Painfully Beautiful.Paris-Roubaix: A Journey through Hell


“If they’re flicking on Paris-Roubaix for the first time they’re going to say – “What the hell? What kind of bike race is this?” It’s a cross between mountain biking, road racing and gladiator warfare. They’ll see guys crashing, cobbles, dust, mayhem, chaos and a lot of tired faces. It’s an adventure. It’s the Hell of the North. You’re putting yourself through hell and everyone gets to watch it on TV. You finish the race and you feel like you’ve been in a car wreck. It’s pretty full on. It’s about as hard as cycling ever gets.”

– Stuart O’Grady, winner of 2007 Paris-Roubaix & 2nd place in TdF Green Jersey 1998, 1999, 2001 & 2005.

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Paris-Roubaix is the world’s most famous one-day cycle race.

But let’s place a word of honesty at the start; If we had wrote this post a few years ago, there may have been speculation that in this era of specialization, the ‘Queen of the Classics’ was losing some of its power. Even with the crowds still flocking, some critics had noted

Carnage on the cobbles - Photo Gallery at

Carnage on the cobbles – Photo Gallery at

that the courtiers were increasingly staying away – tempted by the lucrative, ‘Armstrong-driven’ Grand Tours of recent years. In 2002 only two of the top 20 riders in the UCI table – Jens Voigt and Erik Zabel – were on the start line. The following year only Zabel was there. In 2004 he had stayed at home as well.

Eddy Merckx has even spoke on the Queen’s waning power; even with it’s roll of honour featuring the greatest ever riders [interesting post on past winners & average speeds];

“It’s a shame to say it, but Paris-Roubaix is losing more and more of its value because the great riders aren’t there. I’ve always said that to win without risk is to win without glory.”


For this seasons’ third Monument race, we are standing on the verge of witnessing an historic, record-breaking third ‘double’ [Tour of Flanders & Paris-Roubaix within a week] by ‘The Spartacus’, Fabian Cancellara and even for the casual fan, the magic of this legendary contest is back.

Can he win? Can anyone beat the Spartacus Express?

[Even the sponsors and bike manufacturers are using this spectacle of the brutal cobbles as a launch platform for its new cycling kit and the latest in sports science.]

But let’s not forget, in the peloton we still have a strong line-up of riders who will be licking their wounds – with vengeance in mind – after last Sunday; see the main contenders here. Top of the list would be of course Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-QuickStep), the most successful rider in the race’s history, who is looking to capture a fourth win at the finish on the Belgian frontier.

SBS has an excellent overview of the 27 cobbled sections on Paris-Roubaix - click image

SBS has an excellent overview of the 27 cobbled sections on Paris-Roubaix – click image

The sheer ferocity of the ‘Hell of the North’ was represented in SBS 2013 ‘The day after Roubaix’ – have you ever heard of the media talking about the morning after a one day classic?

The riders have to contend with 28 secteurs of merciless cobbles on the iconic route. If a rider crashes? Well just jump over them. It is almost like the difficulty the cyclists face is tribute to those lost in the shelling & trench warfare which took place in the region during World War I. Indeed the term ‘Hell of the North’ was coined to describe the route of the race in 1919;

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

Eddy Merckx, '75

Eddy Merckx, ’75

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.’ – Procycling 2006.

Henri Pelissier, winner in 1919, described afterwards that the event – ‘This wasn’t a race it was a pilgrimage’. Therefore Paris-Roubaix stands unique, in that it celebrates its association with a war that decimated a generation.

The Precedent for Sunday

“Paris-Roubaix est une connerie”– “Paris–Roubaix is bullshit” or “Paris–Roubaix is plain stupid”

– Bernard Hinault, 1981 champion, first French winner of the Paris–Roubaix for 25 years; 5 x winner of Tour de France

Sunday will be the 112th edition of the race and follows last year’s breathtaking finale with Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard) pipping Sep Vanmarcke (Blanco Pro Cycling) in a sprint for the line at Roubaix velodrome. 3rd place was settled in a bunch sprint to the line by the chasing group; won buy Niki Terpstra (Pharma-QuickStep).

That final sprint was only the final paragraph in the story of the 2013 race. Yes the Tour of Flanders is mad; those monster, cruel, short sharp climbs are torment for even the professional circuit – and that is just the thudding in the legs & the vibrations in the bars, we not even talking about the outrageous battering on the cold, hard stones in a mass fall. But the cobbles of Roubaix, as put by Peloton Magazine ‘These Beautiful Stones’ are ‘like nothing else in PARIGI-ROUBAIX ARENBERGcycling. They’re an anachronism, they’re insane, they’re utter rubble in some places, and they’re stunning’. Cycling fans love it because riders are pushing their bodies to the absolute limit – Pain, suffering and satisfaction – but at all times they must stay cool, calm & collected, because even in a strong team something usually goes wrong at the Paris-Roubaix. Even  Jacques Anquetil called it a lottery after puncturing 13 km from the end in 1958 and never took it seriously again

‘It’s hard not to liken Paris-Roubaix to war. The carnage, the chaos, the ever-present specter of fate’s touch (fortunate or doomed), the sheer cruelty of the race. But it’s best to remember that there are things far, far worse than the unfortunately small words I can conjure up describing a one-day race over ancient rock roads.’

– Jered Gruber is the Features Editor of peloton magazine. Follow @jeredgruber

Mud & Carnage

Mud & Carnage

The “modern day” cobbled sectors – the real deciding elements & extravaganza of this battle – are made up of 27 sectors, that collectively add up to 52.6 kilometres of cobbles out of 254 kilometres in total. Each sector is given a difficulty rating from one to five based on its length, the unevenness of the cobbles, its overall condition and its location. There are three five-star sectors with the last coming just 20 kilometres before the finish on the Roubaix Velodrome. One of the worst sections is a stretch of pavé called the Moulin de Vertain; which was only discovered in 2002.Apparently the story is that the road had been forgotten & covered over by dirt for many years until a certain Madame Farine recalled that her mother used to tell her of a cobbled road nearby. Sure enough, a new nasty section was born, with huge jagged cobbles ready to ruin the day for our Sunday competitors.

Here is just a brief highlight of what has unfolded on those cobbles (and the race) in the last 111 episodes of this great meet:

1930 – Just being on the wrong team

Jean Maréchal finished 24 seconds ahead of Belgian Julien Vervaecke but was moved to second because, while Maréchal was trying to pass Vervaecke, the Belgian tumbled into a ditch. According to some, Maréchal hit the Belgian’s shoulder, causing his fall. Jacques Augendre, historian of the Tour de France, said Maréchal, who was 20, “was riding as an individual for a little bike-maker, Colin, and he got to Roubaix alone. His happiness was short-lived. Arbitrarily accused of having provoked a fall by Julien Vervaecke, with whom he had broken away, he was disqualified without any sort of hearing. Important detail: Vervaecke belonged to the all-powerful Alcyon team, run by the no less powerful Ludovic Feuillet.

No high-tech photo finish then.

1936 – No high-tech photo finish then.

1936 – The wrong winner?

In 1936 the Belgian, Romain Maes, appeared to win but judges declared Frenchman Georges Speicher the winner and Maes second.Shouting began in the stands and for a moment it looked as though fighting would start, but calm returned and the result was upheld. A Belgian may not have won but there were seven Belgians in the first ten.

1949 – The wrong route

André Mahé was first but his win was challenged because he took the wrong course. Mahé was in a break of three that reached Roubaix velodrome in the lead, but he was misdirected by officials and entered the track by the wrong gate. Mahé was declared winner but a few minutes later other riders arrived using the correct route and Serse Coppi, brother of famous Fausto, won the sprint for what was assumed to be the minor placings. After a protest and several months, Serse Coppi was named joint winner with Mahé.

1981 – Angry man

Hinault fell seven times in that race, including 13 km from the finish when a small black dog called Gruson ran out in a bend and ran under his wheel.

Breaking Belgium - Hinault 1981

Breaking Belgium – Hinault 1981

Hinault had been clear with a breakway group incuding Roger De VlaeminckHennie Kuiper and Dirk de Meyer. The incident made Hinault angry and he raced back to the others and won in Roubaix.

1988 – Damn plastic bags
The 1988 race contained a rare spectacle where an early morning breakaway group held on until the finish: 27 kilometres into the race a group of unknown riders broke away and the pack did nothing to chase them down throughout the race. On the final section of the cobbles, Thomas Wegmuller (SUI) and Dirk Demol (BEL) broke away from the lead group to try for the victory. However when the two Bondue and Braun '84entered Roubaix, Wegmuller ran over a plastic bag that flew out in front of him, which became jammed in his derailleur. Wegmuller was unable to change gears which was crucial for a sprint finish. He got assistance from his team car to remove the bag, but his gears still would not change. Knowing that a bicycle change would lead to a disqualification, Wegmuller continued on his damaged bike; Demol continued to draft behind him. Unsurprisingly on the final sprint finish Wegmuller could only watch as Demol sprinted past him to take the victory.

2006 – ‘Its crazy. In Belgium they would have stopped the train” – Peter Van PetegemIn 2006 Leif Hoste, Peter Van Petegem and Vladimir Gusev were disqualified for riding through a closed train crossing 10 km before the finish and just ahead of an approaching freight train.Fabian Cancellara won and Tom Boonen and Alessandro Ballan were given the remaining places on the podium.

Still not convinced on the significance of this history, the cobbles, this race? Why don’t you get check out this 1988 documentary on the ‘Evil stones of Arenberg’?