The Hell of the North: Paris-Roubaix

L’enfer du Nord  is nearly upon us. It’s one of the most well-known, beautiful, ugly, dirty and brilliant bike races in the world. But the Easter Race is no easy win. Nothing is certain in the dark forest of Arenburg, or along the other secteurs of cobblestones along the route.

It’s one of the oldest bike races in the world, with the first edition taking place in 1896. Only two World Wars have prevented its running, and the race takes place on Easter despite protests from the Catholic Church. People should be in the pews, it claims, rather than cheering races on along the cobbles. The first edition was moved to comply with the church, but began landing on Easter immediately in 1897. Since then, if it falls on Easter, they run the race anyway.

The race’s famous nickname didn’t come from the brutally hard course itself. In the aftermath of World War I, much of northern France was a muddy, blooded and barren wasteland after four years of trench warfare. In 1919, a committee traveled north towards the Belgium border to see if the roads to Roubaix still existed:

“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.”

Racing on cobbles wasn’t the objective in the early days of the Roubaix. The only roads around were cobbles; that’s what you raced on. The images today of gritty, dirty, mud-caked riders was the everyday experience for early racers like Octave Lapize (winner 1909-1911) and Maurice Garin (winner 1897-1898) finished every race covered in mud and coal dust.

The cobbles make the race, however. With the renewed interest in cobbles racing in the past fifty years, races like Flanders, E3 and Roubaix have added glamour to their ample grit. The 27 sectors of cobbles in the “Queen of the Classics” are infamous, the nastiest allotment of rough, unbelievably difficult rocks and slick, dusty gutters. The sections of cobblestones are rated on a scale of 1 to 5, with five stars being the hardest. The lengths vary between a few hundred meters to almost two miles long, with perhaps the most famous coming in the shape of the 1.8 mile Arenburg Forest.

The race always finishes on the velodrome of Roubaix. Riders complete a lap on the smooth, banked track after hours of bouncing over rough stones and breathing in coal dust. The bell in Roubaix, rung for the leader’s last lap, is one of the most famous sounds in the sport.

Some of the biggest names in cycling have won the Roubaix, but so have some less-known cobbles specialists. Roger de Vlaeminck has the most victories with four wins, followed by seven riders with three wins, including both Eddy Merckx and this year’s favorite Tom Boonen.

Check back soon for a preview of this year’s race Thursday morning, complete with predictions!

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