Cycling History

A History of Cycling in n+1 Objects: No. 4 – Paris-Roubaix Cobblestone


“Just you wait, my dears, and see what happens on the cobbles.

And, indeed, you see soon enough. Or rather, you hear, because it’s the din that hits you first as the pandemonium engulfs you. Press cars and motorbikes roar past you. Everyone is shouting because of the scraping, the falling, the bursting tyres. Everything is falling apart. The bikes have got the jitters: their rattling makes an appalling racket. And you get the full force of it in your arms.

Then comes the silence. You find yourself with two or three other blokes, in tatters like yourself. You guess that one has a puncture and the other has come off the bike; your shoes are lying next to you. You may be a bit of the battlefield, but you know nothing of the continuing battle, either ahead or behind.

Around the bend of the next turn you spot more victims, carrying a wheel or an entire bike in their arms.

The cobbles come to an end. On to a tarmac section. you can’t help laughing. Your bike turns back into a bike, tame again. You put your hands on top of the handlebars and wipe your glasses, but things don’t get any clearer. You drift past one blurred figure. Someone else flies by at top speed. And you arrive at more cobblestones. Now you are sure, beyond all doubt, that the organisers are out of their minds. You bounce from one stone to another for an indeterminate length of time. You turn right and come out in the known territory of Hem. As somebody said in the distant past, Hem’s a gem, because there are no more cobbles. But there is still a straight 600 metres up a deceptive false flat which busts your thighs, or what’s left of them. And then the velodrome. It’s completely incongruous, a velodrome at the gates of Hell. It’s not right.”

Jean Bobet, Tomorrow We Ride (Mousehold Press/Sport & Publicity, 2008), 76-77

Today’s object, or rather objects, are the setts that form the surface of stretches of the renowned Paris-Roubaix one day race, perhaps the most famous of cycling’s ‘Monuments’, the five oldest races in the professional calendar. Weighing in at 10 kilograms, each 15 centimetre rough-hewn granite cube is part of a patchwork surface of stone that harks back to the via munita of the Roman world. They form an effective, hard-wearing and long lasting road, but regular maintenance is still required. This is carried out by Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix, a volunteer organization dedicated to preserving the historic cobblestones. Established in 1983 Les Amis advocated the preservation of the pavé not only to preserve the character of the race but also to save the historic and cultural legacy of the cobbled roads in the face of a tidal wave of asphalt as France’s rural byways and highways were being resurfaced. Since 1983 Les Amis have worked tirelessly on the upkeep of the remaining sections of pavé to ensure that they are free from ruts, potholes and mud. And they have been successful in retaining the character of the race. While the route has been forced to move several times since the first edition in 1896 as the pavé has been torn out and replaced with modern road surfaces Paris-Roubaix can still boast over 50 kilometres of cobbled roads.

The race was the brainchild of two textile manufacturers from Roubaix, Théodore Vienne and Maurice Perez, who had been the main backers of a new velodrome which opened in 1895. Seeking to advertise the venue and drum up business they hit on the idea of a race from Paris to Roubaix to finish on their velodrome. Gaining the support of France’s then only sports daily, Le Velo, a 280 kilometre race was announced to be run on April 19, 1896. Among the starters was Maurice Garin, who would go on to win the first Tour de France a few years later. In the event Garin was third on the day, the victory going to Josef Fischer who would place 15th behind Garin in Le Tour.

Since then the winner’s podium has seen a procession of the great names in cycling from every generation. Garin, Lapize, and Faber, Pélissier and Maes, Van Steenbergen, Coppi, and Bobet, van Looy, Merckx, Godefroot and De Vlaeminck, Moser, Hinault and Kelly, Duclos-Lasalle, Museeuw, and Ballerini, Boonen and Cancellara. Though since Hinault Grand Tour contenders have been more noticeable by their absence than for their skill on the cobbles. This is understandable. Paris-Roubaix is a lottery, renowned as much for its crashes as its exciting racing. When it rains the cobbles are like ice-slicks, mud sucks at tires, and in the hell-for-leather riding on the pavé one rider who falls can bring down several others. For riders with their sights on Le Tour or the Giro the risks may be too high. But as Merckx has said, “to win without risk is to win without glory.”

And Paris-Roubaix is glorious. It may not be the longest Classic, it may be flat as a pancake and the highest point in the landscape the overgrown slag heaps, memories of a former industrial heyday, it may not be the oldest of the five monuments of cycling, but it deserves its reputation as the Queen of the Classics. Luck plays its part but the victory always goes to the rider who combines strength, skill, and tactical nous to pull off the win. The first 100 kilometres or so are relatively easy, a fast paced dash to where the racing really begins on the first stretch of pavé at Troisville. From there a total of a little over 50 kilometres of cobbles in 27 sections separate the riders from the finish line at the Roubaix velodrome. Each cobble is a hammer blow jolting the riders as they speed along, desperate to stay upright, fearful of slamming into the ground at any moment. In 1944 Jean Robic crashed and broke his skull on the cobbles, getting up to finish the race and ever after wearing his trademark leather helmet. In 1998 Johann Museeuw smashed his kneecap, the resulting wound turning gangrenous and nearly costing him his leg. Two years later he was back to win, pointing at his knee as he crossed the finish line. In 2001 Philippe Gaumont snapped his femur in a crash on the cobbles of the famed Tranchée d’Arenberg. In 1985 during a rain soaked race Theo de Rooij crashed, losing any chance he had of winning. Interviewed afterwards by John Tesh for CBS, de Rooij was blunt in his assessment:

“It’s a shitty race! We ride like animals, we don’t even have the time to take a piss so we piss in our shorts. You’re riding in mud like this, you’re slipping … it’s a pile of shit!”

Would de Rooij come back and ride it again, asked Tesh

“Of course, it’s the most beautiful race in the world,” de Rooij replied, laughing.

It may be the Queen, but Paris-Roubaix is perhaps better known in the English speaking world as The Hell of the North. As the riders wash off the mud and grit from the cobbled roads in the spartan concrete shower stalls in the velodrome one can sympathise with the hell they have been through. Bone-jarring, teeth-rattling, spine-shaking hell. Yet this is not the origin of the race’s hellish reputation. After the Armistice of 1918 the organizers of Paris-Roubaix wished to resurrect the race which had not been run during the bitter years of conflict of World War One. L’Auto who now ran the race after the demise of Le Velo sent Victor Breyer and Eugène Christophe to scout the route. What they discovered horrified them:

“Shell-holes one after the other, with no gaps, outlines of trenches, barbed wire cut into one thousand pieces; unexploded shells on the roadside, here and there graves. Crosses bearing a jaunty tricolour are the only light relief … From Doullens onwards the countryside was nothing but desolation. The shattered trees looked vaguely like skeletons, the paths had collapsed and been potholed or torn away by shells. The vegetation, rare, had been replaced by military vehicles in a pitiful state. The houses of villages no more than bare walls. At their foot, heaps of rubble. Eugène Christophe exclaimed, ‘Here, this really is the hell of the North.'”

When they reached Roubaix they discovered that the velodrome had been stripped of its wooden boards and steel supporting structure.

Riders pass shattered ruins during Paris-Roubaix, 1919. Photograph PR

Riders pass shattered ruins during Paris-Roubaix, 1919. Photograph PR

There is something very fitting that Christophe, a top cyclist and the first man to wear the yellow jersey in Le Tour de France in 1919, gave Paris-Roubaix its enduring and ominous epithet. After he won the 1919 edition Henri Pélissier was to say:

“This wasn’t a race. It was a pilgrimage.”

In something of a trend for Paris-Roubaix, Pélissier had jumped the level crossing at Lesquin, hopping over the barrier and climbing through the carriage of a standing train saluting the passengers on his way before jumping out the other side and riding off, leaving a surprised Phillipe Thys and Honoré Barthélemy still on the other side of the tracks. In 2006 Leif Hoste, Peter van Petegem, and Vladimir Gusev were all disqualified for dodging the gates of a closed level crossing, and in 2015 several riders diced with death as they sped through the closing barriesr seconds ahead of the arrival of a high speed train.

Key to the race today is the 2.4 kilometre section of pavé that runs through the forêt d’Arenberg. Ruler straight and dipping from a giddy altitude of 25 metres at the start and rising again to 19 metres at the finish, the Arenberg is often the point at which the race selection is made. With crowds lining the side of the road riders have no choice but to barrel over the cobbles. To make matters worse before they even hit the pavé they are riding at 60-70 kph in an all out fight for position before the cobbles begin. The Arenberg can decimate the peloton. After a chaotic race in 1984 in which none of the Renault-Elf team managed to finish following multiple crashes, their manager, Cyrille Guimard, was to comment, “By the end of Arenberg half of my riders were flat on their backs, and the other half were flat on their faces.” Magnus Backstedt, winner in 2004, likened the effort required to master the Arenberg to riding a 4,000 metre pursuit on the track, adding that, “the problem is you have to do it on the next  stretch, and the next.” Paris-Roubaix is rarely won on the Arenberg, but it can be lost there and the riders who come out of it at the front of the race are usually the ones from whom the final victory is secured.

After all the cobbles are negotiated the elite group who lead the race have some 16 kilometres of racing left before they reach the velodrome André-Pétrieux. For some the final few laps of the concrete track are relatively simple as they’ve dropped all opposition and can ride alone. For those who reach the velodrome in a group another set of bike-riding skills have to come into play as they jockey for the best position from which to launch the final winning sprint.


Sean Kelly amid the muck and grime on his way to winning Paris-Roubaix in 1984

Hinault described the race as ‘une connerie’, which may be translated as either ‘bullshit’ or ‘stupidity’ depending on context, when he won in 1981 in a race in which he crashed seven times, the final spill being only a few kilometres from the finish when he was brought down by a poodle named Gruson as it ran across the road. The leading group of Roger De Vlaeminck, Francesco Moser, Marc Demeyer and Hennie Kuyper must have thought Hinault was out of the race at that point but he fought back, catching them before the final kilometre and winning from a long sprint on the track.

De Vlaeminck won the race four times in his career in 1972, 1974, 1975 and 1977, earning himself the soubriquet of ‘Mr Paris-Roubaix’. Only Tom Boonen has equalled his record, much to De Vlaeminck’s disgust. Racing, the classics master declared, is no longer as tough as it was in his day. De Vlaeminck rode Paris-Roubaix thirteen times in his career. Never outside the top seven finishers he won four times, placed second second four times, and third once. He is also one of only three men to have won all five Monuments alongside Eddy Merckx and Rik Van Looy. In recent years Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara have dominated the race, winning four and three times respectively since 2005. In 2015 John Degenkolb became only the second German to win after Fischer’s inaugural victory back in 1896.

There may be fewer cobbles today than in the past but De Valeminck is wrong in my opinion to say that the race is no longer as tough as it was. Paris-Roubaix is still a race for the hard men that requires constant attention to the road, to rivals, and to the weather. Crashes and punctures may take race favourites out of the picture but there are no easy wins. The flat conditions mean speed is constantly high, riding the cobbles takes skill and sheer power, and the vibration and shock rattles the rider’s bodies sapping energy with every bounce and bound. It is the hardest single-day race any professional rider will face. Opinions will vary but for me it’s the best race of the year, full of drama and excitement and a true test of form and ability. The winner receives a cobblestone as a trophy, one of the most sought after prizes in professional cycling. When Andrea Tafi won in 1992 he announced he wanted to use his trophy as the keystone of his new house. Obligingly the organizer’s gave him another one to put on his mantelpiece.

The winners are not the only people to have a cobble from Roubaix in their homes. Les Amis are constantly replacing setts that have been dug up and whisked away by fans, as a memento of the race. Should we condone this? Perhaps not, but I can understand the desire to own a piece of one of cycling history’s greatest chapters: Paris-Roubaix, L’enfer du Nord, Hell of the North, the imperious Queen of the Classics. As Sean Kelly, a two-times winner in 1984 and 1986, has said, “a horrible race to ride but the most beautiful one to win.”


And finally, Jørgen Leth’s “A Sunday in Hell” follows the 1976 Paris-Roubaix. Put simply it is the best film about cycling ever made. I heartily recommend finding the time to watch and enjoy.

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