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To Hell on a Bike Riding the Paris – Roubaix: The Toughest Race in Cycling By Iain MacGregor

Release date: 16th March, 2015
Publisher: Bantam Press

List Price: 16.99
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Race organisers refer to it as the Queen of the Classics, which makes the 250-odd kilometre cycle race from north eastern Paris to a velodrome on the edge of the Belgian border sound like a Sunday afternoon jaunt replete with sunshine, flowers and fields of barley waving softly in the background.

Professional cyclists, by contrast, know it as ‘The Hell of the North’, a fairly straight forward race for the opening 100km, after which comes the hell to which multiple winners including Fabian Cancellara, Sean Kelly and Eddy Mercx refer. One third of the final 150 km is raced over 28 cobbled stages, ranging in distance from 300m to almost 4km, a dangerous, jarring, mud-splattering experience capable of bringing the very best to their knees.

Why wouldn’t a guy pushing 50 want to tackle the amateur edition of the Paris – Roubaix? To show there’s still plenty of juice in the tank; impress the kids and bask in the knowledge of having achieved something, that’s why. Foregoing the opportunity to enjoy a weekend ride between London and Brighton, Iain MacGregor seeks a greater challenge.

The nearest any writer has come to emulating this tale of mid-life derring-do is Tim Moore’s Gironimo, his story of tackling the original Giro d’Italia route, but while Moore’s book is part travelogue, MacGregor’s is more inspiring.

His initial intention is to complete a stage of the Tour de France – which he does in 2013 – riding on empty to the peak of Semnoz in desperately hot conditions. This proves little more than an appetiser and, while in Paris with his wife celebrating their wedding anniversary (great timing), he tells her, in a well-rehearsed speech, that he needs an even bigger challenge, ie to ride the Paris-Roubaix.

This background will strike a chord with millions of middle-aged men who still believe they’re capable of meeting serious sporting challenges head-on. This is a good thing, a function of our enhanced longevity and positive thinking.

Yet To Hell on a Bike is not pitched solely at the ‘Mamil’ (middle aged men in lycra) market. MacGregor’s is a genuinely inspirational story which blends details of his preparation with the race’s history and his take on why it continues to attract cycling’s greats. When Sir Bradley himself says, “Paris-Roubaix is the best race in the world and knocks spots off the Tour de France,” there aren’t many amateur cyclists who wouldn’t fancy giving it a go; after all, it’s only 250-odd kilometres…..


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