on. Somehow it felt better without them, not just because of the temperature but also the pain between my fingers seemed less bad and my grip was looser, which helped. The next day, on the big screen, I saw Tom Boonen also riding without gloves.
The return trip saw me riding the edges of the cobbled sectors more and more often. Backtracking the little lime green arrows got us off track several times, adding a few more kilometres. But something strange happened. As we turned into sector 14, it started drizzling, the one and only little drizzle, hardly worth a mention, but the tiny drops pierced my face and I felt weirdly happy. My body was aching but alive and strong.
By the time we arrived back at the Arenberg forest and Alberto turned around to do one last lap of this famous sector for Strava, I felt tempted to join him, tempted to not just ride, but race, these stupid crazy cobbles.
It’s all fine and good to gingerly manoeuvre your bike over these famed roads of Northern France at 15 km/h and take a break at a bakery when the pain gets too much after a couple of kilometres. It must be an entire different story to race Paris – Roubaix and my appreciation and admiration for the guys who won it in the past has taken a new dimension.
Having done this ride gives me a deeper understanding now, why this race and the cobbles hold such a mythical fascination for cyclists around the world. Paris – Roubaix and the experience will have a special place in my heart for years to come. The cobbles of Paris – Roubaix will be forever edged into my memory, that’s for sure!