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Roubaix History: From Queen To Hell… And Back!

The 104th edition of the most important of all the Classics runs this Sunday. No true racer would be satisfied with only a view to the upcoming race-day – no way no how! To fully appreciate the beauty that is Roubaix, one must understand how this race was born, and the battles that shaped her into the Queen she is today…

A rider who wins Paris-Roubaix, has his place in cycling history assured. The race through the so called “Hell of the North” – with its long stretches of cobble- stoned roads – is most certainly the most important one day cycling event of the year.

Some say the race is a “poker game”, pointing to so called “lucky” winners that had their one day of glory: Paul Maye, Lucien Storme, Roger Rosiers, Dirk Demol or Frйdйric Guesdon. The truth is that every former winner largely deserved it, after a long battle against the weather elements, dust, mud, technical problems, punctured tires, and of course other riders. The 102 former editions list winners that were the best racers of their era: Maurice Garin, Octave Lapize, Hebri Pйlisiier, Andrй Leducq, Fausto Coppi, Rik Van Steenbergen, Louison Bobet, Rik Van Looy, Eddy Merckx, Francesco Moser, Bernard Hinault, Johan Museeuw and – above all – Roger De Vlaeminck (4 wins, 8 podiums). Paris-Roubaix definitely is the “race of all races” !

Let’s take a look at its rich history.

1896: Birth of a legend
Two spinning mill owners from Roubaix, who had initiated and financed the building of the local velodrome in 1895, thought the spectators needed more than only track races. Together with the magazine “Le Vйlo” they organised a road race that should enchant the huge number of cycling fans in this industrial and poor region of France.

On Easter Sunday, April 19 of 1896, 100 competitors leave Paris at 5.30 in the morning for a 280 km race to Roubaix. Very early in the race Arthur Linton takes off followed by 6 other competitors. Then comes the hour of Germany’s Joseph Fischer. He catches up with Linton, and goes solo for the last 100 km, after Linton had hit a dog crossing the road. He wins after more than 9 hours of racing (average: 30,162 km/h). Charles Meyer (Denmark) finishes second, the future Tour winner Maurice Garin third. Garin will come back en win in 1897.

Years to Remember

1909: First victory of OCTAVE LAPIZE
Twenty-two year old Octave Lapize starts as an independent, he therefore cannot count on any support or help during the race. But he is strong, and 4 punctured tires and the loss of a lot of time cannot stop him. Three leaders prepare the final sprint in Roubaix. Louis Trousselier takes the lead, but slightly slips in the last curve. Lapize places his final jump and wins, beating Trousselier and Jules Masselis. Lapize will also win in 1910 and 1911.
A fighter pilot in the French army, Octave Lapize died in 1915, when his plane was shot down over Verdun.

February 18, 1955 a man dies in deepest poverty. This man – 68 years old, blind and amputated of both legs – is Charles Crupelandt, born in Roubaix and one of the heroes of the very early years of cycling competition.
Few people remembered the courageous Charles, who put so much happiness in the hearts of all common people in and around Roubaix by winning the 1912 edition, beating Gustave Garrigou (the 1911 Tour winner) in a two men sprint. Between 1910 and 1914, Crupelandt showed that he was part of this bunch of tough cycling pioneers, not afraid of any challenge. Four stages in the Tour, Paris-Tours 1913, again Paris-Roubaix and the French national road championship in 1914: Charles Crupelandt merits to be remembered.
A few years ago, the town of Roubaix built a short symbolic section of cobblestones, just a few hundred meters away from the entrance of the velodrome. It is called “Espace Crupelandt”.

1949: Major confusion: COPPI? MAHE?
No, it was not Fausto who was the fastest of the lot. It was Serse Coppi, his brother, who won the sprint of the leading peloton. Though he passed the finish line first, he was not declared the winner. The officials gave the victory flowers to Andrй Mahй, who was leading a group of three (including Moujica and Leenen) that arrived first on the last straight, but was wrongly directed by a race official. By the time they realised, the pursuit group had already finished.
Mahй was nevertheless declared the winner, but – after an official protest – Serse Coppi was put ex-aequo with Andrй Mahй, thus winning his one and only classic race. The sequels of a fall in the 1951 Tour of Piemont will put an end to Serse’s life.

1955: The Finest Hour of JEAN FORESTIER
Rain, cold and rain again. Terrible weather conditions for this 1955 edition.
One man escapes, 25 km to go: Jean Forestier. Behind him, a royal pursuit group: Fausto Coppi, Bobet, Koblet, Van Steenbergen, …Even if Coppi doesn’t really collaborate, the group comes closer and closer. Everything seems lost for the courageous Forestier, but – with his very last forces – he manages to keep a small lead of 15 seconds, falling from his bicycle only a few yards after the finish.

1967: A Royal Sprint: JAN JANSSEN
When Rudi Altig attacks, you have to be strong to follow. His violent effort in the Beaumont climb reduces the lead group to 10 riders, of which 6 are Belgians. They head towards Roubaix for the final sprint. Three times winner Rik Van Looy sees his chance to beat the victory record. He seems to be the fastest, but the group also includes the young Merckx, Altig, Poulidor, Willy Planckaert, Gianni Motta, Ward Sels … and Jan Janssen.

Arthur De Cabooter enters the Roubaix track first, Rik Van Looy last. Then Rik starts catching up and passes everyone in a fantastic effort. Everyone … except Dutchman Jan Janssen, who wins by half a wheel.

1975: Mister Paris-Roubaix: ROGER DE VLAEMINCK
It’s impossible to talk Paris-Roubaix history, without mentioning Roger De Vlaeminck. His cyclo-cross experience (he was world champion) always served him well. After winning in 1972 and 1974, this is another chance to equal the 3 wins record of Lapize, Rebry and Van Looy. As usual, Eddy Merckx is the main competitor, though he has knee problems. But Eddy soon forgets about the pain, and is part of the final leading group with De Vlaeminck, Demeyer and Dierckx, when he punctures his tire only 7 km from Roubaix. A heroic pursuit brings him back in front, and he attacks immediately. But Demeyer and De Vlaminck react.

Final sprint, Roger De Vlaeminck beating Eddy Merckx and Andrй Dierckx. Roger will win again in 1977 and establish a record series of 4 victories.

Ed. Note: This weekend will see another name notched into the history books, and whether it’s one of the favorites or an unexpected new-comer, you can be sure the victory will be earned and paid in full.

Photo Credits:
Jan Didier’s personal Collection

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