Riding like hell to hang on is a rite of passage for girls who ride bikes with guys but on the pavé of northern France I found my feminine self-worth. Five men and one woman ride from Dunkerque to Roubaix.

Words: Susannah Osborne
Images: Steven Jackson

Billowing dust clouds have formed a brownish, opaque wall between them and me. The fields are dry and so are the cobbles. Up the road I see a head turn; Dan glances over his right side and looks back. I’m still here. I dig deep. The furrowed soil starts to blur and suddenly I’m back on, and the first section of pavé from Pont-Thibault to Ennevelin is done.

Women cyclists can be complex, mercurial beings. The inevitable inequalities that come with riding with men can challenge your ideas of who you are and why you ride. And while for some the security of riding with other women is what nurtures their potential on the road, for others, like me, women-only riding isn’t what appeals. I like the challenge. But while riding with men can easily elevate you to queen of the mountain, if you act like a princess when the wheels come off it’s all a bit of a charade. Which is why I need to get a grip.

On the drops
Earlier that morning our group of six riders set out from a very average car park in a flat, French farming town near Dunkerque—the kind of place where the shutters are down most of the time, save for the boulangerie, where they’re up until 10 a.m. But when the mist of northern France is refracting spring sunshine and sending tiny rainbows left and right in front of your face, even a square of asphalt can be beautiful.

Pedaling along, droplets of water stick to my gloves and legs, and form a thin film on my cheeks. Our route takes us through towns called Wormhout, Eecke and Godwaersvelde—names we don’t attempt to pronounce. The roads are so smooth here that if you close your eyes and keep spinning it’s like you’re riding on silk, especially if you’re from the UK where endless potholes and fist-deep craters litter the roads. You can ride fast in northern France. And this place is empty. It’s quiet; nobody speaks.

A sudden, short, 26-percent climb disrupts the peace and the sound of six pairs of rasping lungs punches a hole in the silence. A quick descent and the open, plowed fields give way to another climb. We go up 140 meters on a 7-percent rise, Mont des Cats, between dense, spinach-green trees. Fellow cyclists appear from nowhere, there’s not a lot of elevation around here and it seems that this little bump is a magnet for riders; it will welcome the 2014 Tour de France on July 8.

We’re giddy. The sensation of riding in a tight, rotating group is addictive and I don’t want it to end. As we climb, it feels like there’s an elevator taking us up rather than our legs, and the long sweeping descent certainly doesn’t feel like it is deserved. A sudden puncture and the sound of a valve fizzing madly wake us from the trance and we clatter to a stop. But with a support car full of wheels it’s truly a minor delay.

License to eat
Women have a funny relationship with food. But if ever there was ever a time when eating was the antithesis of cheating, it’s when you’re on the bike. On offer from the back of our support van is a foot-square box of thick, chunky flapjacks. We’ve put in around 90 kilometers at around 35 kilometers per hour, and these bricks of sticky, sugary oats are fixing any calorie deficit I might have created. Stuffed full of chocolate, cherries and nuts, they make energy bars look like a chemical experiment on your insides. This is real road food.

Back on the bikes and the headiness of the first two thirds of this ride is overshadowed by the realization that we’re about to tackle nine sections of pavé. I know it’s not Paris-Roubaix, with its 27 cobbled sectors. I know that. But I’ve never done this before and there are doubts setting in.

I feel a protective envelope close in and around me, but despite the feeling of safety I think I might get dropped; women tend to do this. We doubt ourselves. Men, in my experience tend to be cocksure. We’re friends and we ride regularly together but this is a litmus test of how we are as riders. I need to prove myself, not for the men in this group but for me, as a woman.

Equal rides
The problem with riding cobbles is that, unless your name is Fabian, you don’t spend much of your life riding cobbles, so it follows that you don’t know how to ride them. If you’re a woman the chances are probably but (not certainly) a bit less—my guess is that my 58-kilogram (128-pound) body is going to get one hell of a bouncy ride.

Each of the cobbled sectors of Paris-Roubaix is unique with its own characteristics, features and personality. With seven sections down, we approach the Carrefour de l’Arbre with trepidation; its 2.1 kilometers are rated five stars, the hardest level of difficulty in the April classic. The Carrefour, which means crossroads, tracks across open, often windy, land. Tackling the first half, we twist and turn before taking a left-hander toward the end. After experimenting with spinning and taking it easy, I work out that the reason the pros looks so crazy on these sections is because the only approach is to go at it hammer and tongs. Over-geared, foolhardy, don’t-mess-with-me riding from the start until the end. It works. I pass Dan, then Gareth, and I finish third out of six. Not bad for a girl.

Roubaix or bust
The last cobbled sector is at Hem. At 1,400 meters long, this winding section is flanked by strips of forgotten tarmac; take your pick, cobbles or craters. Either way, I’m doing this last effort hungry and I’m about to enter that tense emotional state of being angry. A gel, a bar, another flapjack; I need to eat. Now.

And then it’s over and we’re cruising back on flat earth, floating toward the not-so-pretty city of Roubaix, where the prize for this day in the saddle is a few laps of the legendary velodrome. Roubaix is an industrial town, once a major textile center, but the industry is long gone leaving relics of a successful past dotted around the city. We pass vast warehouses: derelict, forlorn dinosaurs of twisted metal and broken glass.

Minutes ago we were in rural France but the fields are now long gone and we’re riding in one of the most fabled cycling locations in the world. The speed winds up as we go around and around the pinkish, earth-coloured track. We’re high on the bankings then down, full gas, on the flat. We’re dodging power walkers, kids in remote-controlled cars, dogs. This is just any Saturday in spring in this town and, rightly so, anyone is allowed in.

And so it ends and we roll down the bankings and back to reality. Game over. The next destination is the legendary showers, which must be the only washrooms that are an integral part of a race. If you reach the showers you’ve ridden one of the hardest races in the world. We haven’t, but it’s a legend worth indulging. Joining the men in the showers is a categorical no-no and it’s an in-your-face reminder that while women can ride we’re still on the periphery of this sport; but now, at least, we’re looking in. Not into here though, though. That would be wrong.

It’s been a long, dusty day and I’m proud to say that I kept up with the boys. I love the simplicity of riding with men; you ride, you ride some more, and then you stop. And as they sink a few beers in the sunshine I get the feeling that they’re proud of me too. They don’t say it though, but then men don’t. We’re different, you see.

HotChillee is an events company that specializes in providing professional-class events to amateurs. This ride was a recce ahead of Dunkerque-Roubaix. To enter go to dunkerque-roubaix.com

Check out Steven Jackson’s portfolio: sjjackson.com

From issue 32 of peloton.