Training for Paris-Roubaix



I’ve signed up to ride the Paris-Roubaix Challenge sportive in April. Racing through northern France, over cobblestones, across the battlefields of World War I, along muddy cart tracks, through wind and rain, covered in grit with bloodied hands and aching limbs may not be everyone’s idea of pleasure, but for serious cyclists, it’s irresistible.

The sportive is on the eve of the infamous professional race known as the ‘Hell of the North’, first staged in 1896. It’s one of the oldest ‘classics’ on the pro calendar, and the event that set an early benchmark in the enduring relationship between cycle sport and human suffering.

By Rob Penn

Friday 19th January 2018

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The course is largely flat and the distance (162 km for sportive riders, 259 km for the pros) is manageable. It’s the sections of old country roads paved with ‘setts’ – rectangular, quarried stones called pavé in French – that are heinously uncomfortable to ride over, blister your hands and cause the suffering.

Ironically, it was the jarring from riding on stone setts that lead to the single greatest advance in making the bicycle comfortable. When a doctor advised cycling for the health of John Boyd Dunlop’s son, he remarked that the activity would be all the more beneficial if the jarring from the granite blocks on the streets of Belfast could be reduced. Dunlop promptly went out and invented the pneumatic tyre, in 1888.

When Paris-Roubaix was first staged, most of the course was pavé. It’s how roads were commonly made before tarmac was invented. This year, the sportive course includes 18 sections of pavé, totalling 31.6 km. I’m told there’s a technique to riding it: relax the wrists, hold the handlebars softly, sit back and ride fast, ‘pushing’ a high gear. How, though, do you train for terrain like this?

Spinning classes in the gym clearly won’t do. Nor will tootling round the countryside in the sunshine. Friends have suggested riding back and forth over a cattle grid for an hour, or finding a section of rumble strips on a quiet dual carriageway. Aficionados say to train for pavé, you have to ride pavé.

There are a few places in the UK where the old setts haven’t been covered with tarmac – Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, Coronation Street and Gold Hill in Shaftesbury, where Victoria Pendleton recently reprised that Hovis advert, all come to mind. They’re too far from my home for training runs though.

In desperation, I’ve taken to riding the heavily potholed lanes near my house. This winter did a great deal of damage to the tarmac and the worst sections at least vaguely simulate the jarring and the juddering I’m preparing to endure. Throw in a cold north-westerly wind bringing down sheets of rain and I could almost be on the road to Roubaix.

Hurtling down such a lane recently, I inevitably got a puncture. As I was repairing it on the bank, a motorist stopped to vent his ire: ‘Bloody disgrace, this road,’ he said. ‘More holes than a piece of Gruyére. The council should be compelled to repair it.’ Indeed, I thought, just not before 9th April, please.

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