there's a very nice hill leading off the end of uiskentuie strand onto foreland estate, bounded on one side by a smallish wood, concealing foreland house. it's probably only about two kilometres in length and has one or two false flats along its length, and at its steepest point, the gradient is likely only as much as 8% or 9%, and even then only for a short distance. it's the sort of descent, when approached from the loch gorm side, that offers great satisfaction, though a couple of blind corners mean paying close attention on the way down. for the road is only singletrack and motor vehicles, including tractors, more often than not spoil a perfectly good freewheeling run.
the mighty dave t and i harbour secret plans to cobble it.
we figured that, if we sneaked out under cover of darkness, with no thought for the acquisition of planning permission, we could get the job done without anyone noticing. once completed, it would surely be a simple matter to rename the hill foreland muur or forelandberg. it seems like the sort of cunning plan that only comes along once in a lifetime, so until the matter is resolved, mum's the word.
sadly, cobbles are totally conspicuous by their absence on islay, so mostly we have to make do with potholed roads for our verisimilitude of either flanders or roubaix. even the gravé offers little in the way of succour to the roughly challenged (so to speak). though peats are cut in far less numbers in these modern times of central heating, their past has left marks upon the island's topography. many of the gravel tracks simply head into the foothills and peat mosses and stop; there's really nowhere that could be considered a circular route, and we all know how dependent the pelotonese are upon their circular parcours.
so, supposing i fancied riding the cobbles of paris-roubaix, purely for the pleasure of so doing. where on earth would i practice, unless the mighty dave t and i take matters into our own hands? to a certain extent, scots author iain macgregor suffered from a similar ailment. though no longer domiciled north of the border (though coincidentally with a daughter named isla), he was buoyed by the experience (and purgatory) of riding the 2013 etape de tour. that in itself demands a level of commitment and training, a level that, with hindsight, it seemed a shame to waste.
thankfully, from his point of view, it took remarkably little persuading to have his wife agree to let him undertake the paris-roubaix challenge, an organised sportive following the route of the professional race. no small undertaking for any cyclist, but undoubtedly harder for anyone living in an area devoid of any meaningful cobbles. to hell on a bike is macgregor's recounting of the process that took him from fit etape cyclist to one capable of successfully riding the arenberg forest without falling off. at least, not at that particular point.
undoubtedly a sense of pragmatic caution would have the intrepid velocipedinist enquire further of those who rode the race for a living. riders such as roger hammond ("I don't think it's a difficult race, actually"), barry hoban ("...it's a war of attrition") and sean yates ("...i thought, bloody hell what's this all about?") all of whom seem to have involved themselves, albeit briefly, in the personal task set by mr macgregor. the book, therefore, is the story of one man's preparation to ride the hell of the north, an enjoyable distraction, augmented by snippets of history. it includes a visit with francois dulcier, president of les amis de paris-roubaix, an organisation dedicated to preserving the cobbles, a brief sortie to the roubaix velodrome to plan a strategy for the finishing sprint, and a few words with william lanigan of lille's pavé cycling classics.
a part of me figures that iain macgregor might have drastically overthought the entire affair. i'd have settled for watching a few recent editions of paris-roubaix, and had i lived as near the eurostar as does he, i may have popped across one weekend to try out a few cobbles in advance. but there's little denying just how tedious a book that would have turned out to be. this way, we garner far more information about the race itself, as well as the thoughts of those who have succeeded and almost succeeded in roubaix velodrome.
all in all, to hell on a bike is a highly entertaining read, well written, well paced and guaranteed to bring your enthusiasm for cobbles to the boil if you order a copy the minute you've finished reading this review and before the 2015 edition of the classic. it only remains for me to point out that, when interviewing francois dulcier, his disappointment at there being no scots amongst the society's membership is entirely unfounded. i joined years ago.
did he make it to roubaix? that would incur a spoiler alert.
tuesday 31 march 2015..........................................................................................................................................................................................................