Iconic Places – Roubaix, Roubaix, Roubaix, Roubaix (with apologies to the Kaiser Chiefs)

Paris-Roubaix Recce ride with Bernard Hinault

It Should’ve Been Hell But it was my Idea of Heaven
‘Ping’ it all started with a ‘ping’ as a new email announced its arrival in my inbox. I was trying to finish up for the day so reluctantly opened the message to find it was an invitation to a reconnaissance ride from Tour de France organisers ASO to mark their inaugural Roubaix Challenge sportive.

A ride on the cobblestones, or pavé as the French call them, well I’ve wanted to do that since Dickie Davies showed me three minutes of the Paris-Roubaix race on World of Sport one Saturday afternoon a very, very long, long time ago. I emailed back double quick to secure a place on the recce trip which would cover around 70km of Le Department du Nord and include a total of 16 secteurs of pavé. Then two days later another email arrived and said “of course with Bernard Hinault, on a bicycle!”. That would be five time Tour de France winner, 1980 World Champ and 1981 Roubaix winner Bernard Hinault. Oh. And 1992 and 1993 Paris-Roubaix winner and general Roubaix rocket Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle would be attending too to offer lessons on how best to tackle the pavé.

Fantastic I thought to myself, can this get any better? Not only would this be a perfectly timed recce to help me figure out what set up I’d need for the full sportive in a months time on the 9th April but I’d do it in the company of a true cycling legend. I hastily booked a ferry for myself and fellow bike list colleague and convinced my long suffering, bike widowed partner to lend me her camper van and we were set to go.

A Wee History Lesson
Paris – Roubaix is known as the Queen of the Classics and is one of the five Monuments of professional cycle racing.  First held in 1896, the race is famous for its unforgiving pavé or cobblestone sectors through the sites of numerous WW1 battlefields.  Jointly these factors conspire to give the race its unique character and its macabre nickname of “l’enfer du Nord” or The Hell of the North.

The wheel battering pavé sectors are from a bygone era and in order to safeguard the future of the race the cobbled farm tracks and country lanes are guarded by local protection orders which forbid anyone from smothering them in Tarmac. Only seasonal maintenance is permitted.

Bernard Hinault was the dominant racer of late 70s and early 80s pro cycling and was known respectfully as “Le Patron”.  His power on a bike and personality were both so strong that he kept his rivals in a state somewhere between awe and fear. 

With this in mind we set off for France and Le Department du Nord.

Map Reading and Monsieur Gendarme
We rolled off the ferry in the van full of excited chatter.  For me this pilgrimage to the pavé was a long time coming.  Numerous previous trips to Europe had me always rushing further South and when I returned home I would look at the map, identify the pavé sectors and curse myself for not making the effort to pay my respects.

Today, a Tom Tom malfunction meant old school map reading was the order of the day. My question to co-pilot Oli centred on whether he had used a map before, or indeed seen one. He assured me all was well and we soon found ourselves in Belgium and rapidly heading towards Holland.

Some course recalculations soon saw us back in France and heading on the roads less travelled, direction Erre, our rendezvous for the following day.

Motoring along rural roads in the French countryside on a sunny Sunday afternoon should be available on prescription on the NHS as one of the anti-depressants that actually work (cycling being the other). But my happy place was soon invaded by a policeman, and that has never previously been a pleasant experience.

He waved us into a car park for a chat and a conversation straight out Allo Allo followed – him with the uniform and me with the very bad  – “I was jist pissing thro your vallage on this fin jour to git taw a rase for my bicyclette je don’t pense je speeding.”  The Vroom Vroom noises and pedaling hand motions may or may not have helped our case.

The lack of vehilcle paperwork could have been a problem “The van she iz mon femme, non papiers Monsieur.  Je suis was in un rush terrible et je fogoat thum all.  Le papiers avec le plume de mon tante dans mon salle des bains”.

Clearly the anti depressant effect of the French countryside works on locals too (perhaps we should take this lead and all move over La Manche en-masse) as he gave a Gallic shoulder shrug and uttered a “Pah” before waving us on route with, what I swear, sounded like a cheery “Bon Route, Bon Courage et take yir Francais terrible avec vous”.

Pavé, Pavé, Pavé
Sleeping in the van behind the village church in Erre left us in the right place at the right time the following morning. After being woken by a cockerel at about 04:30 and forgetting to put our alarm clocks an hour forwards we almost did the unthinkable and sleep in …….

We got ready quickly and rode round the other side of the church …… wow!  A yellow Mavic neutral service motorbike was being wheeled out the back of a Mavic van. Technicians pumped up dozens of spare wheels. Gilbert D-L looked like a film star and Bernard Hinault was building up his bike.  Cameras flashed and a film crew pitched up. This is the stuff of my dreams – well the ones I can tell you about anyway.

SONY DSC Reconnaissance Paris Roubaix Challenge 2011
Lundi 28 fevrier 2011
Credit : ASO Photo : P.Perreve

A group of lycra clad bikies soon formed and rolled out with M. Hinault, Le Patron himself, on the front. We hit the first pavé sector of Erre a Wandignies (2.9km and 3 stars) after a few short minutes.  Unbelievable, the track is filling-loosening rough and we’re doing 27-30kph. The pro cyclists rode this sector in a recent edition of Le Tour – press reports say the peloton was travelling well in excess of 50kph when they hit the stones.

The lead car lead the way as sector followed sector …… each one seemingly muddier, greasier and more slippery than the last. Time ceased to exist.  Faces, bodies and bikes became caked in mud.  Welcome to Hell.

The pace picked up and things started to get serious, it was becoming a race up front.  Gaps appeared as the bunch started to split; riders fell off, remounted and fell again. It was like a cyclist’s Stations of the Cross.

To quote Velo Press’s “Paris-Roubaix A Journey Through Hell” these are cycling’s holy places – Beuvry a Orchies, followed by Auchy a Bersee, then the 5 star Mons en Pevele.  Pont Thibaut a Ennevelin was OK but the short sector of Templeuve Le Moulin de Vertain was, I found, a serious undertaking as my bike bucked and weaved like a bronco with a mind of its own. 

This last sector in Templeuve was only “discovered” and included in the race for the first time in 2002. Word of a local lady who remembered her mother complaining about the state of the cobbled road across the village many years previously had reached Les Amis de Paris Roubaix, the volunteer group that are custodians of the pavé. Les Amis followed her instructions, brought in a mechanical digger to shift the muck and exhumed and resurrected this forgotten piece of history especially for this very special races.

Perhaps this is one Catholic metaphor too far for some but there is a very definitely an air of suffering and redemption to be had as you pass on and then off the pavé.  Afterwards, if not actually reborn, you are certainly left with a feeling of renewal and the certain knowledge that you are capable of achieving very much more than you ever previously thought possible.  It’s a life affirming experience – like grabbing the toothpaste tube of life, you’ll always squeeze a little more out even when it seems impossible.

It should’ve been hell but as I followed Bernard Hinault’s wheel I smiled – the guy is still total class on a bike. Gilbert Duclos-Lasslle’s advice of holding the hoods or drops and NOT the tops was working perfectly. The Mavic tech’s advice of “5 bar front and 6 bar rear” was working too. My extra layer of bar tape was almost doing its thing. Yes, this truly was my idea of a day spent in heaven.

Pay a Visit to Hell Yourself
The first Paris Roubaix Challenge cyclo sportive will take place on April 9th 2011 and is limited to 3000 riders. For more information click here

Event organisers ASO, who also organise the Tour de France have had great success with their Etape du Tour sportive events which give amateur cyclists the opportunity to live the dream and ride on the same course as the top professionals on the day before the pro’s themselves race.

Words by Gav McDonald, Rather Be Cycling
Photography by Pascal Perreve

This entry was posted in Iconic Places & Passes, Recces. Bookmark the permalink.