L’Enfer du Nord
Not the glib result of the marketing department of the UCI, but a living memorial of the atrocity of war.
It’s not been helpful that my day job has been unreasonably mentally draining with multiple critical projects for the past month or two; and then that the last several weeks have also been overwhelming with European races to watch; I have fallen behind on my race viewing and certainly on my writing.
I’ve skipped writing about several fantastic races in both the women’s and men’s categories, although I am going to cheat and link to a terrific piece someone else wrote about last week’s Vlaanderens Mooiste (aka the Tour of Flanders) and why it is such a politically important race as well as the intense national cultural phenomenon that is Belgian cycling.
Reader, I learnt quite a bit from this fascinating piece, and there will be a test later on with prizes [there will be no prizes], so best you read it also.
But, first-world snivelling aside! Today I must make a special effort, because it is the final monument race of the season’s opening, and a personal favourite.
Today is the 120th anniversary, but only 114th race [thanks Hitler!] of what is almost unarguably the hardest one-day bike race in the world, the Paris-Roubaix, known as L’Enfer du Nord - the Hell of the North.
Fans of last weekend’s Vlaanderens Mooiste are why I had to write ‘almost unarguably’; it’s not to say that Flanders isn’t also a fantastic race, but if you think of the cobbled races from a cumulative perspective, if you’ve already ridden E3 Harelbeke, then Gent Wevelgem, Milan-San Remo and Vlaanderens Mooiste, then a) you’re a better speller than I am, and b) you’ve probably got no elbows left.
Elbows act as shock absorbers for the body when riding, and the battering that a human body takes in these races; well, they’re more a series of elimination rides than a proper road race, and the tactics change accordingly. Riding at speed over cobblestones has been best compared to operating a jackhammer while balancing yourself on two wheels, and if you’re trying to mimic Roubaix, do this while somebody sprays a hose on you.
There’s no finesse, it’s pretty much, ‘let’s just get through this”. And in Roubaix, also known as the Queen of the Classics, they have saved the worst until very last.
The route stars just outside of Paris, and 257-ish km later finishes with a lap of the Roubaix velodrome; in between the riders travel on sections of normal roads, and the sections of pavé, which is ooh la la for cobblestones, and it’s these which cause the heartache.
The Flemish cobbled races include, um, well yes, cobblestones which are for the most part in use every day, and as they’re in residential areas, they are worn down evenly and are in good nick. They’re like the cobbled areas you walk over in your Euro holidays, and think “oh how charming”.
Roubaix is wilder, the 27 different pavé sections are not public roads, they are battered by farming and industrial traffic, and are heavily cambered, pitted, uneven, lumpy and in terrible condition. Only off-road vehicles are permitted, and the race-motorcycles have to be off-road versions as well. This past week the farmers along section one of the pavé have been using their tractors to shifts literal tons of mud from the road, in the hope it will avoid ‘their’ section being excluded from the race due to impassable conditions.
Mud is an iconic feature of this race, but there’s mud, and then there’s literal knee-deep kilometre-long bogs of equal part mud and manure from the livestock along the route. So Frenchy! So chic!
It’s been about 12 or 13 years since there was a really wet and muddy Roubaix, but every year the first question you hear about Roubaix is “will it rain this year?”
God knows these are not conditions you want to ride in personally, but as a spectator you want spectacle. Other races are described as races for sports writers, but Roubaix is a race for photographers; the mud, the crashes, the expressions of utter exhaustion and disbelief on the riders faces.
The course itself is actually maintained by a group of volunteers, Les Amis de Paris–Roubaix, a group of fans of the race. They aim to keep the course safe for riders while maintaining its difficulty, to preserve the character of the race by keeping the more obscure sections of the pavé in its current wild conditions.
Until the war, the Paris–Roubaix route was all on national roads, many of which were still cobbled. So the character of the race has always been about the pavé, because pavé was what the roads were made of.
But decades ago local government wanted to modernize roads surfaces and started to tarmac over the ancient cobbles, and race organizers were forced to keep moving the race route, seeking out remaining pavé sections, and it was only the less publically accessible pavé sections, which were in even worse condition, which remained.
“In the 1970s, the race only had to go through a village for the mayor to order the road to be surfaced. Pierre Mauroy, when he was mayor of Lille, said he wanted nothing to do with the race and that he'd do nothing to help it.A few years ago, there was barely a village or an area that wanted anything to do with us. If Paris–Roubaix came their way, they felt they were shamed because we were exposing their bad roads. They went out and surfaced them, did all they could to obstruct us. Now they can't get enough of us. I have mayors ringing me to say they've found another stretch of cobbles and would we like to use them.” - Alain Bernard, President of 'Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix', 2007.
It was also Alain who found one of the race's most significant cobbled stretches, the Carrefour de l'Arbre. He was out on a Sunday ride, turned off the main road to see what was there and found the last bad cobbles before the finish. It is a bleak area with just a bar by the crossroads. Bernard said:
"Until then, it [the bar ('Cafe de l'Arbre')] was open only one day a year. In France, a bar has to open one day a year to keep its license. That's all it did, because it's out in the middle of nowhere and nobody went there to drink any more. With the fame that the race brought it, it's now open all year and a busy restaurant as well."
So Alain was out on a Sunday ride, scouting race routes but luckily happening upon old bars. Sounds legit.
The Amis de Paris–Roubaix spend €10-15,000 a year on restoring and rebuilding cobbles, paid for equally by the Amis, the organisers and the local commune. The Amis supply the sand and other material and the repairs are made as training by students from horticulture schools at Dunkirk, Lomme, Raismes and Douai. "The trouble is that the Belgians then come out to see the race and they pull up a cobble stone each and take it home as a souvenir. They've even gone off with the milestones. It's a real headache."
The toughness of the route above ground was originally planned to be an acknowledgement of the toughness of the miners working under the route, the area being traditional coal-mining, but that’s not where the reference to “Hell” comes from. There are too many cycling commentators and journalists who think this, and by "too many" I mean "a disgusting number of them lack even basic knowledge about the origins of the race."
In post-war 1919, race organisers and journalists set off from Paris to see how much of the route had survived four years of shelling and trench warfare.
Procycling reported: “They knew little of the permanent effects of the war. Nine million had died and France lost more than any. But, as elsewhere, news was scant. Who even knew if there was still a road to Roubaix? If Roubaix was still there? The car of organisers and journalists made its way along the route those first riders had gone. And at first all looked well. There was destruction and there was poverty and there was a strange shortage of men. But France had survived. But then, as they neared the north, the air began to reek of broken drains, raw sewage and the stench of rotting cattle. Trees which had begun to look forward to spring became instead blackened, ragged stumps, their twisted branches pushed to the sky like the crippled arms of a dying man. Everywhere was mud. Nobody knows who first described it as 'hell', but there was no better word. And that's how it appeared next day in the papers: that little party had seen 'the hell of the north.'”
And as reported in L'Auto “ 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.”
So “The Hell of the North” is not a piece of slick marketing propaganda as many people suppose, if they think about it at all; as usual with these older Euro races there is an inextricable and sometime tragic link to the history of the country itself.
So, while it is impossible for us these days to gauge the full scale and impact of World War I, this race is a pilgrimage of sorts, and a remembrance of the 18 million combatants and civilians killed.
And that is why I always make time to watch Paris-Roubaix.
Also, because it inspires post-race interviews like this;
Dutchman Theo de Rooij, covered in mud after crashing during the 1985 race, told media at the finish: "It's bollocks, this race! You're working like an animal, you don't have time to p---, you wet your pants. You're riding in mud like this, you're slipping ... it's a pile of s---."
Asked then if he'd ever ride Roubaix again, he said "Sure, it's the most beautiful race in the world."