Mons-en-Pevele is listed as sector 10 on the race map of Paris-Roubaix. The 3,000 meters of pavé begins after 210.5 kilometers of racing. From the end, 45 kilometers remain to the velodrome in Roubaix. It is rated five stars, but don’t let the star rating fool you, all the sectors are difficult. It is here, across the repetitive and barren fields of this sector that my feeling of solitude sinks to one of isolation and loneliness. The fatigue that dissipated temporarily on the paved roads is gnawing at me constantly. My helmet feels too tight, and my shoes feel too small. I’ve anticipated this moment since my ride began 40 kilometers before the Arenberg Forest. I locate the barn near the end of the track, but no farmer. Bales of hay litter the field, but there are no tractors. A dog barks behind a fence, but I don’t see any people.
There is a distinct difference between solitude and loneliness. I enjoy the feelings that accompany my solitude when I choose to ride alone. Even during the long and difficult ascents of the Alps and the Dolomites, I can calculate my effort and ration my resources. There is a certain comfort that comes with finding a level of pain that is manageable and when the pain increases, I always have the scenery to distract me from my senses. But this calculation of effort, rationing of resources and strength, the distractions, this is not part of riding Paris-Roubaix. It’s just not possible.
Riding the pavé is lonely. There is no warning, and the loneliness arrives at the most inopportune moments. I’ve hallucinated, bit my tongue and ridden so slow my speed can only be described as a crawl. I’ve spewed unimaginable curses from my blood stained lips, barely audible above the chattering and clanging of my bike. I’ve shivered uncontrollably at being too cold, and sweated profusely at being too hot. I can’t satiate my hunger or quench my thirst. This ride mocks my cycling skills; it dares me to go faster then rewards me by thrusting more pain through my body. The start list is reserved for 192 riders, some who live for this race, many who would rather be somewhere else. If riding in the Tour de France is a badge of courage, then riding Paris-Roubaix is the Purple Heart.
Many of the well-known cobbled sectors of Flanders -the Paddestraat, Lippenhoeventsraat and the Haeghoek to name a few- all serve local traffic on a daily basis. The Lange Munte is a national road. These cobbles are difficult, but their size and pattern are contiguous. They are laid in a repetitive pattern, each stone cut and sized precisely so it can be hand set by a mason. The stones that make up the sectors of pavé of Paris-Roubaix are large and rough cut, laid randomly across a path to provide traction for farm equipment. There are large areas where some stones have sunken inches, while others have heaved. There are gutters, swales, uneven crowns, enormous gaps and gaping holes. It feels like at any moment something evil is going to spring from its underworld, grab hold of my front wheel and drag me under. Once on the stones of Roubaix, you wish you were back on the cobbles of Flanders.
Perhaps there is some analogy to be taken from this, some higher meaning. Can riding this course that we know as l’Enfer du Nord be considered a redemptive pilgrimage, an annual penance through purgatory? Each sector methodically removes more sin, the suffering across the minefields slowly purifying the rider until reaching the holy waters of the Roubaix velodrome, the vestige of its winners glistening from the stalls where the finishers weep. After this symbolic cleansing, are we not now ready to face any challenge? Perhaps, but I don’t think so. Even the devil has a hard time glorifying hell.
Paris-Roubaix does not need to rely on poetry to market itself. It lays dormant all but one day a year, rising up the second Sunday of every April to mock those riders who avoid it, and unleash a storm of brutality on those who dare tread on it. I regularly ask myself what is the attraction? What is the reason behind my choosing loneliness and isolation? I’m both blessed and cursed with an innate desire to equate my own abilities with the numerous single day race courses of the Classics and at my own mental and physical level, understand the pain that is inflicted across, in this case, 257 kilometers that purposefully look for the most demented roads of Northern France. After all, there are dozens of mountain passes to climb, but there is only one Paris-Roubaix.
It is this singularity, this oddity that I believe is its allure. The majestic mountain peaks of the Pyrénées or the Alps are the attraction of the L’Etape, for instance, and of course, the Tour de France. Locals and tourists alike, wiling away their time on a hot summer day, enjoying a French tradition that is as important as the wine and cheese they make. Much like the biggest tour stages, these days are transient, and only relate to the mountain tops they finish on for that day. Next year the story will be some other peak, and after so many years, I do not remember what stage was won by whom atop which mountain. But Paris-Roubaix remains unchanged. Riding the course always remains an option. There is no hype; no one will exclude you; there is no deadline for registration; no training weekends to prepare for it, and no vintage bike or retro wool clothing to wear. Come as you are, when you want, good luck and Godspeed; you’re going to need it.
I’ve had the fortune of lifting the Paris-Roubaix trophy over my head. It weighs 33 kilograms. I commented to 2003 winner Peter Van Petegem that there is a certain indignity in making the winner lift a 33 kilogram stone after having just spent hours riding over thousands of them. “Ah, but when you win, you feel nothing” was his response. To feel nothing. Maybe that is why I ride it.