“What just happened? What was that? I didn’t expect this – I’m truly at a loss for words. It felt like I was riding a pump track over rocks, falling into pit after pit, fearing any second my bike would shatter into a thousand pieces. And that was just the warm-up. What’s going to happen when the real thing starts tomorrow with all those monsters around?”

This bewildering mix of genuine fear but also the laughter of excitement and anticipation burst from the mouth of the young Israeli cyclist Nadav Raisberg, who had just experienced for the first time the encounter with the sharp and cobbled terrain on the course in the Arenberg forest, the most daunting and famous of the 29 sectors along the entire route, during team Israel – Premier Tech’s training ride in preparation for the race on Sunday.

The real thing, of course, refers to the Paris – Roubaix or its unofficial name, the Hell of the North. Arguably the most brutal and demanding bicycle race in the world, it starts tomorrow in the French town of Compiègne and finishes 260 kilometers and six hours later in the velodrome of the small town of Roubaix. One victor and those who make it to the finish will be able to tell the tale, exhausted, almost unrecognizable under the layers of dust and mud accumulated from 55 kilometers of riding on ancient cobblestones preserved from the days of horse-drawn carriages.

So what is this young man from Kibbutz Dafna, who only two and a half months ago started his first season as a professional in the team, doing here? This is precisely the question Raisberg asked himself when the team’s professional staff informed him during the pre-season training camp that there was a serious chance he’d be thrown into the deepest waters.

“Me?” was his initial reaction. “I called my dad, and he was as stunned as I was. Me, the little guy, with zero experience, my 66 kilos against such big and powerful riders.”

But then he realized that this was the team’s way of showing trust in him. “He’s a very versatile rider, very technical as someone who grew up as a mountain biker, very professional, very committed to his teammates, and above all, very eager and hungry,” explained Sep Vanmarcke, one of the three Sports Directors of the team at the race who made a big name for himself in this race, fighting for the win so many times and coming just a bit short. Vanmarcke retired having finishing in the top six on five occasions.

Vanmarcke is making his debut here as Sports Director but readily admits he would have been overjoyed if he could turn back the clock to his days as a rider. “I’m almost envious of them,” he says. He still joined the training on the toughest sectors, offering tips to IPT’s three Paris – Roubaix rookies: Riley Sheehan, Riley Pickrell, and Raisberg. They all take the opportunity almost in awe.

Sheehan adds: “I feel it’s a great privilege and a dream come true. This race has inspired me so much growing up. I have such a good memory of watching this race on TV in 2016. It is one of the times where I was most excited watching a bike race.”

The American rider is already considered one of the most promising rising talents in the Belgian Classics after his promising debut in the Tour of Flanders and he is already seen by the team as a significant player in our quest for top 10.

Raisberg is still not at that level but he justified the team’s trust when he impressed in the tough dirt roads of Strade Bianche, giving him a bit more confidence that he could also tackle this formidable race.

“I still feel a bit like a little kid here,” he adds. “A bit anxious, knowing I’m going to suffer here like I’ve never suffered in my life but with every hour that passes towards the start, after every training we’ve done here, the feeling shifts from fear to positive excitement. I tell myself, what have you got to lose? Just go for it all the way.”

His way of dealing with feelings of fear was to dive into every detail. He spent two full days between training sessions sitting in front of the computer, memorizing every detail of the course, especially the 29 cobblestone sectors. “If you wake me up in the middle of the night, I can tell you where sector 20 is, its length, and the arrangement of its stones,” he says.

For a whole month, he has been training to strengthen his arm joints to hold the handlebars well on the pavé. There isn’t a rider in the team with rich experience in Paris – Roubaix who hasn’t undergone thorough brain picking by him. They tried to calm him down, especially Rick Zabel, the team’s experienced German rider. Raisberg adds: “He told me that once I’ve done my job here to place our riders upfront in the tough sectors, I just need to keep fighting even if I find myself alone. So many unexpected things happen here. Crashes. Punctures. Problems. If I’m lucky enough to avoid all that, I can finish this race, maybe even with a good result.”

The decision to include the three IPT rookies reflects the team’s approach towards the race, fielding a mixed lineup of experienced veterans like Tom Van Asbroeck, Guillaume Boivin, and Hugo Hofstetter. Van Asbroeck, himself in peak form, thinks that despite the less experienced youngsters, the team has a chance to achieve a surprising result, maybe even a top 10 finish for one of its riders: “It’s not just the toughest race in the world, it’s also the most unpredictable,” he says. “It can be a nightmare or an opportunity. It can flip for you in a second, and that’s exactly what I love about it.”

Sheehan, perhaps unsurprisingly, held back from predictions, even if his excitement was clear: “Coming into this race for the first time it is hard to set an expectation, but after a good ride in Flanders I want to shoot for the top. After doing the recon, now I understand what the “hell of the north” might be like, and all I need to do now is experience it. I’m really looking forward to rising to the challenge this Sunday and giving it my everything. What a privilege to start a race of my dreams.”

Back Raisberg to the most inexperienced among our trio of rookies. The Israeli understands that the only pressure on him is what he puts on himself. Today, at the end of the last training session and with the race just around the corner, he allowed himself to enjoy the flood of encouraging messages he received from fans and friends in Israel. “I’m beginning to grasp what a privilege it is to be part of this,” he says. “It’s probably the most exciting thing I’ve ever faced. So, of course, I’m going to suffer a lot, but it’s going to be an experience. I just hope I can take it as far as possible.”