The tension is electric. Helicopters chop overhead. Rivals yell at each other with fury. The directeurs sportifs warn their riders over the radio of the coming cobbled sections, counting down the kilometres, encouraging, then commanding their team to get to the front.
Everybody knows the peloton will be pressed from a mass of riders on a two-lane road into a single line. Position is everything. Even in the breakaway there is a surge to get to the front of the group before the forest. Not only is it safer at the front, but a rider can also dictate the pace and be a momentary star in front of a global television audience.
The Arenberg Forest is one of the toughest stretches of pavé on any race course. The cobbles are uneven, angular and sharp. For centuries wagons, tractors, cars and even tanks have weighed on the ancient road making the surface irregular with a high crest and low sides.
In the wet, the smooth rock surface of each stone, the grass, the moss, and the dirt that fills the gaps between them turns the road treacherous. When it is dry, the sharp stones cause punctures, which inevitably create bottlenecks and then – more often than not – crashes. The riders enter the forest after 163 km on the road and are just midway through the race. Many begin to feel fatigued, no longer able to hold the pace and likely to make errors.
The cobbles pound a cyclist’s body. After my first race on pavé I felt as if I had the flu. Blisters, bloodshot eyes and a post-race cough from the dust were all expected, but the mental effects were unknown to me until I was in the belly of a peloton charging through the bleak northern countryside.
If the Arenberg forest pummels the body; it excites and traumatises the mind. Like the raging bulls in Pamplona, the riders charge down the smooth two-lane tarmacked road through the town chasing the photographer’s and TV cameramen’s motorcycles, jump the railroad tracks just before the forest, and then funnel into the forest pavé.
They are rubbing shoulders, elbowing for position and fighting for every inch of road. Metres from the entrance to the forest there will be 20 riders neck-and-neck, riding at full speed. Only one can take the position at the front of the peloton while the rest will brake and are forced, one by one, into his slipstream.
The nervous energy from the run into the forest lasts for a minute or two. As the riders settle into their tempo they begin to feel the effort. The best float over the cobbles, while others begin to flounder under the strain.
Domestiques who have ridden at the front of the group, battling the wind with their leader tight in the slipstream, have made a draining effort. Soon after the peloton’s thunderous entrance into the forest they are no longer able to hold the pace as their leader charges ahead through the corridor of spectators. The domestique falters, losing his rhythm and creating splits in the peloton.
Most riders feel the strain of the effort, their bodies fighting to push out lactic acid as they ride above their anaerobic thresholds. As their legs tire they lose momentum; their bikes begin to snake across the road as they search for a lower gear ratio or a smoother line on the cobbles. To an already worn-out cyclist, the forest seems eternally long.
The strongest ride on the crest of the cobbles; their upper bodies stable, their hands loosely gripping the bars, their legs hammering the pedals while the bike appears to sail over the stones. Knowing the peloton is crumbling behind them, the leaders increase their tempo cautiously; they can eliminate rivals from the race but must also conserve energy for the significant distance to the finish. In Arenberg, the first slashing of the peloton occurs.
I first rode through the Arenberg forest when I was 12 years old. During a summer trip to Europe, with my father and a school friend, I thrashed up and down the stones riding on the crest of the road, just like the professionals. The warm sun pierced through the trees casting shadows on the pavé.
The images that played in my mind were of the professional riders that I had seen in magazine photos and on television; floating, bouncing, crashing, slipping and sliding over mud-slick stones. Elated to ride on a road as historic to cycling as the Champs-Élysées, I felt as though I was a part of something great. Yet, oddly, riding through the forest didn’t seem all that hard. The context was wrong.
The childhood experience that was rooted in cycling magazine images, video race coverage and cycling journalism was far from the reality. The riders’ suffering was clear but the impressions created didn’t encompass the tension, the fury, the panic, and the intensity. In the peloton I felt all of it, and more.
Three days before Paris Roubaix most teams ride the most challenging sections of the course, where the race is decided. They test equipment, different tyre pressures, and eye the cobbles to find the perfect line, which once in the race few will be able to follow due to the chaos. As a rider’s position 150 km from the line can determine the outcome, he envisions what is to come, making mental notes. A water tower, a red farm house, a copse of elm trees or a rail line can all mark key points in the race where sections of pavé start.
In training, the riders attempt to control the variables. Everything else, the thousands of unknown factors that decide the outcome, weigh on them. To some, the thoughts become fearful nightmares while to others they are dreams of opportunity.
In Paris-Roubaix, and especially on the toughest sections of pavé like the Arenberg Forest, there are too many unknown factors to control. No amount of riding, training or testing can truly prepare a racer for the stampede into and through the forest. They can only hope and pray.