Thursday, April 23, 2015

Experiencing the Lengendary Paris-Roubaix as an Amateur in the Paris Roubaix Challenge

Experiencing the Lengendary Paris-Roubaix as an Amateur in the Paris Roubaix Challenge

My reasons for visiting the 119th edition of the Paris-Roubaix this year are not as noble as some. Many cyclists and cycling fans have watched the Paris-Roubaix on television for countless years. They, themselves, have dreamed of doing this race when they were young. I have been fascinated by this race, the most famous of the spring classics, but the thought of racing it or even spectating it never crossed my mind. 

I'm going to jump around a bit to tell the story as well as I can. For reference, here's how the week went:

Tuesday night - get on a late plane to Ireland, connecting to Paris. Air controller strike in France threatens plane from landing.
Wednesday morning - arrive in Paris. The next many flights in were canceled due to the strike. Whew, close one.
Wednesday evening - pedal easily around Paris to see the sights and shake out the Boston winter.
Thursday - rode 56 miles all over Paris in the the suburbs of Paris. We found the highest hill for a glimpse down over the city. 10am - 11pm out on the bikes. Wow.
Friday - caught train from Paris to Lille, shuttled via van to Saint Quentin where we stayed two nights.
Saturday - Participated in the Paris Roubaix Challenge.
Sunday - Watched the Paris-Roubaix pro race, shuttled to Lille, train back to Paris.
Monday - Flight home.

Never having gone to Paris or France before, a day and a half of bike tourism all over Paris and its suburbs - day and night - was the perfect pre-race weekend warm-up.

Rob and I decided that it would be cool to see an early season pro race and it didn’t take us long to choose this one to attend. Might as well start with the hardest, toughest, and the one with the richest history. I wanted to get to know this race, and the people who make it what it is, for the first time. I got so much more than I ever expected in two days. 

Going in I didn't know if I'd like France or not. Its ubiquitous flowers and unique architecture were two of the things I liked the most. The people, even in Paris, were friendly, and the drivers couldn't have been nicer to cyclists.

This is a story of not knowing what I didn’t know. Now that I have ridden 163 kilometers of the Paris-Roubaix course and have been within inches of the pros flying through those same roads and difficult pavé sectors, I get it. I see why the “Hell of the North” is placed above all other one-day cycling races as the most difficult, and the winner of it can bask in the sun having proven that he has achieved a victory that says he has just gone into history as one of the greats.

The trophy of a real cobble stone, taken from the route of the race, is more revered by its recipient, than any other ordinary stone. Thinking about the race win will make the likes of pro cycling giant Magnus Backstedt tear up.

The route for the Paris Roubaix Challenge is 100km less than the pros, but it includes all of the cobbled roads that the pros race.

It’s easy to go into any event blind. I didn't have any time to prepare for the trip so even the route was new to me the day of the event. Ignorance is bliss. What’s there to be afraid of? I’ve watched Paris-Roubaix enough times to know the general lay-out of the course and what it looks like when the pros blast through on a cobbled road. 
A big-screen showed the race action while we awaited pro riders Sunday at the infamous Arenberg Forest. This is what I'm used to seeing: the Paris-Roubaix on tv where the guys don't appear to be moving as fast as they are and there's no way to feel the difficulty of the cobbles.
The Paris-Roubaix Challenge works like this: 4,500 people from 45 different countries get to ride most of the same roads the pros do, just a day before the pro race. Amateur riders bump over each of the 27 sectors of pavé just like the pros. The amateur ride is ~100 km shorter than the pro race. The pro race begins in Compiégne, not actually Paris. The first ~113 km of the pro race are all smooth tarmac, so amateurs don’t miss out on any of the pro pavé experience.

Both amateurs and pros finish in the velodrome of the town of Roubaix. That velodrome has hosted a long history of cycling superstars racing in it; it's been the end of the Paris Roubaix since 1942.

Historic finish in the velodrome in Roubaix. Photo by Rob.

The whole experience began Friday, the day before the Paris Roubaix Challenge, when we took a train from Paris to the modern town of Lille, France. There we me the head La Fuga Cycling guide, Richard, who was quick to greet us, and make introductions all around. He loaded all of us in vans (there were quite a few who'd arrived around time we did) and shuttled us the 1+ hour drive to Saint-Quentin.  

The guys were friendly and it quickly became apparent that I was the only woman in the 18-person group. That wasn’t particularly surprising considering the nature of the trip, nor was it an issue for me or any of the guys. Rob and I got our bikes assembled in 30 minutes and went out for a quick warm-up/shake-down ride in Saint Quentin.

My Seven Evergreen moments after I assembled it in Saint Quentin. Its travel case is small, easy to fit in small European taxi cabs and roll onto trains and down rough roads. I paid nothing to the airlines to fly my luggage for this trip.

We traveled with our bikes because our they are practically made for the Paris-Roubaix with its typical conditions of mud, rain, and rough riding. This is what our Seven Evergreens handle best, and they are fast for normal road riding conditions, too. That said, the pros don’t race with disc brakes (for good reasons that I’m happy to discuss in another post). Our bikes are outfitted with S&S couplers so they pack up easily and they have disc brakes. This is a perfect combo for traveling and mixed-terrain rides that we often do, but neither of these features would make sense for a professional racer trying to reach the finish line as fast as possible. Equipment choices for us ended up being a big source of pre-travel discussion as it became very clear that the equipment one rides is very important in the outcome of the day. 

RSC hand-built wheels featuring HED Belgium C2 Plus rims, Chris King hub with Conti 4-Season 28c tires were an ideal combination.

I won’t belabor the technical stuff in this post since this is too long to read as it is. For the record, we were riding full titanium frames with carbon disc forks, one layer of Fizik performance bar tape, I was on 28c Continental Grand Prix 4-Season slick tires, Rob rode 27c Challenge Paris-Roubaix open tubular clincher tires. I initially set my tire pressure to 75 psi but let some air out of the front tire after I discovered how slick and ride-threatening wet cobbles are. 

At a McDonalds stop during the ride. Where else to go for a clean bathroom in the french countryside?

I rode Mavic mtn bike shoes and Shimano SPD pedals. Along with a Revelate saddle bag that toted two extra tubes, a rain jacket, and a mini-pump, I brought along a GoPro on the handlebars, a point-and-shoot waterproof/shock-proof camera tucked safely into a Revelate mountain feedbag, along with extra batteries for the cell phone and GoPro. I wasn’t going to go all of that way and not get photos of the experience.

Mavic is a French wheel, apparel and accessories company and had a big presence at the Paris-Roubaix pro race. They have the sharpest vehicles out there.

After the warm-up ride, it was time for dinner. Dinner discussion was quite informative. There were many talking about what it feels like to be on the cobbles, to complete 30+ miles of pa (the term used for each section of cobbled roads). Many of the guys had done this before. They had war stories of people crashing and breaking things. After hearing the veterans' stories, I was wondering why people returned to do this. I was beginning to envision cobble stones bigger than life, ones that jut out of the road, ones that only a mountain bike can summit.

At dinner Friday night, everyone who joined La Fuga for the weekend met up and shared cobbled war stories.
I got nervous. Would it be that I’d get out there and regret having started or get in over my head? The only way to the finish line, from what I could tell, was to pedal there. There was no out, no sag wagon, nothing no matter what unless an ambulance ride was involved. 

7:15am. At the start, all was quiet and calm, it was drizzling lightly.

Saturday morning came fast. Having other people deal with the bikes and our stuff took away the tiredness that, had we had to worry about the logistics, would have threatened me having the energy to complete the ride. After two perfectly sunny, 70 degree days in France, the day of our Paris-Roubaix came as a proper Paris-Roubaix should: it started raining on the drive to the start in Busigny and the air temperature was chilly – in the low 40s. The weather forecast had called for <1mm of rain to fall in the early morning only. It turned out to be wrong.

The amateurs start whenever one wants to start: anywhere from 7am-9am. A timing chip was employed to keep track of each rider’s overall time and the time for three cobbled sections that were timed separately. Out of the 4,500 riders, very few were competing for the win, but few riders took it easy out there.

We crossed the starting line around 7:30am after filling bottles, and stuffing our pockets with a little extra food. The morning light was soft and everything was just a little obscured from the light rain that was falling. The mood was calm among participants, if a bit muted from quiet nervousness. 

We were given frame stickers to tell us when to expect cobblestones and feed stations. It sadly peeled off by the middle of the ride, I was kind of hoping to keep it.

The route is ~13 km of smooth pavement, then the sectors begin at fairly even intervals, for usually ~.5 to 2.5km distances each. In between sectors is silky smooth pavement that I felt was the carrot getting me through the cobbles. Feeling the immediate relief offered by the smoothness all but took away any discomfort left in my body from the previous cobbled section.  

Silky smooth pavement was the norm when we weren't riding the cobbles.

The roughest and most difficult sector for my body was the first one. My feet instantly went numb and I was wondering if shaken baby syndrome applies for adults riding the Paris-Roubaix. Is that like getting a million little concussions in a day? If it was, it was worth whatever brain cells had to be sacrificed for the experience. Fortunately, my feet came back to life within a few kilometers and were fine for the rest of the ride. Some believed that everything was harder and more painful before relaxing on the pavé. I’m sure that makes a big difference. Don’t steer too much, just let the bike do its thing – but hang onto the bars so they don’t get thrown from your control. It’s a careful balance that requires relaxing. Since it’s important to power through the cobbles, standing up and relieving saddle pressure isn’t much of an option.

I didn’t end up with any other physical pain aside from leg tiredness by the end and a little sit-bone discomfort. I had doubled up my bike shorts because I couldn’t risk a bad day due to saddle issues. No one mentioned saddle pain after the race. I think it was because a few survived without issues and everyone else didn’t want to discuss it. There were plenty of hand-pain complaints going around. One guy had a blister the size of half of his palm. Most people felt they'd aged by a few decades in a single day. 

Wanna-be cobbled road...the only smooth cobbles all day long.

Throughout the ride, I counted the women I saw on the road or in one of the three feed stops. I believe I saw a total of 7 others. Of course there were others out there on the long course, but maybe not more than 20. That’s the lowest percentage of women I’ve ever seen at any Gran Fondo or cycling sportif. Naturally, I wanted to race the cobbled sections that were timed, just for reference, and because there was no excuse not to go as hard as possible. Strava, at least, could shed some light on how much I need to train and get more cobble-savvy. For the overall time on the whole day, I didn’t worry about time because that would mean no photos, a higher risk of crashing, and simply taking the fun away from the experience of things like watching the dynamic of the others in the food stops.

This food stop was next to a nuclear power plant. France is fueled by clean nuclear power.
Aside from wanting to test oneself or beat others, the best reason to go fast on the cobbled sectors was that the faster one goes, the easier it is to stay upright and not feel the vibrations of the cobbles as much. Nothing takes away the vibrations or jarring. It was important to big-ring each sector and put effort in. Twice I ended up tipping over – one tip and the other was more crash-like - and both times were when I was riding in the gutter. These resulted in soft landings in the thick grass so quite forgettable, fortunately. Sometimes the gutter (made of dirt next to the road) was the smart place to ride. At many other times, it was a good way of ensuring a flat tire, crash, or some mechanical because of the unexpected rocks and obstacles that lie in wait there.

The gutter was often smoother, but more hazards would lie in wait there. It was not always an option.

Throughout each sector, I passed people who’d flatted on that section. Once the cobbles met up with the smooth road, there was always a group of people on the tarmac – some awaiting their friends so they could re-group, but there were often 10 or more people involved in changing their flat tires or sorting out some kind of mechanical issue with their bikes.

The cobbles and jarring don’t usually flat tires by themselves. Neither Rob nor I had a flat all day and plenty of people got through unscathed. Most flats happened from pinch flats, and, dare I make a big assumption based on stories that I heard: most of the tires that experienced flats were narrower than 28mm because they were more susceptible to pinching since they had to be run at lower pressures so as to keep as much rubber on the road as possible. Wider tires can be run at lower pressures without risking the pinch so that’s what makes them safer in a Paris-Roubaix situation.

Someone on our trip described each sector as having its own personality. I found this to be very true. Some cobbles looked easy to ride because they looked smooth but turned out to be very rough and extremely challenging. On other roads, the crown – or the high center of the road that’s typically smoother than the rest of the road, was as smooth and easy as it looked. But sometimes the crown turned into a tiny point that felt impossible to keep the bike teetered on while being jarred through the sector.

When the cobbles are wet, they are slick. Some are slicker than others. Some feel just like smooth ice. The slickness may have been some kind of organic slime. Or it's just that the mud is made up of very fine dirt. (This same dirt/dust was flying through the air during the Pro Race Sunday.) It took quite a few sectors to know what would happen on the cobbles, and how to ride them. The moment a rider would feel comfortable, the next sector would throw a curve ball proving any theories the rider had developed up to that point as being perfectly flawed.

It was pointed out after the ride that most of the dirt, mud, and dust on the route was a high percentage of animal manure considering farms border much of the route. Ewwww. We saw the pros breathing in large dust clouds on Sunday with their speeds, close proximity to each other, and Sunday was perfectly warm and dry on the whole course. I believe it was Richard who mentioned that the pro racers tend to be sick for a day or two after a dry day on the cobbles. That is a lot of gross stuff they end up ingesting.


Throughout the day of the Paris Roubaix Challenge, I found the temperature to be quite comfortable. There were three distinct rains that hit during the day, interspersed with strong winds at times, and even sun at the very end of the ride. I stayed comfortable with a Mavic lightweight wind vest that I kept on the whole ride and a Rapha pro team rain jacket – that I took on and off at least 3 times. The third time it rained later in the ride was cold and wetter than the other two, but a quick change into the rain jacket saved me from getting chilled. I’m certain the only conditions I couldn’t have handled as well would have been a hot, sunny day. That would have been hard.

Hell of the North

Paris-Roubaix isn’t called the “Hell of the North” because it’s such a grueling day on the bike. That name came from a scouting trip post-World War I that took Paris-Roubaix race organizers through battlefields that were heavily scarred from the war.

One such battlefield in the race (I'm not sure if it was a battlefield in World War I, it was a mining area) is the Arenberg Forest otherwise known as the Tranchée d’Arenberg. I understand the road was originally built by Napoleon. This is the most anxiously anticipated sector by racers. It can make or break one’s day. It comes at ~63 km in our ride (so ~163km for pros) which means there are still many sectors and ~100 km to go after it’s done. But a crash or mechanical is likely to take a contender and have him turn into a chaser for the rest of the long day. The cobbles are more irregular in this sector and there is no gutter.

It wasn’t raining when I entered Arenberg, but the cobbles were drenched and the slickest feeling cobbles of the whole day – by a lot. People were crashing left and right. An ambulance was attending to a rider just 50 feet or less into the sector.

I found my bike slipping around underneath me. At first, I was unnerved and slowed waaaay down. Then, as I realized the only option was to ride it, I got more daring and pedaled faster. By the end, it was obvious that letting the bike slip around, staying off the brakes completely, and keeping the pedals going around evenly was the secret to staying upright. The worst part was worrying about the others who were crashing or riding the line I wanted.

This is video footage of riding Arenberg as Rob caught it on his trip through. The quality is degraded because I compressed it too much here. I'll get a bigger version of this uploaded in the next few days. It's good stuff. Rob cruised right through Arenberg - he loves that kind of riding.

That was the only frightening part of the day. The next hardest pavé sector was sector 4. That was the last timed sector and one of the longest, if not the longest. This one is where it felt like everything came together. At that point, finishing was likely and I wanted to leave all of my energy on the route. I rode it the hardest of any of them and it felt quite good to come out the other end, greeted by the smooth tarmac.


The route was relatively flat at ~2,000 ft of elevation gain for the whole day. There is no way we could ride that far in Massachusetts and not log at least 4,000 ft without trying. It's hard to describe the pleasantness of the silky-smooth roads that gradually twisted and turned through many small towns, past lucky homes who get front-row seats and through countless fields. I was delighted to see so many towns and even be greeted by locals who had come out to cheer for those of us doing the amateur race. Women riders got extra loud cheers, it was cool.

The conclusion of the Paris Roubaix Challenge, like the pro race, ends in a lap around the Roubaix Velodrome. How awesome to finish such a long, hard day in such a place – and, amazingly, in the warm sun of France, too.

Approach and finale at the Roubaix velodrome. Video of me riding by Rob.

The showers are something everyone makes a big deal about – and I was more than ready for a good, hot shower. After looking for them and inquiring as to where the women’s showers were to be found, I was educated on French tradition/culture/whatever you want to call it: there were no separate women’s showers.

The fabled showers. Photo courtesy of

I asked around enough to know that there wasn’t anything being lost in translation. The large cement room with partial cement walls – with no doors or curtains – full of showering men, was where I was going to have to shower if I wanted one.

I couldn’t get the “American” out of me to suck it up and go in. There are ample photos of the showers on the internet. I wonder if I missed something by not going in, but I’m also perfectly okay with having enjoyed a hot shower back in the hotel after our hour drive to return there from Roubaix.

Though I thought the day was over at that point, little did I know what awaited us. We arrived late to join the group at dinner at 9pm (my hot, not-rushed shower took priority over everything).

We inhaled our food. I found myself eating an admittedly tasty slab of meat because there were no protein options for vegetarians; I had to have protein after a carb-rich day at the feed stations. The French don’t understand vegetarianism similar to most Italians, and I don’t expect them to. I had to stray from a veggie diet a few times in France for the sake of my sanity.

It was amusing that one of our wonderful guides, Fabrizio, who is Italian from Ivrea, adopted a vegan diet two years ago. I didn’t think being vegan and Italian was possible, but he proves it is. I believe it to be harder as a tourist who doesn’t speak the native language because the waiter or waitress just gets so confused, I feel more sorry for that person than for myself.

Fabrizio at the espresso machine... Photo courtesy of Fabrizio @fabulousport
It’s at this point that the day had a twist thrown in so unexpected and wonderful, it made for the ideal ending that we couldn’t have ever imagined.

While we were eating, we looked up and two gentlemen were standing in the doorway to our private room in the restaurant. They both seemed confident, I assumed one of them was likely the owner of La Fuga. But who was this other guy? A couple of people at the table looked shocked, but I didn’t know why. Both of the gentlemen  left for a moment – long enough for us to learn that Magnus Backstedt was joining us for dinner! I’ve heard enough about Magnus to know that he was one of the top riders in the sport when he’d retired. He commanded respect from the peloton and from fans. He also won Paris-Roubaix in 2004.

Conversation with the La Fuga group and Magnus Backstedt. Photo by Fabrizio.

Since we were the last ones to dinner, we sat on the side with all of the open chairs. Basically, this meant the opportunity to talk with Magnus about the Paris-Roubaix. I got to ask him the questions I had been discussing with my friends for the previous few days and hear how he did it. Had we been at dinner with him the previous day, before doing the Paris Roubaix Challenge, the conversation would have had different meaning. Being fresh off of the cobbles and hearing what it was like to win the Paris-Roubaix and how he did it, made for very rich, interesting conversation.

Magnus was very down-to-earth. He wanted to talk about his days of pro racing, he wanted to offer complete answers to our questions. He loves bike racing, and it’s pretty obvious he’s smart. He knows that winning comes down to being the best prepared on race day which means months and years of product testing, riding the cobbles many times in advance, thinking about every aspect of the race. It’s obvious there’s a fair amount of luck that influences the final result, especially of a crash-marred, unplannable race like the Paris-Roubaix. However, Magnus maximized his chances.

He told us of how he would train: he motopaced into the infamous Arenberg Forest hitting the cobbles at 60-70km per hour (much higher than race pace) in order to discover the best line to take. The best line shows up more obviously at that break-neck speed.

He told us of how he worked with a bike manufacturer to build a full-titanium bike with oversized tubes in order to have the ideal ride qualities. I can’t make this up. It was nice to hear him say that he felt that it was obvious that titanium was the best material for the task: that it would most effectively damp the vibrations of the road while being stiff enough to propel him to victory. He showed me a photo of the bike: it was painted to look like a Bianchi, but underneath was titanium. I believe he said it’s now in a museum somewhere.

Magnus Backstedt's Paris-Roubaix winning titanium bike, 2004. Photo courtesy of

He discussed how many different forks he tested out in training to select the right one. He studied each sector of the route so he’d know each one and the best line for each well going in to the race. The time and energy he spent working with his sponsors and trying to push the standards of the time led him to be the first racer to ride wider tires in the race: 27c , to be exact. He said he was flatting frequently with the narrower ones, but the 27c tires survived the punishment of the race. I asked him about tire width – I had to know.

Another question I had was about bar tape. Many people doubled up the bar tape on their handlebars to protect their hands. His answer to keep his hands in tact so as to be able to lift the large cobble trophy that the winner receives: pipe insulation placed at just the right spots and bar tape went over that.

Magnus was a 207 lb rider, and he stands 6’ 4" tall. The perfect product tester! He learned how to increase his power without reducing his weight since losing weight yielded hits to his power output.

Here is “Big Maggy” discussing his Paris-Roubaix win. (When I can get the video uploaded, it'll be here. Until then, it's posted on my Facebook page.)

A moment after I stopped recording is when he concluded by saying, “The race win was special – very special.” He paused to allow a moment of reflection and his eyes glistened with the emotion that his win 11 years ago still conjures within him.

Magnus was interested in how the day had gone for us and was an excellent speaker. He’s featured as a commentator on EuroSport and had just covered a race in the Basque country earlier in the day. He’s the real deal; we got to chat with him at the perfect time in the most ideal circumstances.

That was the day. Awake at 5am, asleep by midnight. More ride experiences squeezed into a single day than any other day of my life. Then the next day we watched the pros show us how they did it in the dusty, dry conditions under the sun. That's another post for another day. And it was another really awesome experience to be out there!

Having fun on the cobbles, photo by Rob V.

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