Last night I sat up ridiculously late watching the Paris-Roubaix cycling classic. It’s a one day race that stands at the very top of the “must win” list for professional cyclists. Within cycling circles it’s sometimes known as the “Queen of the Classics” and sometimes “The Hell of the North”. Cyclists in the 2010 Paris-Roubaix covered 259 kilometres over the day, which for a pro cyclist is a reasonable day’s work.
One of the things that makes Paris-Roubaix so different to many other races, and so sought after is that the course of the race covers long stretches of road paved with cobblestones. Cobblestones that have been in place since the days of the Roman empire – when many of the road were built.
Cobblestones that are rough, uneven, broken, and bone-jarring.
Cobblestones that damage body and bike alike.
Paris-Roubaix doesn’t just include a couple of short sections for the sake of tradition. This year’s course covered 27 different sections totalling 52.9km of cobblestones. 52.9km!
Riders start the Paris-Roubaix knowing that rough roads lie ahead. Lots of them. Knowing they will be shaken and stirred. That mechanical trouble is quite likely. That flat tyres will be common despite the best efforts of cycle mechanics. Still they come.
The rewards of this day far outweigh the challenge of the cobbles. Perhaps they are made even sweeter for the effort it takes to overcome not just the opposition, but the territory itself.
In a way that isn’t always true of other cycle races, many times the outcome of the Paris-Roubaix is determined by who is strongest on the cobbles. This year Fabian Cancellara rode with the lead pack for the first 200km, and then put his foot down on some of the most difficult cobbled sections, leaving his rivals grasping thin air. It was his strength when the road was rough that won him the race.
It seems to me that in this, the Paris-Roubaix is a good metaphor for life.
Just about any aspect of life we care to think about has some inevitability about the challenges and obstacles it contains.
Parenthood is no easy run. There are days when being a dad or a mum is plain hard work. When the knocks keep on coming and you can’t help wondering if its too late to change your mind.
Marriage is the same. For all the great days, there will inevitably be some that are difficult. Where the stuffing is knocked out of you by bumps in the road.
Professional careers, friendships, sports and hobbies all share this inevitability.
The christian faith is no guarantee that life will be cobblestone free.
Perhaps at the end of the day it is how we respond to the cobblestones that make any aspect of life truly rewarding. It might be where we find, display and grow our strength. It is on the cobbles that the race is won.
And to risk pushing the metaphor just a little further, perhaps the same is true for the church. So much is said and written these days about the tough place we find ourselves in, about how it used to be so much better when we had huge sunday schools, youth groups, social clubs, and were bursting at the seems on Sunday mornings. Sometimes we think those were the days we were at our best.
I like to think maybe its the other way around. As we face the cobbles, we find opportunity.
(if you found this story interesting, you might like our previous reflections on lessons from le tour de france),