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Cobble hoppers: How to watch Paris-Roubaix in person

7 Jun 2022

The ultimate fan’s guide to watching Paris-Roubaix, cobbleside

Words Joe Robinson Photography Alex Duffill, Alice Alphrey, Joe Robinson

There’s nothing quite like it. The Hell of the North, the Queen of the Classics, the toughest, most gruelling day a professional can have on a bike, and the one race you have to watch roadside before you can truly call yourself a cycling fan.

Paris-Roubaix is the greatest single day of pro racing on the calendar, the ultimate high-wire act at the WorldTour circus.

But if you do decide to go, how do you tell your Camphin-en-Pévèles from your Carrefour de l’Arbres? How will you know where to stand without being blocked off by a race moto? Which side streets should you take to avoid road closures? And crucially, where do you keep your beer so it stays cold and doesn’t get stolen?

Fear not, dear reader, because we went to this year’s Paris-Roubaix and made all the mistakes so you don’t have to. Here’s the result: Cyclist’s Complete Guide to Acing Paris-Roubaix.

Logistics king

Any pilgrimage to witness Paris-Roubaix in person begins long before the racing. It starts months in advance, poring over information about hotels and Channel crossing timetables, pre-planning your race day route and deciding which cobbled secteurs you plan to target.

As such, I’ve been in regular contact with my accomplices and trip photographers, Alex and Alice, for some time already.

I give Alex a call in late February to hash out a rough plan for our Sunday (and Saturday) in Hell. First thing’s first: for maximum absorption of cobble vibes, we decide on travelling out on the Thursday and staying on to the Monday, and agree we will attempt to see the men’s race in four locations: the start in Compiègne, the iconic Arenberg Trench, Orchies and the penultimate secteur of Hem, less than 10km from the finish.

Historically the Saturday of Roubaix was reserved for the Paris-Roubaix Challenge, the sportive that follows the same route as the pro race and is a rite of passage for any amateur.

But after the women’s peloton finally ended 125 years of waiting for their own taste of the cobbles in 2021, Saturday on Roubaix weekend is now all about Paris-Roubaix Femmes.

Keen to see the women’s race, and having endured the cobbled catastrophe of the Paris-Roubaix Challenge first-hand in the past, it’s an easy decision to skip the sportive in favour of the pro action.

The women’s race starts with four loops of Denain so we make the call to see the race start before catching up with the peloton at Hornaing à Wandignies only a few kilometres away.

This leaves us with all of Friday to check out the velodrome in Roubaix and prepare ourselves mentally for the weekend’s racing. Now we just have to get ourselves to France.

Pitching up, eating out

The Eurotunnel is a travel sensation. Sure, you don’t get the fry-up and top deck arcade of the ferry, but it only takes 35 minutes to get from Folkestone to Calais and the company doesn’t fire all of its staff via a Zoom call.

Booked in advance, I pick up our return crossing for £220, which is higher than usual this year thanks to Paris-Roubaix taking place over Easter weekend. We roll on at 10.36am and have arrived at our hotel by lunchtime.

Experience at bike races has taught me there’s no point booking a hotel with any airs or graces; we’ll only be using it to sleep off the racing and the beer.

Hotel Campanile is like a French Travelodge in that they’re always clean and have a restaurant for breakfast – so I book the one in Villeneuve-d’Ascq, a five-minute drive from Roubaix, a 30-minute drive to the Arenberg Forest and a 90-minute bop from the Eurotunnel in Calais – all at a very reasonable €60 per night for a double or twin. That’ll do nicely.

At check-in I ask whether there are any local restaurants worth popping into during our stay. The guy on the desk recommends three, and in the end we visit them all…

Bécane: a former motorcycle workshop-turned-craft beer and burger place. Wouldn’t look out of place in East London. Majority of staff have facial hair. Burgers as good as the beer, 9/10.

Crocodile Buffet: a train station-themed restaurant reminiscent of a Harvester. All you can eat entrée buffet for €7.95, including drinks including Stella Artois. Decent cooking, and you can sit in a train carriage, 6.5/10.

L’Office: if high-street store Next did restaurants. Studded pleather and fake books for decor, self-described as ‘bar, restaurant and after-work joint’. The burger was rare even for France, but it did have Lagunitas IPA on tap, 3/10.

On Friday night we raid the local Match supermarket for weekend car supplies, acutely aware that eating and drinking is one of the first things thrown to the wayside when chasing a fast-moving peloton.

We brim the tank with diesel for the weekend ahead while high-fiving each other at the EU prices. All that’s left is a good night’s sleep before the chaos begins.

Chase the race

The start of the men’s race on the Sunday is a much more ordered and regulated affair than the women’s had been the day before.

On Saturday journalists squeezed the tyres of the new Trek Domane while the French cycling ultras huddled around the Cofidis and FDJ team campers, hoping to get their rider cards signed. When Elisa Longo Borghini stormed to victory, fans could pretty much run right up to her.

Today the race is behind fencing and only those with accreditation are allowed in. But the motivated fan can get close enough to sample the atmosphere, and through the paddock fencing I watch Patrick Lefevere schmoozing sponsors, Thomas Voeckler peacocking around in an Assos base layer, Matej Mohorič posing for selfies and Niki Terpstra kissing his wife for luck (presumably his luck, not hers).

I also see Fred Wright’s parents, who are screaming excitedly as their son’s Bahrain Victorious team is introduced on the presentation stage by a dapper Frenchman in an off-white safari suit. This alone is worth the early start.

We watch the race leave Compiègne, sprint back to the car and shoot through the tolls and onto the motorway towards our first section of cobbles, the Arenberg. Weaving our way through the train of team buses on the A1 motorway, we arrive more than an hour ahead of the race.

From the moment we step out of the car we’re hit with a sensory overload. Fans stretch the entire 2.4km of the infamous secteur, thousands having made the trip to this cobbled concert hall. No television coverage could begin to do this justice.

We pick up a decent-length hot dog, some chips and a Jupiler lager at €10 each from a roadside vendor before walking down to find a spot.

The barriers that divide the fans from the race look like something put together by the United Nations, with flags from all corners of the globe being waved enthusiastically. The most obscure offerings we identify as being from Mozambique and Venezuela, the most common the French and the Flemish Lion.

The smell of the Arenberg is also distinctive, a heady blend of smoke, beer, sausages, body odour and sun cream. The American fans are welcoming, the French have the best picnics and the Belgians are the most boozy (and therefore the loudest), and this natural order of things can often influence where you choose to watch the race from.

Mindful not to stray too far from the car so that we can get away as soon as the race passes and make our way to the next secteur, we nestle in next to an American family who have made the pilgrimage to northern France from South Carolina.

After 90 minutes of anticipation, the race thunders by in less than 90 seconds.

With the final ‘Allez!’ barely out of our mouths we are hacking through the forest, back to the car and on to our next appointment with Paris-Roubaix.

Improvise, adapt, overcome

Our plan, as mentioned earlier, is to intersect with the race at Orchies and then Hem, but who could have known the motorway turnoff for Orchies would be shut on race day? Maybe me, had I read the local paper, but not to worry.

I make the call to stay on the motorway, skip Hem and travel to arguably the second most iconic secteur after the Arenberg, the Carrefour de l’Arbre. And what a decision it proves to be.

We arrive 45 minutes before the riders to an atmosphere noticeably less tense than the Arenberg, where fans had pitched up early to get a spot alongside and were unwilling to cede an inch for latecomers. There are just as many people at the Carrefour but when we arrive most are lazing in the unusually warm weather, on blankets in the adjacent fields.

We walk down the cobbles in time to the pumping beat of Eurodance until we reach a spot on the apex of the secteur’s iconic left-hander. Some well-lubricated French fans are kind enough to let us slot into position beside them, so close to the road that our toes brush the dusty cobbles.

The tell-tale taka-taka of a helicopter comes into earshot, building steadily as race photographers take their places on the opposite side of the corner and chants of ‘here we go’ begin.

Cheers rise to a crescendo that flows its way up the cobbleside and hits us as the first riders come through the corner at maximum velocity, missing us by millimetres. I snap a few shots on my phone but then put it away, leaning in to drink up the experience with all my senses. The atmosphere, this madness, is addictive.

The leaders disappear into the distance and the melee finally begins to mellow. The news that Dylan van Baarle has taken the win at the velodrome comes just as his Ineos Grenadiers teammate Luke Rowe leads a group of stragglers through the Carrefour. It will be another 24 minutes before he can join the team celebrations.

The last set of fans we see before reaching our parked car are a group of Belgians, no older than 18, swigging beer, eating crisps and singing along to ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. To a man they are all sunburned, but all have beaming grins on their faces, with not a care in the world.

There is nothing quite like Paris-Roubaix, the one race you must watch roadside before you die.

Follow in our footsteps

Cyclist’s driving route to catch the race in three places

We took the A1 toll road from our hotel in Villeneuve-d’Ascq, near Roubaix, to the race start in Compiègne. Be aware you will need to pay for parking here.

Once the race begins, rejoin the A1 before turning onto the A2, then joining the A23 at Valenciennes until junction 4 for the Arenberg Forest, which is a kilometre south on the D40. Next rejoin the A23 until junction 2a, taking the D955 towards Cysoing.

When you hit the village of Bouvines, make sure to take the farm track of Chem de Tournai as this avoids the police roadblocks and gets you to the road you’ll need to park on for the Carrefour de l’Arbre.

5 golden rules from the Roubaix roadside

1. Don’t overdo it

We’ve heard rumours of certain eager beavers managing to catch Roubaix at five different secteurs of cobbles. While we admire the logistical prowess of such an achievement, we cannot help but think that with all that rushing about, you’ll not get time to truly enjoy the atmosphere.

As such, we recommend aiming to see the race at three points, and certainly no more than four. This allows you to catch the action on multiple occasions but also gives you time to soak up the event and immerse yourself in the surroundings while you’re there.

2. Pack your lunch

Cobble-hopping at Roubaix is a day-long endeavour and you’re going to need sustenance. While some cobble secteurs have food stalls for you to buy typical roadside fare like chips and beer, it’s a far better plan to stack up the car with food and drink that you can consume on the move.

Avoid things that melt, like chocolate, and food that doesn’t deal well with heat, like cheese. Pastries are a good bet – you’re in France, after all.

3. Pick your playlists

Music is just as important as food. The drive to the start at Compiègne took us almost two hours on its own and all told we were in the car for almost six over the whole day. To keep the mind engaged and the eyes focussed, we curated some special playlists for the occasion.

Being a bike race in Europe we went for some classic hardstyle, the Scooters, the Sash!s and the Cascadas of this world. If that’s a bit hectic for your liking, you could always opt for the greatest hits of the Little River Band.

4. Prepare to change

As we learned on the day, you’ve got to be ready to adapt. We didn’t know that the Orchies turn-off would be closed but our ability to quickly change plans, scrap the idea of hitting the Hem secteur and beelining for the Carrefour de l’Arbre instead paid off, big time. When you’re out cobble-hopping, always be willing to change the plan and always trust your gut.

5. Park facing your exit

This may sound like an obvious one but always park in the direction you’re going to be leaving. Remember there will be thousands just like you looking to travel from secteur to secteur, not to mention all of the race traffic and invariably drunk fans getting in the way.

Give yourself the best chance of making a quick getaway by backing into that parking space.

Want more classics action? Read our guide to the best cobbled climbs of Flanders.