Open Dev Team | Will Johnson's Road to Roubaix

Where does my road to Roubaix start? You could say it was when the surgeon was very clear on what I should or shouldn’t do following my final knee operation, but I think that would be too arty. No story about Roubaix should be allowed to be too arty, the Cycling Gods would not be pleased. So my road to Roubaix starts with a phone call from my brother, he said we should give it a go while we could still “do it properly”, I said “go on then”.

As with any mildly obsessive sport, half the fun of cycling is the debate over bikes, wheels, tyres, cassettes etc , in fact anything that makes your bike quicker or cooler. The only difference for riders “of a certain weight” is the preoccupation with finding something that isn’t going to smash the first time you get out of the saddle. Being a basically flat course I didn’t have to worry about gearing, my only concern was finding some wheels that would match the strength of my Specialized Roubaix bike. You would have thought a simple shopping list of wide strong alloy rims to accommodate wide Roubaix tyres, strong quick hubs and a reasonable price tag would have thrown up hundreds of options. It didn’t.

This is how I found Hunt, all the boxes seemed to be ticked and then I saw the evil looking cobble testing machine video, sold! Now, maybe I’m not really the right person to be giving a review of my Hunt 4Season Dura Road’s, my well padded behind may not be as sensitive as others, and when I see a review that reads  a “wheel struggles to get up to speed” , I tend to think that they should peddle harder! So when I got my Hunts and paired up them up with thoroughly researched 28mm Vredestein Xtreme Weather’s I rode out to see what was what. My first thought was that my ride was really smooth, really really smooth, but the decrease in vibration made it feel like I was going slower. Once that thought is in your head it is hard to get out. I rode them out with my midweek cycling group and I seemed to going at the same speed, but still wasn’t convinced. So I thought I’d try them in the Paris-Nice sportive, still with my 28’s on, after doing 36km in the first hour while climbing into the mountains I was a believer, this would be my Roubaix set up.

So, to Roubaix. All the chat was over, and my extensive testing (riding along a potholed road as quickly as I could) had shown me that 90psi was the optimum tyre pressure. As with most sportives I’ve done most of your time is dominated with logistics and Paris-Roubaix is no different. We had to be at the bus park in Roubaix by 5am, a 30 minute cycle away, this meant leaving at x, getting up at y and leaving very little time for zzz’s! Anyway after the 90 minute bus ride we arrived in the surprisingly frosty town of Busigny. There was no mass start, so soon as our little group was ready we headed off into the unknown, 170km of riding including all the 53km of cobbles that the pros do.

Now, in the last couple of weeks I’ve had a few rides where my heart rate has gone crazy, shooting up over 200 leaving me without power as my heart goes at double speed but fails to pump blood as effectively. I had it checked out in the week before Roubaix and was told it wasn’t life threatening, which is nice. I only mention this because I read that the best way to avoid my heart racing was to warm up properly and don’t go “Full Gas”. So obviously sleeping on a bus for an hour and a half, having a wee and then racing off isn’t the best plan! Even though I was just ‘cruising’ at the start, my heart rate shot to 180 after a few minutes, and my Garmin heart alarm was going off continually. The first Pavé came up fairly quickly, and I rattled over it in my group without any fuss. Quick check, bottles still in their cages, nothing snapped, no pain, all the research had paid off, and I was mildy smug.

In my sportive experience after the first hour or so you tend to get into a group of similar riders who you stay with, and ultimately try to beat in your own little race. Roubaix didn’t really work like that for me, I think due to the staggered start and different course lengths, riders of different speeds were all over the course and due to the nature of the cobbles followed by fast flat road in between I found myself constantly overtaking and being overtaken. Everyone in a sportive has their own story and their own personal dramas to overcome quietly in their own head. My defining moment came in the third section of pavé, it was a bit rougher and slightly uphill. My brother drifted past me, I looked down at my heart rate, it said 200, I had to back off and watch him sail over the hill knowing I wouldn’t see him again, gutted. For the next couple of hours I soft pedalled and thought of a number of things as my heart rate stubbornly stayed at 160-180, firstly I’d never hear the last of it from my brother, secondly I’d have to come back and do this all again, thirdly the cobbles were getting rougher, and the slower I went the harder they became. Not a pleasant position to be in knowing that I had hours of hard riding left. I persevered and continued my crash course (pun intended) in riding cobbles.

You soon get to realise that more noise means you are going slower, and some of the bangs, clunks and crashes coming from my bike were outlandish. Never has a gravel patch or muddy ditch looked so inviting, and been so welcomed, surfaces that you’d normally avoid like the plague became havens of tranquillity. The transformation from stuttering rattling cobbles to smooth mud and gravel is amazing, and the satisfaction in riding along a 2cm strip of smooth mud in the gutter (just like the pros!) as you effortlessly cruise past someone bouncing themselves to death, is divine.

All this being said, I knew that the legendary Trouée d’Arenberg was coming up at 75k, which according to all and sundry was absolutely ridiculous. Such a shame I couldn’t give it a good go. Then, at 70k I looked down and my heart rate was 125, right where it should be for the effort I was putting in, result, I was back in the game! Next thing I knew there is a level crossing ahead – Arenberg – I’ve seen it on telly, best hit it at speed and see what happens. ‘Holy Sh*t’ the bike is bouncing all over the place over the first flat section, but it’s great! As it descends into the trench all I can remember is feeling like I was flying into a dungeon, the trees seem to close overhead, the cobbles were black with moisture, covered with green slimy moss, and the spaces in between them look as big as the cobbles themselves. As I carry my speed downhill I have to pass people who have crashed or just stopped dead from hitting the cobbles, this means I have to go even more off piste. Oh my God, the green slime sends the back wheel slipping and sliding, the front wheel is crashing into enormous holes left right and centre, riders are all over the place, sprawled in the gutter, walking up the grass verge, I pass one of our group who looks like he is doing a track stand after his wheel jolts him to a near standstill, but I’m upright and nearing the end. Mega!

As I pass onto the tarmac, I look down to inspect the damage, there is no way I’ve come through that cleanly. My tyres are still inflated, my wheels look true, no horrible noises, I’ve got both my bottles and all is well in the world - incredible. As I tootle off up the road I am greeted by the site of the less fortunate, a handful of guys fixing punctures, others looking over destroyed bikes, some struggling on with missing spokes and buckled wheels, in comparison I’m sitting pretty.

Then the unbelievable, the unthinkable happens, 5 metres in front of me I see my brother. Unthinkable in that you can spot my brother from a fair way away, so I can’t believe I haven’t seen him before, unbelievable that I’ve caught him. Absolute joy, the transformation from my depression 20 minutes before is complete. He’s had the polar opposite Arenberg to me, jolted to a halt by the cobbles, he’s not happy, and there’s a good 60km to go.

This is the start of a golden period for me, where I can start putting a bit of pressure on the pedals during the cobbled sections and keep a decent pace on the flat while recovering, sharing the work with my brother. It didn’t last long though, I blame my early heart issue, and after nearly an hour I started to run out of energy. Now, obviously, as any cyclist or indeed younger brother knows, I couldn’t let on that I was struggling, so I had to keep leading through the cobbles and then let him take more and more of the wind on the flat. As my fatigue increased the cobbles got more and more tiring, the slower speed made it feel like my wheels dived into every hole and jolted to a stop, rather than bouncing over the top. Each return to the tarmac felt like a blessed relief and each new section of pavé was greeted with a grim lowering of the head. It was with around 8-9 sections still to go that I took to shouting ‘F@^* Off’ at the end of every cobbled section, I think that tells you a lot about my physical and mental state!

Slowly, painfully slowly, the sections ticked down towards zero and the sprint for the line. I’d basically been towed along for the last 40km, could I just nip out in the last 100 metres and take the win? Damn right I could, actually make it 50 metres so he hasn’t got time to react! As we made the famous right turn into the velodrome we came round a massive group of mountain bikers doing the 70k race, they were 3 or 4 wide around the track, nothing else for it I had to go up the banking. This being my first time on a banked velodrome my only thought as I rode high over the white advertising banners was ‘please don’t slide down the track and ruin everything’. Thankfully I didn’t.

It wasn’t the perfect ending, picking my way through mountain bikers, but it meant that I had won and didn’t have to apologise for a late judas attack after being carried home for the last hour. All said and done I was pretty happy with getting round in one piece, and in a decent time, and ecstatic to have come right in time for Arenberg.

As I dismantled my bike the next day I had a good look for any signs of damage beneath the genuine Roubaix mud. The frame looked thankfully intact, and unbelievably my wheels weren’t a hair out of true, chapeau to the Hunt team, a feat I wouldn’t have thought possible knowing what had occurred the day before. The same couldn’t be said for my European posterior man-satchel, the attachment to the seat post had been ripped off. Point taken Cycling Gods.

I don’t want to finish on a philosophical thought, but now the pain and suffering is over, and the stories have been told, there is a strange urge to go back and do it all again. Properly this time!



Comments on this post (4 comments)

  • Will Johnson says...

    Hi Chris, thanks. Very interesting with the heart “issue”, when I started looking into it I found at that it is reasonably common, and can take many forms. Robert Gesink competed for many years with it before having an operation in 2014, and the bike guru Lennard Zinn had a slightly more serious version that has stopped him racing. Have a Google, there are some very good articles out there by cyclists. Two things that come out of all of them are to be well hydrated and warm-up slowly!
    I would go and see your doctor to get a few tests done, it’s very reassuring to know that you aren’t in danger, and you aren’t doing further damage by riding.
    I’m due in to have the same ablation operation that Gesink had, the surgeon said I should be back to normal afterwards. Here’s hoping.

    On April 29, 2016

  • Will Johnson says...

    Thanks Scott, I think I had the perfect combo with my Specialized Roubaix, Hunt Wheels and Vredestein 28’s. Strong bike and wheels with a bit of space left round the tyres. Don’t go crazy on the dieting, think of all that downhill speed you’ll lose!

    On April 29, 2016

  • Scott Parker says...

    Well done, for the ride and excellent write up.
    I’m heavier than the average cyclist and chose Dura Road wheels for when I ride this in the every two year Sportive in June. My only concern is the slight rub that occurs between my 28 Tubeless Hutchinsons and the frame when I go over a very large bump, of which there will be many, by the sound of it! Crash dieting required methinks.
    Very happy to read that the wheels held up though, Kudos to Hunt there.

    On April 15, 2016

  • Chris Pressdee says...

    brilliant account and a very enjoyable read. I am interested about your heart rate issues as I have also recently had a HR up past Z5 when I am just starting which I am curious about.

    Cheers

    On April 15, 2016

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