Hell of the Normal

Route Scout: How to create your own version of Paris-Roubaix for you and your friends.

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The riders wear their suffering on their faces. Their bodies broadcast the signal noise of their struggle. We watch the live feed from the couch, or bed, or in the kitchen making breakfast, utterly spellbound by this sweet, torturous dance of bicep reverb over the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix. As they charge through the forest of Arenberg, we build our invisible shrines to those beaten and battered cobble kings, imagining ourselves to be that hard, that tough, that stubborn on a bicycle. We cannot turn away. It is beautiful. It is sublimely ugly. It gets our blood up.

Let’s go!

As soon as humanly possible — maybe even as those riders hit the hallowed showers of the Roubaix velodrome — let’s ride. Let’s get the adrenaline out and celebrate the ­glory that is Paris-Roubaix in the only way we know how: by beating the tar out of each other on bicycles. But where? How? Here are just a few words on how to plan and execute your very own, post-race, backyard Roubaix. Forget The Hell of the North — welcome to your very own Hell of the Normal.

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Planning the Route

As far as cobbles go, Paris-Roubaix gnashes some pretty vicious stone teeth. On some of the higher-rated sectors, it’s as though some sadistic farmer has simply scattered them on the ground like granite grain for stone-eating pigeons. On these rarely used farm roads throughout the year, tractors grumble along, mashing those cobbles into the earth while scratching ruts and scarifying the future hopes and dreams of Paris-Roubaix wannabes. The 2016 Paris-Roubaix has 25 cobbled sectors, with the first starting around the 100km mark. Each sector is given a rating from one to five — with five being the most bone-jarring — and takes into consideration the length of the sector, how even the cobbles are, plus their condition and location.

I tell you this not because there will be a test later, but because, as Armchair Race Director, you need to keep the severity of the pavé in mind when planning your Hell of the Normal. Always remember: It’s not the grade of materials; it’s the intensity of the masochism.

“Wet and muddy cobblestones are really something else. It’s like having a layer of soap on them.

Tom Boonen, four-time Paris-Roubaix winner

Take, for example, the Trouée d’Arenberg. It’s one of three “rated 5” sectors (Mons-en-Pévèle and Le Carrefour de l’Arbre are the other two) and is often where the fireworks of Paris-Roubaix are lit. It’s a 2,400m, snaggle-toothed, jagged-jawed, tire-hungry jerk. When you roll off it, it’s like rolling from rumble strip to velvet. Got anything that sounds like that to add to your route? If so, you’re well on your way to stringing together a memorable ride for you and your friends, but don’t go overboard with any rated 5 sectors: the cobbles only account for about 20% of Paris-Roubaix. Balance it out. A true Hell of the Normal is as much about having a blast as it is suffering.

For your consideration, here are some sector suggestions:

Broken Pavement

You know those roads you usually avoid because they’re completely Swiss-cheesed with potholes? Yeah, work ’em in to your route. If you turn onto a low traffic road that has a sign saying “Rough Surface,” then you’ve hit the jackpot — it’ll put your bike handling skills to the test. Ask your friends and other people you ride with for suggestions on roads you may not have ridden, because there’s no better route resource than other riders. And after that, of course, there’s always the Internet.

Got cobbles?

Before you strike cobbles completely from your route options, are you sure there aren’t any? Some cities and towns still have cobbled or roughly paved streets. I don’t want to say “down by the railroad tracks,” but hey, have you checked there? Also try the more historical or previously industrial areas of town. For example, here in the USA, New York has the roughly paved Meatpacking District in Manhattan, or the DUMBO neighborhood near the waterfront.

Gravel roads

Ah, gravel, hallowed be thy name. If you don’t have cobbles, gravel is a nice and challenging substitute. Those graveled back lanes and rough rural roads typically jump on and off paved roads in a way that mimics the experience of Paris-Roubaix — the peloton is always jumping from the velvety smooth tarmac to the bone-shaking cobbles and back again. You should aim to change road surfaces at least once or twice during the ride.

Fire roads

Speaking of dirt, fire roads are also a good addition to your Hell of the Normal. They’re often steep with rowdy descents, and are sometimes pre-loaded with obstacles of their own such as ruts, branches, fallen trees, and if you’re really lucky, creek crossings. Check the legality of riding the fire roads in your area and plan accordingly. Pick ones that can be done on a ‘cross bike, but if you’re veering into mountain bike territory, you’re also veering away from the spirit of the Hell of the Normal.

Misc. considerations

Dirt paths that cut between neighborhoods, easy singletrack (minus drops or too-wicked rock gardens), bridges, tunnels, back alleys, the rails-to-trails network in your area — consider anything you can think of that’ll make your route interesting and/or challenging. Basically, anything that’ll add a pinch of suffering to an otherwise heaped plate of ride joy. To make it even more authentic, why not add a railroad crossing? Trains often interrupt races, and Paris-Roubaix has a history of it happening (with 2015’s “Traingate” a prime example), but remember: ignoring closed barriers will lead to disqualification.

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Gear selection is so important at Paris-Roubaix. The constant flitting back-and-forth between cobbled sectors and smooth road during the race means riders need a bike that’s fast on the tarmac but comfortable over the cobbles. Right bike, right conditions. Similarly, for your Hell of the Normal, you should base your bike choice on the route itself. Fire roads and river crossings? Maybe go for a CruX with beefier tires — something with a little tread. If you’ll just be jumping from paved to predictable dirt paths, it might be as easy as swapping out your 25mm tires for 28s on your road bike. This is typically what the pros do in the race, switching to 27mm tubulars to handle the conditions of Paris-Roubaix.

With the bike sorted, team mechanics at Paris-Roubaix will also add some “tricks of the trade” to help soften the blow-after-hammer-to-the-hands-blow of racing on cobbles. Some of these tips can go a long way to making any rough ride more bearable.

Tip 1:

Consider double-wrapping your handlebars. This will help with the vibrations that come up through the bike to your hands.

Tip 2:

Non-slip tape applied to the inside of your bottle cage can help stop a bottle from bouncing out when you hit the rough stuff. In a race like Paris-Roubaix, nutrition is critical, and if a bottle bounces out, you can’t really go back and get it.

Tip 3:

Find your tire pressure sweet spot — the right pressure to go fast on the tarmac but smooth on the rough. Too low and you risk pinch flats, too high and it’s gonna hurt like hell on cobbles (or equivalent).

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Much of what the pros do when racing Roubaix — choosing the right line, maintaining the right speed and momentum, and avoiding obstacles with some killer bike-handling skills — will apply to what you’re riding. Cobbles are just at the extreme end of the rough-ride spectrum.

Tip 1: Go fast

As you hit cobbled sectors, acceleration is your friend. Attempt to hold your speed and it’ll help you “float” (haha!) over those bumps. Don’t believe me? How about Tom Boonen?

“The cobblestones have the effect of glue on the bike. It’s trying to slow you down, so every time you take a bump, you need energy to get over it. The easier it is for you to keep your speed up, the easier it is in the end. You’ll gain more energy than the rest.”

Tip 2: Choose a good line

Ride the crown — that’s the center of the road that’s less abused by traffic (in the case of Paris-Roubaix, tractor traffic.) If the crown is also in bad condition, you may have to constantly change your line to find the best way through. Here, Lars Boom of Astana shares a little bit of wisdom on reading a line on the cobbles:

“When I’m in the group, I always watch what the riders in front of me do. If they bump up a little bit or go down, that’s when you see there’s a hole or there’s a special section on the cobbles. I always try to adjust a little bit when I see the guys making a move. If there’s a hole, you jump a little bit. You’re always adjusting on the cobblestones.”

V is for Victory Velodrome

Paris-Roubaix is old fashioned. Like that aunt who still puts down doilies for her Hummel figurines, this sucker for tradition finishes in a velodrome. It offers riders the chance of a victory lap if they’re solo, and a last-hurrah sprint if they still have some pepper left, at which point they can collapse on the grass to a chorus of Canon 5Ds firing.

It’s a hell of a moment, finishing — a fitting end to the day’s brutality, when all the plotlines have been drawn together to resolve the drama. Riders head to the showers or team buses to lament their cruel day, their mechanicals, and their luck; or to celebrate the victory of finishing, regardless of the place. Yes, they have completed the “Hell of the North.”

So how do you channel that spirit? Well, make sure you plan the end of your ride as thoroughly as the beginning. Your Hell of the Normal should finish in style. Whether that means ending it with a shower beer (a whole ‘nother subject entirely) prior to hosting a post-ride BBQ; or finishing it at a burger joint, drinking cheap beer and holding exhausted, contented conversations while still dressed in your salt-crusted kit. Make the reward part of the experience.

All that remains as you look around at the people who shared in this experience with you will be to rate the success of your Hell of the Normal. Do you feel wrecked, yet satiated? Win. Can you imagine footage of your group riding the toughest part of your Hell of the Normal being played in slow motion to rousing “storming the castle” music? Well then my friend, you’ve absolutely nailed it.


1. Plan a route that includes more than one type of terrain. Paris-Roubaix is constantly alternating between pavé and tarmac. Mix it up and keep things interesting.

2. Include at least one troublesome thing. A steep climb? A river crossing? Just something that would be considered a “5” rating.

3. Adjust the length of your route to account for difficulty, roughness, and sheer enjoy-ability. Remember: As much as this is about pain, it is about the joy of riding bikes.

4. V is for Victory Velodrome. Make sure your route ends on a high note that properly rewards suffering.

5. Nutty rides are better with friends, so invite others along. Make your motto “Folie a deux. A madness shared by two.” Folie a trois would be better. Folie a cinq, excellent!

6. Even though Paris-Roubaix is a ride of attrition, make yours a no-drop ride. Take photos. Have a blast.

Photos: Breakthrough Media

Edited version of a story which originally appeared as part of the Route Scout Series on Specialized.com, 2016 [Archived]

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