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Roger Hammond on Roubaix
My oldest memory of cycling is sitting at the kitchen table having watched the 1980 Paris-Roubaix and letting my parents know, with the authority only a six year-old can have, that one day I would win Paris-Roubaix. I’m not sure what captured my imagination back then but since that day, everything I have done in cycling has been with the ulterior motive to win this particular race.
My first professional team didn’t receive an invite to the race and so, for four years, I toiled away riding as many cobbled races as possible in the hope that one day I’d get my chance. Eventually, in 2003, when I was riding for Palmans-Collstrop, the team was invited to ride. We were only given two weeks notice, allowing us no time to arrange alternative bikes so I rode a completely standard bike, except for the tubulars I sourced personally. I knew from all my years riding through the mud in cross races that tyre choice and, more importantly, tyre pressure, were crucial to performance in a cobbled race.
Unfortunately, I had to race in other races on the preceding Wednesday and Friday, so there wasn’t even time to have a preview of the most terrifying sectors. Ironically, I arrived on the start line for a race I’d been dreaming of for decades totally under prepared as far as I was concerned. Fortunately, it was a beautiful day. I’ll never forget the atmosphere; it seemed that, for the entire 260km, there were people screaming just centimetres away from me.
For me, the moment that will always stand out was our entry into the forest of Arenberg. Ten kilometres before the cobbles, the group started to accelerate. The jostling for position was quite sedate to start with but as we approached the old iron bridge signifying the entrance to the forest, it felt more like the final meters of a bunch sprint. I’ve no idea how fast we were going when we hit the cobbles, all I know is that I was sprinting as fast as I could using 53/11 in a last desperate attempt to make the front of the group.
Having never seen the cobbles made it more exciting to say the least. I hadn’t realised there was a railway line just before the cobbles began and I hit it so fast I took off and flew over the first few meters of cobbles. It seemed like I was airborne for ages, long enough for it to cross my mind that if I crashed now it was going to hurt! But there’s no room in Roubaix to be frightened so I just braced for landing. I knew the cobbles were going to be bad but I never imagined they would be as bad as they were. I cannot, for the life of me, understand how anyone could refer to that sector as a ‘road’.
The stones were huge and the gaps between them just as big. At one point there were no cobbles at all, just a gaping hole in the road. Only in Arenberg could that pass as being ‘part of it’. I couldn’t tell you anything about the surroundings, it took all my concentration to pick my way through the cycling equivalent of a minefield. Every cobble seemed to be lying in wait to smash your wheel, your bike, or burst your tyre if you hit it incorrectly. If riding on the cobbles is a unique experience, exiting is equally amazing. From the bone-jarring chaos that has consumed the last five minutes of your life, all of a sudden you emerge on to an asphalt road, non-descript and probably a very poor surface; after the forest it feels like a carpet made of the softest velvet and the silence is deafening.
In 2003, I went on to finish an exhilarated but exhausted 15th – and I had the time of my life. In the race the following year, so many things happened I could write an entire book about that one day. Breaking away with the likes of Museeuw, Van Petegem, Cancellara, I don’t think I will ever have the same feeling as riding for my life over the Carrefour de L’Arbre, making the front group of five riders that entered the Roubaix Velodrome going for the win. I made a mess of the sprint but I took consolation from the fact I was able to stand on the podium in my dream race.
Over the years, I’ve obviously learned more and more about the race but many things remain the same. If I was to offer tips, I’d say that tyres and tyre pressures are the most important factors. Buy the largest tyres that fit your bike, even if that means sacrificing clearance. Try riding on some cobbles and play with pressures; typically, a 70-kilogramme rider using 27mm tyres will use about 5.5 bar of pressure. Also, and I know it sounds like a cliché, but try to relax. The more you tense up on the cobbles the more fatiguing they become, something that’s even more exaggerated in wet conditions.
If possible, sit with your hands on the top of the bars. This will move your weight further back on the bike, enabling the bike to go where it wants to go (it offers the added benefit that the brakes are too far away to grab in a panic!). Don’t fight the bike as this is how you slip and lose control. If the trajectory really is wrong, then freewheel but don’t brake. If you need to change direction, try and do it as slowly as possible, even if it means almost stopping.
And don’t forget, the race isn’t just about the cobbles. As the route is predominantly in one direction, the wind can play a huge role in the outcome of the race. If there’s a headwind, you can save a lot more energy hiding in the bunch than you can by being good on the cobbles. Sometimes it’s easier to ride next to the cobbles than over them, especially in good weather. Be careful of that hole, though!