MERRILY ON OUR WAY
From the first check point I made may way along with Jo. Although there were many riders doing this event – around 3000, there were very few women taking part. So the ones we saw, regardless of nationality, instinctively acknowledged each other with a "hi" or a "bonjour". We saw a woman with a group of guys. I’m not sure which club they were from but they were French and looked very stylish in their orange kit. One of the guys kept photographing us, which made me feel like putting on my most stylish pose as I went over the cobbles – not an easy thing to do! The woman in that group had a very lean physique, and looked very fit in her hot-pants and matching jersey. She just glided over the cobbles like it was her regular club run. I couldn’t understand how she was going to embark on a 100-mile bike ride over cobbles when heavy showers were forecast. Surely she’d catch her death! I guess one of the guys in the group was her domestique - lucky thing!
At one point Jo and I caught up with John, Stevie and Mark from Ashwell CC. We rode together, and it felt good to ride with Roubaix savvy folks who had done the event enough times to know the route off by heart.
Sadly, that happy comfortable feeling soon disappeared when the sky turned black and the rain began to fall. At first I thought it would just be a brief shower, but it didn’t show any signs of going away. Damn, it looked like this would be our lot for the rest of the day! Fortunately we didn’t have any stretches of pavé to negotiate during this time and we soon arrived at the second check point at Arenberg.
As we rolled into the checkpoint at Wallers-Arenberg organisers were hurriedly moving all the refreshment tables from the courtyard into the sports hall. Considering how much food was out there and how many tables and chairs had to be moved they did this pretty efficiently.
I used the opportunity to find the first aid people. When riding over cobbles your aim is just to get to the other end of the stretch any which way, hopefully without falling. You don’t think about anything else. You simply focus on pressing ahead regardless of all the rattling and shaking. You are unaware of any friction on your body, especially in places where you wouldn’t expect it, until later on.
It was after the first six or seven stretches of pavé that I noticed my little finger on both hands were bleeding. What had happened?
When going over the cobbles I was keen not to grip the handlebars too much. I just held the tops of the handlebars lightly. The consequence was that my fingers were shaking all over the place, and my little fingers were knocking against the side of the brake hoods. They’d been knocking and rubbing so much that the friction had begun to take the skin off and they were red raw! It was when I stopped at the Arenberg check-point that I began to feel the pain from them. The first aid group were happy enough to give me plasters for both fingers, though I had doubts about how long they would last, especially given the wet weather.
By the time I’d eaten abit, had my card stamped and received first aid I had cooled right down and I felt too cold to re-start. Not knowing what else to do, I went to the loos. It wasn’t that I needed them, it was just something to do! Those loos were the best thing for me at that time. They were in a new building and the lack of women in the event meant that they were hardly used, so clean. Most importantly, the room was really warm - exactly what I needed! This was definitely the place to be! So there I stayed – not for really long, but about 20 minutes – enough time to warm up.
Afterwards I faffed around at the check-point looking for pretexts to not go out. Why would I want to go out in that pouring rain?? I wanted to enjoy my experience of Paris-Roubaix. If I could avoid a miserable ride over the cobbles I would do so. The check-points were fairly hospitable places with areas to sit, and there were lots of people around to talk to.
As I sat eating I saw various people arriving, all look pretty bedraggled and sodden. No one complained about the conditions - it was just dubbed as Paris-Roubaix weather! People did talk about how treacherous the cobbles had been and how folks were slipping, sliding and falling all over the place. Did I really want to put myself through that? This isn't a timed event so I could take my time riding the course. As long as I left the check-point some time within the next 3 hours I would be within the cut-off!
The folks manning the refreshment tables were pretty chatty. They commented on how they don't often experience bad weather at this event. People still arrive at the check-points in a bit of a state – but they’re just covered in dust and coughing. On a day like this some people were happy to be getting wet rather than breathing in loads of dust!
INTO THE FOREST
After two hours of torrential rain and a mega long tea break (!) I and a number of other riders were back on the road. By now the rain had stopped, the sky was turning blue again and the sun had even come out.
About 100m after the feed-station I reached a level crossing where there were crowds of people and many riders came to a stop. This was the (in)famous section of pavé in the Arenberg forest. Lots of people stopped for photo opportunities with friends and club mates.
The cobbles here are really something else, compared with the other stretches. They are all of completely irregular sizes - some big, some small, some round, some square.....they are not paved in any regular fashion either. The stones point in all different directions and in some parts are very compacted together, then suddenly there are big gaps between them. It's a real botch job of paving! Riding over them was the ultimate bone shaker ride. I could hear my bones rattling as my body vibrated along! Thankfully, I only rode the perfunctionary 100m or so as far as the photographer and then bailed out onto the wide dirt track that ran alongside the paved stretch. I was happy to use this "cop-out" stretch, and so were most people!
Notwisthstanding the difficulty of these cobbles, I'd say that this was the prettiest section of the whole route. I imagine there'll be tons of people there again in a couple of weeks when the Tour de France passes through this stretch.
Once over the Tranchée d'Arenberg I felt relieved to have "done" the most challenging section of the ride - or at least as far as I was aware! It was good to bump into more folks I knew, like the guys from GS Invicta, who were out in force. A few of them are accomplished cyclocross riders so they could adeptly overtake riders on some of the later stretches of cobbles that had become a little congested as well as wet and slippery.
Knowing that I was roughly at the half way mark of the ride was a feelgood milestone and I began to feel confident that I'd be able to get through this, even though I still had around 17 sections of pavé still to do! I felt fine, and my arms weren't aching so I was ready to give this my best shot. By this point there were lots of groups of riders so it was easy to jump in with them and get a tow and save energy for the serious business of conquering the stones!