Paris-Roubaix: A Race by Many Names

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Paris-Roubaix starts like a party and ends as a bad dream. Guy Lagorce

For 364 days of the year, the roads of Paris-Roubaix seem unremarkable, even plain, in the stark light of day. Empirically speaking, the circuitous farmer tracks which make up the route of cyclingʼs most brutal - and famous - classic are nothing but practical thoroughfares for moving hay or harvest.

Yet for one Sunday of the year, the roads between Paris and Roubaix bear witness to battle just as they did during the dark days of the First World War.

On this Sunday dans lʼenfer however, the battle is won with muscle, grit, and carbon fiber rather than bullets, trenches, and steel.

The raceʼs origins are shrouded in mystery with only one historian, Pascal Sergent, offering clues to those searching for answers.

With as many changes to the route as there are cobbles in the Arenberg, itʼs no wonder that Paris-Roubaix is a race known by many names. A search into two of the most enduring names reveals more to the race than meets the eye.

The Easter Race

The Easter Race Paris-Roubaix is a race of contradictions.

Mat Hayman, the winner of the thrilling 2016 edition, succinctly summed up the raceʼs duality;

“It loses a lot of its shine when itʼs not the finish of Paris-Roubaix. Itʼs a pretty rundown velodrome in a bit of a rundown part of the city. But on that one day, it becomes magical.”

Beginning in a refined Parisian outskirt and finishing in the drab Corbusier-inspired industrialist bloc of Roubaix, the race started as a stunt to draw attention to the Roubaix velodrome constructed in 1895 by Maurice Perez and Théodore Vienne.

1936 Paris Roubaix

The proposed 280-kilometre distance was viewed by Perez and Vienne as a sadistic warm-up for other established races.

It remains unclear if either of the gentlemen were cyclists themselves, or whether they had ever personally ridden such a distance on the bicycles available at the time.

After negotiations with a Parisian newspaper to organize the start of the race in Paris, a man by the name of Breyer was sent to scout the proposed route and report back.

The Cobble Stones

The land that lay between start and finish was, at the time, coal mining country made up of fallow fields and perpetually grey skies accentuated by the humid cold of early spring when winterʼs frost remains unbroken.

Cobbles were exceedingly normal material for laying roads that were traversed by cart for a very simple, practical, and unheroic reason: they stand up exceptionally well to heavy use. Cobbles can be beaten day in and day out by horse-drawn cartloads.

The wattage of hardmen like Boonen and Merckx meets its match in the thundering procession of hooves crashing against the stone.

The uneven surfaces of cobbles lend perfectly well to keeping water running and not pooling, while their permeable nature keeps them from cracking or displacing during changes in temperature or ground movements.

One thing cobbled roads are not suited for, however, is bicycle riding.

After completing the proposed route during a spell of awful weather characteristic of the region, Breyer demanded the race be called off and, according to Paris-Roubaix historian Pascal Sargent, deemed the route too dangerous.

Though it can never be known for sure, it must simply be assumed that Perez and Vienne delighted in such a report and, in 1896, the race was set for Easter Sunday.

Lʼenfer du Nord

Lʼenfer du Nord Cycling is a sport of dynamism, and just as the scenery changes while the riders hurl themselves forward, so too do the routes.

Few are aware that the race hasnʼt always started in Paris (it now starts in Compiègne) nor has it always finished in the velodrome. In fact, the velodrome initially built by Perez and Vienne no longer stands; the race concludes in a velodrome built much later.

Just as the cobbled roads were built over time by many hands and visions, patched up here and there, destroyed in some places, extended in others, the Paris-Roubaix we know exists not as some static object but rather as the patchwork of legends, superstitions, and gruelling battles between the fittest athletes in the world across the north of France.

Perhaps the biggest single influence upon the race came from a battle, not between athletes but soldiers. In 1919, after years of inhumane warfare and millions of lives lost, the fog of battle was lifted from the countryside where Paris-Roubaix had formerly run.

The territory between the two cities had been inaccessible for the duration of the war drawing a question mark over the future of the race.

A search party sent to investigate the route returned with the proclamation that though stretches of cobbled road still remained, hardly anything else did.

The scenery was so bleak that journalists on the scene described it as lʼenfer du nord (the hell of the north), and in coining this phrase also captured the soul of the race.

The struggle and battles for survival in the area known to Julius Caesar as Belgae have taken on many forms over the course of time.

From the tribes who faced down the Romans to the miners sifting for coal under roads now raced over by the gladiators of the modern peloton, the tapestry of Paris-Roubaix is rich with texture and continues to be woven with each pedal stroke.