Every April, the world's hardest and fastest descend upon France for the hardest and fastest of the one day classics: Paris-Roubaix. Referred to in cycling circles as the 'Hell of the North', due to the extreme cobbled sections, or pavé, littering the route, Paris-Roubaix is considered as the most prestigious, and brutal, of the 5 Monuments, themselves the most prestigious and brutal of all the one day races.
To celebrate what is most peoples favourite one day road race, every year, for the past 8, Rapha has organised a ride they call the 'Rapha Hell of the North', a 90-100km blast across north London mixing traditional road sections with over 30 sections of off-road, endearingly referred to as gravé, a dream for a mountain biker turned roadie like me and it turned out to be the best ride I've had in a very, very long time.
The first big ride of Spring gave me a great opportunity to give Maggie (yes all my bikes are girls) a much needed tune up. I'm not the best when it comes to bike maintenance and I've definitely neglected Maggie in the past, so now was time to make up for it with a strip to the frame clean, some shiny new parts and an experiment with lubricating my chain with paraffin wax.
300 riders gathered in glorious morning sunshine with all sorts of two wheeled machinery from vintage Italian steel stallions and ultra high tech Germany carbon speed machines to cyclo cross whippets and fat tyred mountain bikes. There was an overwhelming sense of excitement as people organised themselves into groups and set off at gaps of 2 minutes.
The first few kilometers were a fairly chilled as we negotiated our way out of the bust streets, but as soon as we hit the first section of off-road, things got a lot faster and my mountain biking background came in very handy as I negotiated a road bike on 28mm slick tyres down rooted, rutted tracks that it definitely wasn't designed for. Once out of the first couple of gravé sections I put the hammer down and really pushed on, overtaking riders who started in the groups before me. The road sections were a chance to nail out some rhythm at pace between the main event off road sections, which due to the great weather London has had lately, were dry, dusty and super fast. Thanks must go to Dom for a fantastic course, the highlight for me being a super fast section which had me pumping through the whoops and tempted to launch the bike into the air between the gaps.
Reaching the much needed food stop at about 45km, a quick water refill, mandatory Instagram update and an energy bar and I was off again for the 2nd half with my legs starting to cramp and a giant smile on my face. The offroad downhill sections allowed me to push on and ride near the very front, tho I was eventually caught by the lightweight, leg shaved racers who breezed past me like I'd left the handbrake on.
With only 15km to the finish and a cold, refreshing Belgian beer, the second food stop was dispensed with even quicker than the first. The final 10km, hanging on, out of food and out of energy was shared with a fellow rider in equal amounts of strife. We reached the pub that was an extremely welcome sight among the first 20 to finish and shared a handshake and beer together and sat down to watch the original 'Hell of the North'.
Thank you to everyone involved in organising a fantastic event, to all the riders who I chatted with along the way and thank you to the car drivers who were patient and polite the whole day, despite 300 riders spread out across the streets.
Can't wait for next year.