Riding the Rapha Paris–Roubaix Challenge

An in-color actual account in an
interpellative style.

Rapha has upped the ante. Soft focus black and white, sipping espresso, and fixed gazes into the distance are not enough. This time, partnering with professional race organizers A.S.O., they have reached deep into our collective souls to sell the real experience of greatest one-day race in the history of cycling. This will be a timed race on closed roads over 162 kilometers, 18 mythic cobblestone sections, ending in the Roubaix Velodrome. “HOLY [EXPLETIVE]!” one Hero will remark. Complete with yellow Mavic neutral support, and all taking place just one day before the professional race, this will be the fulfillment of all amateur cyclists’ fantasies and desires. You are too easily sold. You pay the 100-Euro registration and buy the Paris-Roubaix Challenge jersey as a souvenir.

You train hard. You ride purposely over giant Chicago potholes, gravel roads, and highway rumble strips to prepare yourself for the Hell all Roubaix riders describe. You assemble a special team bicycle called Le Ramrod and have it painted by Joe Bell. You spend many a restless night picturing yourself setting an unrelenting pace at the front of the peloton, floating over timeless cobble sections with the grace of De Vlaminck, Museeuw, shaking your fist at a struggling Spaniard1, launching a crushing attack at 60 kilometers out, arriving in the velodrome solo, head down for one-and-a-half laps until you know you have sewn up the greatest one-day Sportive in history. You think about how you will cross the finish line elated, raising your hands to the heavens with one small tear gently rolling down your dusty cheek. Seriously. You think about this often.

As a Hero with your first European “race” on the line you would be absolutely prepared. Ten days prior to the sportive you receive an email in broken English stating that “due to an exhaustive study of the safety measures to be implemented on the same weekend as the elite event,” the race organizers will have to “change the event form”: The new format involves some changes: It is no longer a race so there will be no timing or classification. You will ride on roads open to traffic and will therefore have to respect the traffic rules. The finish area will be close to the “Carrefour de l´Arbre”, which will be the last cobblestone section and not in the Roubaix Velodrome as expected.”

There will be no apologies.

“HOLY [EXPLETIVE]!” you would proclaim. Your race just turned into a Sunday ride bouncing over cobbles. “What kind of fantasy is that?” you might think.

Accepting this disappointment but firm in your fulfillment of most (rather than all) your cycling desires you accept this new challenge. Your training immediately goes entirely out the window (this, however, makes room for copious amounts of Belgian beer drinking the week before).

The big day arrives. You are late to register and nearly miss the start. You roll out on smooth open roads as the sun rises. The conversational pace allows you to marvel at the unparalleled beauty of the French countryside and ponder the tremendous weight of history attached to this landscape. You are filled with an indescribable joy.

You reach the first section of cobbles. All hell breaks loose. At this very moment all romance, all history, all of the very very specialness of this ride is completely forgotten. Men begin to fall. Your bike rattles violently. The soundtrack accompanying the crash montage in La Course en Tête runs though your head. You pedal as fast as you possibly can and fight for survival. You are no longer thinking about Grace or Johan Museuw. You find any line that does not include riding over these piles of rocks only medieval peasants could call roads. Slightly less crude dirt gutters are your new fantasy. At the end of each section you lay off the gas and begin to recover, peeling your numb, cramped hands from the top of the bars.

Eventually, you rediscover your breath and composure. In the near distance, the sight of a hard left turn into a turnip field would tell you that hell will begin again shortly. This will happen close to 13 times over 30 kilometers. You wonder if your fragile body is capable of this. Doubt begins to set it. When you think you can bear no more, when you think you have heard Phil Leggit and Paul Sherwin proclaim that the lights and the sound are out and you are dangerously close to falling from Le Ramrod in a direct sideways trajectory into a ditch, you stop at a feed station. There is a Hero team car waiting, friends smiling, orange wedges, cured meats, Coca-Cola, calorie-packed sport beverages, and dried fruits. This will happen three times.

At this point hell becomes not-so-bad. You begin to learn the ways of this so-called Challenge, you even begin to enjoy the cobblestones. You feel strong, confident, begin to pedal harder, recover faster. At close to 100 kilometers you may not know where the finish is, but you know you are close. You reach the “last” section: The Carrefour de l´Arbre. There is no break in this section, no line to take, no dirt gutter. You press on with your new-found fortitude, knowing you are close to conquering this ride.

You make your final turn and eye the finish—you eye the finish so intently that you take the focus off of your front wheel, lose your line, and begin to panic. Your memory fails you here, but you think you briefly leave the cobbled trench for a soft grass section. You hit a stake in the ground at 35 kilometers per hour. Le Ramrod stops dead and you launch over the top of your handlebars with all of the tremendous weight of history propelling you face-first into a freshly plowed dirt field. You are momentarily knocked unconscious. Your nose might be broken. A dusty Frenchman helps you to your feet and tells you the finish is only five hundred meters away. You cannot [EXPLETIVE] believe it!

You finish. Shaken, bloody, dirty. Heroes greet you, but they only relish in your misery. All snapping photos as you pace about looking for water. They seem only interested in your pain, not interested in relieving it. You are distraught and confused about what just happened. You wonder about being caught in the gap between packaged desire and the bloody, dusty, reality you have just experienced. Photographers will take your picture; you are bloody and dirty but you are filled with an indescribable joy. The Heroes help pack up Le Ramrod and you head home.