The Freedom To Explore

Monumental Memories

By j laverack

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The five ‘Monuments’ of European road racing occupy a cherished place in cycling’s heart and for professional athletes that win one these incredibly tough races it can be the highlight of their cycling career.

Renowned as much for their heritage as for their brutal routes, these five epic races – Milan-San Remo, Tour of Flanders, Liège -Bastogne-Liège, Paris-Roubaix and Giro di Lombardia – are some of the oldest and most prestigious one-day events in the continental calendar.

And while competing in a prestigious Classic will remain a fantasy for most of us, some celebrated sportives offer the chance to ride the same exposed cobbled roads of Northern Europe as the professionals, to experience the same leg smashing Belgian Bergs and French pavé sectors that the likes of Philippe Gilbert, Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara have made their own.

Of all Europe’s one-day cycle races Paris-Roubaix, which dates back to 1896, is arguably the toughest making it the one to win. The Queen of the Classics traces a serpentine 260km route from Compiègne, north of Paris, to the now legendary velodrome in Roubaix, an otherwise grey, industrial French-Belgian border town. About 50km of the route is cobbled – and with stones like you’ve never seen. The rough and irregular cobbles appear as if they have been driven into the ground by Obelix himself.

We’ve signed up to ride the Paris-Roubaix sportive, paying homage to cycling’s superstars in toil, tears and sweat. It’s 5am and a day in hell awaits. The sun has yet to rise as we finish checking our bikes and head to the start. Today’s ride will cover around two thirds of the professional route.

Pro riders hit the cobbles hard and fast, always searching for the smoothest line.

Approximately 40km into the 148km route I approach the first of 19 sectors of cobbled pavé. Pavé sectors are graded using a 1-5 rating system giving riders an indication of both the length and severity of that sector. The first taste of cobbles is a 3* difficulté and is relatively long at 2.2km. Unlike the cobble-stoned roads you’ll find in the UK, pavé is exceptionally rough and uneven with no two cobbles being the same shape or size. Only wear and weather have worn the surfaces somewhat smooth.

Narrower roads have caused the peloton I’m riding in to stretch out, and as scores of us descend onto the cobbles, clouds of dust kick up. The best line is usually the gutter or on the crown of the road, and fortunately I manage to hit the right line with good speed and negotiate my way past a number of riders. My friends aren’t too far behind, but the severity of the cobbles, and the sheer number of riders plotting a route through a minefield of sharp-edged flagstones, means we all have to go it alone in the battle towards the next stretch of tarmac.

It’s not long before we’re thrown into the next 3* sector, and then a brutal stretch of pavé rated 4* – the longest of the day at a whopping 3.7km. Three down and just another 16 sectors to negotiate. 

The forrest of Arenberg is arguably the most iconic stretch of pavé in the world, and the crowds favourite during Paris Roubaix.

Working through another five sectors, we reach the infamous 5* difficulté Arenberg Forest – both beauty and the beast. The straight, tree lined path affords a view of this sector’s entire 2.4km length, and spectators line the barricades, encouraging us with shouts of “Allez Allez!”. When the pros ride through here later in April, the crowds will be six-deep at either side, the road transformed into a tortuous tunnel.

The testing route continues as we cover a number of 2* and 3* graded sectors before reaching the final 5* test of the day – the leg smashing Carrefour de l’Arbre. This stretch is renowned as the last-chance saloon, where the pros often attempt a race-winning break.

Our arrival at the Roubaix Velodrome brings elation, and despite our exhaustion, we muster enough energy to sprint for the line. A finisher’s medal completes an adventurous day in the saddle that has brought with it monumental memories that will remain long after the aches and pains have faded.

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