One of the best things about being a member of the SHAPE International Cycling Club is the weekend rides, where we get out on our bikes for longer stretches and discover more of the surrounding countryside. On Saturday, 16th September, a group of us headed across the border into France to visit the Arenberg Trench, one of the famous cobbled stretches of the Paris-Roubaix classic, known affectionately as L’Enfer du Nord or ‘Hell of the North’. We set off in perfect conditions, sunny with a slight chill and, after sadly losing Jason Lack to a puncture after less than 100m, settled into a scenic route taking in a stretch of the Ath-Blaton canal between Srambruges and Blaton. After about an hour of riding, we were joined by the very athletic Billy Kidd who had taken on a valiant chase, averaging 33kph, to catch us after setting off 10 minutes later (passing Jason and his spare inner tube en route!).
Soon after Billy joined the peloton, we crossed the border into France and breathed a sigh of relief as Belgian potholes were replaced by smooth tarmac. Our relief didn’t last long, however, as the route soon took us along some gravel paths. These were absolutely fine on my Trek Domane (built for endurance and comfort rather than speed) (Editor’s comment – the bike, not the author!) but there was a lot of moaning from the men on their immaculately maintained and very expensive racing bikes. Our Spanish companion, Esteban, even declared that Martin Hainz, who had organised the ride, was ‘off his friend list’ for sending us down such treacherous paths, and, succumbing to a puncture soon after, his dissatisfaction could be understood!
As mentioned, the ride had been organised by the wonderful Martin Hainz but sadly, after being struck down with a savage virus, he hadn’t joined us on his bike. We were soon approaching the infamous Arenberg Trench and imagine our delight, when Martin appeared at the entrance to the cobbled sector, with his car boot open. ‘Ravito!’ he declared as he plied us all with very welcome croissants, coffee and full-fat coke! What a legend!
Now came the chance to try out the legendary cobbles. The Trouée d’Arenberg is the first five-star cobbled sector in Paris-Roubaix with 2,300 metres of, ‘the worst cobble stones in all of professional cycling’1. Falling within the first 100km of the race, it is often the scene of its first decisive breakaways. The rough, uneven, slippery cobblestones are approached from a false-flat downhill and hit at ferocious speed, often causing mayhem, havoc and catastrophe with broken bikes as well as bones. I couldn’t resist the challenge, and, as my bike was built for cobbles, I had a go. I was told to ‘hit them fast’ so I got up as much speed as possible on the approach and then rattled around like a washing machine on spin cycle for a few hundred metres before veering onto the path beside them. Definitely fun for a few metres but not something I would want to endure for 55km like those that take on Paris-Roubaix! Still, we got some fantastic photos before heading back to Mons, with a well-deserved coffee stop along the way.
The route for the Arenberg Trench ride can be found at Club Routes. Those with expensive bikes will be relieved to know the gravel sections have been removed!
- Cycling News, ‘What is the Trouée d’Arenberg? Paris-Roubaix cobbles at their most iconic in Arenberg Forest’, Laura Weislo, 2023.
- This article first appeared in the October 2023 edition of SHAPE Community Life Magazine.