SPOILING THE FLOW
Pressing on through the countryside we passed through a series of more straight forward sections of cobbles. Fortunately, they were not too wet so there was no inherent hazard of riding the stretches - or at least no more than I'd hitherto experienced. What was becoming more evident though was the pain from riding cobbles. My arms weren't aching so much, as I had definitely found that taking the cobbles at speed was the way to experience the least amount of juddering - that technique had paid off. Also having gel bartape and foam on my handlebars certainly helped.
However, I was finding that because of the number of riders on the stretches and strangely enough, a number of naughty drivers who had chosen to take their support cars onto these roads, there was more congestion and I was unable to ride the cobbles as quickly as I wanted. I had to take things down a gear as I found myself at the back of a group of guys who in turn were caught up behind a car or van. Of course this low speed meant I was shaken around alot more, and I also found it more tricky controlling the bike. A few cyclists vented their frustrations on the drivers and a few angry words were exchanged. Nothing like a cyclist/motorist altercation to remind me of home!
PAIN IN THE PEVELES
As we did more an more cobbled sections my fingers hurt as they were getting the brunt of the shaking, given that they were only loosely hanging on my handlebars. Then, as if that irritation wasn't enough we got caught in another shower. The guys in my group soldiered on in the rain, whereas I stopped under a tree to put on my jacket, while hoping that the rain would stop shortly. It was also a pretext to give my fingers and my bones a bit of respite. Luckily the rain didn't last long, and the sun came out again.
Sadly, the sun was not able to dry off the ground in time for us reaching what I felt to be the worst section of the day - Mons-en-Pevele. This section was not quite as brutal as the Arenberg section, but it was challenging enough on my nerves. The cobbles were again higgledy piggledy with holes at irregular intervals. Of course the holes were full of water so it was anyone's guess how the bike would land when you went over them. The road also irregularly changed camber so there was the added risk of the bike sliding around in the damp conditions. In the dry, riders could have ridden on the dirt track verge. However, because this was riddled with holes it became risky using these so we had no choice but to brave this section that was like a mini obstacle course.
Added to the mix was how to negotiate round slower riders, or stay out of the way of a falling rider - of which there were a few. I attempted to overtake one man, and failed dismally when, to my misfortune, and to others' amusement I careered out of control towards the ditch. Although I'd managed to spare myself from a crash, that was an embarrassing lesson in how not to overtake people. So I spent the remainder of the ride, learning to sit behind people patiently while being bounced to smithereens!
The 3km stretch of Mons-en-Pevele, at this stage of the ride was too long for me to take on in one hit. So half way along the road I dismounted to gain my composure and destress before continuing the rest of the section. Were the guys suffering as much as me, or were they just grinning and bearing it? It felt like I was the only person in pain. Some of the Dutch guys riding this section rode side by side and chatted as though they were on a leisurely afternoon club run! Were they actually human??
Finally, to enormous relief I came out of the other end unscathed! At the Pont Thibaut cobbles I took time out to take a few pictures. An old man who lived at the side of the road came out to watch the riders.
"Oh yes, of course Paris Roubaix." It seemed like he didn't realise it was on. "I rode this about 30 years ago. It was a great ride. Back then, we didn't have the crowds that you have now. The organisers were crying out for entrants. I thought I'd have a go, and it took me 7hours. I was a rare breed from the region because many of my cycling buddies didn't want to do it. They thought I was mad! I bet people think you must be mad doing it. You don't get many women riding this you know!" I guess he made that last statement because he was thinking I'd been so focused, on my drop handlebars, in racing mode that I hadn't noticed the other folks around me! If only he knew about my 2 hours of stoppage time and my extended tea breaks!
As I was taking pics he looked at me anxiously. "Are you sure you should be doing that? The cut off must be in about an hour's time."
"No, they close the finish line checkpoint at around 8.30pm" I replied.
"Gosh, they're very generous nowadays aren't they? In my day we had almost 300km to do and we had to be finished by 5pm. And we hardly had any feed stations. You guys are spoiled. Well, good luck to you young lady!"
Onwards I continued, thinking what a lazy bones I'd been stopping and taking photos and not taking the Paris-Roubaix seriously!
THAT COMING HOME FEELING!
The next significant section was the Carrefour de L'Arbre, which was in fact three sections of cobbles in rapid succession, that made up almost 5km of bumps. The last section was very straight and all the crowds could be seen in the distance during the last kilometre. This was the time to look like you were enjoying it, you were fresh and energetic, and in control of your bike. Not! I was all over the shop, tired and bedraggled. And d'you know what, I was past caring. I was on the edge of my limits, and just focused on holding everything together at the lowest common denominator. Appearances were the last thing on my mind!
Thankfully, for the last set of cobbles in Hem, and the run back in to Roubaix there was a group of guys that I tagged onto. It was just a case of hanging onto their wheel road race style all the way back into Roubaix. Once at the entrance into the Velodrome there were lots of folks cheering us on. It felt quite emotionally finally realising I'd made it through the 173km that I started at 7 o'clock that morning. I felt like Fabian Cancellara, Tom Boonen and Thor Hushovd all at the same time! It was a great feeling. Even one of the officials from Velo Club de Roubaix who I'd met from the previous day recognised me and came up to congratulate me at the finish. What an honour! What a day!
I'm not really one for souvenirs, but I made a point of picking up my commemorative Paris Roubaix stone, which now sits proudly on the shelf at home. I was just so glad to have survived the cobbles, and in proper "classics" conditions. At the end of the ride me and my bike were a muddy mess. I was glad my hotel was only a few minutes away. Will I come back and do the full 255km? Probably, but give me 2 years to prepare first!