Paris-Roubaix sees its first set of cobbles about twenty meters into the race. But I’ll call this “Sector Zero” since twenty meters from the start line is actually still in the neutral, parade roll out and therefore doesn’t actually count.
The first real set of cobbles arrives just shy of two hours of racing when the odometer clicks past 98km. That means we are trucking along at a good clip those opening 120 minutes – roughly 50kph or a hair over 30mph.
Almost exactly one-fifth of the 256km race bounces along on these defining Paris-Roubaix cobblestones. With 27 sectors totaling 52km, they run the range from perfectly acceptable, where you’re gliding along at a nice 49’ish kph pace with a low ranking on the arbitrary 1-10 Perceived Rate of Exertion scale, to mind numbingly frustrating, at which point your brain is spinning where-the-crap-is-my-rhythm, I’m-spewing-out-500-plus-watts-and-I’m-going-12-kph?! …frick.
The irony isn’t lost on me that this hitherto dank 2013 season – the season where winter won’t release its stranglehold on savagely cold temperatures in addition to copious snow, sleet, and hail – featured arguably the nicest day of European bike racing weather all year during yesterday’s Paris-Roubaix. A race renowned for notoriously nutty conditions only exacerbated when the weather turns inclement. The only “weather” we had to deal with on this particular Sunday was swirling, blinding, and suffocating dust. Correction: I saw a puddle at least once and two unfortunate dudes caked head to toe in mud, so they clearly found either that one or another errant puddle.
The pace today was stiff from the get-go. That’s to be expected since there are probably 120 guys with either general or explicit orders to get themselves into the breakaway. Teams with big aspirations around the business end of the day want to have cards to play, while smaller teams know that they won’t factor into the race when the front of the peloton reaches Roubaix’s Velodrome and therefore seek invaluable television exposure. Guillaume Boivin, my Canadian teammate did some fine work to get himself into an early group of fifteen riders. That looked to be the successful breakaway of the day, quickly gaining nearly a minute, only to be yanked back by a pair of hard charging French teams unhappy not to be represented in the break.
In turn, I then jumped into one promising move which was soon after reeled in. I then intrepidly set out alone, was then joined by three other guys jumping as far away as maybe ten or twelve fruitless seconds. Time to rest up and get ready for the rapidly approaching first set of cobbles.
Let’s step aside to reflect how my mind spins; I spent a good chunk of the day wondering what would be the single worst place in Paris-Roubaix to get a flat tire. Maybe with 500 meters to go if you’re about to unleash your ferocious sprint in a two-up battle for the win? Or is it somewhere in the final three cobble sectors, again if you find yourself in a small group vying for victory? Perhaps. Another particularly terrible place to suffer a flat is 100 meters into the first cobbled sector. Pavé secteur Troisvilles à Inchy. Sector number 27 and 98.6km into the race with an ample 157.4km to go. Is it the worst? I don’t know. Probably not.
I happen to know from firsthand experience yesterday that that particular place is remarkably inopportune.
Back to the action. So I was just caught from my stabs at the breakaway and the pace has recently shifted from fast to faster-nervous-and-hectic as we approach the first section of cobbles. I fought hard to be in crucially good position, we then entered the cobbles, and it only took a few seconds before I felt the telltale bone jarring rim-on-pavé sensation rather than the considerably more plush, inflated-tire-on-pavé sensation. In a word, it just feels hollow. It’s deafeningly loud already, but the unforgettable echo of carbon pounding on stone screams louder than the thunderous crowd. We fetched caravan car position 21, which means a tediously sloooowwwwww wheel change will follow.
In my three editions of Paris-Roubaix, 2011, ’12, and ’13, I’ve had three flat tires, which is probably about par for the course, heck maybe even better than average. Last year I flatted a few sectors after Arenberg. You may remember that without any support behind my group, that earned me some luscious Easter chocolate, a thermos cup of coffee, and three generations of friends. Then coincidentally in my first and third editions I suffered flat tires both times on sector number one. I’m considering in next year’s race, I’ll scout for a shortcut to avoid this sector… or for the sake of keeping within the rules, just avoid the sharp rocks.
At this point in the race, there are about twenty people behind me and 170 or so ahead of me. Crud. Time to play a serious game of catch up.
A furious and dust blinded chase ensues after my front wheel change. There are plenty of people who start Paris-Roubaix exclusively to go full bore to sector one, then pull the parachute and clog the already congested roads, looking for a team car to take the considerably easier route to Roubaix. Others are woe like me plagued by flat tires and other mechanicals. I’m therefore left to deftly negotiate this human shrapnel, cars, drunk-by-noon Flemish, French, impressively well traveled American, and plenty of other cycling fans on roads no wider than a single car.
You’ve possibly noticed that so far this above column has a lot of numbers and here are a few more: four, seven, forty-six. As in April 7th, 1946. Dad’s birthday. Yesterday was the 111th edition of Paris-Roubaix and Dad’s 67th birthday. My parents have always been stalwart supporters of my cycling career and while I’m not sure if the phrase has ever actually been uttered by Ted King the senior, I occasionally think “Papa didn’t raise a quitter”. Whereas two years ago when I got a flat in sector one, I soon rejoined the peloton thanks to an aggressive chase on my part and a conveniently timed nature break on the peloton’s part. This year after my flat, an infuriating hour long chase among a small group of riders with the peloton always painfully in sight, before realization that it was not to be.
From there, you’re presented with a Yogi Berra-like fork in the road. There are a pair of feedzones in the race lined with the luxurious comfort of supporting team cars, snacks, and a means to a piping hot shower awaiting you at the finish. Or you can keep going. Our groupetto’s population ebbed and flowed between ten and thirty guys as we picked up and lost riders. Some just entirely sapped of energy to continue (mind you, I did 310 watts for six and a half hours. That takes its toll to the tune of 7,300 calories), others suffer flats without team support behind just as I did last year. While others understandably just crave the comfort of the car. But Papa didn’t raise no quitter, so especially with Luke Rowe, Luke Durbridge, Jetse Bol, and Russ Downing we made it to the finish line.
So a very happy birthday Dad. And Paris-Roubaix, you’re an awesome beast and I love you.