The Hendersons do Paris(-Roubaix)
by Jeff Henderson
published in

This past Sunday one of my dreams was fulfilled: watching Paris-Roubaix, the annual spring classic bike race through northeast France. After doing so I would like to register my vote for it being one of the most difficult single-day athletic events humans regularly contest - just watching the spectacle was a trying affair.

My wife, Melissa, joined me for this adventure, as her passion for professional cycling equals mine and she can pick riders out of the peleton much better than I. We had just finished watching Tyler Hamilton narrowly miss a win at La Vuelta de Pais Vasco (The Tour of the Basque Country) in Northern Spain, and we hurtled out of Spain on Friday evening with exactly one and a half days to get ourselves the height of France, to just north of Paris. Our camper van, though not the fleetest machine on the autopista, expertly navigated the secondary roads without a glitch and we found ourselves 15 kilometers south of Compeigne, the official race start, as darkness fell on Saturday night.

We awoke to a glorious Palm Sunday morning - spring sunshine, a soft breeze, church bells chiming in the distant countryside. In short, an utterly loathsome day for the race - much of Paris-Roubaix's legend derives from the fact that, in addition to the brutality of the race itself, the rain, wind, and cold typical of this region in April degenerates the race into a slippery, muddy, bone-chilling suffer-fest of an affair, and that is precisely what I had come to see.

Alas, a kinder, gentler Paris-Roubaix would transpire in three hours time. On the drive up, Melissa and I had worked out a cunning plan to maximize race viewing on a course that stretches for 261 kilometers, from the aforementioned town of Compeigne (note: Paris-Roubaix is a bit of a misnomer, as the start is 50 kilometers north of the Eiffel Tower) to the velodrome in Roubaix, on the border of Belgium. Sadly we had armed ourselves with navigational aids ill-suited to the task at hand: a map of the whole of France and a hastily scribbled list of the towns the race would pass through, 90% of which were not on our map. Nevertheless, we aimed to strategically place ourselves about 80 kilometers into the race, close enough to a side road where we could zip around the parade of riders and support vehicles in a mad dash for Prime Viewing Opportunity #2. We intended to follow this script twice, and if all worked as planned we would see the peleton in three different places. Now, if you have had any experience with Volkswagen camper vans, you'll know that they do not "zip," nor do they "dash," but we figured with enough road we could at least do better than the riders' 40 kilometers per hour.

That was the plan as we saw it. We bumped our way into Compeigne on that brilliant Sunday morning to search for the course and follow it out of town. It's a good thing our clever plan didn't call for watching the start, because seemingly every Madame and Monsieur from the whole of France was toting the family into town for the morning's festivities. I inquired as to the correct way out of town in rehearsed French to some local gendarmes, and they fired back an answer in irritatingly unrehearsed English.

So anyways, out of town we went, chugging along the path laid out by neon green arrows and waving to the old men marking their viewing territories hours in advance of the action. About 65 kilometers into it we found a perfect spot at the top of a long, straight hill. In the ensuing hour the townsfolk from the nearest village had the exact same good taste, so when the leaders first appeared on the horizon we were immersed in a substantial yet subdued flock of Frenchpersons.

The colorful panorama glided by us and we were in heaven.

Once the sweeper van passed and open road lay yon, it was time to put our wily scheme into action. Not surprisingly, we weren't the only ones with this idea - the French may be subdued but they are remarkably agile getting into their cars. By the time I had the glow plugs hot, the engine engaged, and the van moving we were fifth in line for the back roads. We all clanked along the French countryside on the N44, past chewing bovines, over hill and dale, and through tidy, geriatric towns with their pesky roundabouts.

I had selected our next vantage point to be in a section of pave, the cobbled roads that make Paris-Roubaix at once unique and unfathomably difficult. From a palatable selection of 26 stretches (totaling nearly 50 km of the course), I selected The Forest of Arenberg, a notorious section of deep cobbles 2.4 kilometers long. Just the name alone conjures images of darkness and despair, and I longed for some driving rain to render the path virtually unridable in the same sadistic way we all secretly hope for big spills during the long program of Women's Figure Skating.

When we arrived at the edge of the forest and the commencement of the cobbles, we unknowingly descended into a sprawling mass of celebration I have never before seen at a bike race. As Belgium is a mere ten kilometers north, about 25,000 Belgians had loaded up their coolers (and loaded up a spare) and joined several thousand French, German, British, and Scottish partygoers along the entire stretch of cobble. And like the British enjoy taking in a good football match during their brawling, the Belgians enjoy a good cycling race to provide a diversion for their singing and beer drinking.

The cobbles were in horrible condition, as expected for a 300-year-old road, and the race organizers had erected barriers along the entire stretch to serve two purposes: keep the crowds out of the way of flying cyclists and keep the cyclists from venturing onto the smooth sections of dirt just off the cobbles. We maneuvered onto a good piece of real estate near the credentialed photographers by distracting a slightly-inebriated policeman (while a red-faced Brit nearby told him, "We must have discipline! Discipline, I say!"). Then the riders came, and I will never understand, as long as I live, how they possibly managed to go that fast over hard, irregular stone.

There was no way we were going to duplicate our initial success at dashing around the entourage, as the thronging hoards prevented any chance of a quick getaway. Once the last of the colorful streaks bounced and swerved past, Melissa and I found a small bar with a television set to take in the remaining hours of the race. This, too, proved highly entertaining, as a severely drunk Scot led the dozen patrons of the bar in popular Scottish tunes in between swearing eternal fraternity with Sean Kelly, the Irishman who won Paris-Roubaix twice in the mid-80's. The remainder of the bar was filled with Belgians, who nearly soiled themselves with glee when Peter van Petegem roared across the finish ahead of all, sole claimant to the 12-kilogram slab of marble treasured as the trophy of Paris-Roubaix.

Once the town of Wallers-Arenberg returned to normalcy and the crowds had somehow managed to get themselves home, I decided to have a run at the cobbles myself. I needed to know just how hard it was to take a modern bike across roads meant for horse carts.

I mounted my steel Zeus road bike and began to ride, very slowly at first to get a feel for what I was up against. At 10 kph I was in a severe state of discomfort, trying to pick a line through the stones that would be friendliest to man and machine. At 15 kph (I think) I could no longer read my cycle computer. I couldn't focus on anything, really, as my eyeballs were striking the top of my brain with such force that seeing hurt. Noises were coming from my bike that I have never heard before, not even when I slid across the road and into the barbed wire fence at last year's Sea Otter Classic. I forced myself to go faster, as I was still clearly much slower than any of the pros had been riding, and heck, they had nearly two hours of this to deal with (in addition to the 4 hours of other, non-cobbled roads).

I pushed harder on the pedals, though it was impossible to maintain a straight line. The world was a blur of greens and greys. My teeth slammed into each other; I worried that my deathgrip would tire and my hands would fly from the handlebars and my ride would be over. I thought of the pros who didn't wear helmets. If I had any fine motor control left at all, I would have shaken my head in astonishment.

Somewhere around 20 kph I could go no faster. My brain was hemorraging, every joint pounded against every other joint, and my rear derailleur flailed wildly. Finally my chain just flew off, and the experiment was mercifully over. I took stock of the situation - about 200 meters traveled, no idea the top speed, and literally impossible to go any faster without losing all control of the bike and my central nervous system.

Over 6 hours in the saddle, average speed 25.3 mph. 49.1 kilometers of brutalizing cobble, all spaced over the final 160 kilometers of the race. To finish off the front in the velodrome of Roubaix is, for all who dream of completing this race, to cycle among the gods.