Paris-Roubaix: Chasing the Queen of the Classics through the hell of the north is never done better than with a guide who knows the roads, the race, the people, and the best places to see it all happen. So who better to hear from than Peter Easton with his many years of cobbles experience at Paris-Roubaix.
-By Peter Easton of VeloClassic Tours–
Images of Paris-Roubaix have filled our collective cycling conscious for decades, relaying the moments of glory and the hours of pain and suffering as it unfolded one snapshot at a time. These images have succeeded in glorifying, even celebrating, the pain impacted on the riders from the brutal pave of northern France. Jorgen Leth’s brilliant documentary of the 1976 Paris-Roubaix “Hell of the North” was the first full length feature to showcase the race in its most intimate moments, which have become synonymous with the race. We sit down to eat a steak and peel an orange with the original Mr. Paris-Roubaix, 4-time winner Roger De Vlaeminck; we have a front row view of the pageantry at the start in Compiegne; we’re invited to join the Team Sanson mechanic as he meticulously cleans the chain on Francesco Moser’s Benotto; our bodies tense as we embrace the excitement of the slow-motion jarring of the bodies as they pound across the cobbles, serenaded by a hypnotic choir. And perhaps the most beautiful part of the film had nothing to do with Leth at all, and everything to do with the underdog, to whom, once every so often, victory comes unexpected, yet no less exciting and no less deserving. In this case, it was 25-year-old Belgian Marc Demeyer, who out-sprinted and outsmarted De Vlaeminck to claim his greatest victory before dying of a heart attack six years later.
‘A Sunday in Hell’ full film
This would be followed by other surprise victors, including Dirk Demol and his 222-kilometer escape in 1988, Jean-Marie Wampers in 1989, Frederic Guesdon surprising Johan Museeuw and Jo Planckaert in 1997, Servais Knaven, unrecognizable behind the mud, soloing to victory in 2001, and Johan Vansummeren in 2011 and Mathew Hayman last year.
And while the list of favorites each year is narrowed down to the stiffest of competitors, Paris-Roubaix is one race where good luck can help a rider prevail as much as bad luck can steal a victory. Johan Museeuw, following his third and final victory in 2002, said “to win Paris-Roubaix you need to be lucky, and today I had luck.” This was the opposite of 2001, when multiple punctures allowed his Domo-Farm Frites teammate Knaven to escape and solo to one of the grittiest and dirtiest victories in recent memory, and with it etch his name on the concrete stall in the velodrome showers. Much like the thin line between good and bad luck, it is even thinner between beauty and horror.
1984 and ’86 winner Sean Kelly summarized the dynamic of the race, saying “it’s a beautiful race to win, but a shit one to ride.” So while the images of broad shoulders and broad smiles from Boonen and Cancellara as they heave the heavy stone trophy over their head capture our attention, it is no less horrible a race to ride for them, it just has a more beautiful end to the day, while for the rest, it’s simply still a horrible race to ride.
In considering Kelly’s words, Paris-Roubaix is perhaps the one race where most riders wish they were somewhere else. No man wants to race it, every man wants to win it, or so we’ve been told. The start list is reserved for 192 riders, and if riding in the Tour de France is a badge of courage, then riding Paris-Roubaix is the Purple Heart. Paris-Roubaix lays dormant all but one day a year, rising the second Sunday of every April to mock those riders who avoid it, and unleash a storm of brutality on those who dare tread on it. It is this singularity, this oddity that I believe is its allure. After all, there are dozens of mountains to climb, but there is only one Paris-Roubaix.
The majestic mountain peaks of the Pyrenees or the Alps are the attraction of the Tour de France for locals and tourists alike, wiling away their time on a hot summer day, enjoying a French tradition that is as important as wine and cheese. Much like the biggest tour stages, these days are transient, and only relate to the mountain tops they finish on for that day. Next year the story will be some other peak, and after so many years, I do not remember what stage was won by whom atop which mountain. But Paris-Roubaix remains unchanged. There is no give to the stones. A rider who punches them gets punched back, infinitely harder. It is the rider that can best withstand this pummeling, this lack of forgiveness from the earth, who will succeed. And believe it or not, once on the stones of Roubaix, you wish you were back on the cobbles of Flanders. A friend once asked if I had ever ridden the pavé aside from one day every April. My response was succinct: what’s the point?
My Paris-Roubaix Sunday commences on the Saturday afternoon preceding the race with a visit to Compiegne for the team presentation and a front row view of the pre-race energy that engulfs the grounds of the beautiful Palace Square. The Amaury Sports Organization is many things, and one thing they have a knack for is finding the most attractive settings to host a bike race. If there is one element that rises above the rest in this setting, it’s the presence of former Paris-Roubaix winners: Sean Kelly, Marc Madiot, Frederic Guesdon, Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle and Bernard Hinault. While many of the riders garnered attention from autograph seeking fans and news media alike, there was an air of contentment that surrounded the former winners. Duclos-Lasalle, the two-time winner and still the oldest man to conquer Roubaix, still looks like he could have a crack at the race. He is always relaxed, approachable and he looked me in the eyes and smiled in acknowledgment as I shook his hand. Some moments do not need verbal translation.
Seeing Paris-Roubaix live is no less exciting the tenth time as it is the first. Of course, different things are observed, and it’s the moments that happen between the headlines that make it the most exciting, disappointing and thrilling race to see live. Throughout the thousands of moments that make up the race, there are those that leap off the stones and define an extraordinary day in hell. And while it’s annual, it’s never predictable, and those moments are never the same. Driving ahead of the race on the course, the route is outlined across the flat, directionless fields by the swelling crowd. You can sense the anticipation and excitement boiling, the faces of the crowd filled with expectation and delight at the imminent spectacle, their pulse ready to ignite when the race stampedes across the stones and the riders clamor and rattle into view, the front one’s like warriors charging into certain death, their chasers like frightened children.
There are many historic sites across the globe, and in the broader sense of significance, the velodrome in Roubaix is certainly not one of them. But in the world of cycling, it is as iconic a location as there is. Arriving on my own ride annually, having ridden 18 sectors and 100 kilometers of the parcour from the Arenberg Forest to the velodrome, always brings a sense of delirium, one that bridges the gap between asking the question of “why do I ride this?” And the other side, which is the deeply satisfying success of having done so, again and again. And while the sleek new velodrome casts its shadows across the concrete bowl in the depths of impoverished Roubaix, the one and a half laps that are ridden here annually are 750 meters of exhilarating bike racing to witness.
On race day, as the security guard stepped aside and invited me to enter, I paused for a moment as I stepped onto the concrete track, viewing the large screen across the grass infield, the podium, the crowd. The sport blesses us with these locations, our own historic sites that elicit a pause and contemplative moment of immense consumption, a reflection on the journey taken to arrive, in this case over 25 years since first reading about Demol’s victory in the Gazzetta dello Sport while studying in Italy in 1988. Overly dramatic? Only if you’ve stood in the same spot will you think not, much like only if you’ve ridden the pave of Roubaix would you never dare desecrate the race by labeling any other ride with the misnomer of “Roubaix.” There is only one Paris-Roubaix for a reason. It cannot be replicated, nor should we want it to be.
In 2013, When Sep Vanmarcke and Fabian Cancellara entered the velodrome, I stood and viewed it through that wonderful angle we are all familiar with, that exhilarating view of the lead riders entering the velodrome and turning right onto the track. After 6+ hours in hell, their journey now came down to navigating a concrete oval in an effort to see who can sprint past a painted white line first. The tension was as I had imagined, yes even dreamt of, and I embraced the nervous excitement that the ensuing lap and a half brought, the roar from the crowd celebrating their arrival, the chorus that rang was a bit different choir than Leth’s hypnotic chant, but no less magical. With the sprint finish, the fist pump and collapse on the infield, the post-race scrum took hold of the velodrome infield, the photographer’s fight for the still life that would grace the morning paper, go viral across the internet and conclude the story of one man’s escape from hell.
But the images that defined this day were reserved for the ensuing riders. The chasers, the stragglers, the finishers, each of their stories etched across their faces as they slowed to a crawl on the track’s carpet. It was not of a smiling Cancellara, or a blank eyed, fatigued Vanmarcke, but the pain and anguish, the relief of having just completing the most atrocious bicycle race. And just because these riders did not win, or produce a super human performance, their integrity remains unquestioned, their performance is studied without ridicule. Rather, it is the effort that is commendable and honored with the respect deserving of any man who pins on a number for Paris-Roubaix.
This is another aspect of our sport that does not exist in others. While viewing the 80-rider list of abandons, it is easy to pass over the names and ignore their stories from the day. But each rider has one, as does each person on the side of the road. From sector 27 in Troisville to the Roubaix velodrome, racing or viewing, it can be repeated, but never replicated. An extraordinary day in hell, indeed.
Peter Easton is the owner of VeloClassic Tours, a company who specializes in highly personalized luxury cycling travel experiences for serious cyclists through enlightened hospitality. For over a decade, Peter has shown guests the best riding, dining and hotels for cyclists across Europe, and is an expert in the rides, roads and races that make up the Spring Classics.