Photography: Angus Sung | Words: Harry Dowdney

Puddles, punctures and the pub

The Rapha Hell of the North VII

With 300 cyclists on the start line, 19 off-road sectors and 87km of white-knuckle riding, the Rapha Hell of the North is Paris-Roubaix for the aficionados. On its seventh edition last Sunday 10th April, the tribute event delivered all of the muddy puddles and endless punctures expected, ending in the pub for a beer-soaked viewing of the pros racing the real thing in France.
200 of the starters were from the Rapha Cycling Club, so the sign-on in leafy Highgate, a small suburb sitting atop North London, was a vision of pink, grey and black. Each participant received a special edition Rapha cap and was set off in groups at two minute intervals from 9am.
Early congestion soon spread out into a steady stream of riders once the Hertfordshire countryside and its bridleways had begun testing legs more used to riding on smooth tarmac. Some raced, while others pootled along. There was only one real concern: making it the pub in time to see the end of the real race on TV.
The riders basked in sunshine all day long, but the typically British spring weather had already left its calling card: mud. Ride around the puddles, or go straight through the middle? Whichever tactic was chosen, those white socks wouldn’t remain white for much longer.
The Rapha H-Van Pedro offered much-needed drinks and snacks at the top of the day’s toughest climb. A mere pinprick of a hill on normal days, its wind-exposed location challenged legs sapped by 58km and 14 off-road sectors so far. From ‘H-Van Hill’, there was only 30km to go.
Just like Paris-Roubaix’s cobblestone sectors, each of the Hell of the North’s 19 off-road segments was given a name and rating out of five stars. By far the worst was number four, The Monument, a five-star up and downer through a forest and along single track.
Rides like these never lack for stories to tell: one man snapped his expensive carbon forks riding straight through a concrete slab, and another’s tyre exploded, leaving him waiting at the side of a field while his friend cycled 5km to buy new tyres at a nearby bike shop. Both were still smiling at the end.
How to top a ride like the Hell of the North? By watching the end of the most thrilling one-day bike race in living memory. If only Team Sky’s Ian Stannard had managed to come around Tom Boonen and Mat Hayman in the final corner, the celebrations would have lasted much longer than they did. Chapeau, riders of the north – see you next year.