Cobbled Together
Cycling Plus|April 2017

The pavé of Paris-Roubaix isn’t on our doorstep but with a vast array of cobbles – and velodromes – across Britain, a DIY job is possible ...

Trevor Ward

Josh Papworth is a young British rider who spent several years living and racing in Belgium and finished 46th in the 2010 Junior Paris-Roubaix. I’m sure he’s a lovely bloke but right now, I hate his guts.

I feel as if every sinew in my body is about to explode as I try to hang on to the wheel in front of me on a 20 per cent slope of viciously jagged protuberances on the outskirts of Birmingham. And I’m blaming it all on Papworth.

The wheel in front belongs to Francis Longworth, who a few years ago decided the UK needed an event to rival Paris-Roubaix. His search for sections of pavé – or any bit of lumpy, broken surface he could find – led to an encounter with Papworth near the rider’s home in Romsley, Worcestershire. The conversation went something like this:

Longworth: “I’m looking for cobbles.”

Papworth: “There’s a load of them on a big hill at the back of my house.” Longworth: “Seriously?” Papworth: “Seriously. You should check them out.” 

Longworth: “Thanks. I will.” 

Fast forward several years and Longworth is now showing me the route of his DIY Paris-Roubaix, otherwise known as The Tour of the Black Country, though I can currently think of choicer epithets.

We are halfway up Walton Hill, and the ribbon of crazy paving – cobbles, bricks, stones, rocks, they’ve all been laid here at some point – stretches onwards and upwards beneath a canopy of trees. The gradient is tough enough, but factor in having to navigate a passage between uneven lumps of cobble and stone – plus a central, grassy reservation – and the climb exacts its toll mercilessly.

But for that fateful conversation between fellow aficionados of pavé, Walton Hill would have remained the preserve of dog-walkers, horse-riders and Sunday strollers, untroubled by cyclists. To the untrained eye, there was nothing of interest beyond what looked like a gateway to a farm. But on closer inspection, Longworth found the mother lode.

“As soon as I parked the car I could see the distinctive, hatched pattern indicating cobbles in the distance,” he recalls now between deep gulps of cold, December air. “I followed them around the bend and there were more… and more… and then a huge, dead straight ramp, 300m long, right to the top of the hill. My immediate thought was, ‘This looks harder than the Koppenberg’ [77m, 11.6 per cent average gradient hill of the Tour of Flanders, near Oudenaarde, Belgium]. I knew this had to be the iconic centrepiece of the route.”

A thing of beauty

Longworth’s reasons for wanting to recreate The Hell of the North on his West Midlands doorstep can be traced back to his student days as a member of Oxford University Cycling Club. He watched Paris-Roubaix on the TV and instead of seeing suffering and pain in the mud-caked faces of former Belgian pro Johan Museeuw, Italian Franco Ballerini et al, he saw grace, elegance and “the aesthetic beauty of their movement on a bike”. He was studying philosophy at the time.

In 2011, he and a group of friends signed up for the inaugural Paris- Roubaix Challenge, only to learn it wouldn’t be including some of the more iconic sectors, nor the velodrome finish.

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