The Paris-Roubaix “Challenge”

One of the things that I was really looking forward to on my Spring Classics trip was Paris-Roubaix. OK, let me clarify what I mean by “looking forward to”. Yes, I of course wanted to watch the pros race, but also wanted to ride the same cobblestones that they did. That’s why they have the Paris-Roubaix Challenge cyclosportive the day before for us amateurs. It’s just a matter of how much torture I wanted to put myself through.

Like We Ride Flanders, the Challenge offers several different distances. However, only the longest (172km) allows you to ride all 29 sectors of cobbles that the pros due. Hmmmmm…the distance was doable and the route is pretty much flat. Ah, what the heck, how bad can the cobbles be? During our day with Johan Museeuw, he mentioned how much worse he thought the cobblestones at Paris-Roubaix were vs Flanders. And, this guy was a pro and multiple winner of both races. Yikes! This is where I started to get more freaked out about doing the 172km route.

Thankfully, Sports Tours International took us to pre-ride a few of the cobbled sectors the day before the Challenge. This included the Forest of Arenberg, which was one of the hardest sectors. The first sector we did was a 4-star, and I didn’t think it was too bad. I used the advice that I heard from the pros…ride hard over the middle of the cobbles and it will feel “smoother”. I found this helped a lot. When we arrived at the Arenberg, I just hammered it. I was bouncing around like crazy, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought. This was a huge confidence booster. I could do the 172km! Now, I was getting excited.

One of the things that we had been keeping our eyes on the whole week was the chance of rain on the day of the Challenge. The cobbles are bad, but even worse when they get wet. They can literally turn into an ice skating rink. And speaking of ice, the weather as supposed to be below freezing at the start. Fun.

This is what happens when it rains at Paris-Roubaix.

For the 172km route, I had to get up at 4:30 AM to get a ride to the start. This kind of sucked, but there weren’t a ton of people in our wave. Actually, it was big enough that I was able to sit in for the first several miles without having to put out much effort. The good news was that there was no rain, but it was 28 F when we started. I had brought some cold weather gear with me, but had to pick up some extra in Roubaix. I was prepared enough though…both in terms of clothes and with my native WI blood!

The first 60+ km of the event were relatively uneventful. We had a couple of 4-star sectors, but that was as bad as it got. If anything, this gave me a chance to warm-up and get more experienced with the cobbles. Things would be different once we reached the Arenberg. Each sector is numbered in reverse order and given a star rating from 1-easiest to 5-most difficult. They gave us a sticker to put on the top tube of our bike, so we could see what was coming up next. Arenberg was Sector 19 and was our first 5-star.

The Forest of Arenberg is also where the 145km and 172km routes merged. I didn’t stop at the aid station there, but ironically had to stop for a TGV train that went speeding by. Once past, it was full gas into the Arenberg. I was happy it wasn’t too crowded, but I did have to change my course at several points to get around slower riders. There were quite a number of riders on their mountain bikes. While slower on the road, they went flying by me on the cobbles. The video I posted below will give you a better sense of how jarring the cobbles were in the Arenberg. I was impressed with the image stabilization of my GoPro Hero7! I was happy when I was done with the Arenberg, but I knew I still had two 5-star sectors to go.

Suffering through the infamous Arenberg Forest. There was no such thing as a good line here.
Suffering through the infamous Arenberg Forest. There was no such thing as a good line here.

The next 5-star sector was the Mons-en-Pévèle, which came around 125km. At this point, the cobbles were starting to get to me. I was OK from a fitness perspective, but my body was definitely feeling all of the rattling. The Mons-en-Pévèle didn’t seem too bad to me. I actually thought some of the 3-star cobbles were worse.

Trying to stay on the middle cobbles of the 5-star Mons-en-Pévèle sector.
Getting rattled on the 5-star Mons-en-Pévèle sector.

While it was a cold day, it was gorgeous out with the sun and puffy clouds. The blooming spring vegetation colored things nicely. Sure, this ride was beating me up, but it was scenic!

Despite the cobbles, the scenery was great!
Beautiful skies on the Templeuve-Moulin-de-Vertain.

I considered the final 5-star sector, the Carrefour de l’Arbre, to be the “peak” and it would be all “downhill” from there. I usually tried to hammer the cobbled sectors, but I was now just focused on getting through them without crashing. Ironically, some of my fears of flats and ejected water bottles never happened. I felt I had the right tires (Schwalbe G-One Speed, 700×30) running tubeless at the right pressure (50 psi front, 55 psi rear). Plus, the wheels I built myself survived the cobbles and remained true!

As we got into Roubaix, things got a little interesting. The route had us taken some busy city streets that were severely backed up with traffic. This meant it was time to put my Chicago riding skills to use. I nearly got hit by one bus making an unexpected right turn, and I also had to ride on the sidewalk and grass for awhile. My video below shows what this was like. The only thought going through my mind was that the velodrome was just a few miles way.

Coming into the velodrome was a wonderful feeling. Not just because I was finishing, but it was just like the pros have done for years in Paris-Roubaix. Ironically, this was my first time riding on a velodrome, so the banked track was completely new to me. At the finish, I was spent physically. Fitness-wise, the Challenge didn’t seem that bad, but my body was hurting. This really became evident within the next day.

Woohoo! I’m done!

I woke in the middle of the night with my arm feeling like it fell asleep, but it wasn’t waking up that quickly. When I finally got up in the AM, I had partial feeling in my fingers. This scared me a little at first, but I figured it was due to swelling from the ride. Yep. In about 48 hours, it had gone away. I’ve had several feelings like that before after running and surgery due to tissue swelling. Still, it shows how much my body had gotten beat up on the cobbles.

The Paris-Roubaix Challenge will be something that I’ll always remember even if I never do it again. I rode the same amount of cobbles that the pros do and lived to tell about it. Compared to the climbs of the Tour de France, I’ll take the climbs any day over the cobbles!

Relive ‘Paris-Roubaix Challenge – 172km – All 29 Sectors’

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