Penge Cycle Club does Paris-Roubaix 2017

Many cruel jibes about the road sign

There’s something about a road trip that I just love. Particularly when there is a challenge or an adventure to be enjoyed or endured and even more particularly when you do it with a special group of people. Many years ago, on a regular annual Easter trip, someone much older and wiser said to me; ‘remember this moment – this is as good as it gets’. We were playing Petanque as the sun went down over the stone ramparts of one of SW France’s most picturesque ‘bastide’ towns, and the pre-dinner pastis filled us with a sense of well being.

I experienced another such moment on safari in South Africa with my wife and two boys, just before waving my wife off on her insane 8 months of sailing around the world. We had just completed a fabulous game drive having finally seen the one remaining elusive big cat – the Leopard. Our guide had driven us to the highest point in the reserve and we had watched a herd of Elephant pass through the valley below us as the sun went down and as we sipped our gin and tonics. Echoing the words of my erstwhile Petanque companion; I put my arms around my family and told them:  ‘Life will have moments that you will look back on and realise that they were the absolute best’.  As good as it gets.

Last weekend, in the famous Roubaix Velodrome, I had that same feeling once more. Again, the sun was going down; again there was a drink in my hand and again, I was with a special group of people with whom I had just been through the fire. Paris-Roubaix, or more specifically the ‘Roubaix Challenge’ is one of the sportives open to the general public that mimic the ‘monument’ events in the UCI Cycling calendar.  Along with Milan –St Remo, Il Lombardia, Tour of Flanders and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Paris-Roubaix is one of the iconic events where the amateurs can have a go on the actual course and then watch the next day, in complete awe, as the pros do it.

There is a photo of the whole group from Penge who did the ride sitting up high on the grass on the perimeter of the Velodrome. When I crossed the finish line in the famous old arena, I heard the cheers and looked up to see them in the distinctive red, green and white. I didn’t even try to hold back the tears. I then took my place on the bank and cheered the rest of the team home and enjoyed my first drink in 98 days. It was supposed to be 100, but who cares. As each rider crossed the line and as they rounded the bend beneath us, I knew they must all feel the same. Relief; this is a tough ride. Joy; genuine happiness at re-joining their companions. Fatigue; from little sleep and a monstrous ride – but all of this swept away in the elation of the moment.

To understand why it is such a special feeling, you have to start at the beginning. Or even before that. For months now, there has been a gradual build of excitement as the plans for the trip have fallen into place and as we have trained through the winter to make sure we can make it round the course on the day. The mix of banter, worry, ridiculous technical discussions about tyre pressures, gear ratios and bar tape padding would almost make a study in itself. Very funny though.

Long build up over, we started gathering on Jews Walk, just off Sydenham Hill on Friday morning. The 3 drivers had gone off to collect their vans and the rest of us were milling around, chatting and drinking coffee while we waited. When they arrived, the care and attention our master-organiser had taken to arrange the trip was brought in to sharp focus. Each van had its own laminated name card with accompanying photo. I was in Danny Van Poppel with David driving. The others were in Fabian Vancallara or Tom Vroomen.  We are cycling people.

Once we had the kit and bikes safely loaded, Claudio made an early bid for the wooden spoon award for the most comedy piece of foolishness, realising he had left his passport at home and wandering off on foot to get it, eschewing the many vehicular options open to him.

We enjoyed a pleasantly uneventful trip to the tunnel, although in the front of our van, Frances started making grumbling noises about having a hot ass. Could be worse, I thought. We regrouped in Folkestone and enjoyed another faultless piece of planning from David in the form of giant wraps that we munched on in the car park waiting for our shuttle train. After the tunnel, we were on the road again and the next re-group was at the Velodrome in Roubaix for registration. At this point, it started to get real. Everyone we saw was a cyclist, all looked way fitter and faster and they all seemed so confident and relaxed. Less so when half of us jumped straight to the front of the massive queue so we could all register together. There were some nervous moments for Graham and Dave who were dreading the officials picking up the mismatch between their entry details and their IDs. Dave was pretending to be a 30 year old, but at least he was the same gender, unlike Graham who was trying to be Mairead. Fortunately, no one gave a fig and we were all in.
A big cobble outside Roubaix Velodrome

It was then time to find the hotels in Lille, unload the vans and get some dinner before an early night. By this time, Frances’ gentle complaints about the unfeasibly hot seat in the front of our van had been replaced by Kate’s as they had swapped places. There was definitely a design fault with the van apparently. Even at the time it seemed odd that a van that had been in production for 30 years had been allowed to continue with such an obvious flaw. Once we had dropped the hot-bottomed girls at their hotel, it took about 25 seconds to establish that the design fault was in fact a seat heater, with a button on the side of the seat that they had been inadvertently switching it on and off  with their feet throughout the journey. “Little wonder that men still get the most important tasks to do in life”, we might have pondered, if had we been a less enlightened bunch.

We re-grouped once more at a restaurant in Lille’s central square and if you haven’t visited Lille, you should. The French do grand very well and whereas a combination of the Luftwaffe and generations of inept town planners have reduced most of our town and city centres to soulless concrete-scapes, the French have retained an elegance and style that is quite annoying in some ways. Like an irritating but better looking sibling. Anyway, this was the point it all started to go wrong for two of our number. What goes on tour, stays on tour, so no names. The two in question were last seen at c,10.45pm local time as the rest of us trooped of (mostly) sober, in anticipation of a 3.30am start. More of our intrepid pair later.

I enjoyed a shaky hour or so of sleep, bunked up with Simon and David. In the other hotel, they weren’t so fortunate. Some clown set the fire alarm off at 2.00am and thereafter, no one really slept. Breakfast was a bit odd at 3.30am, but an excellent goodie bag with porridge and other snacks was appreciated and necessary.  The plan was then to meet at the other hotel, so we headed out on our bikes and hardly got lost at all before getting there not long after the appointed hour. We rolled up, and rolled straight out in a big red, white and green peloton. Except for Jeff. Poor Jeff, an expert bike mechanic, had not been able to resist a final fiddle with his bike in the hotel, an urge that co-incided with our arrival and the group’s immediate departure. You can imagine his dismay, turning to panic and finally to miserable despair as he searched in vain to find the route to the coach pick-up point in Roubaix. The rest of us got there without incident, identified the trucks to stow our bikes and then the coaches to take us the 2 hour drive to the start point in Busigny.

What time do you call this?

In Jeff’s coach, the realisation hit that there was no Jeff. Mobile phones swung into action trying to track him down and soon the whole coach was enthralled by the drama. Would anyone find Jeff? Would he make it to the start on time? Jeff, meanwhile had given up, climbed sadly out of his bib shorts and back into bed.  Then he heard his phone buzz. It was Dominic, one of the sensible ones. Why didn’t Jeff jump in a taxi and try to make it. There were still loads of people queuing and he might still make it. Bib shorts back on, he got the concierge to call a taxi (who made the most of Jeff’s urgency with an iniquitously hire fare) and then a high speed charge to Roubaix. By this time, the coach was at fever pitch. Jeff was located and on his way. The last few riders were aboard the coach and the driver being implored to wait just a few more moments; had anyone seen Jeff?  ‘Where’s Jeff’, the repeated cry.  In the taxi, Jeff arrived at the meeting point, to the devastating sight of coaches leaving. So close. Despair once again struck and Jeff could be seen from the coaches standing beside the road, arms raised to the heavens. And yet, still a chance. One coach was still there. He rushed over to it and he was on. Braving the ire of the delayed coach passengers, Jeff was on-board. Jeff would ride after all.  A blizzard of facebook messenger followed and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Surely they wouldn’t win the wooden spoon now? Surely Jeff had that unwelcome accolade in the bag.

Queens of the cobbles

Exhausting eh? And this is before the ride even started. The coach ride revealed an endlessly flat and open landscape peppered with small villages but mainly farmland. The early dawn mist blanketed the fields and we knew the day would start cold. I had no other Penge riders on my coach but sat next to a Canadian fellow Ironman (it never takes long to come up in conversation) who was doing the ride on a fixie. However badass you think you are on these things, there’s always someone that you judge to be beyond nuts. As we arrived in Busigny, we crossed the route and already there were riders out and on their way. The start was to be a very relaxed affair. Turn up and start whenever you want between 7.00 and 9.00am. We waited until the whole team was assembled and it was at this point we realised that the two we had left in the restaurant were nowhere to be seen. Perhaps they had been on an earlier coach and had started already, but somehow that didn't seem likely.

Misty start
After a round of seemingly endless faffing around, getting coffee, visiting the portaloos (the usual gateway to hell), messing with last minute bike adjustments, we were finally off. In a single group, but getting increasingly strung out on the narrow roads, we set out at a conservative pace until David suddenly put in a surge and blew the race wide open, just 10k in. A lead pack emerged, with Emma, Claudio, Barry and Sebastian determined to stay ahead, with others from the usual ‘Fast Long’ group not far behind. My trick on these type of events is to pace myself. I know I am not that fast, but I can keep going as long as I don’t smash it too hard early on. The trouble is, you feel good because you have trained and you are fresh, there is lots of adrenaline and you have groups you can latch onto that suck you along. The result is that you usually go too fast. That was just beginning to happen when we hit the first cobbled section. Then it became a question of survival.

The Roubaix challenge has 3 distances; the 172km, the 145km and the 70km. Will was doing the shorter route as part of the ongoing rehab from his operation. If you want to hear horribly graphic stories of leg injuries, speak to Will. That meant he hadn’t had to get up in the middle of the night, but had set out later in a loop from the velodrome at Roubaix where he would meet us at the finish. The rest of us had gone for the 172km route, which is shorter than the one the pros do, but with the exact same route over the cobbles. Of the 172km, 55km was on cobbles. The first section, from Troisvilles to Inchy was 2.5km and a 3-star. (5is the hardest) In all, there are 28 sections, ranging from 500m to 3.7km, graded from one to 5 stars. In between, the roads are deliciously flat and smooth, contrasting diametrically with the cobbled sections. Until you have done it, you can have no idea how ridiculous it is. There is nothing you can do to prepare for it. I ride down Broadwick St in Soho on my commute. There is 50m of cobbles there and I thought that would be comparable. Nothing like. Not even close.

Here we go again

I was just behind Frances as we hit the first cobbled section and remember immediately concluding that there was no way in the world either me or the bike would survive even this first onslaught, let alone the whole ride. We were all searching in vain for the ‘easy’ path through. Try the high point in the middle of the road. Too painful. Try the gutter on the right, too narrow. The left, deep sand. Back in the middle. Each cobble is about 8” long and 4” wide, arranged across the road. They are shiny from the generations of farm vehicles and riders, but the hard flint is bumpy, with great gaps between the cobbles. Even on a 25mm tyre (A number of us tried a 28mm but it just didn’t fit), with new fat bar tape and two pairs of shorts, every part of me was taking a hammering. Wrists, forearms, shoulders, knees, backside. Even my face was shaking so much that fluids were being shaken from every orifice and yet I daren’t take a hand from the bars to wipe it. I wondered if my fillings would hold.

I would like to say the cobbled sections got easier, but they didn’t. We just got more tired, more battered and shaken as the day went on. After each section, you experience a kind of burning sensation in your hands as you release the claw-like grip that you need to tame the wildly bucking handle bars. The relief when you hit smooth tarmac is immediate, but sometimes painfully short as the next section is upon you before you have got into a proper rhythm again.  I seemed to be around Andrew and the other James most of the first section, but we caught glimpses of a group ahead in the distinctive colours. I knew Frances wasn’t far behind either.

That's more like it

If I just try this bit here

There are 3 feed stations on the route, where you can refill bottles and grab some food. The first of these came at about 55km and as we pulled in, we caught sight of a number of the rest of the gang. David, Grant, Dominic and Simon were already there. Graham, Dave, Kate, Frances and Davey were soon there too. I normally take the briefest of stops; the way I look at it is that it is free money to keep going. You can eat and drink on the bike and you are not going to stop long enough to recover, just to cool down and you then have to warm up increasingly tiring muscles. On this day, though, it was as much about the team. 

Each time we stopped, we re-grouped, swapped war stories and swore at the sheer insanity of riding with thin, rigid wheels on such lumpy roads. For me, these breaks were what made the ride so special.

There’s something about re-joining your companions, laughing and enjoying the banter, relief at seeing familiar faces and taking time to enjoy those sweet waffles that makes you instantly forget the pain.

The three standout cobbled sections are the Trouee d’Arenberg, the Mons-en-Pevele and Carrefour de l’Arbre. They are the longest, most difficult sections and the favourite places for the crowds to watch the pros. These three are spaced out in each 1/3 of the ride, and we knew they were coming. You begin to sense when a ‘pave’ section is impending. You take an odd turning from the main road striking out into open country, or you spot a row of camper vans in the distance, readying themselves for the pro race the following day. It’s almost a relief when it comes, because each time, you tick off one more section. Maybe your technique improves a little. You start developing theories about how best to manage the cobbles;

I focused on the section from the Tour of Flanders I had seen on the TV and it seemed to me they were pushing bigger gears than normal. I tried this, and you can share more weight between hands feet and backside. I also tried brute power. I have few natural attributes as a cyclist other than (to steal a line from the film Kick-ass) “an elevated capacity to take a beating” – but I do have some power. It helped, particularly in the latter stages when some of the faster, lighter riders were wavering, I was able to stick it down a gear and like a 5 litre diesel, just grind it out. Not pretty, total focus so as not to fall and hard to sustain, but marginally quicker and the quicker you go, the less you are affected by the bumps and the sooner they are over. That said, it still hurt like hell and at one point I realised my jaw was aching from clenching my teeth so hard.

That's better!
The first faller was Graham. He arrived at one of the drink stops covered in dust and abrasions and with his shifters at crazy angles. The bike was wounded but not defeated and with some attention from Jeff, it soon looked slightly better. Graham just gave his characteristically phlegmatic scouse shrug. After all those years as a covert secret agent, he has mastered pain-management. Another one of the team decided that pave was really not his thing and took a lift to the finish. Some days, it just doesn’t happen for you and there’s nothing you can do. We didn’t realise until later, but no one felt anything other than complete empathy. These things are tough.

I feel bad for the other crash we had. Not because it was my fault, but because I was so focused on staying on my own bike, I didn’t realise it had happened just behind me. Kate, who is a lady of prodigious courage and a great rider, was tucked in behind me on a section of pave. I heard something behind me and my immediate though was that someone had lost a water bottle. The damned things bounce around and escape their bottle cages. The pave, dangerous enough as it was, was strewn with them. I couldn’t even turn around without risking a horrible crash, so I ploughed on. When I did get a chance to look back, there was no one there and I started to worry. Obviously something had happened. I only found out at the next drink stop, when Kate arrived with one leg grazed and bleeding and her lycra covered with the distinctive Roubaix dust. The other story is that, desperate to beat her and finally seeing my chance to drop her, I led her into a sand trap and put in a burst of speed to make a break while she was down.

Very picturesque windmill

Dominic and Simon also bit the dust at one stage. First Dominic took a tumble and Simon waited for him, then Simon felt left out and dismounted face first whilst still moving. No real harm done, but these things all take their toll. The day wasn’t getting easier for anyone as the miles slowly passed and the pave sections were ticked off, one by one. David’s bike was suffering, stuck in one gear, so he kicked back a little and stopped for some great photos. Gradually, minute by minute, cobble by cobble, the finish in Roubaix got closer. At first, you daren’t think about the finish. When you first allow yourself to consider it, you quickly dismiss it because it is too daunting. Finally there is a point when you start counting down towards it and just want the ride to be done. I started the countdown at a ‘medium short’ distance. 35 miles. Maybe too far, but a medium short on a Sunday morning is a pleasant distance. Some time later, I converted the distance to commutes. My commute is 7 miles, and I started at 3. It took an age to get to 2, but then it was just 1. Then there was the final section of pave. Willems to Hem, a mere 3-star. What a blessed relief and just a few miles rolling into Roubaix, through some gnarly traffic to the velodrome. At this point, I noticed a curious side effect of the hours of having to focus on the few yards in front of me. Combined with the lack of sleep, the tough riding and not having to think beyond just grinding away, made it almost impossible to make simple decisions. A veteran of 22 years of London commuting, it was suddenly really difficult to pick my way through the queues of cars. Fortunately, Kate’s desire to overtake me, undimmed by her crash, meant that I could follow her as she muscled past the traffic and then we were at the entrance to the velodrome. We had a quick chat about whether to race it in or whether to cross the line together. Of course, I knew that if it came to a race to the line I would beat her and having already left her in the dust once earlier in the day, I let her stay with me, waiting for her so we could cross the line together. The alternative narrative was that, having been caught, I was now fearful of being dropped in the final few hundred metres, so I quickly agreed a face-saving draw.

The whole team at the finish in Roubaix Velodrome

What I do remember, as we crossed the line is the sight of those Penge jerseys high on the bank; the faster finishers cheering us over the line. It’s probably not manly to admit to crying on these occasions, but I can never help myself. Maybe I am an emotional old fool, but there is something about the release when you have been hammering yourself mentally and physically and you finally get to stop; particularly when there is a loved one or friend to meet you at the finish. I just can’t help it. At least I wasn’t as bad as I was at the end of the Ironman, where I sobbed for about 5 minutes whilst begging my wife to stop me doing this to myself.

Composure regained, we joined the group and Emma handed me my first beer. I’ve always liked Emma, but from now on she can do no wrong in my book. That beer was wonderful. The group already there consisted of the four in the breakaway. What an incredible shift they had put in, almost an hour ahead of the next to finish. Emma, who gets the deepest respect for being the fasted of all the women on the 172km route to post on Strava. Now for some racial stereo-typing. Claudio, like an Italian sportcar. Looks fabulous, fast, maybe a little unpredictable. Barry, like a powerful grand-tourer – a big Jaguar, eating up the miles. Sebastian, a powerful German autobahn cruiser. Ruthlessly efficient. Probably an E-Class Merc.

Also present was Will, who had completed the shorter loop as planned, with no ill-effects beyond a slight limp. 2 more of our companions were also there. Yes, the ones we had left sitting in the bar and had not seen in the morning, assuming them to have set out for the buses early. Now the truth came out. Not only had they lingered over their drinks at the restaurant, but they had also dropped in on another bar for a final drink. However, rather taken with the quality of service at that bar, they stayed until 2.00am, imbibing on a scale that more than jeopardised the 3.30am start. There are parts of the story I’ll leave out, particularly the bit about the mobile phone, but you can imagine how sympathetic the rest of us were.

In ones and twos and to louder and louder cheers, the remaining members of the team completed the final few hundred metres into the Velodrome and joined the swelling Penge peloton seated on the banking. No other club was visible in such numbers and so vocal. We had seen some Dulwich Paragons, no doubt Emma had overtaken them with some glee, and we saw a few other clubs representing places from all over the world. (Actually, except for France which was odd.) One Dutchman even said to me as we waited at the end of the Arenberg section of pave, “Who are you guys – I keep seeing your colours everywhere.” Penge CC is on the map!

King of the cobbles
Queen of the cobbles
We ate chips, drank some more beer and cheered and cheered. We took photos and swapped war stories, but eventually it was time to head back to Lille, shower and get some dinner. The evening was special; a great long table seating all 22 of us in the basement of a restaurant in the heart of the old town, plenty to eat and drink and a hilarious awards ceremony.

The Queen of the Cobbles was won by Kate. Hard to argue with that given the amount of training she has lost with injury and the fact that she took a hard fall (and was callously dropped when she was down). Hard on Frances and Emma who are two truly magnificent riders. For the guys, Davey took the honours. I think mainly because he is clearly a very able cyclist, but his real talent lies in his ability to swear with such feeling. In today’s world, swearing has mostly lost its power to shock through over-use, but Davey’s strong Glaswegian accent, often accompanied with his powerful attachment to his crack-pipe/ vape, retains its vigour. The word ‘Brutal’ is about the only one from his tirade at the end of the Arenberg that I can print. He called us ‘sarcastic bastards’ for voting him king of the cobbles, but that’s not true. We meant it. It would not have been the same day without him.

Wooden Spoon
Eventually, we all got to bed. I was later and less sober than most and I don’t think any of us found sleep hard to come by. There were a couple of bars and a few shots but no real craziness from what I recall. Anyway, we needed to be up early so we could go and see how the pros did it. We gathered everyone up, loaded the bikes and kit into the vans and headed back to the Arenberg. Normally, when you watch a pro race, the bikes shoot past in a blizzard of colour and you are left slightly disappointed. On the Arenberg, we were close and the riders were a bit spread out. It was visceral; the dust, the shaking, the thump of tyre on stone and backside on saddle as they passed us at impossible speeds, was breath-taking. We thought we were tough but those guys are on a different planet. Once that was over, all that remained was for us to head for home and post endless pictures on Facebook; most comically, Gareth’s cycle-tanned head, with the helmet marks clearly delineated in red. 

There was one final bit of banter, with Jeff picking up his inevitable award in the form of the wooden spoon. Nothing could top his ‘will he/ won’t he make the coach’ antics the morning of the ride.

We all owe a massive thanks to the drivers; Grant, Dominic and David, and especially to David for organising the whole thing. There’s a lot to think about and do to get a weekend like this together and David did an absolutely cracking job of it. Huge thanks also to all the Penge team who made it such a great weekend. I’ve done many a road-trip over the years and this was literally as good as it gets. Remember boys and girls, Paris-Roubaix, 2017. As good as it gets.

So that's how you do it

Still hurts though


  1. Well done everyone. I was the random rider who who shouted 'Geezers' whenever I rode alongside any Penge jersey's! Nice write up.


Post a Comment