“The middle! Get in the middle!” shouts Christophe Marchadier, Amaury Sport Organisation’s PR manager for cycling, during BikeRadar’s scouting mission for this year’s inaugural Paris-Roubaix Challenge. He's providing translation for two-time Paris-Roubaix winner Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle, who's offering me his sage advice on conquering the infamous cobblestones of northern France.
I'd been invited by ASO to check out the course in advance of the challenge on 9 April, the day before the pro race. Growing up in north-west England, I'm pretty familiar with riding on cobbles, but nothing on this scale. So it's a satisfying and traumatic experience in equal measure; on one hand I'm being shown the ropes by one of the greats of the race’s long history, but on the other, every bone in my body is jarring.
Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle reacquaints himself with the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix
Also at the course preview is five-time Tour de France and 1981 Paris-Roubaix winner Bernard Hinault, who fully lives up to his legendary status. At 56, he's still riding around 7,000km a year and gives an effortless masterclass in pavé riding, smiling for photographers where others can only muster a grimace.
He seems perfectly comfortable on the unforgiving surface, so it's a surprise to hear him later talk of his indifference to it throughout his pro career. “I’m not against Paris-Roubaix and the cobblestones but I always knew I could win the Tour de France. That was always my focus,” he says. “So I could never take big risks here. Even after winning in ’81, I could never love the race.”
Pre-ride discussions: Bernard Hinault and Duclos-Lassalle (ASO/P Perreve)
The challenge is being run by ASO, organisers of the Paris-Roubaix race and other classics such as Paris-Nice and Liège–Bastogne–Liège, as well as the Tour de France. The continuing success of the Etape du Tour, their sportive held during the Tour in July, helped convince ASO that a similar event in support of Paris-Roubaix would provide a new and different challenge for amateur riders.
“What we've had in mind for a while now is that we own all these great pro races, and what we want to do is allow people to feel what the pros are feeling,” says Laurent Boquillet, organiser of the challenge. “The question was, 'how can we allow people to get the feeling of our races?' We'll close the roads, have everything ready and we'll hold it the day before the professionals ride so that the two rides are very close. That way you can do the ride, then relax the following day with a beer and watch the race.”
Aid stations and mechanical assistance wagons will be scattered along the route, and with 147km of the ride on closed roads, it's sure to give competitors a taste of the real thing. The challenge will cover 162km between Saint-Quentin and the Roubaix velodrome, and although shorter than the pro race, it'll provide a unique challenge to everyone who enters.
Hinault (far right) looked at home on the unforgiving pavé (ASO/P Perreve)
With 18 cobbled sections, totalling 31.6km, pain will be considerable; something Dutch journalist Sander Slager can testify to after sampling the route. “It’s the first time I’ve cycled round here, and it's very challenging,” he says. “The cobbled sections just keep coming and coming.” He reckons it's hard to train for an event like this, saying riders should think more about their bike’s setup and their technique on it, rather than physical fitness.
“Unless you're here, sitting on a bike and riding these tracks, there’s not much preparation you can do,” he says. “For anyone thinking of doing it, I’d tell them to relax on the bars and don’t grip too tight. Using a gel tape helped a lot – my hands are still buzzing but they’d be worse without that.
"Keeping your tyre pressure as low as possible is really important. I let some out after the first section and it improved things a lot. The best advice I could give would be slip into the highest gear and just go! But I really enjoyed it out there. You see the race on television, but you can’t appreciate what they go through until you do it yourself.”
Unkind weather made conditions tricky (ASO/P Perreve)
Phil Deeker, creator of the Cents Col Challenge, says finding the right line to take on the cobbles is vital. “Riding the camber usually works best,” he says. “You’ve also got to make a decision as you approach the cobbles whether you have a wheel in front that's going to be a help or a hindrance, because getting round someone is really difficult. As long as you can keep your bike straight you can keep momentum, and momentum is key.”
Boquillet is expecting a little over 2,000 riders to take part this year. Having sold 1,800 tickets so far, ASO are well on the way to achieving their target. There’s no doubt the Paris-Roubaix Challenge will be a demanding test, but Boquillet believes it’s a test experienced cyclists will be able to handle. “After the first few sections of pave, you get used to the feeling,” he says.
“It’s tough, but when you do it, you’re really happy to do it and the adrenaline carries you through. I expect most of the people who enter will be able to finish the course – if they prepare properly, of course they'll finish.” Entry to the race is 75 euros, but places are limited so anyone hoping to ride this year will need to move fast. Further information can be found at www.parisroubaixchallenge.com.