You can tell how seriously a rider may be taking Paris-Roubaix this weekend by the enthusiasm with which they hit the cobbles in their team’s recce of the pavé
sectors in the days leading up to the race.
Take Alex Dowsett, teeth gritted, powering through the Arenberg Forest 50 yards ahead of any other of his Movistar team mates this morning. Not a good time to chase him for his latest Cycling Weekly column we decided.
We watched Classics crazed Omega Pharma-Quickstep enter the forest with similar zeal – presumably instilled with fear that team boss Patrick Lefevere would call them big girl’s blouses again if they didn’t.
Normally, at any other time of the year, the forest is a leafy retreat on the otherwise windswept, mining scarred plains of Northern France. The proprietor of our delightfully eccentric hotel in Valenciennes told us this morning how he likes to walk his excitable black Labrador here.
But as Paris-Roubaix weekend approaches, the nearby car parks start to fill with campervans and cycling fans linger on the cobbled track that cuts a straight line through the forest from near an old pithead at Wallers to an unremarkable corner on the D40 near Grand Bray.
The famous track through the forest is not open to cars – even team vehicles on race day. Although they’ll move it on Sunday, there’s a wooden barricade protecting the entrance that teams on their recces have to slow down to negotiate. From there, the pavé plummets down into a dip before dragging up to the exit of the sector 2.4km later.
Although the section comes relatively early in the running of Paris-Roubaix, it is probably the race’s most famous pavé sector. Partly, this is because it’s distinguishable from all the others: crowned by a high industrial era bridge and flanked on both sides by depths of oak and silver birch, rather than the vast expanses of open fields that epitomise most of the race route.
More than that, Arenberg is notorious. The first time I visited it was race day 2001 when I saw Cofidis rider Philippe Gaumont fall off on its wet stones and break his leg. A few years earlier, Johan Museeuw smashed his knee on the cobbles and almost lost his foot to a subsequent bout of gangrene.
As I remember them from that wet day 12 years ago, the cobbles here were riddled with potholes and were set with all the uniformity of Shane MacGowan’s teeth. Somewhere towards the back end, there was a trench across the road that the smaller Spanish riders were in danger of getting lost in. I was in a beer tent before the race came through when it suddenly started pouring. The largely Flemish crowd in there cheered like their football team had just scored a goal.
Over the intervening years, the cobbles have been restored and the potholes patched but the sadistic delight in sending riders down there remains.
As my colleagues and I wandered the length of the section this morning we were passed by a man with a mini-tractor and a plough churning up the left hand verge. This prevents riders seeking the dirt to find a smoother line.
To the right, the verge is cinder, and the lesser motivated of Dowsett’s team mates and members of other squads could be seen freewheeling along this section. Chatting and taking pictures of each other on their phones, they were safe in the knowledge that they were momentarily out of the of the watchful eye of their manager, making the lengthy detour round the edge of the forest in his car.
Come race day, this ‘chicken run’ will also be closed off and the gaze of the world will be firmly focussed on the cobbles.