The Legend of the Hell of the North
The first weekend of October 2021, together with Alberto, Raul and Enrico, I participated in the legendary Paris Roubaix.
This race is also known as “Hell of the North“, as the athletes run in the cold, in the mud and, above all, on lots of cobblestones. Indeed, the characterizing element of this race are the stretches of road paved with porphyry cubes (cobblestones) that slow down the race and cause continuous jolts and vibrations, putting cyclists and their mechanical vehicles in difficulty with punctures, breaks and frequent falls.
We drove the campervan 2740km to reach Roubaix and ride our bike for 145 km. Why? The answer is in these two quotes by Francesco Moser and Pascal Sergent
When Moser (who won three races in the ‘70s) was asked if there were any secrets to dealing with Roubaix, he replied:
The first is fear. It has to disappear. It must be canceled. It is a sentiment that is often associated with Roubaix. But I say: who has fear, he shall stay at home. Those cobbles are devastating, they do not forgive. They are cruel, they have no mercy. But they must be challenged. Attack. Dominate, do not suffer. Sometimes you find yourself having to dodge holes as big as half a wheel. More than cycling, you are an acrobat.
Pascal Sergent instead said:
This race is a perpetual game. Anything can happen at any time. What fascinates riders all over the world, you ask me? When you win the Paris-Roubaix, you enter the legend, like the Tour de France and even more than the world championship. What attracts the riders is the registration of their name in this race. Whether you win it or not, taking part in this legendary race means putting your name in the history of cycling.
Below I would like to tell about our experience, in addition to answering the questions / comments that the members of a well-known Facebook Group asked when I posted some photos of “our race”.
Registration for the competition for amateurs, held on the Saturday before the pro-races, was done on this website: www.parisroubaixchallenge.com.
For the 2021 edition there were three distances:
(i) 70 km
(ii) 107 km
(iii) 145 km (actually it was 146.1 km)
Those who chose the 107 km (Enrico) had to travel 1.5 hours by bus to go to the starting point. Those who did the 70 km or the 145 km instead started and arrived from the famous Roubaix velodrome.
Registration for the 145 km cost € 46.00. Upon registration, I also bought a cobblestone souvenir (€ 20), a replica of the one given to the winner of the professional competition.
Travel and bib collection
Enrico flew by plane to Brussels; Raul, Alberto and I reached Roubaix by campervan. From Treviso to Roubaix there are about 1360 km. This means that we left home on Thursday 30 September around 1pm, and we arrived at the gates of Roubaix around 5pm the next day, just in time to go to the velodrome to collect the bibs.
The first (unpleasant) surprise was Roubaix itself: I was expecting a small town; full of cyclists and campers ready for the race party. Instead, Roubaix is nothing more than a suburb of Lille. To get to the velodrome we lost two hours in the worst traffic. Unfortunately, I therefore did not find the desired atmosphere.
We parked the campervan in the large Auchan car park in Leers, where we spent the night together with three / four other campers. However, it is an ideal place because it is close to the velodrome, with many services within walking distance (supermarket, restaurants, etc.), and extremely quiet at night.
The route is the same of pro cyclists
As mentioned, I ran the 145km race. This route can basically be divided into two parts:
- 51 km on asphalt, connecting Roubaix with the Arenbeg Forest. It is a transfer only for amateurs;
- From the Arenberg Forest to the finish line (located in the legendary Roubaix velodrome) the route is that of professionals, where sectors of cobblestone alternate with country roads on asphalt. It is just under 100 km, half of which on cobblestones.
In practice, amateurs ride through the most interesting, characteristic and difficult sectors of the professional race. Below is the plan of the route downloaded from the official website of the event, with indication of the beginning and end of the cobblestone sections.
Difficulty of cobblestone sectors
The cobblestones of Roubaix cannot be compared to the cobblestones you can in find in many European cities. On a blog I read that it is also much harder and more angular than that of the Tour of Flanders (which I personally have not tried).
In the Arenberg Forest (5-star stretch, that is one of the three most difficult) between one cobblestone and the other there is so much space that you can easily slip on a 25 mm road bike tire.
In many places the road is humpbacked, so it is necessary to stay in the center, otherwise you crash. Overcoming the cyclist in front of you often requires a good dose of courage.
On Sunday 3 October we went to see the professional race in Carrefour de l’Arbre. Alberto wore sneakers and had difficulty walking because he kept slipping on the mud-covered stones. As Alessandro Ballan said during the commentary on Italian Television, the cobblestones with mud become like ice.
During “my race” in the Arenberg Forest I met about a dozen cyclists stopped to change their tubes. While I was taking some pictures, I saw a man with a nice racing bike who entered the forest very fast: he immediately had a puncture and in the 10 meters it took to stop he broke the bike rim. In the 6 hours of the race I ran into at least 50 people standing on the sides with mechanical problems.
In the 5-star section of Mons-En-Pevele I was behind a cyclist with a road bike and a cyclist with a gravel bike: the one with the road bike fell first; the gravel that followed him swerved and ended up in the ditch. I made a sharp turn and I didn’t fall (not because I was better), but because I threw myself on the lawn with my mountain bike.
Many amateurs had dirty or torn pants or shirts due to a slip. I was especially impressed by a boy who, with his face covered in blood, was talking on the phone, perhaps to call the health service made available by the organization.
What is the best bike?
The pros used road bikes with 32mm tires.
During our event we saw several road bikes, but they were clearly in trouble. Upon our experience, my friend and I are unanimous in the idea that for an amateur the road bike is not the best option. Even if we had a bike with disc brakes that mount a 32mm, the fear of damaging it is considerable. In addition to being dangerous and extremely slow on the cobblestones.
Enrico hired a carbon road bike with 28mm aluminum wheels. For Enrico this was the worst cycling experience of his life; already after the second section in cobblestones he wanted to retire; the pain in the arms and shoulders was unbearable; A week later he still had blisters on his hands. It should be noted that (i) Enrico is used to suffering, being a triathlete who completes the iron man and (ii) what Enrico reports is consistent with the tales I read on many blogs and articles of cyclists who have tried the Roubaix with road bikes.
Many may think that road bikes are slow on cobblestones but much faster on asphalt (and therefore faster overall). In reality, at an amateur level, this is not the case because those who ride a road bike when they are on asphalt have to slow down to rest and, above all, to loosen the muscles of the upper limbs.
The remaining three (Alberto, Raul and I) despite having road bikes have decided not to load them in the campervan, given that our road bikes are not fit for rim greater than 25 mm (and the organization of the event recommends to use wheels greater than 28 mm).
Alberto and Raul rented a gravel bike. Perhaps this type of bike represents the best compromise between smoothness on asphalt and safety and speed on cobblestones. However, I would like to point out that Raul and Alberto, in the days following the race, had pain in their back and shoulders.
I wanted to race with my full carbon mountain bike, which weighs just over 11 kg. A little bit because I liked the idea of having MY bike; a little so as not to waste half hours to change the air chamber; a bit because the forecasts were giving bad weather and I wanted to avoid falls.
The sector that most frightened me was that of 51 km of asphalt; in the end I managed to stay with the group traveling on average between a speed (flat) between 30 and 35 km / h (below a photo of this sector).
It is undeniable that I had to struggle, and that with another bike it would have been easier. However, in the cobbled sections, especially the more difficult 4 or 5 star ones, I had a cruising speed that was double that of road and gravel bikes. And in the following days I didn’t have any upper limb problems.
Before leaving I had read an English blog in which it was said about groups of boys from Belgium and Holland who participate in the race riding mountain bikes; and that in the cobblestones they were the fastest of all. Well: I’ve seen them too. This is to say that there are many more mountain bikes than one might think from Italy, and to confirm that on cobblestones this type of bike is much safer and faster than other bikes.
If I had to try the Paris Roubaix again, I would do it again with a gravel bike.
To give a rough idea, taken 10 bikes at the Paris Roubaix for amateurs:
3 were road bikes
5 were gravel bikes
2 were moutain bikes
Difference in altitude
Several friends and Facebook users have asked me about the total altitude difference of the race.
This is the question I asked myself before leaving. On the official website of the event I have not found any information; on the day of the race I did not start recording the track and therefore I do not have a precise indication.
Enrico’s cycle computer which, having covered the 107 km race, scored (incredibly) about 600 m d +; this means that whoever has done the long 145 km must have roughly done a difference in altitude of about 1000 m d +, which corresponds to what I have read on the internet.
Like many cyclists who have described their Paris Roubaix, I had the most intense emotion when entering the Arenberg Forest. Not only because I was in one of the most iconic places of the international cycling movement, but because when you try cobblestones for the first time, you have the sensation of stepping into a blender. Everything vibrates; despite having a mountain bike with full suspension, I was afraid that the gearbox would break. Fears corroborated by the sight of the many riders with mechanical problems.
However, it should be noted that every kilometer of this race smells of a cycling legend; it is wonderful to read the road signs and walk the stretches of cobblestones that you have heard on TV for years.
My friends and I all had pain in our legs, even before we reached the finish line. Indeed, already at 50 km from the finish I felt pain in my quadriceps. Such a thing had never happened to us. If you want to make a comparison, the Sella Ronda in the Dolomites with its 1800 m of altitude difference is really easy compared to this race. Furthermore, you shall consider that if you count the difference in height between the various cobblestones in height, the difference in height would be equal to that of an alpine stage.
The only negative aspect of this event is crossing the city of Roubaix, given that it you have to ride on roads open to the traffic; it is true that we found stewards and policemen blocking traffic to let us pass, but running through vehicular traffic is never the best.
I thought I would experience more intense sensations upon entering the Roubaix velodrome, which everyone described as a sort of liberation or the end of a nightmare. Perhaps this was not the case for me, having ridden with a comfortable mountain bike.
Last note: the velodrome struck me because the parabolic curves are very steep.
How much time
With breaks to take photos, videos, refreshments, wait for friends, etc. it took 06:26:49 to make the 145 km route.
- 08:25 approximately: Departure from the Velodrome
- 10:10 – 10:21 Arenberg Forest
- 11:24 – 11:32 Refreshment n. 2 in Beauvry-la-Foret. Km 82 from the start
- 13:10 – 13:16 Refreshment n. 3 at Maire de Templeuve. Km 112 from the start
- 14:25 – 14:31 Recompact the group in Hem
- 14:50 approximately: Arrival at the Roubaix velodrome. Total time: 06:26:49
For the conclusions I make reference to Theo de Rooij
The roubaix is disgusting. You work like an animal, ride through mud, piss yourself, slide all the time … it is a shit. If I do it again? Obviously, it is the most beautiful race in the world.
The following day we went to watch the pro race at the Carrefour de l`Arbre.
For other articles in English language, click here.