Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix is the biggest one day race on the French calendar. I can’t add much to the fantastic previews out there already. Instead three small points:
The Hell of the North
The north of France is a grim place. It has pockets of high unemployment, the far-right National Front scores well and scores on other indices of misery, such as obesity levels, educational achievement and life expectancy. It has its charms too, especially if you like beer and frites. One of the most popular French films in recent times was “Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis“, a comedy about life in the north that played on the images the rest of France has about this region: bad weather, grumpy people etc (the film was popular but it is not exactly award-winning stuff).
Whilst the Tour of Flanders is a high point in the Belgian national calendar, Paris-Roubaix is something “up north” for most Frenchmen, it’s not a national event.
Paris-Roubaix was created to publicise the velodrome in Roubaix, Roubaix being a quasi-suburb of Lille, the Northern capital. Lille has exploited its position as a transport hub to enjoy something of a renaissance in recent years but it’s still not a place many would visit on holiday.
Get your line wrong and it’s game over
The cobbles are brutal. The Dutch call them kinderkoppen or babies’ heads, because each stone sits proud of the ground and is rounded on top. The bike must roll up, over and down each stone. Even in a farm tractor it’s not comfortable. On a road bike the sensation is awful. I can’t emphasise how difficult they can be and that’s just when riding over the cobbles: half the time the problem is not the cobbles, it is the way the road is in such a state. Get your line wrong and you’ll lose 10km/h an hour and you’ll struggle to accelerate again: game over.
Click on the two pictures above, from Graham Watson’s Twitter account, to enlarge them and see what I mean.
The Friends of Paris – Roubaix
It’s no surprise to learn that even farmers despair of these tracks. The roads are often chemin communales or recognised roadways and so their legal status imposes a duty on the local authorities to renovate them. Only pouring tarmac would kill the race. So there’s a group called Les Amis du Paris-Roubaix, the Friends of Paris-Roubaix and they work together to preserve the roads. Often replacing a lost cobble and helping town halls and mayors to realise that the crappy farm track is actually a part of their heritage and identity.
See http://www.lesamisdeparisroubaix.com/ for more, they are a small organisation that I salute. The website has an English-speaking component, click on the British flag. There’s also a shop where you can even buy your own cobblestone.