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Tales from the peloton, June 21, 2004

Ben Atkins' Paris - Roubaix Cyclo

Over 225 km down,
Photo ©: Velo Club de Roubaix
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Straight after the Giant Tour, Ben Atkins was at it again, this time at the biennial Paris - Roubaix Cyclo, where, for the very first time, he decided to go the full hog - yes, all 261 kilometres...

You can keep your Tours de France, your Giros d'Italia, your World Championships etc... There's only one race that's branded on my must-see list each year, it's on the second Sunday in April and it's the most beautiful sporting event on Earth.

The race is of course Paris - Roubaix, 260 odd kilometres of hell over some of the worst 'roads' that France has to offer. There's never a dull race, never a lucky winner, although there are always loads of unlucky losers... It means so much to me - possibly a bit too much - that I proposed to my girlfriend Liz by the side of the Cysoing cobbled sector this April.

Not content with simply watching the brave hard men like Museeuw and Van Petegem - and of course this year's worthy victor Magnus Backstedt - hammer their bodies over this amazing course, every other June we can have a go at it ourselves in the biennial Paris - Roubaix Cyclo, organised by the Velo Club de Roubaix.

There are three distances to choose from: 120 km, which takes in most of the cobbled sectors; 190 km with all of the cobbles; or the full 261 km of pure hell! Two years ago I did the 190 km course - this year I was talked into doing the full distance!

My trusty steed,
Photo ©: Ben Atkins
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The hardest thing I had to do on the Giant Tour last week was give back the bike. I would have loved to have done this ride on the TCR Composite that I'd ridden in Germany, but unfortunately it was not to be. My Battaglin Vortex (just like Emanuele Sella's, but with Campag) wasn't really built for this kind of thing, so I decided to leave it at home; I decided on my Battaglin Magnum training bike which has done its fair share of cobbled miles in the past. A few changes had to be made to the set-up to make the ride a bit more bearable; my usual 23mm Michelins were substituted for 25mm Contis to cushion the ride a bit and I put on an extra layer of bar tape to make the grip softer - I didn't go as far as many did though and put sections of pipe lagging foam on the bars!

As the ride takes quite a few hours, the start time for the full distance event is between 4 and 7am! The flexibility is there because it's not a race; slower riders can start as early as possible, whereas the faster ones can get a bit more sleep and still finish in time. We took the start, in Cambronne-les-Ribecourt, a few kilometres north of Compiegne where the pro race starts, at about 4:45am. It was still pitch dark, and would be for a couple of hours, so the organisers insist that everyone has lights at the start, we had some from a pound shop that we could discard when it got light.

The trip was organised by Scott Budgen from Pearson Cycles of Sutton, Surrey and I was the only one there who'd been before. I did my best to forewarn them of the trials ahead, but as I'd never before done anything close to that distance myself, I was in pretty unknown territory too. Luckily, as most of the other guys are much fitter than me, the pace began fairly gently and we rode for the first couple of hours at a comfortable 30 kph or so.

"anything soft dangling anywhere near this region can get a bit of a hammering from the saddle"

Before too long, we arrived at the first checkpoint. As this was a randonee, we all had cards which we had to get stamped by the officials by the door before we helped ourselves to the plentiful supplies of cakes and drinks. We filled our bottles, and stuffed our faces and set off again after leaving our lights with Dennis the van driver.

Not far after the first checkpoint is the first sector of cobbles, a 2200m stretch of hell near the village of Troisvilles. This was where the other guys; Scott, Keith, Duncan, John and Ian, found out what this was all about. I actually led over the first kilometre or so until Scott got into his stride and flew by.

Once the cobbled sectors start they come thick and fast, the third sector at Quievy lasts for 3700m, and by the time you reach the end of it you can't feel your arms and your legs seem to belong to someone else. It takes a good couple of minutes for the system to recover from the battering it receives, and by that time you're approaching the next one.

It's quite difficult to describe the sensation of riding over these cobbles; they're nothing like anything else I've ever ridden over, even the Flanders ones aren't even close. You need to push a really big gear - spinning a small one means you'll be bounced all over the place - so your backside lifts off the saddle slightly. This can mean that anything soft dangling anywhere near this region can get a bit of a hammering from the saddle as it judders around. The feet get constant hits from everything you ride over, passing the vibration up through the calves so that after a kilometre or so you can't feel your lower legs properly. Your hands have to grip the bars tightly, as the experience is not unlike holding a road drill. Loosen your grip and it feels like someone is trying to break your fingers with a small hammer. This vibration (the word vibration does not do it justice) is passed through your arms, leaving them numb, and up via your shoulders to your spine. If you can still manage to pedal and control your bike while this is going on, you're doing well!

The guide to the parcours
Photo ©: Ben Atkins
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After 155 kilometres and the third control point, we arrived at one of the most sacred monuments in cycling, more important to me than Alpe d'Huez, the Forest of Arenberg! This place fills me with awe every time I visit, this is the place where the action always begins, with just over 100 kilometres to go the big boys always show themselves here. It's also where Museeuw crashed and broke his kneecap, and almost died. The fact that the surface is one of the worst in the entire course just adds to its appeal...

The first few hundred metres of the sector is slightly downhill and I carried most of my speed from the tarmac, until the road flattened and seemed to become slightly uphill where all my momentum was lost. After this it becomes a real struggle; if you can ride the cobbles fast you can almost seem to glide over the top; if you're going slowly then you seem to have to fight your way over each and every stone. There is an opportunity to ride along the mud path at the side of the track - that many riders take - but this would be cheating and I didn't come here to avoid cobbles, I came to ride them. The Arenberg sector therefore took me a good few minutes, but I loved every one of them!

The next sector was Wallers, where that old disused railway bridge is, this is another famous site from watching the race all those years, so again I was covered in goose pimples as I rode through.

By this part of the course the cobbled sectors come thick and fast and it's difficult to concentrate on eating and drinking - it's not possible to do either when hammering over the cobbles. I took a banana out of my back pocket just as we arrived at the Hornaing sector - 3700 m long - and had to ride the first kilometre of the sector with it clamped between my teeth before we got to a small tarmac break in the middle and I could put it away again. I quickly got it out again and forced it down as soon as the sector was over, ready to face the next one. It's also difficult to keep drinking as much as you can as I lost two bottles at various parts of the course as they were shaken from their cages!

"once we passed around 210 kilometres we were well into the realms of the unknown"

After umpteen cobbled sectors, I was getting a bit 'cobbled out', so I decided to do what so many other riders had been doing for ages and ride down the dirt at the side of the track. Unfortunately this dirt strip was pretty uneven, so I found myself having to lift myself over loads of dips and lumps. At one particularly large dip I misjudged the lifting of my front wheel and got it tangled up, I flew over the bars - apparently in a pretty stylish fashion! - and slid into a ditch, a la Hincapie! Luckily I was totally unhurt so I had a good laugh at myself, and swore that I'd never try and cheat the cobbles again!

By this time I was getting pretty tired; once we passed around 210 kilometres we were well into the realms of the unknown. The longest rides I've ever done were just over 200km, so I was unsure how I'd manage it. Luckily, apart from the few thousand tiny stone 'hills' that you have to climb, the course is almost completely flat, so I was pretty sure I'd be able to make it to Roubaix, no matter how exhausted I was.

As I passed through the village of Cysoing I found myself on familiar ground. This is where I come every April to watch my heroes, I always bring my bike over so I know these sectors like the back of my hand. The Cysoing sector - dedicated to Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle - is pretty reasonable for a few hundred metres when it becomes a randomly-scattered collection of stones. I don't mind the unevenness though, for it is here that I got down on one knee and proposed to Liz, surrounded by drunken Belgians last Easter Sunday; passing this spot gave me new impetus as I headed off towards Camphin-en-Pevele.

Pretty soon I found myself approaching the Carrefour de l'Arbre, and the bar that's only open for one day a year - although judging by the number of bikes leaned against its walls, it may have increased that to two days this year. Once I was past this point I knew I'd made it, the Gruson sector - classed as the second part of the Carrefour de l'Arbre in the pro race, and to be used by the Tour de France this July - is pretty level and after that there is less than 15 kilometres to the finish.

On the Hem sector - which is where Museeuw punctured this year - I hopped from one bit of broken tarmac to the other, just like the pros do, and caught up with an Italian guy who I'd been riding with earlier. He offered me his wheel and wouldn't let me go until we reached the velodrome, even when I slowed on the slight rise towards the town centre and told him to go. We passed onto the sacred track together in front of a pretty reasonable crowd and I tried to let him go rather than beat him on the line. Unfortunately for my sporting plan though, he decided to ride around the flat 'Cote d'Azur' at the bottom of the track, but I wanted to try the banking. I cruised round the blue line halfway up the track and had to be waved down by the photographer - otherwise I'd have crossed the line out of shot!

This one's for Liz,
Photo ©: Velo Club de Roubaix
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As I crossed the line I got my celebration for the camera sorted out. I'd been working in Dublin since November before heading off to Germany, then came over here, and my fiancee Liz has had to put up with all that, so this 'victory' was for her. I kissed my ring finger as I rolled in and the cameraman caught it perfectly.

Not only is this the best ride in the world, it also has the best souvenirs. All riders can buy their own 'cobble' mounted on a wooden plaque. Okay, it's only about a quarter of the size, but as a symbol of my achievement it's pretty appropriate. I collected mine and had some food, then got my stuff out of the van and headed off for a shower.

I spoke to Roderick de Munnick on the Giant Tour about the Paris - Roubaix Cyclo as he'd done it last time. We both agreed that there are three essential elements for a proper Hell of the North experience. Number one, the cobbles. Check. Number two, the track. Check. And Number three, the showers. Here goes...

Forget the yellow jersey,
Photo ©: Ben Atkins
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The Roubaix Velodrome showers are an institution in themselves, almost as old as the velodrome itself; they're more akin to a cattle shed than the sanitation facilities for some of the world's greatest sportsmen. I'd used them the last time I rode, but what made them even more authentic this time was the fact that the water was freezing cold! The only difference between the experience that we get and the one that the pros get is the fact that we have to share the facilities with the few women that are brave enough to ride the event! I did my best to wash off the grit of the day in the cold water while trying not to stare at the woman in the stall next to me - especially as her husband was taking photos of her (above the shoulders only) surrounded by men!

Keith Budgen commented on the ride that, as I'd been before, I must either have no memory, or be the most stupid bloke in the world! I told him that I remembered every minute of 2002, so he now thinks I'm really stupid... I'm not sure if I'll ever need to do the full distance again - it's nice to get at least some sleep the night before - but I'll definitely be back in 2006. How stupid is that Keith?

Once again, the Velo Club de Roubaix have excelled themselves with a fantastic event. My one criticism? Why do I have to wait two years before I can do it again?!

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