Stuffed into the back of Dave’s car with luggage for three and three bikes, I somehow managed to get comfortable and settled down for the first part of our long journey south to a campsite somewhere in northern France. It was about 3am and very dark. Eventually dawn arrived and I took my turn at the wheel, heroically getting us into the right place at Dover docks with about an hour to spare
The nice P&O man put us on the earlier ferry, which just so happened to be a nice posh new one. We were off.
A coffee, a natter and a crap breakfast later we were on the road again, heading for the campsite a few miles from Saint-Quentin and the start of the Paris-Roubaix Challenge which was to be held the day after.
Once the tent was up, the brews were made and the bikes were assembled we set off to find the registration in the centre of Saint-Quentin. Looking very casual in our baggy shorts and t-shirts we somehow avoided being splattered all over the place by fast town traffic on a somewhat confusing road layout and made it to the event centre which was made up of a huge signing on desk in a leisure centre whilst crowds wandered around various trade stands outside. We signed in, got our Rapha goody bag (with lovely tshirt), we snaffled freebies (Skoda hats and buffs, mainly) and then looked at the prices on the Rapha stand for a giggle.
Phil thought the Rapha guy was joking when he said ‘145 Euro’ for a short sleeve jersey. He wasn’t. We didn’t buy anything from Rapha.
Time for a wander around Saint-Quentin then, the three of us with our road bikes, baggy shorts and far too much stuff in our bags that we’d swiped from the trade stands, we eventually collapsed outside a café bar in a nice square and ordered some beer and rather a lot of food.
Back to the campsite, chilled out for a bit, some more food and then bed. Wake up every hour when the clock in the village goes ‘BONNNNNG’ and wakes up all the ducks who then start maniacally quacking. Up at 5:30am, went outside and saw what I reckon was this zoom past.
7am, arrive at the start line, this time not wearing baggies but the three of us in proper ‘kicking ass’ gear. Chuckle at the shape of some of the other lads who were in our starting group (allegedly everyone is grouped depending on past results and ability – me and Dave in 3rd spot out of 11, Phil for some reason in 4th but a sprinkling of big chunky fellas in all groups by the looks of it. Hmm. Perhaps they descend really well), the Germans with their team radios (‘Tommy at 3 o’clock Herr Von Richtofen’) and then a big hurrah as Phil finally sneaks out of his group, under the noses of the ASO Taliban and into ours.
A few words from Bernard Hinault over the PA and we were off! The first few kilometres (this is the continent so I’m doing this in k’s) were pretty sedate but it was quite obvious early on, due to the wobbliness of some of our fellow cyclists, that the safest place to be was going to be at the front. Once at the front we started to up the tempo but everyone seemed to be hanging on. Riders already dropped from the two groups who had already set off were caught up and the freight train rumbled on…
Despite me moaning about the fact that the event would no longer have the luxury of closed roads and was no longer a race, the roads in reality were closed and in the hearts and minds of most people here, it was very much a race. Motorcycles were doing a brilliant job of protecting our peloton and at junctions were stopping the traffic anyway. This was turning out to be really rather good.
It all got a bit messy in one of the small towns, around the 30k mark. A series of traffic islands with a flag-waving marshal on each one caused many riders to swerve and the pack to become a bit disorganised. I was reminded all of a sudden of the crazy Manchester to Blackpool charity bike ride and tried to get out of the way of a reckless few as riders overtook on the wrong side of the road into the path of oncoming cars.
These distractions cost me and shaped the way my day would pan out – somehow the pack split into two, Dave and Phil were still near the front however I’d dropped back enough to now be looking around for someone to try to bridge the gap with me. There was a pretty big headwind so I didn’t fancy my chances of catching the break on my own….
Off I went in (somewhat futile) pursuit. Nobody came with me.
Eventually the first cobbled section arrived and while it was rough, it wasn’t the hellish experience I was perhaps expecting. As long as I stayed in a big gear and pulled a funny face I was passing dozens of other people who seemed to be struggling along. The cobbles did get progressively more uncomfortable as my dreaded wrist pain returned and would eventually make me pull plenty of NOT funny faces.
…almost 80k later I was still on my own, trying to catch a group of riders who were obviously moving faster than I was. Grovelling into a headwind for 100k wasn’t quite the experience I’d imagined for some reason, but what the hell. It’s good training and I was buoyed by simply riding past more and more riders, some I recognised from the pack that had dropped me earlier. At the 3rd feed station I decided to ring Dave and just check that they were in fact in front of me and I hadn’t ridden past them at an earlier feed station or something. The call confirmed that I was behind them but only about 5 minutes or so. I was doing ok, tired now and getting completely drained of my will to live by the bloody headwind but I knew that I wasn’t falling too far back. Keep grovelling. But grovel faster. Keep hitting the cobbles hard. Recover on the short sections of road, not the other way around. Just don’t recover too much, mmmkay?
I didn’t catch them.
The final, perhaps most brutal section of cobbles of the Carrefour de l’arbre and the end of the ‘race’ arrived, Dave and Phil appeared from the side of the road, chuckled at my grimace and off we went for a slap-up dry bread, cheese and jelly sweets feast. I’d got to the finish of the 138k route in about 4 hours 15-ish (I think), about 5 mins behind Phil and Dave.
After a bit of a wait for the coach driver to finish his last few Gauloises, we were on our way back to Saint-Quentin on the bus and on arrival we cracked on with another 50 mile…I mean 80 kilometre ride with a café/beer stop. The weather was nice, none of us were terribly knackered so it seemed rude not to.
Eventually, after a very non-recovery pace blast around the rural backroads we made it back to the campsite in the dark then headed down to the pizza takeaway for some ridiculously large pizzas to scoff with a couple of bottles of red.
Bed, more ducks, up in the morning then guess what? We went for a ride before loading up the car and starting the 9 hour journey home again. A bit of poor planning on my part when I booked the ferry meant that we didn’t have any time at all to stand at the side of the road and watch a load of pro cyclists ride past, so we’ll plan the itinerary better next time. I’m more of a do-er than a watcher though.
The organisers, ASO, have rewarded everyone who took part in the Paris-Roubaix Challenge in spite of the last-minute format changes, by refunding the entire entry fee. Which means it’s an almost-definite on my list for next year. It should be on yours too.