I can write paragraphs full of
superlatives and adverbs, I can show
you pictures, I can give you quotes,
but nothing can prepare you for that
first time your front tire collides with
the rocks of northeastern France.
And whatever I just said there, triple
it when referring specifically to the
Arenberg Forest. The cobbles of
Roubaix are like nothing else in
cycling. They’re an anachronism,
they’re insane, they’re utter rubble in
some places, and they’re stunning.
When speaking of the sensations one
feels on the cobbles en route to the
Roubaix Velodrome, some would
gamely offer up the term “bone
rattling.” It’s a start, but it just doesn’t
do the feeling justice. It’s a whole
body vibration, but even vibration
doesn’t succeed in describing the
outrageous battering that occurs.
The act of slamming your bike into
each successive oddly placed rock in
what some would generously refer
to as a road, earthquakes every part
of your body from the traditionally
cited culprits—the hands, feet, arms,
and sitting area—all the way to
venues mentioned a bit less in cycling
literature, like your internal organs.
That’s just the first sector. When you
combine sector after sector after sector,
the feelings begin to evolve. Where
they were once a collective feeling
from top to bottom, the real pain
always seems to zero in on one specific
place (which seems to vary from rider
to rider), while battering down the
rest of one’s defenses from every other
angle. The cobbles beat you down to
a level none of us care to visit on a
regular basis. By the time you reach
the fourth sector, the crucial Carrefour
de l’Arbre, the wheels of the Conestoga
wagon are often long gone, scattered
about half a dozen sectors before on
another monster, Mons en Pevele.
soul laid bare, at last, ready to be tested
over one last debilitating crucible.
I remember my first time on the
Carrefour. Both hands were raw
following the early formation of
palm-sized blisters, both of which had
kindly opened up on Mons-en-Pevele,
which to me, is the sector of cobbles
least apt to deserve the description of
a road. The cobbles almost seem to
blend into the field that it bisects en
route to the main road much too far
off in the distance.
reasonable section of terrible, I rode on
the lip of the field, I tested my drops,
my tops, my hoods, but all that could
be done was pedal—keep pedaling.
To sum it up succinctly, it was terrible.
What else would you expect?
It all pales though …
Next to race day. Riding the cobbles
of Roubaix without a love for the race
is not advisable. It’s pointless misery,
suffering for no reason. The cobbles
are faceless monsters without the
race, without the history that goes
with these roads.
What you’re left with when you hit
that final five-star section that leads
to that lonely cafe at cobbles’ end, is
something terrifically raw. It’s your
Five cobbled sectors passed with my
hands and their open wounds, and
then came the Carrefour. I closed
my eyes, I searched for the most
The first time I saw Paris-Roubaix
proved to be as anyone would dream
of. It was special. The hours from start