Thursday 23 June 2011

What's with... Paris-Roubaix?

"The best I could do would be to describe it like this - they plowed a dirt road, flew over it with a helicopter, and then just dropped a bunch of rocks out of the helicopter! That's Paris–Roubaix. It's that bad - it's ridiculous." (Chris Horner)

"It's 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." (Theo de Rooij)

It goes by many names - Paris-Roubaix, La Pascale, the Queen of the Classics, the Monument - but most call it l'Enfer du Nord, the Hell of the North, and those who plan to enter it speak its name with dread.

Other than the Tour de France, which has become so well-known by being one of the largest sporting events on the planet, cycle races are not generally well-known outside the cycling world. Ask non-cyclists and few have even heard of the two other Grand Tours. Those who are new to cycling are frequently surprised when it becomes apparent to them just how many organised races take place throughout the year and it can take a while for them to remember them - but A Sunday in Hell, to use another of its names, will always be one of the first. How did a one day, 258km (in 2011) race come to achieve such notoriety, especially one that began life described as "child's play?" The reason is the cobbles, known in French as pavé, which range from small, smooth and regular to large, jagged and extremely irregular. All cobbles are difficult to ride across on a bicycle, but they're worse the more irregular they are as vibrations do not settle into a rhythm.

Mud, cobbles, pain.

The Early Days

The first Paris-Roubaix was held in 1896, when it was organised by two textile manufacturers from Roubaix named Theodore Vienne and Maurice Perez. Originally, it was intended to be little more than a training race in preparation for the Bordeaux-Paris race that it has now outlived by 23 years. They wrote to Paul Rousseau, director of Le Velo, to enquire whether the newspaper would support their race. They explained the plan thus:

"Dear M. Rousseau,

Bourdeaux-Paris is approaching and this great annual event which has done so much to promote cycling has given us an idea. What would you think of a training race which preceded Bordeaux–Paris by four weeks? The distance between Paris and Roubaix is roughly 280km, so it would be child's play for the future participants of Bordeaux–Paris. The finish would take place at the Roubaix vélodrome after several laps of the track. Everyone would be assured of an enthusiastic welcome as most of our citizens have never had the privilege of seeing the spectacle of a major road race and we count on enough friends to believe that Roubaix is truly a hospitable town. As prizes we already have subscribed to a first prize of 1,000 francs in the name of the Roubaix velodrome and we will be busy establishing a generous prize list which will be to the satisfaction of all. But for the moment, can we count on the patronage of Le Vélo and on your support for organising the start?"

The race - and fillings - can be lost in Arenberg.
Note that no mention of the cobbles which characterise the race was made - it wasn't their intention to make the race difficult and they didn't include the cobbled sections in order to make it so, that's just how roads were built in Northern France in the late 19th Century. In fact, many roads were not paved at all and would turn into impassable quagmires when it rained, so cobbles were considered the easiest option. 280km probably didn't even seem a very long route - in comparison, Bordeaux-Paris covered an astonishing 560km. Rousseau was immediately enthusiastic and tasked his cycling editor, Victor Breyer, to consult with Vienne and Perez and come up with a route. Breyer completed the first part of the mission in a car, but the following day set out by bicycle, soon finding himself in the cold, windy and wet conditions so common in that part of the world. In those days, if you were out in the countryside on a bicycle, abandoning was not an option - there were so few phones that stopping in a village in the hope of getting a friend to drive out and collect you was pointless, because many villages had no phone. Cars were few and far between, so there was little chance of getting a lift and so Breyer could only carry on, battling through the adverse conditions. Eventually he arrived at Roubaix exhausted and covered in filth and with his enthusiasm for the proposed race utterly destroyed, saying that he planned to send a telegram to Le Velo's editor informing him that the route was dangerous and would need to be altered. However, during a meal that eveing, Vienne and Perez somehow persuaded him that the race should go ahead unaltered - no doubt too much wine was involved and that sadistic part present in all cyclists took over, convincing him that those who rode in the race should be tested beyond their limits. It's worth noting that this was the very same Breyer who introduced the Col du Tourmalet to the Tour de France in 1910 and at whom "Assassin!" was shouted by one rider as he reached the summit.

The race was scheduled for Easter Sunday the same year, just a month later and this immediately caused controversy with the then all powerful Catholic Church saying that the riders would not have time to attend Mass and that the spectators would be too distracted to do so. It's said (though there are no records to prove it) that the organisers originally offered to hold a Mass in a chapel near the start line, but it appears that they decided instead to change the date, holding the race two weeks later (the following year it was held on Easter Sunday, as is the case now). It didn't get off to a good start: half of the riders to enter the race didn't bother to actually appear on the starting line. Among those who did was Maurice Garin who managed third after being knocked off by a crash between two tandems and who, six years later, would win the inaugural Tour de France. Among those who did not was Henri Desgrange, who would go on to organise the Tour. Garin required the attention of a doctor as soon as he finished and one by one the others trickled in, coated from head to foot in mud and in various states of agony from the harsh, bone-shaking ordeal over the cobbles.

The Name

Few realise that the race didn't become known as l'Enfer du Nord right from the start since the name sums it up so well. In 1919, when it was decided to begin holding it again after the First World War, organisers travelled north to see if doing so was feasible. In those days, when news travelled slowly and with France picking up the pieces after she suffered more than any other nation during the war, it was common for people to be almost entirely ignorant of what was going on 10km from their own village where, in many cases, they would spend their entire lives and so nobody had any idea what the route would be like or even, as Procycling noted in an article on the race, whether Roubaix still existed. L'Auto reported:

"We enter into the centre of the battlefield. There's not a tree, everything is flattened! Not a square metre 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!"

"The Hell of the North" was the headline used for their report, and it became the unofficial name of the race when it took place later that year.

The Cobbles

By the 1960s, television camera technology had progressed to a point where it became possible for the first time for film crews to record and transmit the race. The mayors of those regions through which it passed became worried, fearing that the rest of France would see the cobbled roads and think their regions undeveloped, even backward, so they began to tarmac the routes. This was no doubt welcome to those who owned cars, and to the cyclists themselves, but it soon became apparent that without the cobbles it lost its unique character and became just another of the many one day races. According to Alain Bernard, one of the race organisers, a mayor only had to suspect there was a chance of the race passing through to order the local roads resurfaced with a smooth finish which meant that it was in danger of losing its individuality forever - there's every chance that it would by now be defunct, just like the Bordeaux-Paris, had he not have decided on a whim to turn off the main road and explore a side road while out on a Sunday ride. Near a bar named Cafe de l'Arbre in a bleak and windswept area miles from anywhere, he found a remaining stretch of cobbles and from then onwards sought to find other sections, including them in the route, once again giving the race its particular feel and style. Today, the organising committee work hard to find other surviving sections, restoring them and sections they already know about when and where necessary so they can be used. Their efforts aren't helped by spectators prising up and taking the stones as a memento and costs between 10-15,000 euros per annum.

Campagnolo derailleur system designed
specifically for Paris-Roubaix

The Course

The course of the race has altered dramatically over the years, including a change to the start - it last started in Paris in 1965 before being moved to Chantilly the next year, then on to Compiègne 80km north of the capital in 1977. Since the remaining cobbles are scattered about the countryside, the route is winding and changes each year as new sections are discovered and included and others are allowed to rest while restoration takes place.

In 2011, there were 27 sections making up the total course, each awarded according to a system of five stars with zero stars awarded being an easy section and five being extremely difficult. No sections received zero stars, just three received one. Five get two stars, thirteen get three, five get four. Three receive five stars, and it is doubtful that many riders could endure more.

Of these, section 25 (Quievy-Sainte Python) had the most cobbles with 3.7km, but the infamous Trouée d'Arenberg (the Trench of Arenberg) was, as ever, considered the most gruelling by most riders due to its large, irregular stones. This poker-straight 2.4km section has earned a special notoriety of its own and is, according to some, where the eventual winner of the race is decided. Jacques Anquetil's team mate Jean Stablinski, himself a Vuelta a Espana winner with another 104 victories to his name, disagreed but said:

"Paris–Roubaix is not won in Arenberg, but from there the group with the winners is selected."

It's also where many of those who will not finish the race are selected, and defeated.

The Trench was closed between 1974 and 1983 by the French forestry commission, and so was not part of the race between those years. However, when it once again became available organisers wasted no time in making use of it, although in an attempt to reduce speeds they reversed the direction in which the riders tackled it to following three-time winner Johan Museeuw's crash on the section in 1998 which almost required his leg to be amputated, until 2005 when it was in such poor condition that even the Paris-Roubaix route planners considered it too dangerous to be used. That the race had now become known specifically for suffering in made plain by the fact that local authorities immediately ear-marked 250,000 euros to restore the road - not with a smooth, modern surface as had been the case following the introduction of television, but with traditional cobbles. Subsidence issues, caused by the mines that pass under the road, were repaired and sections were widened to bring it back to its original 3m width. Katusha's Filippo Pozzato was one of the first riders to try the restored road. He later summed it up:

The Trench. 

"It's the true definition of hell. It's very dangerous, especially in the first kilometre when we enter it at more than 60kh. It's unbelievable. The bike goes in all directions. It will be a real spectacle but I don't know if it's really necessary to impose it on us."

The cobbles of Mons-en-Pévèle are also rated five stars but are not considered as harsh as those of Trouée d'Arenberg by most riders. However, while the Trouée is straight, Mons-en-Pévèle features a 90 degree bend in a section bordered by sloped fields from which, more often than not, slippery mud runs down and coats the road. In the dry it's dangerous, in the wet it's deadly. It's almost always wet on the Paris-Roubaix.

Carrefour de l'Arbre, also rated five stars, lies 15km from Roubaix and the rider leading the race as it travels over the road stands a good chance of winning overall. However, many lengths cross open land and afford no protection from the howling wind and driving rain that seem to appear especially for this race and so mistakes do happen. A series of difficult corners and irregular cobbles make it the section most dreaded after the Trouée d'Arenberg.

The Bikes

The rigours of Paris-Roubaix are so testing that the race has spawned a particular type of bike, designed especially to cope with it. Following the Second World War, riders experimented with wooden rims, as used in the earliest days of cycling, as wood absorbs vibration more effectively than metal. Nowadays, special frames featuring longer tubes - and thus, more absorption of vibrations - are used by most teams, as are stronger, wider wheels fitted with fatter tyres. Spokes may be steel rather than alloy, as weight issues take a backseat and strength is all that matters. Many teams have experimented with various forms of suspension, including the elastomers fitted to George Hincapie's bike in 2006, which Trek claimed would absorb all the vibration - however, his steerer tube couldn't take the stress and snapped.
Specialized S-Works Roubaix SL, a bike designed specifically for this race. The "elbows" in the fork and  seat stays are Zertz inserts to absorb vibration.

This is all to the benefit of cyclists, because the effort put into developing these bikes leads to stronger components which then go on sale to the public. As Mavic spokeman Yves Hézard says,

"Every year we change fewer wheels, because the wheels and tyres are getting better and better. We changed about 20 wheels today. Five years ago, it was much worse - we'd be changing about a hundred."

Nevertheless, teams still station mechanics armed with tyres, wheels and other components along the various sections of the route that are inaccessible to the support vehicles - and, unusually, they'll replace or repair broken parts for any rider, regardless of the team for which they ride.

Interesting Incidents

In 1907, Georges Passerieu made a breakaway from the main group and was chased all the way to Roubaix by Cyrille van Hauwaert. The excitement among the crowd waiting in the velodrome to see the final fight to the finish was high, but nether rider appeared. It turned out that just as Passerieu had been about to ride in, an over-zealous policeman had stopped him to check his bike displayed a tax disc.

Romain Maes, a Belgian, crossed the finish line first in 1936 but officials claimed Frenchman Georges Speicher (Tour de France winner in 1933) the victor. They seriously underestimated the crowd's sense of honour - which turned out to be far stronger that their patriotism - and a riot nearly broke out before the decision was reversed.

So that's what it's all about - the hardest, harshest, most dangerous and beloved Classic race of them all.

They say a picture paints a thousand words. This picture paints all the words necessary to sum up l'Enfer du Nord.

"These bloodied and battered warriors struggle through the rain, the cold, the mud, on roads better suited to oxen cart than bicycles. But for the victor there is glory, immortality and a place in history amongst the giants of the road.

Since 1896, the greatest bike racers on earth have come to test their very souls in this brutal and beautiful spectacle." (John Tesh)

"Sure, it's the most beautiful race in the world!" (Theo de Rooij, when asked if he'd be competing again)

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