When you stop for a ‘comfort break’ and are passed by two riderless horses galloping towards a group of cyclists on the bridleway in the distance, you know you’re not on a normal ride. But then Rapha’s Hell of the North ride never claimed to be a normal ride.
Now in its second edition, the Hell of the North (London) took riders out of North London into the Hertfordshire countryside, and, in honour of a certain bike race that took place in northern France over the weekend, introduced them to the best of the region’s tracks, bridleways, woods, streams and playing fields – 20 sections of so-called gravé over 100 km of riding.
Congregating at Highgate’s Pond Square for a 9am grand départ were around 300 riders of all flavours – with strong showings from the London clubs, plenty of people in retro kit and many highly unsuitable bikes. Who else than Rapha could convince otherwise sensible-looking blokes to ride Cervélo R3s and Super Record-equipped Colnago C59s along rutted mud paths? The mind winces. ‘Cross bikes were the best adapted to the conditions, followed, perhaps, by a lone Pashley Guvnor; the numerous track bikes certainly were not.
And the experience? Illuminated by glorious sunshine, it was more heaven than hell, despite some tough, long uphills through forests, and fast descents along gravelly tracks. And when you were pegging it along the gravé, bouncing across the holes, hands on the flats with your weight on the pedals and eyes fixed on the middle distance searching for obstacles, you felt like you almost knew what the pros were going through. Almost.
There were no serious accidents, barring a snapped derailleur and a bit of man-meets-hedge action (ironically on a nicely paved road). Over free Belgian beer and frites at the end, in a pub showing the Paris-Roubaix, the organisers gave out prizes. A shirt signed by Kelly and Hinault for the rider with the most punctures (five); a cap for the chap in full Mapei kit and another riding an Alan; a signed, limited-edition poster for the rider with the most panache.
The route sheet’s instructions sternly ordered: ‘No smiling – remember, you’re a Belgian.’ But with the sun and the fun, it was difficult not to.
The horses, by the way, which had broken through their fence, were stopped by the some of the cyclists, herded into a local garden centre and local (horse)riders alerted.
road.cc would like to point out that other 'Hells' are available aside from the Rapha and Roubaix versions - there is also the legendary Hell of the North Cotswolds the 2011 edition of which also took place yesterday - for a taste of what that's like check out Vecchiojo's report from last year's ride.