Was riding the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix really a good idea?

I don't do cobbles ... until I did do cobbles. It was a wonderful but probably one-time-only experience.

Don’t miss out on the latest CyclingTips updates.

Jump To Comments

This article was written quite a bit later than I had originally planned because my elbow suddenly stopped working. I couldn’t even lift a cup of tea, or work on the computer for that matter. How come, you ask? Well, I, at 43 years of age, on the heavy side, and not in great physical shape, decided that riding some of Paris-Roubaix would be a good idea. Was it? Maybe. Did my body enjoy it? Not in the least. 

“That’s normal,” says my Eurosport colleague and 2004 Paris-Roubaix winner Magnus Bäckstedt when I complain about the side-effects a week after my ride. “I always had tendinitis after racing Roubaix. Many riders needed to go to the physio or osteopath afterwards.” 

That’s the sort of information I would have been interested in before my ride. But no, before I started this rather idiotic venture, Magnus told me many times how fun it was, that I should really try it, and that it would create insights that could really benefit my commentary work and enhance my – already rather huge amount of – respect for the riders. 

My Roubaix-winning colleague taking glory in 2004.

Until recently I didn’t really care about Classics. Grand Tours were my thing, and riders like Miguel Indurain, Lance Armstrong (yes), Alejandro Valverde (still), and Alberto Contador were my heroes as a new fan of the sport in the ’90s and ’00s. Classics? Nah, stupid. I never even saw that race Magnus won. 

That changed when Niki Terpstra won Paris-Roubaix in 2014 and I got to be in Roubaix the year after. Now Paris-Roubaix is the highlight of my cycling year. But attempting cobbles myself? “I don’t do cobbles,” is what I often told Magnus when we worked together on Eurosport x GCN. “I am a smooth surface kind of girl.” 

So why did that change? Honestly, I don’t know. The idea of riding uneven surfaces still fills me with fear. I am not the world’s most amazing bike handler, I’m quite often fearful of things that might happen, especially crashing because it would mean the end of my cycling. And with my cornering skills it’s frankly just better for the safety of other people that I ride on my own.

But one day that smell of spring was in the air and I had just ridden a wonderful mountain and felt overly confident. I decided I would do cobbles. ‘Face the fear’, is my motto.

Chris is an American who lives in the Netherlands. He built my bike, became a friend, and he also knows every cobbled road in that desolate part of northern France. He is a bit crazy about Roubaix and can’t stop talking about how awesome riding on cobbles is. So, we decided he would be my guide. 

Huge tires incoming. It’s not my favorite look but it’s functional.

We met just outside Orchies, across the road from the cobbled sector with the same name. It was warm for March and my first time in shorts this year. Chris brought some wheels for me that basically made it impossible to crash, he said. My own Trek Domane fits 38 mm tires and that’s what Chris set me up with. Mounted on the Zipp 353s he brought along were tubeless 38 mm Panaracer Gravel King slick tires. I weigh 102 kilograms so two bars (about 30 psi) would be both comfortable and relatively fast. 

I normally ride on 30 mm tires so the 38 mm made turning corners a bit awkward but I quickly got used to it. I was nervous about the challenge ahead. We would do a 60 km ride including a few sectors that are part of the actual race. 

I had asked for some advice from my Roubaix-winning colleague and the most important piece I got was to stay upright, hold your handlebars, and stay in the middle. There was no advice on how to be less scared but maybe I shouldn’t have asked for that from someone who’s actually won Paris-Roubaix. 

We inched closer to the first sector. Straight ahead was the worst part of road I have ever witnessed but thankfully we went left and not straight ahead. I was relieved I had dodged that bullet. Chris had found a beginner’s sector for me to try: reasonably good cobbles and no turns. I must also add that there was no sign of any precipitation whatsoever, so I had it easy. Apparently. 

Extremely happy brave face after 300 metres of cobbles without crashing.

Bousignies à Millionfosse is 1.4 km long and not part of Paris-Roubaix, although it is included in this year’s Tour de France. I breathed in and hit the cobbles. Despite my aim to not cramp up, I cramped up big time. This is a good place to mention that I once broke a rib keeling over in some sand next to a bike path while riding at 9 km/h. I am not a good bike handler. 

I remembered Magnus’s advice: to place my hands on the top of the bars and not on the hoods. This way I would have more control, but my only instinct was to hit the brakes when I went faster than walking pace. Chris had a cobbles-free escape route ready but I had already told Twitter and everyone around me I was doing it so I couldn’t go back. I breathed in, took a picture with a brave face, and told myself I wanted to overcome fears and went on with it.

Gradually the pace went up and I felt secure enough to leave the hoods and place my hands loosely on the bars. I tried to relax my shoulders and pedal fast. It’s a myth you need to ride cobbles in the biggest gear available, I was told by my Roubaix-winning colleague, so I spun at around 85 rpm. We made it to the end of the sector and I felt relieved. 

Looking extremely pro given the circumstances.

The Forêt d’Arenberg was not far so we decided to ride there for a photo opportunity. With only 1.4 kilometres of cobbles under my belt, doing that infamous five-star sector in Wallers was a bit over-ambitious so we moved on to another iconic place on the course: the Pont Gibus. I smiled through the famous corner and went on. 

The sector from Hornaing to Wandignies is the first one in the women’s race. It’s where I watched Lizzie Deignan ride away to what would be the start of an amazing achievement last year. Today it’s quiet. I see the two towers in the distance and give myself a proverbial pat on the shoulders for being the cobbles master I clearly am. This is easy. I am super talented apparently. What was I worrying about? 

The true pro rider.

After a few hundred metres of easy cobbles there is tiny bit of asphalt to enjoy at the train crossing and then the fun begins. I looked at my bike computer the exact moment Magnus sent me a message saying to just ride faster because that makes it easier. And so faster I went.

This sector is the longest in the race at 3.7 km. Halfway in I desperately wanted to go faster because that would mean it would be over sooner. I was now at the point where things were starting to hurt. 

I tried to remember to stay relaxed, hands loosely on the bars, spin easily, look ahead of me, and not straight onto my front wheel. The truth is that I didn’t see a lot because of the violent shaking of my head. This is one of those things I never realized. You just don’t see a lot. I think of that very first women’s Roubaix and the mayhem it must have been in the peloton.

I remember Alison Jackson telling me it was utter chaos when everyone hit this sector all at once. The race before had been too short to make the peloton smaller, plus the fans stood close by, on that little sector of grass between the ditch and the cobbles. I was riding all alone in the silence and just couldn’t imagine what that moment must have been like.

Alison Jackson on the Roubaix velodrome in last year’s inaugural women’s Paris-Roubaix.

After this sector I didn’t feel my hands anymore which, according to Magnus, is completely normal. It took about five minutes before I could feel my fingers again which is a scary sensation. I did, however, feel strangely pro after this experience. 

We did another three-star sector from Warlaing to Brillon and then the second four-star sector for good measure. This was not the original route Chris designed but apparently my display of talent on cobbles reassured him so much that he added more to the menu. To my horror we arrived at the exact sector I described at the start of the day, the one I wanted to avoid at all costs. 

On this 2.4 km stretch of disaster from Tilloy to Sars et Rosières there are deep holes, grass, moss, dogs, and tractors to maneuver around. There is not one smooth line to be found. There are also a handful of turns. 

Going straight ahead on Roubaix cobbles is OK, turning corners is not. “In corners your wheels are actually not attached to the ground for more than half of the time,” Magnus explained reassuringly. Brakes it is, and one foot out of the cleats. I am aware this is not a pro look, but needs must.

On the last sector, named after winner and enthusiastic sports manager Marc Madiot, we moved full gas ahead and recorded the rather amazing clip above. I am happy with how in-control I look riding here. My husband kindly commented that I am more built for this work rather than climbing mountains. Djeez, thanks, I guess.

That little video makes me smile every time I see it. I overcame the fear I had earlier in the day. I did something I thought I couldn’t do, and that is what energizes me.

Fast forward to one day later. My shoulders hurt, my core muscles hurt (friendly reminder to you all: train those muscles), my legs hurt, and my neck hurt. For two weeks straight I suffered so-called tennis elbow from the ordeal. The only thing that didn’t hurt was my behind. 

Riding the cobbles is so much harder than you can ever imagine. I felt more exhausted after these 60 km than riding 100 km and 1,600 meters of elevation around the Mont Ventoux. The time gaps in Paris-Roubaix are comparable to a big mountain stage, Magnus pointed out. That now makes a lot more sense to me.

Disclaimer: I didn’t win this cobble after my adventure. Servais Knaven let me borrow his for a selfie.

Riding on cobbles has been a fantastic experience that taught me how utterly amazing the women (and men) of the pro peloton are. My respect for them has grown even bigger and I think every journalist and commentator should try it at least once. It also gave me more confidence in riding my bike on smooth surfaces.

The biggest takeaway was the huge sense of pride I had in myself for doing something miles outside my comfort zone.

Do I want to it again? Probably not. I am just more of a smooth surface kind of girl.

Editors' Picks