Roubaix Sportive

Try everything once, said Lord Beeching, except incest and folk dancing. To which I would add – the Roubaix sportive.

It was cold and drizzling as the Old Ports headed out of our hotel in Tourcoing to the Roubaix Velodrome and the start point. Once there we delayed as first one, then another Old Port decided to go shopping – gloves, rain jacket, cap – and Iain decided to check his bike over. Then over the timing mat and off.

Our little peloton picked up pace as we headed out of the beautiful old town of Roubaix and into open countryside. Flat fields on either side and passing small groups of riders who latched onto our train before being dropped.

The pace increased and I clung on. ‘Sit in the pack’ said Steve, ‘you’ll be all right.’ A delay to take a drink, a misjudgement on a corner and I was 5 yards behind, then 10, then 20. ‘I’ll catch up’ I thought and sprinted. The pace increased and I fell behind again.

What fucking pack?

No more sprinting for me. I watched the Old Ports red train as it gradually faded into the distance and settled into my own rhythm.

The wind ambushed you from the fields and the rain was thin, malnourished, never weighty but it soaked through. I foreswore rain covers for my shoes and soon regretted my failure to go shopping with the others.

Nothing prepares you for the Arenberg trench. You’ve watched ‘A Sunday in Hell’ and read about it, you’ve searched You Tube and heard about it, you watched the pros and their little recce films but that all only hints at the horror. These aren’t cobbles, they’re boulders, crags, granite outcrops, sharp edged stones to weigh down dead bodies, jagged and sharp with massive gaps between, big enough to swallow riders whole. The dirt down one side has been ploughed up by farmers to prevent riders cheating and the pre-race barriers line the other side forcing you onto the rocks like Odysseus.

‘Enough to shake the fillings from your teeth’ goes the old saying but this is worse. It shakes the dye from your hair, the dirt from beneath your finger-nails, the paint gradually flakes from your bike frame, zips come undone, the zero tablets in your bottle froth and boil over. Your instinct is to slow down – ‘if I go quick I shall fall and break a collar-bone, a neck, a leg’ (yes, it happened) – but you can’t steer a line and hope to pick your way through the gaps, so counter intuitively you must go faster and harder and try and glide over the cobbles and trust your bike to find its way. And it works. I even pass a few riders who haven’t learned the skill. Eventually it is over and I slump over the bars and wait for my tingling fingers and shaking hands to calm down.

The Arenberg is first and by far the worst but the road goes ever on and there are many more cobbled sections to traverse.

I stop at all 3 feed stops and gulp down honey cake and waffles and grab a plastic cup of energy drink. I need to pee and stand at the open pissoir but the flow is weak and painful.

The passing groups go too quick for me but the individual riders tend to be slower than me and the fat man striding along on his wooden bicycle (whom we had seen in Flanders last year) is even slower than me, so for virtually the whole ride I am alone and pushing against the wind, no minimum wage domestiques to shelter me, no Sky cannon fodder to shield my aching limbs.

After 60 miles I have had enough. My legs ache, my face has set into a rictus grin, teeth barred and screaming ‘merde’ at the sheep and the mountain bikers.

A lady of a certain age sashays past and spots my Old Ports jersey.

‘Is that a UK club?’ she asks.

‘Yes’ I grunt, panting.

‘Are you enjoying it?’


She rides away.

There are 18 cobbled sections on the 139 km route and the Arenberg is the worst. After that, nothing is as bad although the Carrefour de l’Arbe seems to go on forever.

‘Ride on the crown’ is the advice but in some places this is only a few inches wide, falling away to steep, rocky slopes on either side. On some sections there is a narrow dirt track between the cobbles and the grass but this can be more tricky – previous riders have worn deep and sudden ruts and here also is where the flints and debris collects and most punctures happen.

An organised group of about 30 mountain bikers rumble past me – they are identically dressed in black and red tops marked ‘Flandrien’ – they crowd the cobbles and steal my line. I shout feebly after them but am ignored. A little way on, one goes flying and lands in a ditch, trapped and unable to unclip, wheels spinning and nose bloodied and I am glad.

The rain comes and goes and there are times when I remove my rain jacket and a pale sun briefly shines.

The last 20 miles seem to take forever. I am exhausted but can’t give up, although I saw one rider waiting at a bus stop, his grimy tearful face and worn out bike and race number proclaims his failure to complete.

The last couple of miles to the velodrome takes about 20 minutes. Not tiredness – in sight of the finish straight my energy returns – but the traffic is like heading to Ikea on a Saturday afternoon. It is raining heavily now and riders weave in and out of the traffic, dicing with trucks and the Saturday shoppers.

I turn into the velodrome (some riders misjudge the slippery bend and choose this final moment to crash) and scan the stands for a group of cheering Old Ports. Nothing. The rain plashes on the cinder track and a thin film of dirty water coats the banking. Many have finished with me and there is no space or stomach for a sprint finish. The timer pings on the finish line and the few spectators rise to acknowledge our dishevelled group. I’ve done it.

The exit gate is packed. Medals are being placed around necks by damp podium girls but there is a queue so I grab a medal and drape it around my own neck, like Henry and his crown. I have no change of clothes and so miss the iconic showers.

The rest of the Old Ports have long since returned to the hotel but I am tired and can’t remember the route. Luckily I spot John and we meet up and find the way.

It is late afternoon and the rain is heavy now and Roubaix is cold. The route is very slightly uphill and seems to go on forever.

Eventually we reach the hotel and stumble upstairs. We emerge from the lift to be greeted by a scrubbed and tubbed Andy and Iain – his bloodied knee tells of his exploits.

‘Steve beat me by a wheel length.’ he says.

It takes me 20 minutes to get undressed and I fall into the bath to soak and dream of cobbles.

Would I do it again?

Hell (of the north) yes!

Join me.

PS Back home I load my Strava data and find that I have beaten Iain over the Arenberg trench.

‘Ave it!

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