This past weekend Adam and I travelled to Northern France to witness, first hand, probably the toughest one day bike race in the pro calendar, Paris-Roubaix or L’Enfer Du Nord (The Hell of the North) as it is reverently known by cycling fans. It is a race that starts in Compiègne (some 85km outside of Paris) and heads north, through 257km of French countryside, culminating in a sprint finish after a one and a half lap circuit of the famous Vélodrome André-Pétrieux in Roubaix. If 257km is not enough to test the riders, there are 29 cobbled ‘secteurs’ of varying degrees of length and difficulty to contend with and it is these that quite often prove the undoing of both man and machine.
It is a race that has driven the most famous cyclists of all time to despair and ruin, spawning legendary soundbites as broken men slump on the grass in the velodrome
“Paris-Roubaix is bullshit” – Bernard Hinault
“Paris-Roubaix is a horrible race to ride, but the most beautiful one to win” – Sean Kelly
The images are no different, perhaps the most iconic and certainly my favourite is of a muddied and battered Greg LeMond sitting in the Roubaix showers after finishing 55th in the 1991 edition of the race. Still in his Z Vetements kit, LeMond sits broken in the showers with a can of Coca-Cola and a ham and cheese baguette as he tries to breathe some life into his aching bones
The above image was taken by Klaas Jan van der Weij and won the World Press Photo Of The Year (Sports Category) that year.
We wanted to take in as much of the race weekend as we possibly could so we decided to make our base in an AirBnB in Valenciennes. It’s a small, quiet place but it is circa 10km away from the Trouée d’Arenberg (where we wanted to watch the race), 135km from Compiègne and 75km from Roubaix so it is fairly central to the race route. On our way to the accommodation on Friday we decided to pop into Arenberg to have a look around pre-race and we were glad we did, catching the Trek, FDJ and Bahrain Merida teams out doing their recon rides
Arenberg is one of the ***** secteurs of pavé on the route and it is iconic for both its location and its difficulty. The great Eddy Merckx once said of Arenberg:
“This isn’t where you win Paris-Roubaix but it’s where you can lose it”
We walked the whole of the 2.3km length of the trench, taking in the absurdity of riding over the bricks (cobbles is too soft a word) that formed the path through the forest. There were plenty of amateurs out testing themselves on the pavé as we walked, from a variety of nations, all marvelling at being in one of the greatest sporting locations on earth.
On Saturday we travelled down to Compiègne for the team presentations and to soak up some more pre-race atmosphere. A top tip here is to stand behind the stage as this is where the team buses pull up, allowing you a chance to glimpse a close up or even a photo of your favourite rider. I had a special reason for going as I had arranged to go and say hello to my cycling game rider, Mike Teunissen
I was delighted to get a few minutes with Mike, he was a lovely guy so it was good to be able to chat with him and offer our best wishes for the race. Mike would go on to finish 7th (which is no mean feat), improving on his 11th place from 2018. He will continue to get better results, this is his race and it suits his style.
On race day we positioned ourselves in the Arenberg Trench, having parked about a kilometre away so we could make a quick(ish) getaway. We got there about 11am, four hours before the race was scheduled to go through, but we soon realised that you could turn up any time up to 1:30pm and still get a decent viewing spot. Parking, however, seemed a different matter.
The arrival of the race was signalled by the appearance overhead of the helicopters at a bout 2:50pm and, a few minutes later a stream of professional cyclists thundered over the cobbles in front of us, their faces contorted as they tried to deal with the vibrations and bumps while concentrating on a safe passage over the pavé. It was a truly amazing spectacle, lasting no longer than a couple of minutes, but something that I will remember for ever
After the riders had stormed through the trench we hot footed it to the car and set off for Roubaix with the intention of getting into the Velodrome for the finish. We made good time and managed to park about a mile away, in plenty of time to see the final 40km of the race unfold on the big screen and the sprint to the line. We positioned ourselves on the hill at the corner of the finishing straight with some slightly drunk but very amiable Belgians and there we watched Gilbert beat Politt in 2 up sprint to take his 4th monument, a phenomenal achievement.
It was a fantastic end to a brilliant weekend and I’m delighted we managed to make the velodrome as well as the Arenberg Forest. Adam and I have resolved to do this again sometime (maybe at a different race), just got to plan it out!
At the end of it all, when any bike race is done, there’s only one thing to do……