Member Dave Pittman tells his story of riding the Hell of the North
On the 12th April 2014, after nearly 6 hrs. Cycling 141km, 32.6km of which were over French Pave, I completed the 2014 Paris Roubaix Challenge. This was to be my first time riding the Queen of the classics, and will be the one I have the fondest memories of. Since 2014’s event where I initially swore I would never subject myself to that sort of punishment again, I then went on to ride it again in 2015, and then chose to ride the Bergs and Pave of the Ronde Van Vlaanderen in 2016. But for me, Roubaix holds a special place in my heart. The following blog gives an overview of the event weekend and hopefully encourages others to take the plunge and try riding the Hell of the North at least once in their lives.
Friday 11th April 2014 (Eve of the ride): Early start today. With my bike packed away in its holder, suitcases filled, energy gels and spare inner tubes stored in the car, with my family in tow, we set off on the 2 ½ Hr. Journey to Folkestone for the Eurotunnel journey crossing over to Calais. After 45mins in the back of a train container, we arrived in France. Just a 1 ½ hrs. drive to Roubaix in Northern France lay ahead.
Roubaix itself is a town just North of Lille, and quiet a poor one at that. The first thing you notice whilst driving through is the degradation of the area. Which is quiet shocking considering France is on the recovery from recession and is quiet affluent in places, but this part of Northern France appears to have been forgotten. Roubaix was famous for its textiles, but like most industries, Similar to here in the UK, times change and businesses move away leaving communities struggling.
I’m not here to offer critique on Roubaix, I’m here to tell you about my ride.
At 16:00 hrs., we drove up to the Famous Roubaix Velodrome and I collected my registration package and race number, I was allocated Number 615. We had a quick look around, posed for a few photos and then it was time to leave as there is still much to do before tomorrow.
After a healthy plate of Flemish stew and Frites, Swiftly washed down with an ice cold glass of French Beer in a local restaurant, and a little time to ponder the following days event, we returned to the hotel and I went off to bed at 20:30hrs for a semi decent night’s sleep before I needed to get up at 05:30 hrs. the following morning.
Saturday 12th April 2014 (My turn to ride the Hell of the North!)
Another early start, with the alarm clock sounding off at 05:30 hrs., I awoke with just enough time for a quick shower and shovel a bowl of porridge with bananas down my neck, it was soon time to get ready for the ride. Having applied half a pot of Chamois cream before donning my bib shorts, I then loaded up with enough energy gels to last the entire tour de France and with a final check of the bike, I made my way out into the cold foggy spring morning and started to ride the 2 mile journey along the Rue de Lannoy to the Roubaix Velodrome. Along the way I stopped alongside another cyclist at some traffic lights. He was wearing a cycling top with the words Lichfield cycling club on the front. After a brief introduction, we continued to ride side by side towards the start and spoke about our preparations and expectations of the day ahead. Fraser informed me he worked in Birmingham hospital as a physio and had been cycling for 5 years, and this too was to be his first Paris Roubaix. He said he was only completing the 70 km course and had ridden 3 sections of cobbles yesterday and referred to it as being terrible. I laughed nervously and told him that I was completing the 141 km event and had 18 sections of cobbles to complete. It wasn’t long before we were at the start area where we wished each other good luck and then went our separate ways.
Once at the start area, the first thing I saw were lots of other Lycra clad cyclists all looking nervous about the impending pain. Many were queuing for a few very basic porta loos that had been kindly provided by the organisers. Once nature had taken its course, I made my way over to the start line with several other riders for the 07:00 start. At 7am sharp, the marshal’s flag went down and with a blast of a whistle gave the signal to start the ride.
I started to cycle out of Roubaix in a group of approx. 20 other riders, passing along the very quiet misty streets at a steady pace of about 16 mph, just enough to warm the legs up. After about 2 miles the pace suddenly ramped up and over the next few miles I started to drift slowly to the rear of the group. It was at this point it I realised that there were some serious cyclists taking part in the event. Resigned to the fact that very soon I would be jettisoned out of the back of the main bunch, I eased back the pace as there was still over 100km to go and needed to conserve my energy if I was to finish.
As I continued to ride through the cold foggy morning air, the stream of cycle clubs in 2 lines passing me by was to be a regular feature. The familiar sound of chattering cyclists and the whirring of wheels in the distance becoming louder and louder until they were alongside, and with the occasional “bonjour” or nod of acknowledgement the groups of 10+ seasoned cyclists rode past and sped off into the foggy distance as quickly as they had arrived.
After about 1 ½ hrs. riding, the roads started to enter a wooded area signifying only one thing, we were nearing the town of Wallers and the Arenberg forest.
A short time later, in the distance I could see a lot of people standing around taking photographs and talking to each other, as I reached them I gave a squeeze on my brakes and came to a standstill, glancing over to my right I caught my first sight of the Tranchee d’Arenberg. A 2.4km stretch of cobbled track Constructed during the Napoleonic War allowing gun carriages fast passage through the Arenberg forest supplying provisions to troops on the front lines. As I stared down the cut through the forest, it looked almost mythical and seemed to go on forever. I could see a steady line of cyclists making their way over the cobbled section, under a bridge and disappearing into the foggy distance.
Some people were riding, some walking and a few bent over fixing bikes. Spectators lined the barriered pathway to the right of the track and the grass to the left had been ploughed giving no area of respite from the cobbles. As I stared down at the many cobbles in front of me I asked myself the question, why would anyone want to ride a road bike over those? The only way I can describe the section is if you can imagine one of the worst farm tracks possible, paralleling trenches running along its length carved out by decades of vehicle use, and as a result has left a high camber along its centre, large pot holes dotted around every 10 metres or so. Then cover the whole thing in rocks of various sizes, press them into the dirt leaving jutted edges, corners sticking out, and gaps large enough between each cobble that would easily swallow a 23mm bike tyre and you have something that resembles the Arenberg trench.
After a photo or 2, I remounted my bike and made my way towards the cobbles. In my head I kept repeating to myself, “highest gear you can manage, high cadence, sit back, weight over the rear tyre, hands on top of the bars, concentrate, concentrate”. Bang went the forks as I hit the first cobble, throwing my arms upwards, swiftly followed by a second loud bang as the rear tyre entered the section which then jolted my entire body.
Initially the constant vibrations through the bike were not too bad, however after about 100m the road suddenly started to worsen. The bangs, clangs and pings were now sounding every second and the noises became louder and louder as the bike bounced around over the worsening cobbles. Bike components started vibrating, and the rims of the wheels were hitting the cobbles hard. The vibrations through the handlebars were as though I was holding a pneumatic drill breaking up the road, forcing shockwaves through my arms and into my head and body. As I tried to sit back and pedal hard the vibrations were such that I began to lose sight as my eyes jolted around inside my head making the ability to focus virtually impossible. Catching occasional glimpses of the many pointed edges and endless potholes the bike veered from side to side as if it had a mind of its own. Bike pumps and water bottles littered the floor where they had been bounced from their owner’s leaving more obstacles for the chasing cyclists to avoid. When riding cobbles, the bike has control of you, not you in control of the bike. All you can do is just let the bike go where it wants to and steer by shifting body weight, not by moving the handlebars.
Halfway down the section and I thought my lungs were about to pop and my legs were burning, I pressed on and dropped down a gear making it slightly easier but with a higher cadence. However this did not reduce the brutality of the cobbles, if anything it made it worse. As I struggled to keep my speed up every bounce of the bike slowed me back down. At one point I glanced over to my right and saw a rider stood next to a motorbike rider who was holding his blue Trek carbon bike that had been snapped in half! All that was holding it together was the chain. Reading in advance the advice from experienced riders, I noted that you can’t think about your bike whilst riding the cobbles. All you need to know is that it is taking a severe beating and damage is par for the course.
I could now appreciate how hard the course was for the professional riders, who on TV, appear to float over the cobbles as if they were on a bed of air.
The importance of riding as fast as you can to try to get up and over the gaps in between the Pave was clear. Each cobbled gap I hit quickly sucked the speed from the bike and unlike the pros that glide over the section at 25 mph; I remained at a steady 16mph throughout.
As I occasionally overtook a fellow cyclist, some overtook me in return, Motorbike outriders standing up on motor cross bikes rode up and down providing assistance for anyone that needed it. Cheers from spectators along the route rang out as we went by, “Allez, Allez” they shouted as they waved their different flags from behind the barriers. I looked up ahead and saw the end nearing, the road ramped up making it a little harder, but the cobbles remained as relentless. It was as if the Arenberg was giving a final reminder that it was not yet beaten. I upped the pace a little in a final burst to end the pain, and with a final bounce and applause from those stood around, I had done it. I had completed the Arenberg section and done so without puncture, mechanical issue or even falling off. I thought to myself, 1 section down, only another 17 sections of cobbled hell to go!
I stopped to regain my senses and my wrists, arms, shoulders, legs and ‘other parts’ were still hurting and pulsing from the battering they had just been subjected to. As my eyes started to function normally again, I glanced around and saw tens of cyclists around me talking about what they had just encountered with big grins across their faces then checking their bikes and then moving on. After a 5 minute break I got back on the bike and started off again, and I was only a third of the way into the ride.
The transition from cobble to tarmac was like something I have never felt before. It was like riding on silk. It was so smooth the bike glided along it almost effortlessly. I re-joined a couple of other riders and we rode at a steady pace. Even though they were from different countries and spoke differing languages, we still communicated through noise and gestures making light of the cobbles we had just shared.
Kilometre after kilometre of tarmac roads and cobbled sections went by. Snaking our way through the flatlands of northern France, the only difference with the cobbles now is that they passed through farmland and they were covered with a blanket of sand and dirt.
The temperature hovered around 15’c and by now the fog had lifted. The sun was out and the sweat started to run down from under my helmet. The wind had picked up and we were now exposed to slight crosswinds from the open fields making it slightly harder to ride. As groups of riders followed by support vehicles and motorbike outriders went through the sections of cobbles, plumes of dust blew up, and stuck to the falling sweat. The taste of French soil in the back of my throat almost burned and with a cough was jettisoned out, only to be replaced with more dust just as quick.
As I moved over the cobbles, the sides of the road looked so smooth, but in reality it was far more dangerous than riding the cobbles themselves. The edges that appeared to be so smooth were in fact littered with many small pot holes and bumps; loose dirt covered the older dried tyre tracks and formed ruts that could take the bike off into the edges and into the fields. The cobbles had been twisted on the edge by the farm traffic riding over them leaving sharp edges sticking up and on occasion’s some of the cobbles were even missing.
As I continued to ride, I passed through several small French villages and crossed many train level crossings. The villages themselves were getting ready for the big race the following day. Local people were erecting bunting and signage welcoming the world’s best cyclists and television crews to their communities, even though it would only be for a few seconds it was obvious that this meant a lot to them. Kids playing out in the street on their bikes rode alongside us as we passed other people walking along the paths, some with sticks of bread tucked under their arms that they had just bought from the local Boulanger. The bread was neatly wrapped together in the middle with a sheet of white paper. Cars moved over to the side of the road allowing us to pass safely seamed surreal, almost like we were royalty. Everywhere we rode, people continued to shout out words of encouragement to us as we past, “Allez, Allez”, “Bonne chance” and “Bravo” they called.
Names of pro riders had been painted on the roads by locals and fans, there in big white letters the names Wiggo, Boonen, Fabian were slapped in emulsion onto the black tarmac reminding me of the event which I was riding in and gave me some extra motivation to push on to the end.
The only section I nearly came to grief on was section 10, the Mons-en-Pévèle. At 3km in length, it is only categorised as a 3 star section but the length made it just as hard as the category 5 sectors. As I rode along, bouncing over cobbles and bike moving from side to side, I decided to head over to the edges of the track to reduce the continuous vibrations of the cobbles. Within seconds the loose dirt and sand started to pull the bike from left to right, the bumps got less however they were harder as I bounced over dried mud and grass.
As I weaved along the foot wide dirt footpath, the edges of cobbles stood out and loose rocks forced me to swerve. Suddenly, the front wheel entered a dried bike track, the tyre gripped into the loose sand and dirt that had filled it and in a split second I veered over to the right. Struggling to keep control I pulled hard on the brake levers and unclipped my feet from the pedals just in time as I entered the long grass. I came to an abrupt stop and placed a foot on the floor, heart rate pounding I looked at what I had avoided. Just beyond the long grass was a 3 foot wide ditch leading into the ploughed field. The ditch was full of a dark green liquid and the banks covered in all sorts of foliage.
Cramp then hit and I clasped my left leg in agony and tried to stretch it. The intensity was such that I had to dismount and stretch. Eventually the cramp dissipated and I got back onto my bike, clipped back in and continued on my way.
As I had stopped mid-section, getting going again was a real effort. Riders passed me by shouting “left” or “right” advising me of their presence, riders swerving around me trying to stay on the smoothest part of the cobbles until the very last moment before overtaking, then swerving back into the middle of the road. Coming towards the end of the section, I could see a long line of motor homes parked up at the side of the road. People were sat outside them on chairs enjoying lunches and drinking beer, flags on long poles atop of the vehicles, some of which were of the Flemish flag, a black lion on a yellow background and were flapping gently in the wind.
Some of the spectators who had obviously camped out a day or so earlier to get themselves a good spot for Sundays Pro race, stood along the road cheering on the 4000 amateurs riding the same route. Dressed in various costumes, waving different flags and banners, fuelled with alcohol they cheered us on in French, with 1 of them giving riders a friendly push on the lower back to try and help us gain more speed.
The miles clicked by as did the feed stops, which were heavily laden with energy drinks, gels, bananas, honey waffles, twiglets, dried apricots and other carbohydrate and sugar rich foods to help riders restock their energy levels.
The journey continued and I passed over more and more of the famous sections of cobbles, most notably the Carrefour de L’Arbe, a section as brutal as the Arenberg. It is located not far from the finish and usually completes the final selection of riders in the professional race as to who will be in with a chance to win.
As the roads started to enter more and more built up areas, I knew the end was near. The roads started to get busier and recognisable signage to areas of Roubaix began to appear.
I passed a sign saying 10km to go, then another saying 5 km, then 3km. The road went upwards for a final 6% climb towards the last stretch of very small cobbles before passing under the Flamme Rouge, a red pennant hanging from an air bridge signifying 1km to go, I turned right and into the Velodrome. People cheered from the barriers as I passed them, tears welled up in my eyes as I entered the famous track.
These were a mixture of tears of joy, sadness and pain. Glad I had done it but sad it was over and praying for the pain in my arms to stop. As I rolled around the unbelievably smooth track, the very same track that had witnessed many great cyclists win or lose the biggest one day bike race in the world I started to savour the moment. Hundreds of people stood inside the Velodrome cheering and clapping riders home. As I made my around the final bend of the Velodrome, I moved up from the bottom of the track to the upper banks of the track corner, the advertisement boards running around it flashed by. The gradient was something I have never experienced and was quiet un-nerving. The bike remained upright but the ground adjusted below. The contact point of the tyre was now more on the side of the tyre and it felt like the bike would slip sideways down the slope. I continued to ride round the top, the bottom of my right pedal started to catch and scrape on the floor with every turn such was the angle of the banking. I exited the final bend and rolled back down the track, passing over the names of sponsors that had been expertly painted onto the floor and began a mock sprint to the finish. I passed a couple of riders on the approach and then with hands held up I rolled across the finish line.
I had done it. I had completed and survived Paris Roubaix, the hell of the north, the queen of the classics and had done so without getting any punctures or mechanical problems. I glanced down at my bike computer and was please when I saw the time. I had completed the 90 mile route in 5hrs 50mins taking away the time spent in the feed stops.
As I gently rolled around the track, hundreds of cyclists loitered around, talking with friends, families and other cyclists. Eating various foods and indulging in a celebratory bierre in plastic glass. I came to a halt and unclipped my feet for a final time and a young French girl in her best English Congratulated me and placed a pink/orange ribbon with a medal around my neck. I acknowledged her with a smile and the words “Merci beaucoup” and walked to the grassed centre of the track where I took off my helmet and sat down. After catching my breath, I wiped the sweat and dirt from my brow with the back of my hand, picked myself up and went over to the podium for a photo.
I then made my way out of the Velodrome and across the road to the shower area. There were signs in place saying “Mystic showers” with big arrows pointing towards an old white building. I gave my bike to a lady outside who in return gave me a tally with the number 14 on it. She then walked my bike off over to a secure compound whilst I went off to clean myself up.
As I entered the building, the smell of mud, shampoo was strong, and steam partially filled the room. The sounds of laughter and joy echoed out of the door as people celebrated and chatted. Inside the shower area were rows and rows of shoulder high granite cubicles were riders were getting changed. Attached to the side of each cubicle was a gold plaque. Engraved onto the plaque were the names of famous riders and the years they had won the Paris Roubaix. These were the same showers the professional riders use. Not many sports allow fans to ride the same roads as the professionals and then use the same facilities. This was like playing at Wembley and using the renowned changing rooms afterwards. As I walked around trying to find a free space, the names on the plaques stood out. Mercks, De Vlaminck, Coppi, Kelly, Boonen and Cancellara all great riders. I eventually found an empty cubicle which had the name Museeuw on its gold plaque recognising the 1996 Paris Roubaix winner Johan Museeuw. I sat down on the plinth and began to get undressed, before walking over to the already full showers.
I pulled down on the aging shower chain and a steady stream of hot water poured out. Never before has a shower felt so good and so monumental. Once I had cleaned myself and got dressed. It was time to leave the building and collect my bike. Then with a sense of achievement, I remounted my bike and slowly rode back through the streets of Roubaix to my hotel where I grabbed a bite to eat and went off to bed and it still was only 6 o’clock!
Sunday 13th April 2014; after a bit of a lie in, I got up and as soon I moved it hurt. There was not one part of my body that wasn’t either aching or throbbed. My arms and wrists felt like they were buzzing and shaking. I got showered, dressed and made my way downstairs for breakfast. People were talking about today’s big race and making claims as to who would win it. I filled my plate with bread, ham and cheese. Grabbed an apple, yoghurt and coffee and sat down to eat. It wasn’t long before others had joined me at the table and following introductions to each other the conversations soon turned to cycling. Sat at the table was people from all over the globe, there were 2, including me from England, 1 from Mexico, and 3 from Belgium.
After breakfast I got ready and started the 20 minute walk back to the Velodrome to watch the finish of the pro race. The roads were quiet empty, however as I neared to the Velodrome itself it started to become a hive of activity. The Gendarmerie were busy setting up road closures and workmen erected barriers along the roads taking steel railings from the back of big white vans. As I traced my way down the final 1km of cobbles I had ridden down the day before, things started to catch my eye that I had not seen previously. The cobbles down the centre had commemorative pave in the with winners names on them. The grass and bushes running along the sides had been trimmed and although it ran between the 2 carriageways it was like walking in a park.
I walked under the 1km to go Air Bridge, the flamme rouge, where I stopped and took a few photos before moving on where I started to pass rows of trucks and cars with team names emblazoned across them. BMC, Team Sky, Orica Green edge, Saxo bank, Omega Pharma Quickstep and Trek to name a few. At the rear of the trucks, bike mechanics began setting up areas to clean the bikes after the race. Inside the back of each truck were rows and rows of bike frames, wheels, bike components all of which I could only dream of owning. There was literally £100,000s+ worth of equipment inside. The mechanics allowed fans to look closer, and I could see the names of the riders clearly marked on each individual frame.
Eventually I made my way into the Velodrome, and even though it was still hours before the end, it was surprisingly full. I found a spot at the very end of the finishing straight, high up on the banking giving me a perfect view of the finish and the large screen showing live coverage of the race.
At the side of me camera men were setting up a platform with the words Euro sport emblazoned upon it, and a short while after, I saw a lady I recognised, but wasn’t sure who it was. She walked towards me smiled and said in a strong American accent “Sorry, where do I know you from? You look familiar”. After a few laughs and clarification that I was not in fact a reporter from Belgium she introduced herself as Kathy LeMond. She continued to speak about cycling and that her husband, Greg was here to commentate on the race today for Eurosport.
We continued to talk about general life and cycling and spoke about our children, the fact that she and Greg had become Grandparents for the first time 2 weeks previous and how it had changed their lives. We also spoke about Roubaix in general and how poor the area was. She went on to say that they used to live about 5 miles from Roubaix, and she had no love for the place as one day whilst she was with Greg and her father, they had been robbed whist walking around the town and her father had been hit over the head putting him into hospital. The general chatter continued and I noticed that now stood on the platform just to the side of me behind the barriers was a Eurosport reporter, Greg LeMond and Juan Antonio Flecha.
Greg LeMond is a 3 x tour de France winner and 2 x world road world champion, and Juan Antonio Flecha retired from cycling November 2013 and has won many races, taken stages in all the Grand tours and has had 8 podium finishes in Paris Roubaix, but has never succeeded in winning the race. I watched in awe as 2 cycling greats spoke only feet away from me.
Greg spoke in his American accent and Juan, English with a Spanish accent. I carried on speaking with Kathy, and then out of the blue she asked me if I would like to meet Greg once he had finished his interview. I nodded excitedly and began to get strangely nervous. After about 5 minutes I saw Kathy speaking with Greg and then they both walked over. As he came closer he said in his strong accent “Hi Dave, how are you?” I couldn’t believe it, not only was I speaking to Greg LeMond, but he knew my name. Granted it was only because his wife had told him minutes before, but still, he was talking as though he had known me for some time.
He asked me about my ride the day before and for the next 10 minutes we exchanged stories about riding the cobbles and even tips! It was surreal; He spoke with a mutual admiration about completing a Paris Roubaix and it felt as though I had become part of an elite club.I asked him about his famous 1986 tour de France win over Laurent Fignon and the closest margin in tour de France history, with only 8 seconds separating 2 riders after more than 3 weeks and 2000km of cycling. He described in detail to me just how hard the climbs in the Alps were, and how he had to push himself harder than he had ever done before in that final time trial. The time seamed to go very fast, but eventually and sadly he said he needed to go to get ready for another interview, so I asked him for his autograph and off he went.
The Velodrome got fuller and fuller and the noise levels increased as everyone stood watching the big screen showing live coverage of the race. Gasps and cries erupted at intervals as riders crashed en route or break away groups built up a lead. The riders entered the final kilometre and the group in front contained all of the favourites to win the race. It had every big classic riders name within it, Fabian Cancellara; Tom Boonen; Peter Sagan; John Degenkolb; Bradley Wiggins, Sep VanMarcke; Niki Terpstra and Geraint Thomas.
In the distance, high up in the sky I could see a helicopter that was following the race and broadcasting what I was watching. The excitement and noise went up as Niki Terpstra riding for Omega Pharma Quickstep made a move and broke free from the group. As the final km went by, only 12 seconds separated him from the chasing group. A few minutes later the helicopter was overhead and the big screen showed the leader passing under the Flamme Rouge just outside the Velodrome.
The noise and cheers went up and it was really bizarre to see what I had been watching on the big screen for hours suddenly appear before me. It was almost like he had ridden from out of the TV. Cheers went up and Niki Terpstra entered the Velodrome.
As he rounded the first bend, the Chasing group also entered the Velodrome. As he sped round I Could see the grimace on his face and he was going as fast as he could, but it still looked slow and that there was a chance the Group would catch him in the last 500m. As the bell sounded out for his last lap and he entered the last bend it became apparent that he was going to hold on and as he drifted out into the final straight he sat up, raised his arms into the air, shouting out he crossed the finish line to win the race. Seconds later the second group came to the line in a sprint finish concluding an amazing race and weekend I will never forget.
After the final presentation, I made my way out of the stadium with the hundreds of other fans and onto the streets of Roubaix.
The roads were packed and fans fought to get the few premium places outside team coaches to speak to riders and get autographed bidons.
I continued through the streets and eventually it got quieter and quieter until it was back to some kind of normality. I eventually arrived back at the hotel where my family were waiting for me. I loaded my bike and suitcase into the car and we set off for the 4 hr. return journey home back to England, bringing to a close one of the most memorable weekends of my life. 1 week later and my wrists and arms are still sore. If you were to ask me a few days earlier if I would do it again I would have said without hesitation “No”, However as time goes by and I have had time to reflect, that “no” is now a maybe!!!!