Paris-Roubaix: The Granddaddy of Cobbles


This is a reprint of an article I wrote for US Pro Cycling News.

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.

-CBS Sports 1987

Well it’s finally here. The granddaddy of all the cobbled classics, the stuff of dreams, the legend maker: Paris-Roubaix. The excitement has been building for weeks. Since the first cobbled race in Belgium this season, the Omloop, talk and speculation has been building to this day. While the Tour of Flanders is seen as the pinnacle of the Belgian races and a win is coveted by all Belgian riders, Paris-Roubaix is the crowning glory of all the cobbled races. For the cyclists who are one day, Classic specialists, this is what they race for. A win in the Roubaix velodrome has no equal. So what makes this race so special? There are a couple of reasons. For those of you who are just joining us in this racing season, it is the most epic of the Classic, one day races. If you will allow me to quote myself, a brief explanation of what make these races so special:

The stage race: a multi day torture fest. The one day race: a one day torture fest. While riders in stage races must endure the torture for a week or more, and therefore must ride to conserve energy so they are able to ride another day, one day racers have only one shot to make it to the end. This means those riders must leave it all on the road if they want to win. Riders have 4 to 6 hours to push themselves further into the red than their opponents, and with no stage to race the next day, it doesn’t matter if you leave no gas in the tank.

And amongst the cobbled classic races, Paris-Roubaix is the most revered because it is the oldest, the cobble-est, hardest race of them all. It was first run in 1896 and only the two world wars were enough to stop it. It has many nicknames: The Hell of the North, A Sunday in Hell, Queen of the Classics, La Pascale. Today it is organized and run by the ASO (Amaury Sport Organization), which also organizes the Tour de France, Paris-Tours, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and other big races.

A new velodrome

The race was the brainchild of Theodore Vienne and Maurice Perez, textile manufacturers who were behind a new velodrome which had just opened. To promote their new velodrome and expose the citizens of the town to cycling, they proposed a race which would start in Paris and end in their Roubaix velodrome. For help, they reached out to the editor of Le Velo, a French daily sports paper. He pitched it to the owner of the newspaper as a training event for Bordeaux-Paris, a race run until 1988. The newspaper owner went for it, and a race was born.

The Hell of the War

While the nickname “Hell of the North” does accurately describe this Northern France race, it came not from the cobbles, mud, or horrible weather. Indeed, when put into perspective, the cobbled roads of the early 20th century were considered superior over most roads which were not paved at all. Rather, the nickname came from the destruction wrought on the route after World War I. After the war ended in 1918, the race organizers took a trip to Roubaix from Paris to see how the route had survived four years of warfare. The further they got from the city, the more destruction they witnessed- a land laid to waste by bombs and trench warfare. And the next day it was reported in the newspaper that these men had seen “the hell of the North.” When Henri Pelissier won the first edition of the race in 1919, he said, “This wasn’t a race. It was a pilgrimage.”

The Cobbles

When live television started to become a part of cycling in the late ’60s, many mayors along the route started paving over their cobblestones, lest those watching see them as backwards. But there were some who saw the cobbles as the “special sauce” of the race and worried that with their removal, the race would lose what gave it its heart. So Les Amis de Paris Roubaix was formed to find and preserve the cobbles of the route. The cobbles in northern France are different than the cobbles in Flanders. In France, they are bigger, rounder, with wider gaps between them. This makes them much harder to ride on.

Paris-Roubaix Arenberg

The Route

The route changes subtly from year to year as cobbled sections are deemed to dangerous, or are repaved or repaired. However, it always starts in the Paris region and ends in the Roubaix velodrome. This race is much flatter than other cobbled races in Belgium, but that does not mean it is easier, as the roads are narrow, twisty, and heavily cobbled. The iconic cobbled sections have names such as Orchies, Mons-en-Pévèle, Cysoing à Bourghelles, Carrefour de l’Arbre. The most famous section is probably Troueé d’Arenberg- the Trench of Arenberg. This section passes through a thick wood, making the cobbles slippery and dangerous. Positioning going into this section is vial, as it is narrow and the pace forces the peloton to string out- those who come out first have the best chance to reach the velodrome first.

Paris-Roubaix 2011 map

For the 2011 edition, the Arenberg section has been placed closer to the finish, which is expected to make the race more intense. There are 51.5km of cobbles this year, in 27 sections (PodiumCafe breaks down the cobbled sections of this year’s Paris-Roubaix here).

Who wins?

Once again, Belgians have dominated the winner’s board, with 53 wins. However, France has a respectable 28 wins, fitting for a race that is in their country. Italy is the only other country with double digit wins, with 13. Roger De Vlaeminck is the only rider to have won Paris-Roubaix four times. If Tom Boonen can win again, he’ll join De Vlaeminck.

For the 2011 edition has the usual suspects at the top of most predictions lists: Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen. But many are placing bets on Thor Hushovd (who’s Garmin-Cervelo teams really needs a win), Juan Antonio Flecha or Geraint Thomas (who’s won the U23 version in the past).

The cruelty of this race is that form and fitness can only do so much. While positioning and race without a mechanical, a flat, or a crash are important in any race, at Paris-Roubaix they count for double, as the odds are stacked against all of those things. The 2011 edition of Paris-Roubaix should be another corker, if the earlier 2011 season races are anything to go by!

Check out ProcyclingLive, CyclingFans, and for live streams the day of the race. I believe live coverage should start around 7:30am EST. I’ll be following along on Twitter as well, with the #roubaix hashtag.


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