At the entrance to the Forest of Arenberg in northern France there should be a sign that reads: "Welcome to Hell". Ahead of me is a seemingly endless track of uneven cobble-stones. They look like small tombstones, a miniature version of the war graves I had visited near the town of Nôtre Dame de Lovette a few days earlier.
I am about to enter cycling's answer to Dante's Inferno, the most infamous section of the torturous Paris-Roubaix, the 165-mile classic cycle race that takes place on the second Sunday of April each year. Unlike the Tour de France there are no vertiginous mountain passes, but it is still regarded as one of France's greatest road races, the toughest and most famous single-day event in professional cycling. In fact the Paris-Roubaix is seven years older than the Tour, and its notoriety arises from the fact that a third of the route takes riders over centuries-old, bumpy cobbled farm tracks, or pavé, following a path trodden by Napoleon's armies.
The first race was held in 1896, the brainchild of two wealthy Roubaix textile manufacturers, and has been held every year since, apart from the war years. When it resumed after the First World War in 1919 it passed through a landscape destroyed by artillery shells and bombs; the appalling state of the roads, awash with mud and blood, with broken bodies littering the countryside, led journalists to dub the race L'Enfer du Nord: the Hell of the North.
This year's event will be the 104th edition, and I am keen, legs permitting, to experience the infamous cobbles for myself before the professionals descend next month. My partner doesn't cycle, so elects instead to offer encouragement in a support vehicle, in exchange for a long spa weekend at a date - and price - of her choosing.
As weekend breaks go, this could, given the race's fearsome reputation, prove to be something of a self-indulgent folly but, undeterred, we hop on a Eurostar and pick up a hire car. Because, despite its name, the race does not actually start in the French capital but 40 miles north, in the town of Compiègne, before finishing inside Roubaix's famous velodrome.
The back seat of our hire car is soon a mess of bike box, inner tubes, energy bars, spare tyres and new wheels. But before assembling my conveyance, a touring road bike, we decide to visit the nearby Forest of Compiègne where, in a clearing, sits a replica of the train carriage where the armistice was signed in November 1918.
Riders get their first real taste of the race's unique demands about 60 miles from the start, at Troisvilles, near the Somme. From here it's a mix of cobbles and tarmac until they emerge at Hem, just short of Roubaix and the Belgian border. En route, many will be delayed and waylaid by crashes, punctures, broken spokes and buckled wheels.
When a Welshman called Arthur Linton rode in the first race in 1896, any hopes he had of victory were dashed after he collided with a dog. Early sepia images of finishes reveal exhausted riders being congratulated by wealthy Roubaix industrialists in top hats and ZZ Top-style beards.
Jacques Goddet, a former race director, christened Paris-Roubaix "the last great folly of cycling". Early races required riders to sign in at the start of each cobbled section, to prevent them cheating and taking the train. When punctures occurred, riders simply borrowed the bicycles of villagers, even female ones. And if stationary trains blocked their way, it was not uncommon for riders to jump a level crossing, open the doors of compartments and pass through with bikes on shoulders, pushing passengers out of the way.
My journey calls for no such urgency, yet while I have given myself several days to cover the route, I still face fundamental hurdles - such as staying on the bike. To ease the vibration of the cobbles I have chosen fatter tyres than normal to increase stability, and wear two pairs of gloves. I have even added sponge cushioning to my handlebars; anything to cushion the blow of the pavé. Pro riders use various modifications borrowed from cyclo-cross, such as cantilever brakes, a longer wheelbase and a raised bottom bracket.
Finally, I head out into the unknown, taking a left turn out of town and riding into the first section of cobble- stones at Troisvilles. Though stained with mud from tractor wheels, the pavé exudes a golden glow in the late-afternoon sunshine; what appear farm tracks to most right-thinking people represent hallowed ground for cyclists.
The initial sensation of riding over cobbles is akin to operating a mechanical digger. My arms shudder, my glasses bash against my helmet and the bike vibrates so much my vision becomes blurred. I soon realise that to remain upright on the cobbles I'm going to have to cycle pretty fast. On the pavé you are constantly searching for the path of least resistance. At high speed, my bike seems to skim the road's surface; but slow down and the front wheel changes direction all on its own, and at one point I have to swerve suddenly to avoid a massive pothole.
Whatever the weather, Paris-Roubaix is always a rough ride. In the wet, the route becomes a muddy quagmire, as slippery as an ice rink. In the dry, conditions resemble a cattle stampede, and riders struggle not to choke on the dust. Trying to keep upright is a mental as well as a physical strain. I tense my body, bracing myself for the impact of the cobbles, and by the time I reach the end of the first sector sweat is rolling into my eyes and my throat is parched.
Arriving back on the smooth asphalt feels like respite from toothache. A lone rosbif on the roads, I glide through towns at a gentle pace. An old corrugated Citroën van passes me, driven by a man so large his bulk denies any light in through the vehicle's back window.
After five sections of pavé I develop a splitting head-ache, partly from concentrating so hard. On the cobbles your brain is forced into overdrive as you try to anticipate potential hazards. A moment's inattention and you could be nursing a serious injury.
My original intention had been to ride the whole course in two days, but then things start to go wrong. The gaps between the cobbles get longer and I miss several sections of pavé, because without the aid of official course markings they are difficult to locate on the map. Lengthy exchanges with locals enable us to find most of them; if nothing else, tackling Paris-Roubaix on your own is a good way to brush up your French.
As we check into our hotel in the town of Cambrai, it doesn't take our fellow guests long to realise where the "country" smells are coming from. Using cutlery at dinner proves a challenge, as my arms are still vibrating and my wrists ache.
The following morning I am back on smooth tarmac roads heading towards Valenciennes, but despite my experience thus far, none of the earlier sections of cobbles have prepared me for what awaits in the nearby Arenberg Forest.
Introduced to the route in 1968, Arenberg is the race's real black spot, a rugged road through a dense forest where the trees have swallowed up all the light and the temperature drops considerably - and hell is supposed meant to be warm.
On race day, the 2,400- metre section is lined with a 60,000-strong crowd, but on the remaining 364 days of the year it is a tranquil yet eerie place. On a quiet Monday afternoon in early March there is only a middle-aged man in a shellsuit, out walking his dog, for company.
The perils of Arenberg have become the stuff of cycling legend: Eddy Merckx snapped his frame here; other riders have broken their legs and been propelled over their handlebars. In 1998, Belgium's Johan Museeuw crashed here, resulting in a broken knee and near-death after he contracted an infection. Two years later he came back to win the race, showing off his rebuilt knee to the world's press.
I approach the forest with trepidation; my hands sweat heavily inside my gloves and my entire body tenses. Which cobblestone has my name on it, I wonder? With my teeth gritted I decide to go for it. As I feel the rims of my wheels hit the cobbles the road seems determined to unseat me. My arms wobble like jelly, my bones jar and, once again, I can barely see anything.
On the plus side, at least this section is straight and I don't have to worry about corners. Cycle racing? This feels more like riding in a rodeo, but about 10 minutes later, I emerge at the other side of the forest with no bones broken.
By the time I reach one of the final cobbled sections at Camphin-en-Pevele, the light is fading. It becomes even harder to see the potholes and is more dangerous than ever. Not wanting to add serious injury to my three punctures and two broken spokes, I decide to take it easy.
As I reach Roubaix, after three days in the saddle, the darkness is all-consuming, and it is far too late to enter the velodrome. Nevertheless, I still feel elated. After this, hauling my bike over the mountains of the Le Tour would be a breeze.
Follow the spokesmen
Return fares from Waterloo to Lille on Eurostar (08705 186 186; eurostar.com) start from £79 per person, including one night's accommodation in Lille. A week's car hire with Holiday Autos (0870 400 4447; holidayautos.co.uk) costs from £134. Graham Baxter Sporting Tours (0113 284 3617; sportingtours.co.uk) are offering a three-day Paris-Roubaix package from 7-10 April; visitors can watch the race and try out the cobbles on their own bike. Prices start at £250 per person, including return sailings from Dover and coach collections for you and your bike.Reuse content