It's not atypical for a Paris-Roubaix narrative to wax on about how the roads from Compiegne to Roubaix are paved with the sweetest, smoothest pavement you've ever felt, interspersed with pavé nastier than you could even imagine. It's totally legitimate - the cobbled paths of Paris-Roubaix are entirely unlike those of the Ronde, where they are a part of daily life for those in the area. The cobbles in Paris-Roubaix, however, exist for few reasons but spectacle - their maintenance more a matter of archaeological recreation than planning. The abuse they mete out is real, and not merely mythology. Riding them is truly an experience in masochism. I rode the last 100km or so of Paris-Roubaix exactly a year ago today, and I found myself wondering why anyone would voluntarily do what I was doing.
So when you find yourself receiving your fourth or fifth (or first) cold stone massage between those amazing sections of smooth smooth tarmac, it's only natural to do what I did - to look around for salvation. Just like me, you'll think you've found it while looking off to either side along the cobbled sections.
The cobbled paths on which Paris-Roubaix are horse cart-cum-tractor paths, built to survive the frost heaves of winter and the never ending rains that precede and follow. Napoleon, the Romans - whoever built them, they built them to hasten getting from point A to point B while surviving the elements, with the technology they had available at the time. Jagged, horrible, uneven, rocky technology.
To survive, these cobbled roads needed to be permeable. Due to some combination of engineering and age, most of these paths are raised in the middle and slope to their edge, where a stretch of cobbles or some sort of runoff ditch running perpendicular to the main drag is found. This gutter acts as a sort of drainage flow for water coming off the main roadbed, allowing the paths to remain somewhat passable in adverse weather. Or, at least, that was probably the original intent.
Here, in the gutter, is where you'll think salvation lies. And on Sunday, you'll see scores of riders assume the same. Maybe it’s less jarring than the pavé itself, but its not without hazard.
Cruising along the side, you'll be beset by 3 primary risks.
As a conduit for runoff, the gutter is also where all of the debris and filler material from the cobbles end up. At times, the amount of dirt and sand there creates a serious risk to traction and control - turn your bar too quickly or slide the rear of your bike tearing around a cobbled corner and expect to fall. Do so with a strung out peloton, and expect to be run over as well.
When cobbles line the gutter they are, for the most part, in better shape that the main pathways. As you're riding over the cobble the "long" way, the edges are less frequent and narrower; rather than being 6-7" wide, they're a mere 2-3", and tend to not protrude as much. Except when they do, or when an entire section of gutter has been washed away due to erosion. At this point you'll be headed for a hole. If you're quick enough, you can dash towards the main cobbles, hoping your wheel doesn't get pinched in the transition. If you’re not so quick, you’re going down.
The biggest risk in the gutter may not be the gutter itself, but the eroded shelf of scrubby vegetation that lies adjacent to it. After decades (centuries?) of use, the cobbled roads appear almost sunk in to the countryside. In some cases, this isn't far from the truth - they've been dug from under the fields in which they were buried in order to enrich the spectacle of the day. In other cases, constant use of the roads and tilling of the adjacent land has built up a cliff of dirt, grass and weeds along the roads. In some places its a couple of inches high. In others, it can be taller - tall enough to make pedal strike not just possible but probable. And in spite of your slow speed, when you strike a pedal on the ground you will be thrown from your bike. Given a choice, aim for the dirt, mud and, stinging nettles that lie on the non-cobbled side of the road. The nettles will sting for hours, but consider yourself lucky - your collarbone is in one piece.
So this Sunday, when you're watching riders taking the “easy way” through the cobbles by riding in the gutter, don’t judge them. For while the gutter may offer temporary relief to the rattle of the cobbles, it dishes out plenty of its own punishment. Dirty, itchy, muddy, beautiful punishment.