Rathe Report: Paris-Roubaix & the worst cobbles ever

Jun 14, 2010 by

Portland’s Jacob Rathe rides for the Jelly Belly Cycling Team and the USA Cycling U23 National Team. He recently competed with the national squad in the U23 Paris-Roubaix race, won by Trek/Livestrong’s Taylor Phinney. Rathe sent Cycling Action this report.

By Jacob Rathe

Everything that you have ever heard about Paris-Roubaix is probably true. I’ve raced on cobblestones many times in Europe – in Belgium, The Netherlands and France – and nothing compares to the cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix. Its “Hell of the North” nickname couldn’t be more fitting.

Jacob Rathe at Cherry Blossom Cycling Classic in The Dalles earlier this year.

Jacob Rathe at Cherry Blossom Cycling Classic in The Dalles earlier this year.

We pre-rode the last 130 kilometers of the course starting at the first cobblestone sector. Most cobblestone sections I’ve raced on have been less than a kilometer. I didn’t realize that there are very few sectors in Paris-Roubaix that are less than a kilometer. Not only are the sectors long, but the cobblestones here are the worst of cobblestones – easily the most discomforting thing to ride a bicycle over.

All of the sectors are numbered, and every time you cross over pavement that sector is completed. There are a total of 27 sectors in the U23 race. If you cross over a road, it’s a new sector. Technically, the longest sector is 3.4 kilometers, but some parts of the course tie several 1-2 k sectors together, creating long sections of the course that are seemingly continuous cobblestones.

One of the recommendations made by the new US National Team Director, Pat Jonker, was to stay on the cobblestones and not ride on the dirt and gravel on the side. You are more likely to get a flat riding on the side, and it isn’t actually faster. I rode on the side one sector on our training ride. There were a few puddles and wet gravel. Immediately after the sector we turned right. We went through the corner at a fairly conservative pace, and my wet and sandy tires instantly slid out, tossing me to the ground.

Another interesting thing about riding cobblestones is the effect that they can have on your digestive system. I had to make a stop at a bar due to some bad sensations. If you are ever constipated, go ride 27 sectors of cobblestones, but 10 would probably be enough to do the trick.

I finished the pre-ride with some fresh road rash, hands that couldn’t grip handlebars anymore, a clear digestive track, and an understanding of why someone would never want to do this race.

The actual event was three days later. My road rash was still oozing and I was only a little bit sore. It didn’t even matter though, by the end of this day I knew I’d have different aches and pains that would make me forget about my current ones altogether. As my Jelly Belly teammate Mike Friedman put it in an email, “No matter what you do, you are probably going to crash.” … …

The first sector wasn’t until 48 kilometers into the race. It was relatively mellow until about 40k in, when the sprint for the first cobble sector started. There are fights for position in every race. Whether it’s before the climb or the finish, there is always a time when everybody wants to be at the front. But the battle for the front before the first sector was unlike anything I’ve ever been in. The whole road and the sidewalk was filled, it was fast but not single file. This is a race where being at the front is crucial to survival, and the riders here are the best and most aggressive in the world at fighting for position.

We turned left onto a smaller road a few kilometers before sector 1, and somehow I was in the third row from the front. I got swarmed a little bit when we hit a sidewalk, then there was a crash. I had to come to a stop to walk over a few riders, and all of the sudden I was at the very back. There was a crash on each of the first three sectors that I had to climb around, abut eventually I made it back to the front of the peloton. Between the cobbled sectors it was deceivingly mellow, almost like a group ride. But a few kilometers before a sector, everybody seemed to spark to life and it started again.

My race ended about 85 kilometers in. There was a crash in front of me on the cobbles and I went up, over and down. I didn’t get much road rash, but the impact was sufficient to knock the wind out of me long enough for the peloton to be long gone.

I kept riding, assuming that I would see somebody from the team who could pick me up, or I could ride in the broom wagon. I didn’t see anybody for a long time, the vans were gone in the feed zone by the time I got there. I was happy to see the bus roll up beside me. The window opened and teammate Larry Warbasse poked his head out, “Hey man, there are like three of us already in here.”

For the next two hours we drove through the most horrible “roads” in northern France. I quickly got tired of driving over them. Then it was back to the hotel for dinner and an early wake-up call to leave for Spain and the Vuelta Tarragona, a five-day race in the mountains.

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