"The Racer" Extract Three: The Cobbles of Roubaix

"The Racer" Extract Three: The Cobbles of Roubaix

With the cancellations of 2020's Paris Roubaic - 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

"Nowadays nearly every team will supply their racers with this ‘Mud Bike’ set-up for Roubaix; the difference lies in how it is used. Having the set-up doesn’t mean you’ll go fast – ultimately, riding cobbles is an art form. It’s not something I have ever truly mastered. I’ve had glimpses of it, and was certainly never bad, but I could never compare myself to the specialists. They appear to float over them with an ease that isn’t fair to the rest of us, and tricks many – especially the fan on the sofa – into thinking, ‘It doesn’t look that bad.’

Every cycling fan must go and watch Paris–Roubaix one day, and take their bike to have a go on some of the famous sectors. Only then can you feel what it’s really like. Only the actual reality of riding the pavé can do it justice. Roubaix specialists tend to have been good at it since their first attempt; they just got it immediately. In that sense it’s more of a feel, a natural ability rather than a learnt one.

Every recon starts the same way: we set off as a team with lead and following cars and photographers or TV on accompanying motorbikes. The first couple of sectors we stick together, stopping a couple of times to adjust tyre pressures, because each one of us has a different style of riding and a different weight. There’s always one rider who is totally neurotic and spends the whole day trying to find the unicorn of tyre pressures that will make them fly – which is normally a sign that they’re not going to fly.

In this year’s edition, there are twenty-eight cobbled sectors totalling fifty-one kilometres of a 257-kilometre race. They’re listed in reverse order, so it’s a countdown from the first sector in Troisvilles (ninety-eight kilometres) to the final symbolic one in Roubaix (256 kilometres). Our recon will take us from Sector 19 (153 kilometres) to Sector 4 (240 kilometres), these are the eighty-seven kilometres that matter in the race. Unlike the definitive moments of Milan– San Remo or Flanders, Roubaix is a protracted war.

Each of the five Monuments in cycling has its iconic moments: in Milan–San Remo it’s the Cipressa and Poggio climbs; in Flanders the Kwaremont and Patersberg; Liège–Bastogne–Liège has the Côte de la Redoute and the Côte de Saint-Nicolas; while the Tour of Lombardy features the Madonna del Ghisallo. There’s also the Carrefour de l’Arbre in Paris–Roubaix. But for me the most memorable of all these is the Roubaix’s Trouée d’Arenberg (the English speakers among us refer to it as the Arenberg Forest, making it sound like something out of The Lord of the Rings). It doesn’t look like much – a 2.4-kilometre dead-straight road cut through a forest – but for a pro cyclist it is the most brutal 2.4 kilometres they’ll ever race along. There is no hiding – in fact if you try to hide you’ll take a hiding. The race to be at the front entering the forest makes the Scheldeprijs positioning battle look like child’s play because although we’re 100 kilometres from the finish, this is where the race finale begins.

There is almost always a decent-sized peloton entering Arenberg, but by the time it leaves, it’s in pieces. The compact group that enters the forest is stretched out and broken up over those 2.4 kilometres. Even those at the front will eventually find themselves beaten into submission because Arenberg is one of only three five- star sectors in the race. All twenty-eight sectors are categorised, one star being the easiest, five the hardest. There’s actually only one one-star sector, and that is the symbolic and specially made stretch a kilometre before entering the famous Roubaix velodrome. This is probably what people think of when picturing cobblestones, but it’s actually quite smooth. None of the other sectors are like that.

The easiest way to traverse each sector is to go fast; the speed will allow you to skim over the stones. Well, that’s not really true, but in comparison to what it feels like going slow, it makes them feel like beach pebbles rather than ski moguls. The other problem and the reason why positioning is so important is the fact that there is only ever one good line on cobbles. Normally it’s the central crown, as that’s the strip of cobbles that haven’t had to endure the transit weight of decades of vehicles. It feels almost counter-intuitive to ride the centre like this, and there are always some riders who will decide it’s a bad idea and instead try to ride in the gutter or even off-road in the hard-pack dirt. It may seem safer there, but ultimately you run a much higher risk of a puncture due to the stones, dirt and potholes.

Arenberg doesn’t even have a central crown: it’s just shit cobbles the whole way, with one particularly bad section where it feels like you’re being jack-hammered. It’s slightly false: flat uphill means you’re losing speed the whole time and, if you’re caught up behind a crash or a slow rider, you’ll lose even more speed. Only the very strongest riders can recover from that sort of situation because once you lose speed you’re not getting it back.

In recon only the newbies actually ride on the cobbles through Arenberg; those of us with a bit more experience ride on the dirt path adjacent to it knowing it will do us more harm than good to ride on these harshest of cobbles in training. Unfortunately, the dirt path won’t be available on race day because, as in Flanders, they will barrier the road off, giving us no choice but to be beat up by the cobblestones.

From the Arenberg on we start getting more animated, testing ourselves. For the first time in my career, I’m actually having fun on the cobbles. It feels effortless – even my hands are fine, whereas all the young guys already have blisters after only half the recon. I’m so relaxed that I’m barely gripping my bars, something that I’d never mastered before. It genuinely feels like I’m floating over the pavé.

Sebastian Langeveld and I decide to ride the last two sectors at full speed. Even Seba can’t stay with me on our last sector of the day, the Carrefour de l’Arbre. Our bus is waiting, parked at the exit of this, the last sector. I’m the first rider at the team bus at the end of the recon. This is unprecedented. It appears I’ve finally hit form a few days before the last race of my final Classics campaign. Better late than never."

You don't have to be a professional bike racer, bouncing along the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix to have experienced the 'Love Hate' relationship with the bike.

We've all been there, cursing at our legs, questioning why we do it. Yet, a few hours later, as we sit down in a beer garden with the sun on our backs and friends at our sides, we know exactly why. And we love it. As part of our new Spring/Summer collection, we made the Love Hate collection - an embodiment of what we all go through.