A Journey Through Hell

the Arenberg Cobbles

I have an affection for coffee table books. They're emblematic of passion, and at the same time of success.

Why success? I don't own too many coffee table books despite my adoration because I have no place for them. A place for them means you've earned enough for a home with a coffee table that has room for casual books with inordinate costs.

Why passion? Coffee table books are curated books of photos, art, writing and quotes. You chose them based on your interests. The coffee table books I own and that have caught my eye reflect my passions; mountains, cycling, food, photography. What better than a large format book full of pictures and stirring dialogue to your favorite things?

The one coffee table book I own is called Paris-Roubaix: A Journey Through Hell. Its big, full of incredible pictures and about cycling. The gritty, brutal, teeth-gritting, dirty core of cycling that is.

I'll be honest, us cyclists are always weird, and people think we're always crazy. So much exercise, in bizarre clothing on tiny seats is not quite the norm in this world. Paris-Roubaix is the next step.

First run in 1896, Paris Roubaix is the gnarliest bike race there is. As a memory to the struggle of past riders, a good deal of the races bypasses modern roads to ride of some of the most extreme cobblestones to grace the north of France. We're talking uneven, slick, dusty (or muddy when there is rain), and full of ditches. An infamous cycling doctor who may or may not have been a major factor in the doping problem likened riding the cobbles to using a jackhammer while riding the bike. Racers finish the race in tears, covered in dirt and beyond pain.

What do we do? We sign up to ride the course obviously, and see the pros the next day. Its a passion that overshadows rationality and comfort. My buddy Bjorn put it well, we were doing Paris Roubaix to suffer, not to have fun.

Riding the Carrefour de l'arbe

With that three English, an Australian, a Norwegian and myself the American piled into a van with nearly as many bikes and headed due north. After picking up our numbers we went straight to the Carrefour de l'arbe, one of the toughest sections of cobbles, to give ourselves a taste before the next days exploits. Jeans, sneakers and road bikes. Maybe it was the adrenaline, but we didn't feel that bad. Our to be conquest of the northern roads were nothing compared those of the pros, but it didn't make a difference. We were on a pilgrimage and our excitement stood out among the bleak, flat landscape of the northern countryside.

Sam, one of the Brits, and myself had heeded not to Bjorn's advice and signed up for the 70km ride, while the other three rode 170km. Why put ourselves into a state of death when an important part of being a fan is enjoyment? Our decision gifted us four extra hours of sleep, and at the reasonable hour of 9 am we rolled out of the hotel to the start at the Roubaix, also our to be finish.

After a winter without much time on the bike, I felt as if in a dream. We were going fast, and the breathlessness, slightly tired legs and soaring feeling came with a joyous familiarity. I'm definitely far from my prime and riding fast was wearing down on me, but all was great until the first cobbles.

After shoveling down a few waffles, we took off down the first section, more of a pathway with a few jumbled stones than a road. All the terror I had read couldn't have prepared me for what followed. My bike is stiff and for racing, and I felt every bump, essentially a few very violent vibrations every second. In about 50m my hands and fingers hurt so bad I could barely hold the handlebars. The shock went through my feet, hands, butt and back equally, all painful. Why keep going? It is a rite of apssage

At the Carrefour de l'arbe

After 10 sections of the cobbles (pavé in French) we came towards the end. As remarkable as the near death experience of the cobblestones is the relief of the pavement. If cycling is about passion and enjoyment, every time getting off the cobbles is like a first great ride, nothing seems to have ever felt smoother.

The pro race ends in the old velodrome, so we got to recreate that and spring a lap around to finish the race. I'd never ridden on a track and its scary when you realize you're on a 40 degree banked slope. But its okay because it harkens back to all the champions and heroes who have finished here in the past, and for a moment, feel amongst the same rank. Cycling is an accessible sport in that respect.

The rest of the day was for libations and celebration, and in good form as nearby Belgium creeps into northern France not so subtly. The hard part of the trip behind us, we enjoyed the food and the land and congratulated ourselves for our immense efforts.

St. Christopher's at Tourcoing

A note about the North. It gets a bad rep because its cold and has an industrial history. Its tough when it has to be compared to Paris, the beaches, the Alps, the lavender of Provence of wine country but it doesn't deserve such disdain. The towns are full of quaint brick architecture and some magnificent churches. We went to St. Christopher's in Tourcoing right as the sun was setting and the effect through the stained glass was the most magnificent we'd ever seen.

In addition, we had a warm welcome. Over and over again we heard from locals that it was such a pleasure to have guests like us in their region, they were proud they were making an effort and had open minds, that we were their to live history. There was a theme in the admiration of those who continue to do things even if they are hard (such as Paris Roubaix).

The next day, while those who did the 170km ride recovered, Sam and I took the surprisingly clean metro into the metropolitan center of the region Lille to go see the Modern Art Museum there. It was an unbelievably pleasant surprise, not only was the sun out but the museum was on the edge of a huge park with a forest and river. The Museum was fantantastic, in a modern building that blended with the landscape and had a great collection of Modigliani, Leger and Cubism, as well as a huge amount of Art Brut (Outsider Art). Put simply, Art Brut is art by often self-taught artists who worked outside of groups, and outside of conventional themes and materials.

Lille Musee d'art Moderne

The museum was accentuated by a sculpture garden with a Calder, Picasso Deacon and more. Museum space is as important as the art itself, and in Paris it is easy to forget how a museum can work with a landscape to improve the experience. The LAM was a stunning reminder. A much-needed walk through the forest started to fulfill my need for nature before we set off for the most famous cobbled section to watch the pro race - the Forest of Arenberg.

Forest in Lille

The most brutal cobbles here are made worse by a straight road, you can see the seemingly endless road straight to hell, made longer by the trees on either end. The air was electric, the fans so excited. The riders finally came by and it was unbelievable to see how fast they went. Looking closely, it was possible to see their muscles bouncing around, and you could hear parts of the bikes shaking around. Its a land where bikes and bones snap alike, luckily there was no carnage from where I stood.

Racing the Arenberg Forest
Racing the Arenberg Forest

Driving home to Paris we stopped to watch the end of the race, the favorite Cancellara taking the cake. It was a fulfilling end to a fantastic weekend. Sun, modern art, cycling, a professional race, beer, waffles and good food all in one? Sounds like the life.

Coming back into the chaos of Paris cemented my longing for once more a life of travel and adventure. I hadn't left Paris for six weeks and couldn't have done it in a better way. I'm ready to explore more, leave the big city for good, get back on my bike and most of all, be warm! Keep on adventuring.