The only time I’ve ridden off-road was the two times I raced my CX bike, so naturally when the opportunity to do Rapha’s seventh annual Hell of the North, I put my name down almost immediately.
The ride, dedicated to Paris-Roubaix on the same day, was 85km with just 22km of off-road to tackle. I say “just”! In the week leading into the event, all sorts of chat began to ignite around bike set up, kit choices, logistics, food…you name it, we talked about it. Controversially, I stuck to my black bar tape and chair on my Giant Defy but changed my pedals to eggbeaters, a decision I would later thank myself for.
At 5am on Sunday, we hit the southbound road to glory that awaited. At this point, I hadn’t once thought that I couldn’t do it. After all, the majority of the route was on road anyway. My 25mm tyres seemed pathetic compared to Ben’s 28mm rubber and Dean’s slightly disapproved CX bike.
It was a beautiful three and a half hour journey to the capital with the weather bitter and foggy as we left The North only to be welcomed by sunshine and blue skies in London. Typical, huh? More kit chat commenced as we were all eager to work our tan lines in this rare opportunity for a slice of vitamin D. Not me though, I stuck to my knee and arm warmers careful not to get too far ahead of myself in April.
I was the only girl in the Manchester contingent to make the trip down to the ride and according to my judgment on the sign-on sheet, there were 27 women in a field of 300. A lower than average participation rate perhaps but it certainly felt like there were more ladies present than usual.
As the last team to set off (blame the faff), I was keen to make it back in time to see a chunk of the professional race but at the same time, there was no way I was going out guns blazing from the get-go knowing full well I was well out of my depth going off-road. Some of the lads gave it beans as I was almost immediately dropped but still with a small peloton of four (Ollie, Rog, Matt and Gareth). It was a lovely day and I was there to get around and enjoy my time in the saddle.
The first major sector where many heroes fell short was number 17. Having rained a fair bit the week before, this particular section was very muddy. So much so that the stream at the end of it became a makeshift bike bath for us to get the mud from our callipers in order to be able to physically turn a wheel. It was also at this point that we caught up with Andy, Pete, Gio and Rick. Pete’s tyre decided to split but thankfully the route card came in handy as a quick shim.
I had learnt by this stage that power is your friend in adverse conditions. I won’t roll through mud, so it’s important to press on and pretend it isn’t there. Yes, my rear wheel lost traction, yes my back end kicked out multiple times but no, I’m proud to say I didn’t fall off. Unlike Ollie, who was trying to take his phone out on a tame sector and couldn’t unclip in time to stop so just fell to the ground. This was by far my favourite moment of the day!
The next memorable sectors came a little later on when we had to pass over a field (sectors 7 and 6) and head over a hill. What a hill it was! Some said 18% at one point but thankfully it was paved but such a long drag. Having already sunk two Clif bars, I was running low on sustenance. Just as we crested, I yelled, “H-VAN!” really quite loudly. Unfortunately the novelty of the iconic Citroen soon wore off as we weren’t greeted by the usual delicious snacks and coffee. It was up to my last Clif shot and two fresh bidons of water to get me to the finish line.
I felt like the worst had already been and gone: mud, streams, trenches, paths – you name it, we’d had it. How wrong I was. The worst came during sector 4 where I was convinced this would be the career-ending sector. A road bike seemed about as inappropriate as undies underneath lycra. There was steep uphill over rocks following by its downhill counterpart. There were times where I just crossed my fingers and hoped for the best. I was already two tubes down so my next would’ve been a favour from a friend along with using up my last two canisters of CO2. Luck was on my side, however Ollie managed to deflate and we used a healthy dose of his tube, my canisters and some proper teamwork to get him back on the road to catch up with Andy, Rog and Pete who had decided to crack on.
No sooner had we thought they had left us for dust than did we find them on the side of the a road with a bike lying on the verge. Andy had punctured this time. “My tactic is to count to ten because every time you find yourself back at number one, you feel better” he convinced himself as he used a mini pump to get up to pressure. This would thankfully be the last trophy tube of the day: five punctures between seven mates.
After passing through a visibly wealthy part of London (I’m talking multiple Range Rovers, a few Bentleys and the odd Porsche), it was largely suburban roads back to base camp. It was such a relief to roll into the pub we’d seen just before we set off but already most people were back, the professional race had just 30km to go and I needed the frites I was promised on arrival.
A quick feed and a leisurely stroll through the sardined crowd gripped by the last few kilometres of the race and I found myself eagerly awaiting the pro riders’ arrival into the iconic velodrome. Stannard, having got himself in a four-man break, was attacking at any opportunity cueing rampant cheers from the crowds both on the side of the road at the actual race and inside the North London pub we rode into after our much more tame adventure.
I found myself behind Simon Mottram who was vocally in favour of Stannard taking the famous cobblestone but he was just pipped in the home straight by Australia’s Mathew Hayman and an almost-record-breaking Tom Boonen. While I’m quietly smug about an Aussie win, it would’ve been great to see Stannard finish off the job in Roubaix. Just like me, Yogi, next year we’ll have our glory perhaps.