“It’s a bollocks, this race! You’re working like an animal, you don’t have time to piss, you wet your pants. You’re riding in mud like this, you’re slipping …. It’s a pile of shit.”
In 1985, following a possible win ruined by a crash, 27-year-old Dutchman, Theo de Rooij managed to sum up Paris-Roubaix to absolute perfection. Just by itself, that quote would be memorable, but it’s his response to the question from CBS’s John Tesh—would he start again the next year—that truly finds its way to the beating heart of cycling’s most brutal day of racing.
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“Sure, it’s the most beautiful race in the world!”
The cobbled classics often get lumped together, and the two biggest events of them all, the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix, are rarely mentioned in separate sentences. It’s a shame, because the two races can’t be more different. De Ronde is justifiably known as Vlaanderens Mooiste (Flanders’s Most Beautiful), whilst Paris-Roubaix, her nickname is even more appropriate, some might say perfect: L’Enfer du Nord (The Hell of the North).
It seems fitting for the most sinister, vicious, and cruel race of the cobbled classics, perhaps the entire year, to have such a moniker.
While the race would seem to have been born with “Hell of the North” happily stitched to its onesie, the name came following something not even comparable to an event as insignificant as Paris-Roubaix. The name was coined in 1919, the year after the conclusion of World War I. Race organizers had ventured out on to the course of Paris-Roubaix to see if roads still existed in the war-obliterated Nord-Pas-de-Calais. They left Paris and soon entered into what could truly be described as earthly hell.
The words, printed in the French sports paper, L’Auto, are chilling.
“We enter into the center of the battlefield. There’s not a tree, everything is flattened! Not a square meter that has not been hurled upside down. There’s one shell hole after another. The only things that stand out in this churned earth are the crosses with their ribbons in blue, white, and red. It is hell!”
It’s hard not to liken Paris-Roubaix to war. The carnage, the chaos, the ever-present specter of fate’s touch (fortunate or doomed), the sheer cruelty of the race. But it’s best to remember that there are things far, far worse than the unfortunately small words I can conjure up describing a one-day race over ancient rock roads.
There’s a method to the madness that is the Tour of Flanders. In its winding, hilly, cobbled madness, there’s some order, some sense, but at Roubaix, it’s, let’s just say, different. Simply put, it’s a world apart. After riding the cobbles of Flanders for the first time, I figured I had acquired a good introduction to Roubaix, so I happily charged into my first set of cobbles in 2009. I found myself unprepared.
I can write paragraphs full of superlatives and adverbs, I can show you pictures, I can give you quotes, but nothing can prepare you for that first time your front tire collides with the rocks of northeastern France. And whatever I just said there, triple it when referring specifically to the Arenberg Forest. The cobbles of Roubaix are like nothing else in cycling. They’re an anachronism, they’re insane, they’re utter rubble in some places, and they’re stunning.
When speaking of the sensations one feels on the cobbles en route to the Roubaix Velodrome, some would gamely offer up the term “bone rattling.” It’s a start, but it just doesn’t do the feeling justice. It’s a whole body vibration, but even vibration doesn’t succeed in describing the outrageous battering that occurs. The act of slamming your bike into each successive oddly placed rock in what some would generously refer to as a road, earthquakes every part of your body from the traditionally cited culprits—the hands, feet, arms, and sitting area—all the way to venues mentioned a bit less in cycling literature, like your internal organs.
That’s just the first sector. When you combine sector after sector after sector, the feelings begin to evolve. Where they were once a collective feeling from top to bottom, the real pain always seems to zero in on one specific place (which seems to vary from rider to rider), while battering down the rest of one’s defenses from every other angle. The cobbles beat you down to a level none of us care to visit on a regular basis. By the time you reach the fourth sector, the crucial Carrefour de l’Arbre, the wheels of the Conestoga wagon are often long gone, scattered about half a dozen sectors before on another monster, Mons en Pevele.
What you’re left with when you hit that final five-star section that leads to that lonely cafe at cobbles’ end, is something terrifically raw. It’s your soul laid bare, at last, ready to be tested over one last debilitating crucible.
I remember my first time on the Carrefour. Both hands were raw following the early formation of palm-sized blisters, both of which had kindly opened up on Mons-en-Pevele, which to me, is the sector of cobbles least apt to deserve the description of a road. The cobbles almost seem to blend into the field that it bisects en route to the main road much too far off in the distance.
Five cobbled sectors passed with my hands and their open wounds, and then came the Carrefour. I closed my eyes, I searched for the most reasonable section of terrible, I rode on the lip of the field, I tested my drops, my tops, my hoods, but all that could be done was pedal—keep pedaling. To sum it up succinctly, it was terrible. What else would you expect?
It all pales though …
Next to race day. Riding the cobbles of Roubaix without a love for the race is not advisable. It’s pointless misery, suffering for no reason. The cobbles are faceless monsters without the race, without the history that goes with these roads.
The first time I saw Paris-Roubaix proved to be as anyone would dream of. It was special. The hours from start to finale passed quickly, until finally I’d seen the race for the last time that day. I was in the midst of a giant party fueled by untold thousands of gallons of Belgium’s unfinest, Jupiler beer.
I took a step back from the party, a step back to the already forgotten stones. After all the drunkards, fans, kids, and aficionados head for home, these cobbled stretches will remain. They’ll remain solidly in place as they have for hundreds of years. They’ll lie in wait, mostly forgotten until April of the next year. These are not like the roads of Flanders, which are used each day, even now. The roads of Paris-Roubaix are used only by farmers and a few lost souls throughout the year—they are a relic made holy by a sport that clings to their cruelty.
I’ve always had mixed feelings about Roubaix, switching between feelings of admiration and loathing. On that day though, I understood the magic. I felt it. I can’t quite touch the moment where the granite beneath my feet went from oddly sized rocks laid willy-nilly by seemingly drunken laborers long ago to oddly sized rocks with a gigantic dose of history, pain, success, suffering, failure, greatness, and legend. This race is so special, so hard, because of each cobble. The cobbles are more or less the same as they were back in 1896, the first running of the race. Everything but the suffering of the riders and the cobbles themselves has changed. The two most important factors have remained constant.
You have to see it, feel it, experience it, to really understand. Following the race on TV, through pictures, through words, it’s all a great start, but it’s just that—a start. You really do retrace the path of cycling legend on these small field roads. It’s not just another race. The queen of the classics stands apart, far apart, on a lonely pedestal as the most extreme test of them all.
Paris-Roubaix exists because of her severity, her cruelty, because of the spectacle that surrounds the carnage. The people in the area the race calls home do not identify with the race. The area itself is barely worth the visit on its own. You won’t see people just merrily riding up and down the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix for fun. You will see every character imaginable riding the Koppenberg though. Paris-Roubaix is a stern, ominous test, and yet to succeed, it’s a test the rider must love.
They’re so bad, they’re so indescribably painful, the only way to succeed over them is with brute power and a love for the ardors you’ve enlisted yourself to endure. The cobbles take on a different look when you fall in love with them. They can’t be mastered mechanically (except for Hinault, he hated them and still won on them, but he doesn’t count). You have to want them, you have to look forward to them, and to do that, you have to love the cobbles.
With every love, there’s that fateful moment where you fall in. For me, it was on a sunny late afternoon Sunday in April, sitting on the already forgotten stones in Cysoing, less than twenty minutes after the final rider had passed.
From Issue 05.