The weekend had finally arrived! The itinerary set out by Sporting Tours International for the Paris Roubaix sportive involves a three night stay in a small town near the start of the cobbled section (Busigny) that the 170 km route starts at.
I had decided to do the 140km route which starts and finishes in Roubaix. This was sensible because my longest ride to date so still 161 km and I didn't fancy being dropped immediately by my dad, Uncle Marcus, and mental Mark and then spending seven hours being Billy no mates.
Instead, all credit to Sporting Tours here for being super accommodating, I was dropped off with the others on the 140 km option at the 30 km point of the 170 km ride. This was not to be difficult, but the problem with the 140 route from Roubaix was that it missed out half of the cobbles, and since the cobbles are the essential ingredient to the weekend, we decided it would be better to skip four pavé sections than 10. I assumed that I'd see the boys near the end when they'd surely catch me up!
I set off in a very dense fog and soon realised that wearing sunglasses was a stupid idea! At least it gave me a chance to stop in cobble section 23 (same cobble numbering as the pro race!) to remove them.
Hitting cobbles at speed is a shock. The rattling of the bikes fills your head, adding to the chaotic mess of riders trying to find their paths of the least painfulness. I remember making a conscious effort to keep breathing, but everything was hard work, partly because I was pushing way too big a gear but couldn't reach the gear levers to do anything about it!
There was 50.2 km of cobbles in the 170 km ride so for my ride, I had just under 42 km to judder across. The interspersions of road all roll into a comparatively non memorable chunk, due to there being no nasty hills on the route.
Food station one (out of three) was stocked with bananas, cake, sports bars, and these honey waffle things that I can't get enough of. I already had eaten a Frosties cereal bar an hour in (couldn't find fudge bars in France), so I had one waffle, pocketed another, and quickly moved onwards as I had spotted a bunch to tag along with.
Lots of the riders were international but all very friendly and mostly had compliments for my spotty kit again ("Sa chemise - c'est top!"). Being a girl also warranted extra cheering from spectators (sexist I know, sorry guys) but we were a small minority; I only came across about six other girls, I think only about five percent of the 3000 were girls.
The hardest section by far was the Arenberg Forest. The barriers for the professional race the next day were already in place, and there was nowhere to go to escape the cobbles which are from Napoleon I’s era. The perceived danger of people cutting you up to stay on their line offers a fairly scary 2.4 km section ahead of you.
The pros hit this at about 60 kmph, I’m pretty sure I trundled over them about 10 kmph... I still haven’t decided whether I found it more painful to gingerly wobble over the cobbles or go hell for leather but get it over faster.
At this point I felt a bit cheated by the mountain bikers, who were able to ride along the crest of the jarring cobbles, sweetly oblivious to the tense jaws of all the road bikers who were being shaken down rather harshly. It was all getting a bit depressing, being overtaken by every mountain biker on the planet as soon as the Tarmac turned to stone so I decided to take a chocolate break and see where the boys were.
I picked up my phone to some bad news - my dad's bike had broken at the halfway point. This was really gutting to him, as I think he was enjoying it the most out of all of us. This dampened the weekend because I would have loved it if we had all been able to finish in the Roubaix velodrome. It was about another hour until Mark caught me up, and then after four hours of riding on my own I decided to have another chocolate bar, and honey waffle, and wait for Marcus.
Marcus wasn't far behind but he did look pretty rough, about as rough as I felt, so we rode the last parts together. The nicest feeling in the whole day was entering the velodrome with him and taking a lap of honour!
I was muddy and sweaty after over six hours of being in the saddle, and I really needed a shower. We had been promised by Dave (the man in charge of the tour) that we would get to go and shower in the historical showering block where the communal cubicles are embossed with the names of past winners.
I've never been in a communal shower before, nor was I thrilled to share it with men, but I was not going to chicken out of this after what I'd just been through! The bikes were filthy but by some sort of miracle, nobody I spoke to had had any punctures! I think that the general consensus was 85 psi in 25 mm clinchers is the way forwards. It was a great day out but I felt disappointed for my dad and I also partly wish I'd gone for the 170 km route. But c'est la vie, I think it's better to be left wanting more!
The next day was spent chasing the pros around the French countryside and eating ham sandwiches. The tour was exceptionally well organised and the atmosphere was so exciting. I really really would recommend this to anyone and I think it's the best event I've ever done. I'll definitely be back for more. Don't bring your best bike though, and pray for no rain...