Paris Roubaix Espoirs is a race that is often visualised in many riders’ dreams. With Sunday, May 7th playing host to the first under twenty-three edition in four years, the long hiatus made it all the more mystical. Paris Roubaix Espoirs would be my first and last opportunity to race the event within the u23 category, and to quote Alfie George (Vendée U) “never before has a race been everything I’d dreamed of whilst simultaneously being my worst nightmare.”
The professional event is the driest race on the world tour calendar, because there have been but two wet races in the last twenty years. Many fans flock to their weather apps in the week prior to the monument, overlooking the wind conditions and instead praying for a droplet of rain to show on the long range forecast. Despite the wettest spring in recent memory, the elite race was yet again a bone dry affair.
It was almost unsurprising then, that the under-twenty-three event would be run after a few days rain. Les pavés would become glossy with a sheen of reddened water making the cobblestones treacherous and tricky underfoot. Not even the thirty millimetre tyres that the majority of the peloton ran could cope with that lack of grip. No. Maybe we could ride the race on mountain bikes?
The saving grace for the weekend’s under-twenty-three version was that the rain would be accompanied by a temperature of eighteen to twenty degrees celsius throughout the duration of the course. Meaning the rain, although present, would not seep through to freeze your innermost core, allowing for more breathability over the maximum heart rate inducing pavés.
The Opening Hour
I was keen to get on the front row of the startline. Not least because my adrenalin was already pumping through my veins causing my pupils to widen in preparation for taking in sensory information from the road; but also for the appalling weather conditions already present. Thankfully it was warm, although there were doubts about if an extra surface layer like a jersey might be necessary. It was not.
After the natural chaos of the neutralisation, a surprising amount of control – for a U23 UCI race – was imposed for the opening thirty kilometres. Team DSM, Groupama-FDJ, Jumbo-Visma and Israel PremierTech would lead at the head of the peloton. This control allowed for a much calmer, and predictable washing machine within the group. Everyone knew their place, and the washing machine wasn’t as full as other races of the same category.
Coming into the first cobbled sector, the wide road was littered with road furniture. The group splitting and reforming seamlessly. In these moments where there are two minuscule washing machine effects, it is easy to find yourself shuffled back no matter the elbows you give out. I found myself out of position coming into the first cobble sector; although I did not panic and rode past the riders who slipped out and hit the deck before the cobbles even begun.
On the first two sectors, I would move up comfortably. I found a rhythm in identifying the gaps that I could weave through the chaos thanks to my wide eyes. I was able to identify the gaps within the group and pounce with some good power into the spaces that opened up. Feeling the cobbles under foot. I found myself feeling for the smoothest line without actively looking for where the craters within pavés were, and then trying to avoid them. This was the technique I had practised on the first of our reconnaissance rides.
Paris Roubaix, in my opinion, is all about preparation. It’s like an assignment at university. You study the road book, Google maps and Strava. Then you organise a reconnaissance to match the digital information to reality. We managed to experience the pavés of Paris Roubaix two times before the race. One recon was dry, a week before to the race. The other was wet and two days before the race. My goal for les reconnaissances was to ride the wheel in front, and follow closely. You hear so much about feeling the cobbles, seeing many professionals ride without gloves for this very reason.
Half past three in the morning I would wake up & take the Eurotunnel. Later I would arrive at Roubaix velodrome before driving to start of the ride. Aiming to complete the entire parcours, the ride would last five hours. Following the ride we would drive & arrive home arriving at ten o’clock in the evening. Oh the joys of Brexit. Forty-eight hours later I would be on a plane to the Carpathian Race in Eastern Europe. This provides me with evidence as to how strict a non-negotiable it was to participate in the reconnaissance of the Roubaix cobble sections due to the importance I – and the Top-3 roll call – put on this race.
I would be there without failure or complaint. I was excited to be riding over the rough pavés of L’Enfer Du Nord for the very first time in my life. And with that naivety I decided not to wear gloves. The tyres from Hutchinson, which were run at pressures traditionalists would scoff at, made the pavés surprisingly comfortable – and quick – to ride. I really enjoyed myself that day.
The second recon came on Friday, two days before the race. After a sneak peak at the Belgian summer to come, the weekend’s rain was already beginning to fall heavily over the roads of Paris Roubaix. Bingoal WB, like many other teams on Friday 5th May, would ride the final seventy kilometres of the race route, covering the last fifteen sectors of pavés before the velodrome.
It was tremendously useful to get a feeling for how the pavés interacted with our tyres when they were slick. I could mentally pair the gyroscopic feeling I got of the tyres slipping away to each sector we rode over. Therefore, I had confidence on Sunday that I would know how to approach the final fifteen sectors of the race. However it was the opening four sectors that were the most crucial. I believe that next time completing a recon of them in the wet would pay dividends. Although I won’t be forgetting them anytime soon.
I had found myself in a group of twenty riders about to split away from the trailing peloton behind. I was able to see the front of the race & more importantly the cobbles clearly ahead of me. The carnage that littered the first three cobble sectors split the race to shreds, with riders in ones and twos coming out of the Pavés Saint Pythons. From that point on, the composition of the front group rarely changed from kilometre fifty, until the half tour in the famous velodrome. Unfortunately my teammate, Michiel Lambrecht – pictured above – crashed and punctured out of the front group late into the race. A shame after such a positive ride throughout the entire race.
Pavés Saint Python, though, would be the site of my race-ending crash. Sitting in the twelfth wheel I was following the wheels and sensations of the road nicely. Always hugging the inside of any bend on the pavés. On just one occasion though – and I was forewarned about the risks of riding in the centre of the cobbles – there was a mound of mud and grass just overlapping the racing line to begin to take the inside of the camber.
Like many other riders, I missed the gap in the mud and had that “oh shit” moment where I knew I was going to hit the ground. The crash was the nightmare. I was riding just on the left hand side of the mud covered ridge, where my tyres then began to slip away to the left when I attempted to cross over the centre line of the pavés. I would land hard on the cobbles, with my right hip bearing the brunt of the blow. The second body part to hit the road was my head, shielded by my undamaged Spiuk helmet. After coming to a stop, I allowed myself a few moments to get my breathing in check to dissipate the pain.
Once the initial adrenaline spike had lowered, I went to move into an all fours position. At this point I knew something was wrong. I was unable to bear any weight through my right hip, and my head was still throbbing from the impact. I was wriggling to find a comfortable position where maybe I could get back on my feet. I tried, but once again I felt a pain shoot from my hip. I decided to lie there and wait it out until the peloton had filtered through the blockage I had caused.
Once the ambulance arrived I was speaking my best French, explaining what had happened and what might be wrong. At this point I began to get a weird vision in my right eye. I could see, but there was a filter effect much like you would get on an old satellite TV. A television that was struggling to receive the full picture with zigzagging lines running across the screen. I was terrified. To my relief, though, the vision had returned by the time I reached the hospital.
I found out that I fractured my greater trochanter in my right hip. They also cleared me of any in my brain after undergoing a full body CT scan. A few days later, once I managed to get repatriated, I would then get X-rays to determine the true damage those brutal cobbles inflicted upon my body. After five days in hospital I’ve arrived at home. Seventy-two hours in France, and forty-eight hours in England. It’s going to be a challenging road going forward, but I’m a determined individual with confidence in my support team.
I am very proud of how I approached this race, setting goals to remember as many details of each sector as possible. I was also prepared to take some risks for the level of race Paris Roubaix was, and that was aided by the feeling I was having over the cobbles. Personally, there was just an oversight in the knowledge and experience with riding those pavés. The fact dozens of other riders fell at the same location, suggests to me there was a bit of luck involved, however much I don’t believe in that.
As the quote said at the start, Paris Roubaix was everything I dreamed of despite being the clear nightmare I found myself in. It is hard to feel sad or annoyed with what happened as, put simply, that is wet Roubaix for you. Dangerous, chaotic and so much fun. I loved every second of it, and I sincerely hope I can return to this race in a professional context.