I am not predisposed to exaggeration and loathe the fanciful embellishment of otherwise ordinary accomplishments. The word 'epic' is often misapplied and frequently by cyclists where anything involving over 100 miles and more than one form of weather becomes a supernatural feat of human endurance. Don't get me wrong, I've done it myself but I try to keep it in check.
All of that said, I don't think I could possibly overstate Paris - Roubaix.
'Respect the cobbles' said my esteemed colleague and veteran of the pave, and I think I should have paid just a little more heed. For every joule of power and bead of sweat expended the cobbles fought back. No sooner had I freed my fingers from the bars to enjoy the effortless rush of pristine tarmac than I was thrust back into the furnace; muscles spasming, teeth grinding and the volume of a throbbing pain from kilometre after kilometer over the roughest roads imaginable blocking out any rational thought. Inhumane. These roads are not meant for men on racing bicycles and skinny tyres.
But the mark they leave is much deeper than a few blisters (more than a few for Sam, who had his hands bandaged at the finish line) and in a very short space of time the brutality is reconciled with the legend forged over a century of mud and guts. If the Alps and Pyrenees are the amphitheatre of Le Grand Boucle then Paris Roubaix takes place in a back-street fight club.
Physical abuse aside, the ride itself went off with only minor hitches, the most significant being a snapped spoke which fittingly occurred on the Arenberg Trench and involved a run back along to the feed zone for mechanical assistance before a second run of the Trench. Great to ride it twice but I'm pretty sure I paid for it later.
The organisers, the Velo Club de Roubaix Cyclotourisme, did a sterling job with a very 'home-baked' feel to it. Like a Westferry '10' but on a grand scale. It definitely lent something to the event that it had been organised not by a large promoter, but by a group of cyclists who have a vested interest and personal affiliation to the historic cobbled roads. The atmosphere amongst the broad range of participants was thoroughly sporting and good natured, as it should be at an event of this kind, with a general awareness of what is involved in group riding and 'sharing the load', something that cannot always be said of larger, more corporate events.
The climax of the route, at the velodrome in Roubaix, is as atmospheric as I had hoped it would be. One lap was never going to be enough but I had no intention of prolonging it, instead making a final high-speed dash along the thin black line toward the finish where I duly collapsed on the grass in a satisfied, mangled heap. To say that it was the hardest thing I have ever done on a bike would not do it justice. It was, but it was so much more than that besides. Agonising, beautiful, crushing, exhilarating. When my girlfriend asked what it was like, the best way I could describe it was 'like riding 130 miles whilst someone beats the shit out of you'.
Its not fun, but that's not the point.