For a very good reason, Paris-Roubaix is regarded by most as the toughest classic of them all. Its 255 kilometres across the bleak flatlands of northern France includes nearly 50km of body jarring cobbles, or pavé. These relics of a past era have been preserved for the benefit of bike racing fans who flock to these roads each spring to watch the pros do battle in this unique race.
It's an amazing event to watch, but what does it feel like to ride?
Once every two years, the Velo Club de Roubaix organises a randonnée over the legendary parcours. It's now in its 30th edition and four of us from the bike titles (me, Tony Farrelly, Robin Coomber and Mat Brett), decided that it would be a good thing to do it. Robin had done it before, but only the "intermediate" 190km version. The rest of us hadn't, although I'd previously ridden a few of the pavé sectors as well as the Tour of Flanders sportive.
For me and I'd say for a lot of the 2000 plus participants, it represented the ultimate challenge outside racing. It's a randonnée so it's not timed like a sportive. Rather, you have to get your card stamped at the five feed stations to prove that you have ridden the course.
Finishing it is the main accomplishment. You get to ride into the Roubaix velodrome, after all. But there's also the coolest of trophies, a piece of pavé mounted on a block of wood. And a slightly lary jersey, if you want one.
Of course, to gain these prizes, a certain amount of cobble-induced pain must be endured.
Bikes and kit
Mat: A Dura-Ace-equipped Planet X Sportive Ti with 700x25c Specialized Roubaix Armadillo Elite tyres and an extra layer of (orange) bar tape (frame worth £999)
Jeff: A 105-equipped Specialized Tarmac Comp, with a 700x26c Kenda Kwick Roller Sport (front) and 700x28c Rubena touring tyre (back) (£1499)
Robin: An Ultegra-equipped Giant TCR Advanced 2, with 700x25c Schwalbe Stelvio tyres (£2995)
We ran the tyres at fairly high pressures to prevent pinch flats, although Robin still managed to get one after taking a bad line on one of the early sectors.
After a cramped and sleepless night in Compiegne, it was a big effort for four bike journos to get to the start in Cambronne, about 15km away. You can start any time between 4am and 7am but even that was stretching it for us. We eventually set off at 7:10am with no-one else in sight up the road. Tony drove the van to Roubaix and joined us at Arenberg, still getting in 140km and 20 cobbled sectors.
The first part was on flattish straight roads, and we rolled along in the cool morning air, enjoying the lack of wind. A light northerly got up a little later and was in our faces for a good six hours. We spotted a group ahead and chased it down. It turned out to be a lively group of Spaniards from Murcia, who were happy for us to join in providing we did some work. No problems there, and we averaged 32km/h until the first feed stop in Bohain after 82km.
The early start hadn't done any favours for us and we were in danger of falling asleep at the handlebars. Luckily there was coffee at the first stop. Unfortunately Robin was not a habitual coffee drinker and it played havoc with his stomach as soon as we hit the cobbles.
Once we got going again, we found ourselves in a bigger bunch, still containing the Spanish contingent. Also with us were three guys on a triplet and I wondered how they were going to tackle the cobbles. Later I found out that two of them were blind and they had several crashes en route. But they did finish, which is amazing.
The cobbles came soon enough and we hit the first of 28 sectors at Troisvilles with trepidation. It had rained a lot in the previous days and there was far too much mud on the pavé for my liking. Robin and Mat, with their mountain bike experience, handled them well and waited for me at the other end as I picked my way along.
The second sector at Viesly was worse. The cobbles were completely mud-covered and I had nightmares of doing myself Considerable Harm as I rolled down the hill, very slowly. I jumped off into the grass on one occasion before gingerly resuming my journey on this treacherous stretch. If the rest were going to be like this, I had doubts of finishing. Robin and Mat found this too, although they had negotiated the sector unharmed. Apparently a guy had broken his leg here, just before we came though.
I then thought about how the pros handle it, approaching a sector like this in a bunch of 200. It must be insane! No wonder so many body parts are damaged. Anyone who can win a wet Paris-Roubaix must have incredible handling skills and a good deal of luck.
Thankfully, things improved after these dangerous openers. The cobbles dried out and I even ended up seeking out the gassy and muddy parts for a softer ride.
The bike certainly hadn't let me down at any stage. I found the Specialized Tarmac to be a very stable and smooth handling machine. It lacked a certain liveliness but on roads like these, that's a good thing. As the day wore on and I got used to it, I perversely started looking forward to the next sector to see how much faster I could go, managing to keep up with Mat and Robin on most of the latter sectors.
The main problem I had was with my fingers, wrists and forearms, as the constant pounding on the pavé had a cumulative effect. Each sector equalled more pain. I was holding the bars tight for maximum control, but that meant all the shock was transferred to me. Sometimes I would have to prise my fingers off the drops because they were locked in place. I got some shock transferred through my feet too, and I had pretty sore calves at the end. It took three days for it all to disappear.
In hindsight I should have adopted Mat's technique of holding the bars loosely and letting the front end of the bike do its own thing. That tends to hurt your fingers more but it's not as jarring.
But it's Paris-Roubaix and it should hurt. None of us were expecting it to be easy.
The feed stations helped a lot, though. After the first one, the remaining four were all spaced at 30-40km intervals. Each one offered relief and food in the form of cakes, brioches, chocolate, fruit, energy drink and sandwiches at one. The whole field was very well supplied and we never ran low on energy at any point.
The feed stations helped
Arenberg the easy way
We reached the notorious Arenberg Forest with eight sectors behind us, 20 to go. This 2.4km gun barrel straight avenue is considered the toughest sector in the race because of its incredibly rough surface, but for most of the riders today it was the easiest because there was the option to ride down the potholed gravel path that runs parallel to the cobbles. We had no shame and followed suit, preferring to save our arms for the latter sections. I'd ridden it before so I knew what it was like anyway. And it looked like half of those brave enough to try it today punctured.
At the end we hooked up with Tony, who had stationed himself towards the finish of the sector, ready to snap us as we came by. But somehow he missed. Sorry Tony, we weren't going to ride back along it for another shot.
Tony and his Focus Ergoride did well over the final 100km. They suffered no mechanicals, only sore feet. Impressive for a newcomer to pavé whose daily commute is about 3km.
The rest of us proceeded at a slightly quicker pace, navigating sector after sector and passing more and more riders. Some were just plodding along in the centre of the cobbles, but had things under control, while others were all over the place and you weren't sure which way they would swerve when you were passing them.
The cobbles and food were all starting to blur into one as we negotiated the last 50km. The hardest bits were the three sectors between Camphin-en-Pevele and Gruson: 5000m of pavé in 6km, including the Carrefour de l'Abre, where many Paris-Roubaix winning attacks are made. I can see why now. Until you get to Gruson, there are few places where you'll find a smooth ride: the sides have too many potholes and the only viable option is the centre. It's not easy to follow people on that stretch.
We were rewarded with the sight of the famous cafe on the Carrefour de l'Abre and a number of people cheering us on. "Bravo! Courage! Allez!" Brilliant stuff.
The last real sector was the 1400m at Hem, which is relatively easy as there are rough tarmac sections on each side of the road. Just watch for potholes: one of these spelled the end for Johan Museeuw a few years ago, while he was in the lead group. And after that, we had to stop at the train crossing that caught several riders out in the 2005 edition. That merely added to our Paris-Roubaix experience.
The magic moment came at 6pm when we entered the Roubaix velodrome. Battered and tired after 9 hours of saddle time, we completed a lap (I couldn't resist a cheeky sprint) and collapsed on the grass. It was a very satisfying moment to finish such an amazing event. Beer, a ham sandwich, a chocolate eclair and frites followed in that order.
Of course it hurt, but I so want to do it again.
Robin and Mat at the finish
Mat and Jeff at the finish
Tony at the finish