This post isn’t so much about cycling but the wider area around this Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix race. As you’ll see below, the “Hell of the North” title is not about cobbles but the state of the region.
Apologies if I upset anyone but Roubaix and the surrounding places are grim. Tourist rarely visit and the French have negative myths about the place. Even the cycling is not great, despite the famous race. You’re better heading across the border into Belgium for the bergs. Today the region thrives as transport hub but it is rarely a final destination.
What’s so bad? The effects of wars past are still visible, from cratered landscapes to fields of white crosses in mass graveyards. More recently the whole region has struggled, faced with vanishing industries and entrenched social problems. It’s a tough place with a tough race. But the good news is that it’s finally getting back on its feet, at least cosmetically.
Paris-Roubaix was first run in 1896 after two textile entrepreneurs had put up money to fund a velodrome in Roubaix. Keen to attract crowds to the track, they hit upon the idea of a race from Paris that finished on their track, the culmination of such a long ride would occur right in front of an attendant public who’d paid money to watch the finish. Back then the race wasn’t about cobbles, after all it was normal many roads were cobbled. Instead the distance was impressive, some 300km, even the fastest steam trains took hours.
The wealthy benefactors who started the race are long gone and you can do Paris-Roubaix in little more than an hour with the TGV high speed train. Roubaix and the region known for its industrial past, a time when mining, textiles and other industries of yesterday provided great wealth for some but misery for many. Such terrain is the backdrop for Emile Zola’s powerful masterpiece, Germinal.
Ever since the race began the region has been on the slide. War caused hardship and destruction, the area was flattened by relentless artillery fire in the 1914-1918 war. Indeed when the race restarted in 1919 it was not uncommon to find decaying military vehicles still standing taller than any vegetation, a lifeless scene. In an account by the late Jean-Paul Brouchon, passing through the region rider Eugène Christophe proclaimed “here is the real hell of the north“. In this race won by Henri Péllisier, 40 following vehicles started but only five made it to Roubaix. Hell is not cobbled, the term describes the scarred landscape.
Chronic unemployment, deindustrialisation and other negative factors don’t paint a great picture. Today, it’s a hot bed for the political far-right, even obesity rates are the worst in France. France might be the world’s most popular tourist destination but few venture here.
As such the “hell of the north” is not rough cobbles, it is rough life. The ravages of war, novels reflecting poverty and a host of current statistics indicating that all is not well all give the place a bad reputation. If cyclists dream of arriving in Roubaix, I suspect many who live there yearn to escape.
One of the most popular films in France in recent times is “Bienvenue Chez Les Ch’tis“, a comedy tale of a postman transferred from the Mediterranean Provence region and its warm lavender fields to the supposedly grim North. It plays on French preconceptions of Le Nord (the north) being ridiculously cold, where temperatures peak at 0°C in summer and reach -40°C in the winter, where “people die early” and other tales of misery reflected by the clip in French above.
The good news is that the film shows the postman enjoying his move, meeting great people and that all the regional stereotypes turn out to be false or just charming. There’s a saying that “you cry twice in the North, once when you arrive and once when you leave“.
Indeed, just as a film showed the region in a good light, the good news is that things are fast-improving in reality too. The region is undergoing a bit of a renaissance. Besides what counts for a poor region in France is still far ahead of many other areas of Europe, yet alone beyond.
Roubaix neighbours the city of Lille and the area has capitalised on its position as a transport hub, it sits at a key crossroads between road and rail routes between Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and London. Lille’s city centre has been revamped and it is a far more pleasant place than it was in the years gone past, a case study for urban planners.
Change comes to Roubaix and cycling symbolises this. The original velodrome first used to host the finish in the 19th century has since been demolished. The current finish uses a track built in the 1930s. But construction work is underway for a new indoor velodrome next to the existing one. This €25 million project will a proper 21st century sports venue but traditionalists can rest assured the finish of the Paris-Roubaix race will stay on the old track and even the showers will be preserved.
Indeed even the cobbled sections used by the race are now celebrated. Once the normal road surface and access, then an awkward way to travel, today the cobbled roads are preserved as heritage by Les Amis du Paris-Roubaix (“The Friends of Paris-Roubaix”), a wonderful charity dedicated to preserving, restoring and promoting the cobbled tracks used by the race that works with local colleges to pass on skills and train people too.
Whether it’s the track, the Carrefour de l’Arbre restaurant or the cobbles, note how the past is preserved and cherished whilst modern life surrounds it, as if the hellish past is finally slipping away.
When you see the race this Sunday, keep a look out for the old mine shafts and the terrils (spoil heaps), the brick houses. The riders will arrive with faces darkened by dust, reminiscent of the miners covered in coal dust after a day’s work under the Arenberg forest. Look for the war memorials dotted with white crosses and the bleak fields full of mud. And see the no-frills trophy, a square cobble mounted on a stand. Paris-Roubaix is the pure product of this terrain.