"The Racer" Extract: The Hell of the North

"The Racer" Extract: The Hell of the North

Paris-Roubaix is an early-season highlight for any fan of cycling - we're treating CHPT3 followers to exclusive, full extracts from David Millar's book, "The Racer". Winner of the Cycling Book of the Year, David writes from the perspective of a professional, preparing for the race and providing an enthralling look inside the crazy race with no details left out. Ensure you're signed up to our newsletter to be informed each time a new extract is released.

Published with consent and thanks to Yellow Jersey Press

"It’s one thing to love watching a race, it’s another to love doing it. Paris–Roubaix is an example of this: it’s easy to love as a fan, much harder as a racer. The love hate relationship is real. I’ve started it three times and none of those times ended particularly well – which is another way of saying I didn’t finish.

It’s known as ‘the Hell of the North’, something people often mistake as being attributable to its renowned difficulty and the famous images of exhausted racers looking like they’ve been to hell and back. It actually originates from the 1919 edition, when it was held for the first time since the First World War had ended, and travelled through a devastated northern France – the journalists and riders who took part could only describe what they saw as ‘hell’. Henri Pélissier, speaking of his 1919 victory, said, ‘This wasn’t a race. It was a pilgrimage.’

The recon on the Thursday before the race is, much like the Flanders recon, a tradition. Most of those starting Roubaix will have raced Flanders the previous Sunday and Scheldeprijs on the Wednesday, with the recon the day after that. In typical cycling fashion it’s not exactly a light week; but there is a reason for this – the best performances at Roubaix are almost always achieved by the riders who have raced at Flanders and Scheldeprijs. The overload seems to do us well.

The Roubaix recon is a fixture in itself. There will be fans out watching, as well as photographers and film crews, all of which adds to the feeling that it’s a race like no other. The recon is an opportunity to refresh our knowledge of the parcours – a necessity before Roubaix as it’s the only time in the year we race on these ‘roads’. (The only other time would be if the Tour de France decided to include some of the cobble sections in its early stages – it does once every decade.)

As we step out of the hotel, the bus is sitting out front, ticking over. It looks and feels like the morning of a race: all the team cars are lined up, loaded with bikes, and there is the general buzz of a big race day. This is the effect Roubaix has on everybody: it’s still four days away, but we’re all gibbering with a mixture of excitement and fear. Once we’re on the bus and moving, everybody relaxes a little, remembering that we’re not actually going to a race. Morning quiet descends. Headphones are on, phone calls home are made, a car magazine is flicked through; one or two of the young guys are studying maps of the course trying to memorise the sectors

We park up in a supermarket car park in Denain, northern France. The Trek and Team Sky buses have chosen the same start location. This isn’t a surprise: often these rally points have been used for years – many of the guys running the teams will have raced together on the same teams and learnt the same routines. Thirty years ago there was probably a friend of a directeur sportif who had a house near this supermarket where they would all get changed and have a coffee in the days before luxury team buses.

One by one we get off the bus. I tend to be first. I don’t know why, because without fail I then stand around getting pissed off at everybody else for being so slow and not respecting the schedule. I’m of the school of thought that says you’re not on time unless you’re early – always have been when it comes to my racing life. This no doubt annoys everybody else as much their tardiness frustrates me.

There will often be a journalist or two with us. Little interviews will be done, photos taken, then we’ll go and find our bikes among the ten that are lined up against the side of the bus (we always have two reserve riders in case of an accident during recon). We have special bikes for Roubaix that have larger clearance between the wheels and the frame so we can ride larger tyres that can handle the abuse that awaits them (28mm compared to our usual 25mm). It also allows us to be prepared for the eventuality of mud if it rains, because the bigger clearance will prevent mud getting clogged between the frame and the wheel. We’ve given these bikes the highly technical and innovative name of ‘Mud Bikes’.

Some riders will place an extra brake lever on their handlebars next to the stem, because on the cobblestones the comfiest position is to grip the top flat section of the bars, where normally there is no brake lever. In Roubaix you never know what’s going to happen in front of you, so some prefer to at least try to give themselves a chance. There will be extra rolls of bar tape, and some riders will even add some cushioning underneath that, all in an attempt to absorb the relentless shocks created by the cobbles.

As important as all those details are, they mean nothing if you don’t have strong wheels and the right tyre pressure. Our usual lightweight wheels would be pummelled to pieces, so we use special wheels that have more spokes and stronger rims, which means not only will they survive the beating but they’ll also have a higher chance of withstanding damage from a crash. Most of the equipment we use in modern racing is so lightweight that one crash is all that’s required for it to be ruined; Paris–Roubaix puts more stress on equipment than multiple crashes, and that’s assuming you don’t crash."