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  • Writer's pictureKeith Houghton

A Weekend in Roubaix

Updated: Oct 13, 2023

Planes, trains and automobiles

On our way to Calais

Some of you of a specific age will remember the film and this trip felt a bit like it (and I am not saying which of us is John Candy). The trip nearly went wrong before we even started due to me booking tickets on Eurostar to then find they don’t currently take bikes. All I kept hearing from Karl, was ‘one job, you had one job’. Finally after looking at all the options we decided to; drive to Dover, get the ferry to Calais, take two trains to Roubaix and finally ride our bikes to the hotel. Sounds simple, what could possibly go wrong?

Well it started with trying to get diesel, but once sorted we were off to Dover. At Dover we went to check in for the ferry to find out Karl had booked two people but only one bike, couldn’t help laugh when the woman asked if we were on a tandem; ‘one job mate, you had one job’ was mentioned several times. The booking was upgraded after we coughed up the cash, and we were on our way to the ferry.

We settled into some comfy chairs and had the first of several beers over the weekend. The Channel was like a millpond and soon we could see Calais approaching. I don’t know why but there is something special about riding in France, it gives you a buzz riding off the boat and heading off on the wrong side of the road. After getting lost with several other cyclists from the ferry, we were soon directed towards the road into Calais and on to the station.

Arrival at Roubaix train station

With bike racks in several carriages, French trains are so much better for travelling with a bike than our UK trains, although getting deep section rims into the racks was a bit like trying to solve one of those interlocking ring puzzles you get in Christmas crackers.

After a quick change at Lille we arrived at Roubaix. The hotel was a short five minute ride and soon I was listening to Karl trying to check in with his schoolboy French.

Welcome to the Velodrome

Roubaix velodrome

After dumping our gear we headed off to the velodrome to register for the ride. It’s a bit run down but to be in a place with so much history gives you goose bumps. The number of racers that have struggled and put in so much effort to cross that line first, just to get their name on a shower cubicle and get a big brick. It reminds me a bit of the old Wembley, a bit run down, a bit tatty at the edges, but full of ghosts of past suffering and glory.

Once registered we headed back to town through some rather 'interesting' looking areas, a lot of Roubaix is not very appealing. After a couple of beers and some food at our hotel in the main square we had a relatively early night in preparation for tomorrow.

The Hurt Locker

Paris Roubaix Challenge start

One of the things I love about a big cycling event is riding to the start and picking up other riders on the way. Everyone always seems to be looking around for clues to how others are feeling and wondering what the ride will be like. At the start people seemed to be milling around trying to decide whether to start, have just one more visit to the toilet or just put the whole thing off for a bit longer. There seemed to be an unanswered question hanging in the air ‘just how bad can those cobbles really be?’ Soon we were on the start line and it was our time to head off. We were rolling through the outskirts of Roubaix in big groups and in no time we were out in the French countryside. The medium length route (95 miles) we were doing goes down from Roubaix to the Arenburg forest on some great roads, with no cobbles. A couple of times you could see the start or end of some secteurs of pavé (cobbles), each time we passed them it delivered a small rush of adrenaline, but was that fear or excitement? It was cold and misty during the first hour and one of my abiding memories will be leaving a small village and seeing a long line of riders in the mist, almost floating across the fields. Soon we were approaching that fateful first turn onto the cobbles of the Trouée d'Arenberg.

Arenburg forest cobbles

You don't realise just how bad the cobbles are until you actually see them for the first time! Most people, including myself, just stood there staring and taking photos; ‘really, we really have to ride on that?’ They are nothing like the cobblestone streets we have in the UK, these are full blown boulders with canyons on four sides. So it was clip in and start pedalling, and pedal hard. As you bounce up and down and get smashed about, all you can do is laugh and just wonder how anyone could actually race on this. I tried to pick out the smoothest line, but there isn’t one, all you can find is the least bad line. It is absolutely bonkers, but so funny at the same time. It is only about 1 ½ miles but seems to go on forever. All the way through I didn’t look for Karl, I just wanted to look ahead so I could dodge the worst cobbles and get around the slower riders. Reaching the end of the secteur I stopped and looked about. People’s faces told the story, they were a mixture of laughter, shock and horror, people were looking around and thinking how mad was that and there are 18 more to go!

After a few minutes Karl arrived, minus a few bits from his bike. Less than 50 metres into the cobbles his GoPro decided it had had enough and decided to jump ship, shortly followed by his handlebar bag making a run for it. He had managed to find both, but was now trying to stuff the contents of his handlebar bag into any spare space in his pockets. We just looked at each other and started to laugh, how mad are these cobbles? Never have I ever enjoyed smooth tarmac more than when leaving the Arenberg forest behind.

From this point on there are cobble sections every few miles, surely they couldn’t all be as bad as the first? When you hit the cobbles you just have to keep pushing, the faster you go the ‘smoother’ they are, but that is of course a relative term. Some secteurs are a lot more difficult than others, and if you have ever watched the race, you will see the banners above the road at the start that indicate how difficult each one is based on a star system, ranging from one star meaning ‘bad’ to five stars meaning 'bonkers'.

another cobbled section

But each of them brings a smile to your face (although in the photos it looks more like a grimace) and of course pain to your body. When you’re on the cobbles everything makes a noise, your bike, your helmet, your glasses and your teeth. Riding under the banner at the start of each section, you think how hard is this one, then you just start shaking and rattling.

another secteur pave completed

Another sector done, Karl was so happy to get through this one that one he decided to have a baby.

After Arenburg there were two other five star secteurs; secteur 11 Mons-en-Pévèle and secteur 4 Carrefour de l'Arbre. All three of these are often pivotal in the race, but for us it was just about getting over them in one piece, with no punctures or mechanicals plus not losing any fillings.

secteur 11 mons-en pevele

As well as you legs feeling tired your arms just turn to jelly with the constant bashing, several times I tried to change gear but had no strength in my hand to push the lever.

One of the great things about this ride was having people on the side of the road cheering you on. On a couple of the secteurs there were rows of motorhomes parked up with people having BBQs and beers. It was very tempting to stop and I would imagine they wouldn’t mind sharing a beer (or two). Having watched the race previous years, it gives you an amazing feeling riding the same ‘roads’, seeing the names of the secteurs, the people on the side of the roads, it feels like riding through history.

Gradually we were ticking off the secteurs and getting closer to Roubaix. Finally it was secteur 1, the final cobbles before turning right towards the velodrome. Having watched the

secteur 1 roubaix

finish in previous years and seeing the leaders enter the velodrome it’s hard to describe what it feels like. Thoughts of what it must be like to be in the leading group, or even entering on your own flood through your head. And then all of a sudden you are at the velodrome and turn right onto the track.

It is amazing riding round the Roubaix velodrome. For non cyclists a comparison would be like being able to have a game of football at Wembley or rugby at Twickenham. What other sport allows you to do this, it's a simple answer, none. Cycling really is one of the few sports were you can do the sport in the same place as the pros.

roubaix velodrome

There was a real buzz in the stadium. Looking at the people who finished around us we could see a mixture of relief, joy and wonderment. We both looked at each other and just smiled, 'how good was that'?

a pint and a paris roubaix challenge medal

After queuing up and getting our medal, we headed off to the bar for a well earned pint (or three). I love getting medals.

The other great thing about cycling is the people you meet. We all have a shared passion for cycling but most cyclists also have a shared passion for beer (especially the Belgians and Dutch).

After a few beers we decided to have a quick spin round the velodrome before heading back. Riding round such an iconic place after a few beers, weaving round signs on the track made us both laugh. It was rather a wobbly ride back to the to our hotel for some food (and a few more beers).

The Monuments Men

After breakfast and a lazy morning we headed back to the velodrome to watch the race. It was great just sitting in the middle of the velodrome soaking up the atmosphere, watching the race on the big screen and drinking beer; what a way to spend a Sunday.

watching the paris roubaix race

Having ridden the cobbles the day before, watching the race unfold on the same roads we had cycled made it feel even more real. The dry hot weather made for a fascinating race, watching the favourites miss the split then claw their way back on, crashes, punctures, mechanicals; the race had the lot (as it always does). Who was going to make the break and make it stick, could anyone ride off the front or would it be a bunch sprint? Eventually the hard work of Ineos paid off and Dylan van Baarle managed to get off on his own. You could feel the tension rising in the velodrome as he ticked off each secteur, getting closer to the final two laps of the track.

dylan van baarle winning paris roubaix

Watching on the screen as he did the last secteur, the noise of the cheers got louder and then suddenly he was there, on the concrete track and on his own. It must be a great feeling to know you can ride round the track and soak it all up, to just enjoy it and not worry about a sprint. If you look very closely you might even spot one of our RFW friends hanging over the barrier with his beer as DvB goes past.

We watched the presentation and then headed off to wander around the team buses.

dylan van baarle autograph

We walked round the buses and eventually ended up at Ineos. Perfect timing, as we got there DvB turned up after doing the post ride press conferences. It was great to hear the team celebrating on the bus. Then he popped out for autographs, all we had was our Belgian beer hats, so we had to get them signed. What a fantastic day.

We walked back to the centre of Roubaix, stopping off at a rather dodgy local bar before being hassled by some pre-pubescent kids on the way back.

Food or beer? We settled on beer, found a table, got some beers and then started chatting to a couple of Austrians who had also done the ride yesterday. Our big mistake was to get on to the Belgian beers.

Roubaix beers

Must admit that I didn’t remember too much about getting back to the room, apart from being hit over the head by a painting! The next thing I do remember is strange sounds coming from the bathroom with Karl getting rid of his stomach contents.

The Hangover

roubaix hangover

Neither of us felt 100% the next morning but Mr Grumpy was not looking good at the start of the journey home. Struggling with the beers as well as the cobbles, don’t know how he is going to cope with the Tour of Flanders next year; Belgian cobbles and Belgian beers.

leaving calais

After what seemed like an eternity on the train we arrived in Calais and boarded the ferry home. Bye bye France, see you in July for Le Tour.

What a fantastic weekend. If you only ever do one sportive abroad, make it this one, it really is a monument.

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