Slovakian Peter Sagan of the Bora-Hansgrohe team takes on a cobblestone section of the route during the 117th edition of the one-day Paris-Roubaix cycling race. (Dirk Waem/AFP/Getty Images)
In a remote corner of northern France, three farm fields intersect. On a cold morning in mid-April, the crops that border a narrow crossing of rough-hewed cobblestoned paths barely reach ankle high.
But three pop-up bars are doing a brisk cash-only business, and it’s clear that some of the hundreds of rowdy, flag-draped cycling fans who have gathered here have been drinking for hours. Two men in their 20s, one draped in a Belgian flag, lie posed in the middle of the path as a friend snaps a photograph. Inebriated as they seem to be, they roll out of the way just as the next round of police cars and motorcycles come screaming into view.
Minutes later, a squad of bicycles races through a tunnel of sound, a kaleidoscope of colorful jerseys bouncing over the century-old cobblestones. Their team cars follow close by, ready to repair a punctured tire or a damaged bicycle. As soon as they have passed, the hordes of fans sprint to their own vehicles, bound for the next section of cobbles to catch another glimpse.
The barely controlled chaos takes place every year at Paris-Roubaix, one of the iconic one-day races of the professional cycling season. The race covers more than 150 miles of twists and turns as it snakes north to Roubaix, a former epicenter of France’s textile manufacturing industry that has since fallen on hard times. It is best known for the grueling 30-plus miles of pavé, as the cobblestones are called, over 29 bone-rattling sectors chosen for their difficulty.
Even in a sport in which pain is the goal, it stands apart; its nickname is the Hell of the North.
Casual fans of professional cycling might keep an eye on the Tour de France, the best-known race of the year. But to die-hards, late March and early April make up Holy Month, a collection of one-day races that tackle difficult courses in Belgian Flanders and northern France.
The Tour de France favors lithe climbers who glide up long and arduous Alps. The cobbled classics favor what fans call the sport’s hard men — and, in the Belgian classics that have women’s editions like the Tour of Flanders, the hard women — bigger and more powerful riders who can produce huge efforts over short and steep climbs or the treacherous cobbles.
Races like Paris-Roubaix or the Tour of Flanders or Gent-Wevelgem take place in the cold nascence of a Northern European spring. If it is dry, the cyclists will kick up dust that chokes the air. If it is wet, the mud cakes on riders and bikes alike. Either condition is dangerous, and exhilarating, by design.
Professional women’s racers suffer up the Oude Kwaremont, a short, steep climb where the winner made her decisive move in this year’s Tour of Flanders. (Reid Wilson/For The Washington Post)
From the start of Paris-Roubaix in Compiegne, through the cobbled sectors and into the historic velodrome in Roubaix, thousands of fans line the road, draped in the flags of their native lands, screaming encouragement and pressing over the barriers to snap photographs, close enough to touch the cyclists — and in at least a few cases to knock them off their bikes. (Though the start of the race was moved to Compiegne in 1966, it is still officially known as Paris-Roubaix.)
What makes the sport unlike any other is the proximity, not just to the riders but to its most hallowed grounds. Without a lucky connection or a fat checkbook, one cannot hope to play catch on the field at Yankee Stadium or kick a field goal in Lambeau. But the day before the riders are scheduled to tackle — or be tackled by — France’s cobbled cart paths, I find myself lining up with nearly 7,000 other masochists to ride the very route the pros will cross.
I have come with a British firm called Sportive Breaks. It, like several other touring companies, offers riders like me three nights’ lodging, entry fees for the amateur ride and a top-of-the-line road bike to ride for as little as $650. An additional $100 gets me a seat in the van the next day to watch the professional race up close, beginning in Compiegne and then racing between cobbled sectors before we end up back in Roubaix for the finish.
But first I must brave the cobbles.
I am no professional rider. In fact, I am lucky if I notch 50 miles on the bike in a given week. But on a frigid Saturday, I wake up early and pull on bicycle shorts, pants and an extra base layer to ride through the sleepy streets of industrial Roubaix to the velodrome on my borrowed bike.
At the start line, a number pinned on my back, I take off with a wave of perhaps 100 other cyclists. The fitter ones are clearly angling to score a top time. Others are casual, cruising along on fat-tired bikes that will absorb some of the shock of the cobbles, or riding tandems with their partners.
The most adventurous, who will ride all 29 cobbled sectors over 106 miles, started their rides hours ago. I am riding the shortest route, just over 40 miles long and covering only seven sectors.
About half of my ride is a calm warm-up over smooth roads and rolling terrain just to get to the cobbles.
By the time I reach the feed zone, at the mouth of the first sector, I have to pour myself a cup of coffee to hold against my feet in a desperate effort to warm my freezing toes. Or maybe I’m just delaying the pavé in the same way I’ve been making nervous jokes about the possibility of breaking a collarbone.
Each cobbled sector is given a star rating, corresponding to its difficulty, of between one and five. Once my anxiety has sufficiently abated, I hit my first sector, the relatively easy two-starred Templeuve-Moulin-de-Vertain. I am unprepared for the tremors that hit me; these are not stones, these are malicious boulders, shaped to wound. As I try to find a smoother line, my wheel catches an edge and I topple gracelessly into the grass. I laugh to myself as I look up at the bright blue sky: What have I done?
But there is no path back to the velodrome that does not involve cobblestones, so I have to soldier on. By the next sector, the three-starred Cysoing à Bourghelles, I hatch a new plan: I will follow someone who looks like she knows what she is doing. The woman whose wheel I latch onto is a skilled rider who maintains a regular pedal stroke and a firm line atop the crested path. I make it through the 1.3 kilometer sector alive, upright and only slightly rattled.
The professionals depart Compiegne at the start of the Paris-Roubaix race, headed for a hellish day on the cobbles before ending on the Roubaix velodrome. (Reid Wilson/For The Washington Post)
My confidence soars. On the next few sectors, I alternate between riding the inches-wide dirt paths and the smoothest cobbled lines I can find, eyes focused no more than a few yards ahead of me as I watch for danger. I cross the Camphin-en-Pevele sector, where 24 hours later the Belgian superstar Philippe Gilbert will leap away from all but one other rider to make his winning move.
In photos taken by race organizers posted online a few days later, I am gasping for air; I look as if I am indeed enduring hell, though I know I loved every second of it. I am reminded, too, that I am no Gilbert: It takes me just over eight minutes to complete the hardest sector I cross, the five-starred Carrefour de l’Arbre; it took Gilbert a little more than two minutes the next day.
By the time I leave the cobbles and head for Roubaix, my legs are rubbery, my hips ache and my wrists are stung from the vibrations. I zip around a few final corners and into the velodrome, a steep-banked track that has received the winners of the race since it began in 1896. No one cheers for me as I cross the line, but I smile, exhausted, for one last photographer.
A day later, I am standing with two newfound Scottish acquaintances in the velodrome’s infield as Gilbert and German rising star Nils Politt race onto the track. The thousands of fans scream for their heroes as Gilbert rides Politt’s wheel, then dashes ahead in a late sprint to take the win. Caked in dust, Gilbert — and I — conquered the cobbles.
Wilson is a writer based in the District. Find him on Twitter: @PoliticsReid.
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If you go
Where to stay
Ibis Lille Roubaix Centre Hotel
37 Boulevard du General Leclerc, Roubaix, France
Europe’s answer to the Holiday Inn Express, the outpost in Roubaix is situated just blocks from the town square. It’s a basic hotel with an attached restaurant specializing in flammekueche, a type of German flatbread. Nightly rates from about $111.
Mercure Lille Roubaix Grand Hotel
22 Avenue Jean Lebas, Roubaix, France
The more upscale choice for those staying in downtown Roubaix, two blocks from the town square and 10 minutes to the train station. The in-house restaurant, Le Vieil Abreuvoir, specializes in more traditional French cuisine. Nightly rates from about $159.
Where to eat
Hotel de France
1 Grand Place, Roubaix, France
Situated on the town square itself, the hotel offers a wide selection of Belgian beers from just over the border. The menu consists of classic French dishes and burgers. Have a Kwaremont, a beer named for a legendary climb in the Tour of Flanders, alongside your burger or cheeseboard. Entrees from about $10.
34 Place de la Liberte, Roubaix, France
Find Northern French and Italian cuisine at this loud, lively and local casual spot for dinner, without the frills of a fancier restaurant. Pizzas and pastas from about $9.
10 Grand Place, Roubaix, France
Adjacent to the city center, a traditional French bistro with the rustic decor of a country inn offers upscale Pan-European cuisine. It may be tough to get a table, so expect a wait. Entrees from about $15.
What to do
Sports Tours International
91 Walkden Road, Walkden, Manchester, England
A great budget option whose managers are immediately responsive, this British tour company offers short trips to sporting events across Europe, including the Paris-Roubaix Challenge. Package includes hotel and race entry. Three night tours begin at about $300.
10 Staines Road, Twickenham, England
This British tour company offers a top-of-the-line bicycle to go along with its three-day trip, plus mechanical support when I arrived with my own pedals. A group ride the day before the event helped form a quick bond with others on the trip. Package includes hotel, race entry and bicycle rental. Three-night tours begin at about $650.