Riding Paris-Roubaix's Arenberg: the toughest 2.4km in cycling

Tackling the world's most famous cobbles

The Arenberg Forest is the most infamous road — if you can call it a road — in professional cycling. Its storied stones offer venue to both spectacular heroics and tragedy. Words cannot do service to the sheer violence a rider faces when crossing these 2.4 kilometers of cobbles. The reality is, a cyclist must experience it to truly know. Recently, I rode Arenberg and it made an everlasting impression.

I rode Arenberg as part of a day before Paris-Roubaix reconnaissance ride set up by Specialized Bicycles. They wished to highlight the worst of the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix, which serves as namesake to the manufacturer’s Roubaix SL3 model that has had so much success over these stones.

Our group hit Arenberg after little more than a half-hour’s ride. It was our ride’s first sector of cobbles on a day where we totaled 10.

Before I chronicle those 2.4 kilometers, the stage must be set as to how the professional riders encounter the Trouee d’ Arenberg. For them, the forest comes after 11 sectors of cobbles, 172km into Paris-Roubaix. At 42.1km per hour, the average of the 2011 race, they’ve already been on the bike for close to 4 hours. Those aren’t easy k's either; they’re windy, rolling kilometers riddled with crashes - kilometers that require the utmost and absolute attention from the riders.

When they hit the infamous forest they’re pinned at upwards of 50kph, fighting in some cases, harder than they would be for a finish line in a bunch sprint. Then they hit the stones and all hell breaks loose. I will never know what this is like; we can only imagine. Then, maybe by multiplying what we imagine by 10, we may have a slight idea of what that moment is like.

I can tell you what riding Arenberg was like for a normal ‘enthusiast’ — it made me want to puke.

How to ride the stones

The only way to ride cobblestones is pinned, as fast as you can. The idea is to take them at speed and skip over the tops of the stones. The proper stance is with your hands on the tops of the bars and your weight back, maybe with a slightly higher cadence, knowing you’ll be fighting fatigue and needing to keep your speed up to make it.

Nothing can prepare you for the violent and repeated impacts. It’s not like riding a dirt road, no matter what shape or how bad the shudder bumps. It’s not like riding a rigid mountain bike, except for maybe that one time when you went flying into those baby heads way too fast and somehow were able to keep it up and make it out. Mind you, with this scenario you were probably in and out, or crashing out, within a few meters - not thousands of them.

Into the forest

It’s slightly downhill, so we came into Arenberg fast. At this point you’re feeling confident. There’s something about riding these famous stones, a certain je ne sais quoi, that gives goose bumps. It starts out bumpy, really bumpy, but you’re stoked to be there and feeling somewhat heroic - you’re riding in the Arenberg forest.

Maybe you’re turning over a 53/19.

At 600 meters, it starts to get rougher. A little bit of concern creeps in. Big holes are presenting themselves in the crown — where you’re riding — and you’re hitting them because you don’t have anywhere to go. You’re trying to stay on top of the gear, which is becoming an increasingly harder task.

Specialized's marketing manager, Nic Sims, conquering the cobbles

At 900 meters, you’re a little shaken up, your buddy might have just peeled off after his brake lever slipped on the bar and he almost crashed in front of you. At which point you've probably already resigned yourself to running him over, but you saved it with a quick bit of body English — there’s no way you were moving your hands anywhere, let alone trying to get to the brake levers. The cobbles are rougher now, you're off the line. Actually, you don’t even know where the line is.

1,600 meters and you’ve heard your rim bounce off the stones more times than you can count. To be honest, you don’t know if there’s still air in your tires; there were a couple of holes back there that you really nailed. There’s so much noise that you can’t tell if your rims are just hitting once in a while or all the time. And as for the feeling, well, have you ever used a jack hammer or impact drill? Imagine strapping one to each of your appendages and you’ll have some sort of idea what your muscles perceive, as you will yourself to hang on, your legs to keep turning over the pedals and your bike to keep propelling you over the stones.

At 1,800 meters, you’re really feeling it. You’ve been putting out a maximum effort for somewhere around two minutes. Your legs are burning. Your effort is just now really catching up with you, or at least you’re just noticing and it may be too late. You slow down, and it gets rougher, so you dig in and bring it back up to 25kph or so.

2,200 meters; things are starting to mellow out from the roughest point somewhere in the middle. You’re on top of the gear willing your legs to hold it, but you know you’ve been way past the red. It’s straight now; you can almost see the finish.

2,300 meters; you’re through it. You can see the gate. The cobbles have flattened out and you’re back on a line, but you’re in a bad spot, way past just a spot of bother. The effort was enormous and you’re really feeling it.

2,400 meters; you’re out. It’s done, but you can’t stop pedalling. If you do, you know you’re going to puke. You’re probably surprised how hard you're breathing. You’re thinking, telling yourself, ‘I’m not a puker, I haven’t puked since 5th grade gym class.’

You might try not to let on how hurt you are to your riding buddies. The pavement you're on now seems so smooth, like nothing you’ve ever ridden. Your arms and legs feel almost detached from your body; it’s surreal. You look down at your computer: ride time 33 minutes 34 seconds, but it feels more like four hours.

Five minutes later you’ve regained your composure, yet are in absolute awe.

This pretty much sums it up, four and a half minutes on cobbles feel more like four and a half hours anywhere else, but really, you’ll never know unless you do it yourself.

Don’t believe us, try it for yourself

I rode Arenberg on a special trip put together by Wilfred de Kruijf at the request of Specialized Bicycles.

De Kruijf is the director of Rêve, a Dutch cycle touring company that puts together a huge trip called The Ultimate Tour Experience. It's a massive trip that rides every stage of a given Grand Tour the day before it is raced, allowing a gifted cycling enthusiast the experience of riding a Grand Tour - by route at least.

Last year, Rêve rode the Tour de France, as they will again this year. In 2012, they will take on both the Giro ‘d Italia and the Vuelta a España.

If you don’t have the budget or large group to warrant a custom tour or personal guide, but still wish to experience Paris-Roubaix’s cobbles, I must recommend you ride A.S.O’s Paris-Roubaix Challenge. The Challenge is a supported sportive style ride, in which riders tackle 15 sectors of cobblestones over a 138km course.

This year the Challenge was attended by close to 2,000 riders and run on 9 April; the day before the pros raced the same roads.

The 2011 course offered three aid stations, as well as broom wagons and a shuttle from the ride’s finish back to the start, so that riders were able to easily collect their cars or otherwise get back to their hotels. After reading our account of riding just one section of cobbles, you may have an idea of why we can recommend the challenge.

You must ride these to understand how hard they really are

I believe even the most experienced riders need some sort of safety net if they wish to take on a day of cobbles. Anything can happen; you might crash, break your bike, lose your bottles, flat four times…

Or maybe, you’ll just puke.

Whatever your experience, we guarantee you’ll talk about it for years to come because afterwards, you’ll know what it is to ride the stones. You'll comprehend what someone who hasn’t ridden them, never will.

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