If Francesco Moser had the choice, I wonder if he would have ridden Paris-Roubaix on something a bit more forgiving than his de Rosa, like maybe a Cannondale Slate Force (the one with the purple cranks). But then again, his domination of the event (seven podium finishes) in an era preceding major technical tweaking – to eventually include road bikes with suspension and disk brakes – speaks volumes. And interestingly, despite decades of bike modification shenanigans to find the perfect set up for this bumpy, slippy, muddy, impossibly hard, one day hell of a cycling sufferfest, Matt Hayman’s 2016 victory was taken on a pretty much unedited Scott Foil. “I’ve been doing this for sixteen years and each time been super fussy about every little detail”, I paraphrase, “and they’ve all worked out badly so this time I’m going to ride a normal bike and see what happens.” And we know what happened.
The agonising over bike set up before a mixed terrain ‘road’ event is no less for a bunch of amateurs attempting their first Roubaix-a-like, as I did at the ‘Cardiff Roubaix’. We were promised a true Roubaix experience by the organisers, ‘Cycle Classics’, with a series of ten off road sections of varying distance and difficulty. There were rough stony tracks, tow paths and droves interspersed with fiercely windy flat road sections and a velodrome finish. They even threw in a glass of champagne at the finish for extra authenticity, although I’m not sure Cancellara or Boonen stop for pain-au-chocolate like we did (or get stopped by endless traffic lights in the city outskirts).
After a lengthy game of whatsapp-ing pong, I opted to put my tough ‘cross wheels on my sturdy Trek XO cyclocross bike (rather than the silky carbon Durace which I normally use for road events to counterbalance any undertraining). Puncturing was always going to be a risk, but I took my chances by selecting the 25mm Continental Grand Prix Four Seasons from my tyre collection (of one). In contrast, my domestiques, I mean my riding buddies, each went for 28mm Continental Gator Hardshells. To be fair, none of us punctured and the swearing was fairly equal when our hands went numb and legs burned from the off road battering. I think we’re a way off being able to benefit from British Cycling’s ‘marginal gains’ program.
Looking around at the start, two things were obvious. Firstly, this is not a ride that has yet attracted women. There were two of us. Secondly, this is a ride that attracts some niche machines and their proud owners; an opportunity to puff out your chest and wax lyrical about the relative benefits of this tyre choice or those head angles. To be fair, at only 66 miles in length and not being (officially) a race (ha!) the Cardiff Roubaix is a fun event to try out interesting set ups and show off some gorgeous bike porn. Luc Wise, and his buddy Luke Be (surely a European pop duo), rocked the bike-niche party to the full with their sleek matte black cyclocross bikes. “This is my baby,” gushed lead singer Luc when I approached him for a closer stare. “I built her myself.” He proceeded to reel off the details of his “totally underrated” Mango Bikes frame which he pimped with “the perfect combination of components for the best performance to price ratio.” Highlights include the TRP semi-hydro brakes, Hunt Four Season Gravel Disc wheels and WTB nano tyres, which are “on the mountain bike end of the spectrum; so so grippy but wearing out quite quickly.” I could go on.
In contrast, there were scores of off-the-peg unmodified carbon and aluminium road bikes at the staggered start and a lot of winter training bikes with mudguards. A few confident, or perhaps wealthy, chaps had opted for deep section carbon time trial wheels. (They didn’t have mud guards). Interestingly, as our little group rolled into the outskirts of Cardiff after three and a half hours of brutal but steadily fast riding, it tended to be the more rigid setups which carried the broken bodies, clearly battling cramps, and which were now bimbling apologetically along at half our pace. We were ‘appropriately sympathetic’, and particularly so to those we recognised as having pushed the pace on the road sections earlier that morning.
It’s not that we weren’t also battered. The pace of our group had ramped up, and up as we left the Cardiff industrial zone behind us and the stretches of road between corners and junctions became longer. Within half an hour, I was breathing hard, suffering from the disconcerting concertina of a jittery bunch and wishing I had two bottle cages. Thankfully, the group splintered after the first gravel section, which gave those with strong legs and the bike handling skills to match a chance to shine. It was a real Roubaix experience flying through the dirt, inches from other riders, and finding it impossible to anticipate the forthcoming potholes and ditches. Being face-whipped by a teasel was a particular highlight. (Makes a change from brambles).
After our group had shrunk, it was easier to manage the rough sections. We would take turns at the front, calling the biggest ruts but mostly leaving it to personal choice to find a line through the rapidfire (but at least dry) potholes and to choose the grippiest way round the treacherous gravel corners. We passed a constant scattering of sweaty, fractious riders fixing punctures on the grassy verges, anticipating with some degree of ‘focus’ the hours of solo effort they had coming into a headwind, now they’d lost their group.
The feed station was welcomed punctuation to the constant beating of the wind, The amaretti biscuits, croissants and energy bars were tasty, but it’s a shame there was only one stop and it was so early. And a shame there was no coffee. A few hours later, the constant effort of drop-bar pedaling had taken its toll on backs and bums, and another respite would have been lovely. As it was, we had to make do with the few steep, short climbs over bridges, which offered a chance to get up out the saddle and unfold our spines.
The Maindy velodrome, where the Cardiff Roubaix drew to a close, is a slightly rundown concrete affair attached to a community leisure centre. Riding in through the carpark, dodging bank holiday families and speed humps was a fairly inauspicious finish, but the two flying laps of the circuit were fun and a sprint finish with the Only Other Woman was a furiously fitting finish. After all that dust, dirt and dropbar goodness, being greeted with cool water rather than warm prosecco would have been a better idea in my book, but it made for a very Roubaix touch. Slightly high on adrenaline and the camaraderie of our little group of misfit riders, if not from the fizz, we couldn’t resist taking our road bikes to the adjacent pump track for some celebratory berm time with the local teenagers.
Photos thanks to Henry Iddon.