Paris Roubaix Challenge by Todd Potter

In our continuing series of CRCA Member Features long-time CRCA Member Todd Potter shares the tale of his very memorable day on the famous cobbles of Paris-Roubaix. It certainly isn't every day the CRCA logo features on the velodrome at the finish line of Paris-Roubaix!

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Paris-Roubaix Challenge

In the Trek Travel van at 8 am headed to Roubaix, France from Kortrijk (kortray), Belgium the sound system was playing “Runn’in with the Devil” by Van Halen; was this prophetic about the ride was about to ensue in an hour and 30 minutes? Marcia the Trek Guide was headed to our home base in Roubaix, La Mazarin run by a very generous married couple who greeted us with open arms and an Espresso. Voilà!

My day began at 1:30 am wrestling with my stomach very much unhappy with the fruits and mayo I ate at dinner. I should never try to eat mayo, it is a disaster to my digestive system. I lay in bed tossing and turning thinking, “This is no way to start any day on the bike, no less the fabled cobbles.” I have traveled so far and prepared myself mentally and physically for the cobbles of northern France, and this—stomach in knots and no sleep! In addition, to add insult to injury, Marcia wanted us to fill out a chart for our farewell dinner on Sunday night. “Food!?! I can’t even think about food or eating, I am in some serious hurt here!”

I was hoping that the hot, black coffee I was during down myself starting at breakfast, would blast my system in time for the event. Score! I was right. As we prepared for the ride checking our bikes and choosing nutrition for the ride my stomach calmed down. I could now focus on the ride that was ahead.

This trip was a replacement trip for my 60th birthday ride I had signed up for to challenge myself. The “Texas 100” was sponsored by WEDU, Lance’s new focus in life other than moving forward. I know he is the Voldemort of cycling to some, but I am forgiving. It was a ride composed of 100 miles of gravel and road with some climbing.

On May 28th, 5 days before we were to fly to Austin I slammed into a Subway turnstile. My right thigh to the full force of the impact. I wasn’t paying attention, I was thinking about something I had to do at work. When I hit the bar, I said to myself, “hmmm that is going to be a nasty bruise.” In 2 days I had a swollen leg and a hematoma that had bled out—PAIN FULL—many things changed that day. No trip, no century ride in Texas, no fun.

In September I was looking around for something to begin training. I was in physical therapy at that time. I need a goal, mental therapy. I got a random email from Trek Travel about the Tour of Flanders—Roubaix Trip and thought it would work. “M” and I consulted on calendar events at that time of the year, the Roubaix segment would work well.

Fast forward to April 1st, we were on our way to Brussels then a train to Bruges to relax and enjoy life. On Wednesday of that week we would take a train to Kortrijk the headquarters for the Roubaix portion.

Back to the Challenge in Roubaix. Roubaix is not much of a city. It is an old mining town that reminded me much of Trenton NJ on Kansas City KS steroids. But they have 2 velodromes and an iconic race. Cafe La Mazarin is the local corner “watering-hole” you might find in Williamsburg or Greenpoint BKLYN. Nice people, local regulars, great hosts and beer at 9 am. No beer for me, but 2 Espressos and I was my magic potion. I had decided to take the Belgium equivalent to my favorite Cliff Bar and a “waffle” that Wiebey our other guide promoted-“Belgium rocket fuel”. Marcia suggested that I take a rice cake she had made by the bakery that makes these for the Trek-Segafredo Team. The pros swear by their magic. I grabbed this beautifully crafted little round pastry/pie and carefully placed it into a zip bag and then in my back-center pocket.

It was now time to go to the start, water bottles filled, nutrition on board and helmet strapped. I grabbed my Domane and looked down at the top tube and saw the list of Sectors in my near future. Of course, I could not fully read them without my reading glasses, but I felt like a real pro-thanks Trek Travel! The Guides really took care of the Group no matter their riding level. Marcia was particularly thoughtful to the point of making sure we had anything and everything.

I headed to the start gate down the same route as the pros entering the velodrome. There was a slight deviation to the left and a slowdown. I heard the PA announcing instructions in French and I was like, what? I followed the people in front of me and went off with a big group. It was very nice to know, as we navigated the heading out of town, that cyclists from other parts of the world know how to ride in a pack safely. We were pointing out road hazards, signaling turns and slowdowns to stops. I heard an occasional “Allez”, which made me smile.

Oh, and by the way have I mentioned that it was a perfect 68-72 degrees that day. Ample sunshine and puffy clouds hanging over our heads. This is a country where it rains often and there is always a very cold “Belgium Tailwind” (headwind). If it were raining the experience would have been epic AND scary.

I chose to ride the 70K route over the 145K. The guides said if I felt good enough to do the 145 them just follow the route signs. The 70K route does not include the Arenberg Forest Sector, but we had the Carrefoure de l’ Arbre Sector which has its lore. I felt my fitness was not where it needed to be to tackle the 145K and it was a smart call. It may be flat, but it takes tons of energy, focus and CX skills to ride the cobbles. And by the way, these cobbles are not the Meat Packing District cobbles, they can be 5 times more jagged, bumpy and brain rattling.

The Pack rode out of town with anticipation and confidence. I looked to my left and saw Andy Bokanev, who was a trip mate, floating down the road on the outside. He looked like he was levitating. We rode through nice neighborhoods, little main streets, fields worked by farmers and around many rotaries. In fact, we got caught behind a tractor blocking the road for a bit. I was patient and waited for my safe escape and off I was down the road to catch a wheel. I rode behind Big Bart from Belgium, Digby from the UK and a French Father and Son duo who I saw most of the way. I followed wheels to stay out of the wind and conserve my energy for the cobbles to come. We rode for what seemed like forever in that beautiful landscape of crops in fields, draught horses, vacated World War concrete bunkers, Windmills, and occasional road kill of field rats.

Then came the first and only rest stop where I filled my water bottles with some sticky lemons water which I thought was lemonade by appearance. I tasted the solution and immediately poured half of it in my other bottle. I topped the bottles off with water. I ate a couple of orange slices and then remembered the “secret rice cake” in my pocket. I reached back and unwrapped that to eat a third of it. I zipped the bag up and then safely stowed it back in my pocket. That pastry/pie was everything delicious and more. I can see why the pros love them-comfort food. I heard many languages and conversations at the rest stop, all full of positive energy and camaraderie.

I rolled out of the rest stop wondering where the elusive cobbles might be and BANG! I was thrust into Sector 8, a combo of .7K of 1 and 2-star cobbles. Templevue L’ epinette and Moulin de Vertain were REALLY rough and not 1 or 2 stars. The road was broken and jagged—brain rattling and bike shaking chaotic. I could not find a good line; no crown—no shoulder, truly not rated correctly or in need of repair by the Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix. I felt like I was riding a bucking bronco.

As I was trying to find a line to ride my first thought is “why?” and second “I paid for this state of anxiety”—I could see how so many people ended up in the First Aid Tent at the Velodrome. The violence of the change in surface wakes you up mentally, a slight bobble or deviation and you are down on the deck. When I was finished with this .7K of craziness, I was glad to see the smooth farm road asphalt.

Sector 7 Cysoing is 3 star and 1.3K—the cobbles were rough but not violent and I found riding the crown to my advantage. Farmer’s tractor tires had packed mud in the gaps between stones and the sun had dried it out as a makeshift filler; no slime here, no traction problems. My Trips mates reported that day that the Arenberg Forest was slimy, sketchy and mostly downhill which made for very nervous moments. Number 7 was not too bad, but glad I had extra bar tape.

Sector 6 Bourghelles is 3 star and 1.1K which seemed to be forever because it was so flat and sandwiched by Farm fields. A group of School Children with Hi-Viz vests was riding the shoulder having a grand time. I passed the group and followed their cue and rode the shoulder as much as possible. When I merged to the crown a rider on a very wobbly path of destruction almost “chopped” me. My good balance and “CX” skills saved my day on number six. Down the line an older gentleman, a marshal, wanted to converse with me in French, I slowed down—I said “no, English”. He said “no parle Francias?” I said, “New York City”. He said, “Ah grand ville.” He gave me the thumbs up and I was on the way.

Some Sectors reminded me at times of riding along Monmouth County roads, except the smell of dirt and manure is very fragrant. There were neatly kept farms, immaculate horse riding facilities, tiny main streets and some very nice neighborhoods bordering farmland. And you couldn’t ask for a better day to ride—warm sunshine.

Sector 5 Camphin-en-Pevele is 4 stars of 1.8K—I rode mostly the shoulder; the crown was a mess of jagged and missing cobbles. The Domane performed like a dream running 80 PSI with tubeless wheels. At times I thought, “this bike is going to explode in a Hincapie way.” I heard so much rattling of chain and parts, but nothing fell off or broke. Only one person had a broken spoke. Viola’ as they say.

With a brief bit of respite on asphalt and inner dialogue saying to “turn over the gears” I approached the Carrefoure de l’ Arbre. It is 5 stars and 2.1K, a fabled section of tough cobbles and a place to attack in the race. I had to really push the big ring here as there was not much of a shoulder—the crown was my best line. I focused, stomped hard on the peddles and tried to “float” over the cobbles. On this Sector I was when I looked ahead to see “Didi the Devil”. Am I hallucinating, is this real? It was a real surprise and morale booster as he semi did his signature jump and yelled, Yay yay yay!” That made my day, but then this was a ride full of memorable moments. Didi made the rough cobbled ride more pleasant and tolerable. When I approached the asphalt road at the end I reminded myself it was time to eat and drink. I reached into my back pocket and pulled out my “magic Trek-Segafredo rice cake”. Those cakes are so good and not overly sweet or salty.


The only elevation to ascend was the occasional overpass. After the Carrefoure it felt like a real climb, my legs were tired but energized by mentally by my feed and Didi.

Sector 3 Gruson was not too bad even in the rough areas. By this time, you become accustomed to the transition from smooth road to the cobbled sections. There was always a moment of real “up the road” focus when a Sector was in view. The Father, Son duo caught up with me again. Here I passed 3 tandem teams on course. I can’t even imagine “M” and I taking The Challenge, might be a real deal breaker; a marriage solidarity test. No, I think the Tour de Cure Princeton is good enough for us on the tandem.

A valuable technique I found helpful was to sit back in the saddle and push hard as if I were doing a climb. Try to transfer the power through the pedals and the weight to the back tire. That worked well because I was feeling a bit of fatigue in my legs.

It was time to eat again so I grabbed the last bit of my rice cake/pastry and finished it off. A couple of swigs of water and I was good to go.

On the Gruson Sector I moved around from shoulder to crown trying to find the smoothest line, probably an energy wasting effort, but worth it if the road was smoother; less energy needed. This was rated 3 stars, but I felt it was not too difficult. Maybe my mind and body were settling into the ride’s characteristics.

I knew I was nearing the end of the route. Only one more Sector, Hem is 1.4K and 3 stars to tackle and then the Velodrome finish. One more over pass to climb and a weird bike path underpass the pros did not use for sure—too narrow and sketchy. I thought Sector 2 was fun to ride, much like finding your line in a CX or MTB race. The end of that Sector meant we had 5 or 6 K to go. In the 4 to 5K area there is a gradual ramp up of 3 to 4 % grade; a great place to attack a small break-away group tete de la course.

I ate the waffle that Wiebey was promoting on our trip just before the riser to give myself enough energy to finish strong. Sector 1- Roubaix is mostly ceremonial; smooth pave and the race organizers were putting up banners. It was blocked off for our ride, pro only. I was able to negotiate the long boulevard of traffic as if I were in New York City. The busy main street in Roubaix leads you to the right sweeper turn into the Velodrome we have all see on TV. That was emotional for me as I had taken on the challenge in just under 2 hours and 23 minutes and finished strong and without injury physically or mentally. Plus, I had completed my task of celebrating my 60th birthday with a legendary ride.

I was free to fly around the banking of the Velodrome. My celebration when I approached the Finish line gate was a huge smile of a very happy child. What a day! Yes, it started off nightmarish and ended with velo bliss and jubilation.