Last year I had the privilege to be one of a very fortunate group of cyclists who accompanied the great Sean Kelly on his return to the famous cobbles of Paris Roubaix .
Kelly won the Paris Roubaix classic in 1984 and 1986 . He also had many top ten placings and was always seen as a favourite for the race .
The ASO , organisers of the Tour de France and the Etape du Tour decided to run a similar mass participation event the day before the professionals tackled ‘The Hell of the North ‘ as it’s known. They wanted a former winner and true hero of the race who is still in peak condition to take part and so asked Kelly .
As someone who had posters of Kelly riding across the cobbles on my bedroom wall growing up and who has been lucky enough to get to know my hero personally over time I was thrilled to be invited along. To ride over those famous cobbles on it’s own would have been fantastic but to do it with Kelly is truly the stuff dreams are made of , even if the cobbles are a nightmare .
Over 2000 people took to the start line at 7.30 on a fresh spring morning . Immediately Kelly was surrounded by tv cameras and microphones . Switching between French , Flemish , English and Italian he never missed a beat .
Rolling off the start line reminded me more of a stage of the AnPost Ras rather than a sportive as the hammer went down immediately . After a few km Kelly went along the bunch and told all of us in his group to drop back a little to where there was more shelter and less chance of having to make hard efforts as the elasticity at the front of the bunch stretched out and back .
A constant feature was riders from all sides of the globe approaching Sean and thanking him for the enjoyment he had given them over the years . As usual he had time for everyone and they all floated on with a smile on their faces and their spirits raised having spoken to the man who inspired them along with a whole generation to cycle a bike .
The first 40k was covered in less than an hour which was pretty fast given what was ahead .
At 50k we crested a drag and the whole atmosphere changed . It was like an electric charge surged throughout the bunch as every rider rode faster and faster and fought for position . Nothing was said but it was obvious something big was about to happen .
Then just as we turned left onto a really narrow road , I was beside Kelly and he said , almost under his breath , ‘ Pavehhhh’
Suddenly there it was , right smack bang in front of us , the first sector of cobbles . We hit them at speed and I dived onto Kellys wheel . I saw his arms spread and his elbows went out , his back arched slightly as he slid back in the saddle and he just seemed to glide along .
My own reaction was slightly different . The split second my 2 wheels hit the cobbles I felt a shock throughout my whole body . A ripple of stuttering pain went up from my feet , through my calves , quads , through my ass which felt like it got a kick from a bull , on up along my back through my shoulders and neck to meet up with a corresponding ripple which was sweeping up from the knuckles on my hands through the hands themselves up along my triceps and biceps into the shoulders where the combination mixed to send a signal to my brain which said that ‘No human body was ever designed for this’ .
Then I looked at the wheel in front and at the bike and it’s rider and fought to block the pain and found myself feeling like the 15 year old with his heroes poster on his bedroom wall all over again , and nothing was going to make me let go of that wheel . The fact that he was only going at about 30% of his current capacity let alone the speed he would have been at during his peak meant that I was able to hold the wheel and emerge from my first ever sector of Pave on Sean Kelly’s wheel .
As we made it back out onto the Tarmac road and what felt like rolling onto a soft bed of cotton wool , I had a look around to see what effect the cobbles had upon the bunch . The decimation was incredible . What had been a large bunch of many hundreds was now broken down to a group of about eighty riders .
We continued on as sector after sector of cobbles seemed to spring upon us with increasing rapidity and severity . I was really beginning to suffer whilst others seemed to get stronger as the event went on .
When you are strong on cobbles you ride as fast as you can and ‘almost ‘ glide over them , but when you are weak you go too slow and it becomes a more difficult challenge again . Every single cobble jars your bike and body and every single one feels like an individual mountain to climb . It is incredibly painful and makes you just want to get off the bike and cry .
Twice our group stopped and twice I felt like getting down on my hands and knees and thanking God . The sight of Hans and Delores in the green An Post merc was like catching a glimpse of an oasis in a desert .
Twice we also got a glimpse of what the likes of Vanderarden, Criquielion and Van Der Poel had to contend with . On a croswind sector of gravel Kelly went to the front and opened up the gas . He put us all in the gutter and just kept on going faster and faster . To just sit behind him doing 30% less work sheltered from the wind was almost impossible. My legs , lungs and lower intestine were in agony but he never eased up. My elastic snapped and I was shot out the back even with the end of the sector in sight .
We were now nearing the finish and on the second last sector he took a notion and really put down the hammer . In the space of 200 meters he had a gap of about 150 on everyone . The speed of the man was incredible over such uncompromising terrain. Many of the professionals riding the race the following day would have had huge trouble staying with the now 56 year old Kelly .
Finally the finish banner at the end of the Carfour de l’arbe arrived and our epic adventure was drawing to an end . The memories formed during the weekend will remain with us all forever . To ride the course of the toughest one day bike race of all in the company of a Legend who is tied 3rd in the list of all time Classic Monument wins has to rank as one of the greatest days of your life .
All weekend we were looked after supremely well by Kurt , Michel , Hans and Delores . Sean could not have been a better host and guide off the bike aside from on the bike itself . For a man of his stature he is incredibly humble and considerate . He is just an ordinary guy who is anything but ordinary !