HOTN ‘up North’

Riders from Rapha Manchester rolled out on the morning of Sunday 9th April to pay tribute to Paris Roubaix. Taking in a mixture of gravel paths and cobbled lanes to the south of the city, the 50 mile ride included the iconic climbs of Swiss Hill and Beeston Brow before returning to the clubhouse in time to witness the race leaders enter the Roubaix velodrome.

One of the ‘Monuments’ of the European professional race calendar, the race has been contested a total of 117 times since its inaugural run in 1896. Commonly referred to as the ‘Hell of the North’; this appellation acknowledges not only the challenges of racing over sections of cobblestone pavé but the First World War battlefields the route crosses.

With the Manchester tribute comprising six sectors of varying degrees of difficulty – the cobbled climbs peaking at a challenging 25% gradient – recently joined Rapha Cycling Club (RCC) member Hannah Davies reflected on the ride over a cold beer back at the clubhouse.

You’re quite new to the RCC?

I’d been riding for about two years – enjoying the Saturday Women’s Rides out of the Manchester clubhouse – but never considered joining a cycle club before.

Was there anything that put you off? A perception, maybe?

I did think that clubs looked very elitist from the outside. But then I rode the Rapha Women’s 100 last summer and everyone was so friendly that I just went from there.

And joined the RCC?

I wanted more options. More rides to go on. To ride in a mixed group with faster people so I could get stronger.

How do you find group riding?

I was a bit self-conscious at first and a little apprehensive. If you’ve not done this before it can be a little nerve-wracking but ride leaders like Sarah really help in developing these skills. You have to put your trust in the people you’re riding with. And there’s no way I would have done this ride on my own.

Were you looking forward to today?

To be honest I wasn’t, no. Just because I’d never ridden on cobbles before. I thought I couldn’t do it and I wouldn’t enjoy it. So I wasn’t keen.

But you still signed up for the ride?

Sarah didn’t really give me much choice [laughing].

And how did you find it?

It was ace. Some of the gravel paths early on, I was worried that I might come off but I was fine. And later, when we got to the climbs, it wasn’t the cobbles that were actually hard. It was the gradient.

How did you feel at the top?

I was elated. So pleased that I’d achieved it. But that’s why you ride, isn’t it? It’s a whole series of mini challenges that you complete. But I’ve never completed them all because I’m forever moving the goalposts and that’s what motivates me. I just feel I’m progressing with the club; I can see that I’m getting quicker. And cycling means so much to me. It keeps me sane; makes me feel happy.

Rapha Manchester

Rapha Cycling Club 

Braver Than The Elements

Why we ride

There’s a moment, just before you draw back the curtains on the morning of a ride, when the day ahead is quite perfectly formed. The route is set, meeting points agreed and equipment readied. And even though we understand that the weather can be a capricious companion, there’s an innate optimism that can fly in the face of considered forecasts. We become experts at looking for that window of opportunity on the satellite maps we check with increasing frequency as our ride day nears.

All too often, however, the reality fails to meet these expectations. Any ride, at any time of the year, can fall foul of the weather gods. Especially in winter – after coffees are drunk and layers adjusted –  you notice an involuntary narrowing of the shoulders as riders roll out their bikes; elbows hugging sides as they struggle to maintain warmth before the effort of riding counteracts the bitter wind. When feet gradually numb, finger tips burn with the cold and you taste the grit spun up from the wheel in front; even the most hardened rouleur can question their commitment to ride.

So why venture out and forgo temperature controlled comfort? When cloud shrouded summits, ice paved roads and the water droplets that blur a Garmin’s passage only act to acknowledge a combative relationship with the weather. When what awaits is windswept moorland and muddy lanes; hard roads for hard riding.

In an effort not to be defeated by the weather’s unpredictable whims, we choose rather to deflect the disappointment of a rain-sodden route with humour and good companions. We ride forearmed with hopes that the wind will drop and the sky will clear.

We ride to escape the pressures of daily life; seeking adventure in an increasingly structured world as we simplify decisions down to the turn of a pedal. We ride for the laughter, the stories shared, the quiet words of concern. The waiting after a climb and the out-stretched arm. We brave the elements in the knowledge that the road is always there to welcome us.

In defiance of the wind and driving rain, on Saturday 18th March two groups of women rolled out of the Rapha Clubhouse in Manchester. These words and pictures are dedicated to those who chose to ‘brave the elements’ with good humour and a shared sense of comradeship.


Thanks to Dean for help with the photographs and the warm welcome back at CCMCR.