Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Roubaix: not what it appears to be

Most of the cycling magazines, or internet cycling sites for that matter, carry at least one piece a year about riding the Roubaix cobbles, usually as part of the sportive events that shadow the venerable Paris-Roubaix race in April.

They all use the same adjectives and hyperbole - battering, shaking, bucking, numb, bottle-bouncing, filling-rattling, equipment-destroying etc etc. And they are all right. I don't intend to repeat previous writers descriptions, other than to confirm that riding Carrefour de L'Arbre to take but one example, is deeply unpleasant, unnerving and brutal in its excruciating demands on bike, body and specifically fingers.

Take it as read then that the Roubaix pave is bumpy.....

But on my recent trip, I wanted to scratch below the surface a little, to experience not just the physical demands of the old and broken pave, but to soak up a little of the area's feel and atmosphere - that combination of factors that generates so much hype, attention and fervent adulation on race day in April.

And I found it lacking. Sure, my fingers were in pain, my legs struggled to keep on top of any decent gear to allow forward momentum and my bike felt abused by the brutality of it all. But that was it. The whole experience was curiously inert, at least once the rattling was separated out of my consciousness.

I had chosen to follow the race route and ride four sectors of tactically crucial pave from Cysoing, through Camphin and onto the Carrefour before finishing on the Gruson secteur. A race leader, or even just hopeful finisher will exit that Secteur 3 Gruson stretch with just the much easier Secteurs 2 and 1 remaining before a relieved entry into the Roubaix velodrome and the finish. And maybe this was the point - without the spectacle and intensity and tradition of the race, riding the Roubaix pave just felt like a rather unpleasant and random ride on daft roads, even with the super compliant Ti cx frame and lush 27mm pave tubulars I took over there.

The race route, I realised on tracing it out, is actually fairly contrived. It simply heads off the road for a section of ridiculous pave across the bleak farmland before rejoining a road section after a km or so and rolling onto the next one. Often it rejoins the same road a few hundred metres further up from the point at which it just left, rolling on in to the next village to repeat the process. Without the rhythm of the race, it's cumulative physical and tactical pressure, it just doesn't make sense. And the pave sections, instead of being at the heart of the whole affair, somehow feel like unnecessary intrusions into what might otherwise be a pleasant ride in gently rolling Northern French countryside.

It is then, a very different feel riding here to riding the cobbles and bergs in Flanders that make up one of the other one-day Classics monuments, the Ronde van Vlaanderen. Flanders as an area has an integrity and a character that the terrain covered by Paris-Roubaxi cannot match. The Flemish Ardennes is beautiful in itself, with nooks and crannies that simply invite you to explore them. The flat plains of this part of France have lovely little villages but not the same depth of character to the terrain. The broken and ancient pave here adds character in the context of the race, but on its own, on a rather grey midweek day, all secteurs just look all alike, relics of a bygone era in French agriculture when these still-used country lanes happened to all be cobbled. Sure on race day they come alive and provide an incredible backdrop to the racing and continue the traditions that the race has engendered over the years. But it's not enough, at least not to make a pleasantly memorable ride.

On their own, divest of fans, helicopters and the race cavalcade, the pave for me at least, didn't really provide any more than a vivid insight into the incredible demands of this one race, but did not consitute an experience that, perhaps surprisingly, I will be going back for.

Mark rode stoically on skinny 23mm tires.....


Dave Haygarth said...

An interesting account and a very honest one, which is very valuable. It's easy to get carried away with the hyperbole as you say and in their heart most 'routes' are just that... Routes. What, of course, makes them special and legendary is what goes on on them on one day of the year. I always think that about the Three Peaks. As a 'route' it's not that rewarding to ride, but pitch yourself against others in a 'race' and the canvas is transformed.

Steve said...

Good read ....and a brave confession :)
'Cobble junkie in not that bothered about cobbles shocker.'

Mind you, the RVOL doesn't make much sense on the map. It's the people and the events isn't it?

crossjunkie said...

I was waiting for the analogy with RVOL - mainly because it has more than a grain of truth :-)

rugbyleague said...

Great words, you write very well!