When I worked at a bike shop in high school, there were a few years when the owner took the staff on a deep-sea fishing trip as an end-of-season celebration. At 4:00 am, we’d show up bleary-eyed at the marina, where the charter’s diesel would already be rumbling, then cast off towards the Gulf Stream in search of mahi-mahi and marlin.
Those trips are always a long day out, but conditions and events always conspired to make ours even longer. Our charter was an older, single engine boat. That made the trips to fishing waters slower (thus the early departure), and a few hours after we left the dock the newer twin-engine boats would roar past us. But that was expected; other things weren’t. Like the time we broke the rudder linkage about 60 miles offshore as we backed down on a 300+ pound blue marlin. We landed the fish, but a rudder rigged by bike mechanics with hose clamps and bungee cords--on a single-engine boat--makes for a less-than-direct trip home. The next year, we were caught in a storm and Gilliganed our way home over 15 foot swells while half the staff puked below decks.
After 20 hours of diesel engine drone on a rolling boat, standing back in the parking lot of the marina felt so quiet, so still, that it was disarming. As I stepped off the boat and walked towards the car, it was like someone had stolen my senses. Everything was suddenly muted. The sensation was almost the opposite of what I’d expect – the absolutely solid ground under my feet made me feel like I was floating.
I found myself thinking of those trips 12 years later as I pedaled along the roads around Denain, just after I'd hopped my bike (or, rather, Specialized's bike) over the asphalt lip separating the end of the Haveluy cobbles from the pavement beyond. Marlin fishing and riding bicycles on cobblestones don’t have terribly much in common, except maybe getting wet and the distinct possibility of hurting yourself. But on this occasion, they collided in my mind for a single, unifying reason – while both are extremely vivid experiences in the moment, they produce perhaps their most striking sensation by simply being over.
After having my eyeballs rattled in their sockets, my hands jarred, and my posterior hammered by an unfamiliar saddle for the 2.5 kilometers of Haveluy, the ordinary, unremarkable French asphalt felt bizarrely smooth. Almost pillowy. The vibration that hd made its way into my ear canals and manifested itself as sound was gone, I could fully close my hands around the bars again, and everything was quiet and smooth. Hitting that first sector of the day, without warning and at speed, was pure sensory shock-and-awe in its own right, but the exit was far more memorable. It was almost exactly like stepping off the fishing boat onto the midnight docks of Rudee Inlet – suddenly silent, unsettlingly still, and somehow surreal. Like floating.
That feeling – which I would experience three more times as we exited the Trouée d’Arenberg, Wallers, and Hornaing sectors – got me thinking about the odd, unspoken paradox of Paris-Roubaix. Namely, that after some 250+ kilometers, this anachronism, this cruel, jarring, dusty, muddy, jackhammer of a course crowns its winner not on uneven cobblestones or bog-standard asphalt, but on cycling’s most sublimely smooth and sanitized surface, the velodrome.
Absent a solo escape, victory at Roubaix requires winning performances on two almost diametrically opposed surfaces. To heft that most weighty of trophies, competitors have to endure and excel on 52.7 kilometers of cobblestones (this year) that are nearly pancake-flat. That much is well known.
What’s often forgotten is that, at the end of it all, they must push the mud and stones from their minds, and try to conjure up a few long-ago memories, if they have any, of track racing. Then they have to adapt them to account for riding a geared bike. Better to sneak through the inside in the final turn? Or take the high line and use the trip down the banking to accelerate? Who is the strongest in the group? It’s a good thing the velodrome is smooth – that kind of thinking is harder on the pave when your brain is rattling around in its casing.
The new Paris Roubaix book from VeloPress (which damn near everybody has reviewed already) draws heavily on the race's “Hell of the North” nickname in order to talk about it in religious terms. The authors fittingly dub the first sector of cobbles at Troisvilles “the gates of Hell,” and go on to tell the stories of the race lightly couched in the language of Christian theology. That they manage to string these metaphors together pretty smoothly throughout the book to create an engaging and not-religiously-offensive narrative is a testament to their skill and experience.
But that narrative focuses almost exclusively on the descent into Dante’s inferno, with riders sinking a circle deeper with each successive sector. Only when riders reach the famed concrete showers do they find salvation. That fits fine with the structure of the book, but I’d argue that redemption begins a bit earlier than that.
When the riders have crossed the last truly hellish cobbles at Hem, they begin their ascent, crossing the 300 meters of even ornamental cobbles of Roubaix’s main street, then riding the tarmac once more, and finally making the right-hand turn onto the blessedly smooth concrete track. Having taken far more of a beating than I did in my brief cobblestone experience, I'm not sure if they notice the floating sensation that stuck in my mind. But if being on a velodrome rather than some Napoleonic washboard of a road doesn’t make them feel like they’ve sprouted wings for the trip to see Saint Peter, they can listen to the cheering chorus of angels ringing in their ears as they do their one-lap-plus and pause in the grassy infield to take it all in.
By the time they get to the showers, they’ve long since left hell and passed through the gates of heaven.