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‘Hell of the North’ Lures London’s Bike-Riding Financial Pros

Tom Underhill is preparing for the challenge of professional cycling’s toughest terrain by riding in some of the most genteel streets of London.

The sales director at Artemis Fund Managers Ltd., which oversees $18.3 billion of assets, hurtles on his bike over a 100-meter (328-foot) stretch of cobblestones in Park Square Mews near Regent’s Park to prepare for a slog over the country lanes of industrial northern France.

Tour de France organizer Amaury Sport Organisation is staging an amateur version of the Paris-Roubaix race, known as the “Hell of the North,” on April 9 on the back of a cycling boom in the U.K. About 25 percent of 1,500 people who signed up for the inaugural event are from the British side of the Channel, according to event director Laurent Boquillet.

“Cycling is the new golf,” Underhill, 35, said. “At every red traffic light on my morning commute into the West End of London there are 10 or 12 cyclists.”

Paris-based ASO began running a one-day amateur race based on a Tour de France mountain stage in 1993, when 48 of the 1,705 riders were from abroad. ASO plans to set up six more events over the next 18 months, Boquillet said.

There is one slated to coincide with September’s Vuelta a Espana, Spain’s top race that’s part-owned by ASO, and another planned before Belgium’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Boquillet said. Next year, ASO plans one for a Cote d’Azur leg of the Paris-Nice race, Boquillet added.

‘Question of Surviving’

About 20 miles of the 101-mile ride to Roubaix, near the Belgian border, are on cobblestones. It’s often rainy in April in northern France, creating an additional hazard: The stones can get slippery. Photographs of riders caked in mud have made the 115-year-old pro race famous, Ben Dixon, a hedge-fund lawyer in London who has signed up, said.

“It’s a question of surviving,” Dixon, 32, said, adding he expects to fall off on the “boulder size” stones. “A few older streets in London are made of cobblestones but they are brick size.”

Only the French, who make up about half the field, outnumber the British entrants, Boquillet said.

Spending on bicycles in the U.K. soared 40 percent to 665 million pounds ($1.1 billion) in 2009 compared with 2005, according to a report last year by London-based market researcher Mintel. Racing bikes made up about 7 percent of sales in 2009.

“Cycling used to be a bit of a closed world,” Underhill, who commutes to the West End from his home in Highbury, said. “Now there’s a have-a-go feel about it.”

‘Touring Ride’

While the wannabe “Hell of the North” -- the day before and 60 miles shorter than the professional version -- may lose money in its first year because of a lower-than-expected turnout, the market for such events could become worth as much as 20 million euros ($28 million), Boquillet said.

“There is a business to be grown around this, we just need to figure out how to do it properly,” Boquillet said.

Organizational plans have gone awry. In a March 29 e-mail to entrants, ASO said it was cutting their fee to 40 euros from 75 euros and offering full refunds because it couldn’t seal off roads from traffic and was downgrading the event from a race to a “touring ride.” It plans to revert to plans for a race as soon as next year, it said.

ASO is competing with the Velo Club de Roubaix, which has run a ride over the course since 1974. It charged 25 euros apiece to a record field of 2,652 last year.

“We make a little bit of money for the club but we are the opposite of ASO: making money is their job,” club President Francis Lajus said.

ASO, which also organizes the Paris marathon, had net income of 31.8 million euros on sales of 145.2 million euros in 2009, according to a company filing.

‘Not Dangerous’

Some fans are steering clear of ASO’s invite to the cobblestones for safety reasons. In 2008, 200 riders were treated for injuries on the Velo Club ride, Lajus said.

Peter Easton, who runs New York-based Velo Classic that sells a $5,300, 11-night ride-and-watch trip to pro races in France and Belgium, said he felt “totally out of control” when he first rode over the course in 2000.

“It feels like somebody is hitting you all over your body with a pillow case full of softballs,” Easton said. “I don’t want to put my clients in that position” on a narrow road with hundreds of other riders, he added.

Easton said he may change his mind if next month’s event goes smoothly. ASO’s Boquillet says: not to worry. There will be 10 start times from 7.30 a.m. to avoid congestion.

“It’s not dangerous,” Boquillet said. “You might break something but it’s not going to be major, you’re not going to die.”

In the London mews, Underhill’s main hazards are the Porsche Cayenne and Audi Q7 cars. They cost as much as 84,000 pounds and 100,000 pounds, respectively.

“I’m nervous of slipping on the cobbles and scratching them up,” he said.

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