It took a dirty Sunday morning bashing through Surrey bridleways on our road bikes to remind me why we need Roubaix.
As part of the lead up to the Paris Roubaix challenge, along with our friends at Pearson Cycles, La Fuga has been leading a series of Surrey training rides to acclimatise riders and equipment to the rigours required for the ‘Hell of the North’. 80km of lanes with gravel off-road sections, rutted farm tracks and an escapade over an abandoned airfield makes for a more adventurous ride than usual.
I led last Sunday’s ride, the penultimate in the series, (next one on the 29th March) and it was one of those mornings where it would have been all too easy to call it off. I had ridden the route the day before. I was out satisfyingly early, caught the best of the sunshine, the trails were firm, rideable and bike was behaving. Sunday brought dark, grey skies, a cold northerly wind and that heavy winter wetness that you know is going to last all day…
A select group of riders turned up to brave the ‘pave’ and for the next 4 hours we ate the spray off each other’s back wheels, battered over flint tracks, blew through tyre side-walls, repaired punctures, and listened to carbon sliding through mud. Even a fantastic espresso at Bike Beans cafe, with sunny Tirreno Adriatico playing in the background couldn’t quite lift my optimism back to where it should be, especially when the end of a tough ride is in sight. I had gotten too complacent, too used to comfortable riding. (Little did I know that the Tirreno riders went from sunshine to finish in the snow later that day!)
Paris-Roubaix is a race which, if you explain the format to a non-cycling sports fan, they ‘get it’ straight away. They might not appreciate the nuances but the race captures the imagination; the struggle, the challenge, the unpredictability of racing 200km over cobbles. This is the beauty and the essence of cycle racing which Roubaix exaggerates so well.
Of all the professional races, Roubaix has a timeless quality, a race which has changed little over decades. Unlike the changes and debates that have raged over race radios, or how races, like Flanders, have turned to a more circuit race format, Roubaix has stayed true to it’s origins. Even the bike racers themselves accept the race for what it has always been. There is no protest over how dangerous the course is or how unrideable the route may be. All the best racers just double wrap their bar tape and fit wider tyres, despite all the technical innovations in cycle racing over the last 50 years. You can only ride an ‘inappropriate’ bike at Roubaix. This is a race for tough men and lucky men, and that’s the way it’s going to be. Roubaix is, and will continue to be the beast it is.
Most crucially, as I found out last weekend, Roubaix requires a certain mental toughness to prevail. Bernard Hinault’s 1981 win came after he fell seven times in extremely wet, challenging conditions. At one stage, he had to run through a field to avoid a motorbike which had crashed in front of him. With 13 kilometres remaining, a small black dog ran out in front of Hinault taking him down again. Despite all these incidents the ‘Badger’ triumphed only to declare at the end “Paris Roubaix est une connerie!” (“Paris Roubaix is bulls**t!”). He only ever rode Roubaix once more, before vowing never to ride it again.
If you are racing over the cobbles this year, the danger is to become obsessed with all the choices over 28mm or 27mm tyres, 90psi or 80psi, box section or deep section rims. these choices are important but my advice to you is not to get bogged down behind the comfort of equipment choices. Instead, get out there, scare yourself a little, and hit some dirt before April 11th.
Roubaix is there to shake us up, challenge us out of complacency and remind us to wander out of the comfort zone every-so-often. Ride in the rain. Ride in the mud. Ride hard over tracks you know your bike ‘shouldn’t’ be riding over. Get to know Lady Luck and embrace the unknown. Bonne courage!
Come down to our Cobbled Classics evening at Pearson Cycles in Sheen, Thursday 19th March from 7pm. Share a drink, stories from the road and gain the knowledge to conquer the cobbles. Our next Roubaix training ride is on Sunday March 29th. Meet at Pearson Cycles in Sheen at 8am. See you there.
Words by Wei