For a small but growing number of well-dressed London cyclists, early April in recent years has become synonymous not so much with Paris and pavé as Herts and gravé. Now in its 7th year, the Hell of the North is Rapha's tribute to Paris-Roubaix - and this year it featured a brand-new course with freshly devised off-road sectors of the mysterious element that Rapha call gravé.

It's fair to say that, in paying homage to the cobbled roads of northern France and Belgium, Rapha have used a little artistic licence. Cobbled lanes being in short supply around north London, a large portion of the "gravé" is muddy bridlepaths and straight-up fields better suited to tractors than road bikes.

I discovered this first hand when I turned up last Sunday to ride the Hell of the North VII. I'd clearly been lulled into a false sense of complacency by last year's course and the dry weather, which made the course easily rideable on 25mm slicks.

This year? Not so much. Exhibit A:

Rapha's version of the Arenberg Trench.
Rapha's version of the Arenberg Trench.

And it's not just tyres that suffer. The tight clearances on race oriented road bikes meant caliper brakes quickly jammed up with substantial gobbets of primordial ooze as grass, branches and small mammals combined with mud to form a performance-retarding paste that liberally coated all moving parts of your bicycle.

Savvier cyclists could be seen carrying twigs with which to poke the worst of the debris off their bikes after each off-road sector.

The mud attacks with the tactical precision of a sniper ambushing a motorcade. First, bang - your brakes are taken out by a few handfuls of sticky clay. You put a foot down in the muck to steady yourself, and bang: cleats disabled. A few extra dollops of mud on the drivetrain to foul up the shifting, boom: enjoy the rest of the ride, suckers!

In one particulary heinous section of bog I met three RCC riders trudging in the opposite direction. Apparently there was an unmarked junction ahead, and they were retracing their steps, looking for a missed arrow. I'd lost faith in my navigational abilities by then (was it just me, or was the signage a bit hit-and-miss this year?) so dutifully turned and followed them.

It turned out we hadn't missed an arrow, the junction simply wasn't marked - thanks for the extra mile of mud, Rapha! But the leader of the trio had a parting gift for me and another lost cyclist we'd picked up. "Here fellas, let me show you a cyclocross trick..."

"Just tell him to get lost if you don't want him messing with your bike," warned one of his mates.

Undeterred, he gave the tyres a squeeze. "You should let some air out," he counselled, then flipped open the catch on our front and rear brake calipers to give a few mm extra clearance.

"There you go," said the sage, with a 'thank me later' air.

I waited until they had rolled out of sight and then closed the brakes again. Appreciate the gesture, but the addition of non-functioning brakes into the muddy mix was a thrill too far.

Old and new routes for Rapha Hell of the North.
Old and new routes for Rapha Hell of the North.

Still, the encounter encapsulated the camaraderie that sets the Hell of the North apart from most sportives. It's an exceptionally friendly ride, with an atmosphere more akin to a club jolly than a typical sportive. Perhaps that's only to be expected, given that two thirds of the riders this year were members of Rapha Cycling Club. If this is typical, it's an excellent advertisement for the club.

Riders with mechanicals or punctures (and there were plenty of each, predictably - I heard of one poor guy who suffered five flats) could rely on the next group along stopping to offer assistance. On a few occasions I found myself stopped at the side of the track to offer and receive moral, if not technical support. Easy conversation flowed among friends and strangers as we ploughed, sometimes literally, a path through Hertfordshire.

Sure  why not.
Sure why not.

Maybe it was the gruelling conditions that led to this sense of esprit de corps.

For an idea of the levels of sheer filth involved, check out this excellent on-bike footage shot by Stephen de Souza:

YouTube: Rapha Hell of the North VII

(Look out for the slow-mo tumble at 04:32.)

So the new route was muddy - but how did it stack up against the "classic" HOTN route of previous years?

The new course - shortened to 87km from its previous 100km - seemed universally well received by people I spoke to on the day, and on social media afterwards. So perhaps my thoughts on the revised route should be treated with caution. Still, I was left with the impression of a parcours that, while largely enjoyable, has a few wrinkles to be ironed out.

The monochrome sector was particularly epic.
The monochrome sector was particularly epic.

It's the little details...

Last year's feed stop at the velodrome in Welwyn Garden City, with a chance to indulge Paris-Roubaix fantasies, was a major highlight of the ride of me. It was a shame to see it dropped; the ride lost a little of its magic.

This year the feed stop - a Rapha H-Van promising coffee and pastries - finally appeared at the top of a concrete lane hill climb fully two-thirds of the way through the ride.

The H-Van was stripped as bare as the winter trees.
The H-Van was stripped as bare as the winter trees.

Just one snag: by the time I arrived it had been stripped bare of all edibles by earlier arrivals.

To add insult to injury, the generator had packed in, meaning no coffee. So that's why they call it hell...

All that remained was a half jug of milk. As a freeloader on the ride I couldn't complain. But for the legit RCC members behind me on the course, this must have come as something of a blow. Memo to Rapha: if you're going to subject riders to 60km of sapping trench warfare before the feed stop, best allow for more than a single croissant each. An army marches on its stomach!

I'd already ridden 30 miles to get to Highgate for the start of HOTN and was running low on humour at this point. Salvation came in the unlikely form of South Mimms Services: the route ran directly past the back of the main building and I pulled in for an emergency burger. A couple of other riders had the same idea, enjoying a coffee on a sunny patch of grass.

South Mimms Services and a Starbucks tribute to Sven Nys seemed appropriate given the muddy parcours.
South Mimms Services and a Starbucks tribute to Sven Nys seemed appropriate given the muddy parcours.

Anyway, to get back to my nit-picking.

There were 19 sections of gravé, each marked with a pink sign at the start and a difficulty rating of 1-5 stars.

While there were plenty of excellent trail sections once we escaped the city, the early section of the route involved what seemed to me a lot of unnecessary pussy-footing through suburbs to get out of London, rather than the more direct sprint up the A1000 of previous years.

And a couple of the early gravé sections were a bit underwhelming. Sure, Finchley golf course and Dollis Valley Greenwalk are pretty, but pavé they ain't - and on a sunny Sunday, with narrow footpaths crowded with families and dog walkers, they aren't the ideal environment for 300 giddy, freshly caffeinated roadies.

These are minor gripes through, and not to detract from what remains a fantastic event. The new course held more than enough challenges to satisfy even the most masochistic of Rapha fans. I even fell off (into a thorny bush) so clearly they were doing something right.

And the finish was truly magnificent, as a couple of hundred weary but triumphant cyclists packed The Griffin pub in Whetstone to watch the end of Paris-Roubaix on big screens. Fuelled by Rapha's complimentary Belgian beer and frites, the party atmosphere as the race reached its climax sounded more like a football cup final than a bike race.

With Hell of the North Rapha are right to say they have created a cycling institution. It may no longer be free, but at £10 entry - including a Rapha cap, beer and frites - it's not just excellent value, but easily one of the best days out on a bike you can have.

See you there in 2017 - only next time, on 'cross tyres...

Thanks Rapha - from everyone's bike.
Thanks Rapha - from everyone's bike.