Paris Roubaix 2019 - Ploughing a furrow for Nils...

Back in March, the KLUB launched a competition for 2 members to win their bib number to participate in the 2019 Paris-Roubaix Challenge by ASO. The challenge offers amateur cyclists the possibility of getting as close as possible to the professional race.

24 hours before the professionals, amateurs from around the world measure themselves against the legend of the Hell of the North with its mythical cobbled sections like 'Carrefour de l'Arbre' of the 'Trouée d'Arenberg'.

"The same roads, the same dreams, the same joy, the same pain"

Here, one of the KLUB winners, Matt Dowse, recounts his experience. Doesn't it inspire you to sign up for yourself in 2020?

Words and pictures below by Matt Dowse

All I did was fill in a form on Instagram. More than likely nothing would come of it, it never does.

But then it did. I only got bloomin' chosen - given a place to ride the amateur race, the day before the pros, of the legendary Paris-Roubaix! I mean, the same cobbled sectors as all those heroes and to finish in the same velodrome! What an opportunity, what a privilege.

I was never worried about the mileage. I can ride all day, as long as I get my nutrition and pacing right. But those cobbles...

Every article I’ve ever read, every piece of advice, everyone I’ve spoken to says you gotta hit the cobbles hard and fast then keep the power on, keep stomping on those pedals.

So I guess if everybody says you should jump, you should jump - it’d just be nice to know where I’m landing....

I found a decent hotel for the weekend in Lille, about 15km from Roubaix. My plan was to arrive Friday afternoon and roll over to the velodrome to register and pick up my number, to get it out of the way before the ride (and have a little less stress on Saturday morning).

As ever, no plan survives first contact. After getting caught in some Friday afternoon traffic and parking at the hotel and checking, then there was no way I would get to check in in time, so that would have to wait until the morning. But I still had the opportunity to test the route to the start, which I did, and I’m glad I did - because the route I took Friday night was nowhere near the best way to get there!

Anyway, with those mistakes made, time to get back to the hotel, get a good feed in and get everything ready for the morning - and just check I’ve got everything I need!

An early start. These things always are. As ever, too early for the hotel breakfast. But I had that covered - I’ve made that mistake before.

This morning I take a much simpler route to the velodrome and it’s early so there’s little traffic. Registration is a short queue and stress free. So I attach my numbers and hit the road.

There’s 50km or so to the first cobbled sector, and it seems like a tailwind to start. So I kick in and try to make the most of it. I soon tag on the back of a fairly large group of 50/60 riders, of which about half are one club, and they do all the work on the front. That’s fine by me.

We’re clipping along at +- 35kph and I’m sitting in the middle taking it easy. I’ve got a feeling I’ll need all the energy I can save!

We lose the most of the groupetto at the first feed station, but there’s still 20/25 us. That does mean I’ve got to do the odd turn on the front, but that’s all good.

Then the mood starts to change. There’s definitely a feeling of apprehension in the group. The cobbles are getting closer. Not just any cobbles either - The Arrenberg Trench.

“Keep it in the big chain ring and keep it fast...”

That was the advice from Nils Pollitt, only the evening before. Okay....

Wow. Nothing can prepare you for the beating you’re going to take on those cobbles. It is relentless. If you don’t keep the power on, you’ll be off. Everybody looks like they’re coping better than you, but they’re not. Just hang on. Nearly there. No I’m not - I’m just about half way!! This is my first sector!!

How the hell am I going to survive this.

But then you see the banner at the end. You get your tyres back on the tarmac. Somehow you feel great. There’s no resistance from the tarmac, the trees are sheltering you from the wind. It’s going to be ok... 3km to the next sector.

Each sector is different. Sure some are harder than others, a lot harder. But they all have they’re own characteristics - short, straight, lots of turns, slightly up hill, slightly down hill, headwind, tailwind etc etc. But each one talks a chunk out of you, mentally as well as physically. It takes longer to feel somewhere near ‘normal’ again, and sometimes there’s hardly any respite between sectors.

This edition was dry, thank goodness. But it was still windy. Anyone that has ridden in a strong crosswind will know the havoc it can wreak on riders, more so than a headwind. With the nature of the course, regular right angle turns, you never get used to where the wind is coming from - you quickly start to use the fans flags as references...

You learn (quickly) to count the sectors down. That helps. But people are getting tired.

There’s constant flicking across the cobbles to find a better line. So you’ve got to be on high alert all the time - and it’s hurting more and more.

So you’re looking to find wheel to follow in between the sectors, but of course so is everyone else...

Then the last big one - Carrefour des Arbres. Get through this and the worst is over. But it is a beast. Still, you try to stomp on the pedals, although there’s not much left to give. You make it to the road, over the road and the penultimate 2 star sector. Almost there...

Just after this sector I found myself riding with two local guys, we seemed to be working well together. Each at the end of their energy reserves helping the others to get through it.

I can’t remember exactly where it was, maybe somewhere around the 10km to go banner, something changed.

Without a word being spoken it became clear that this was a race between the three of us. Two locals and a plucky Brit...

One would soft pedal at the front, then the other would come past from the back, fast - a classic attack. I’d close the gap. Then the other would repeat and I’d shut that one down. Then again...

There’s a slight incline on the way to the penultimate roundabout, and we were all hanging, but still the pattern continued - passing other riders with their heads down, grinding home. If I can just hang on up here....

Over the brow of the hill, I had my own attack. They must be on their knees, surely.... I looked back and they were still there, stuck to my back wheel. How is this going to pan out now...?

Well, unfortunately we’ll never know. The closer we got to the velodrome the more the traffic became an issue. TV vans, police vehicles, cycle tour vans and local traffic doing normal Saturday things - all this meant our ‘fun’ was cut short. But we all made to to velodrome in one piece and experienced that sensation of entering a stadium soon to be filled with our idols.

Crossing the line, there was only one thing left to do really - to grab a beer and recount tales of how we’d conquered our most feared sectors and where the pro race would be won or lost.

I was lucky. No punctures or mechanicals for me. But I saw plenty that weren’t so lucky, standing with broken bikes in a field in Northern France. Broken people too - it’s just as much a mental test as a physical one!

That Arrenberg though - maybe I’ll ride it better next year...

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