Roubaix and the “Hell of the North”

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Germinal

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.

Roubaix Postcard

Wish you were here? A postcard from 1906

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.

Today
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“.

terril

Renaissance
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.

Even the famous house on the Carrefour de l’Arbre cobbled section is now a fancy restaurant.

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.

Lars Boom Paris Roubaix

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.

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{ 39 comments }

Ian April 4, 2012 at 9:58 am

Brilliant, thanks

Jon April 4, 2012 at 10:03 am

great read. i’ve visited for the race and sensed the run down feel. reminds of cities in the north of england and scotland that have seen better days.

Chris April 4, 2012 at 10:11 am

Thanks Inrng, it’s posts like this that make this blog a cut above the rest! Also thanks for reminding me about ‘Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis’ – a very enjoyable film! I might have found an unlikely Paris-Roubaix warm up if I can get my hands on a copy…

Steppings April 4, 2012 at 10:14 am

Great article. I had a rear 3/4 window smashed on my car in Roubaix at the race in 2001. I wasn’t upset, I was lucky. The North/South debate has always been in England too and with experience of living in both I know where I would be for better weather and that is the South. However, for the people and the countryside, nothing beats the North.

The Inner Ring April 4, 2012 at 10:28 am

Thanks, glad you liked it. It’s based on a similar piece last year but I’ve updated it, fixed some links and edited the words a bit. But since the blog has gained many more readers since this time last year I thought it is worth sharing again.

Rooie April 4, 2012 at 10:43 am

Great!

Larry T. April 4, 2012 at 11:58 am

Nicely done as usual! We’ve been in the region a few times during our TdF daze, even finding an old Paris-Roubaix route sign that souvenir hunters missed one year. You are correct, it was sort of depressing overall but come Easter Sunday I’m hoping things will be different and it will be everything (and more) that I’ve dreamed of, just like our experiences at the monuments of Milano-San Remo and Giro di Lombardia have been. There’s no question that TV viewers end up knowing a hell of a lot more about how the race unfolds than we will standing in the Arenberg forest, but based on our previous experiences NOTHING comes close to actually being there. We’re very fortunate to be able to look back on many great events and say “we were there” – something you just can’t do via TV or the ‘net.

Owen April 4, 2012 at 12:21 pm

I’ll be at the end of the Carréfour de l’Arbre on Sunday, rain or shine, rain looks likely.

Gavin April 4, 2012 at 12:22 pm

Fantastic read! Very Informative as always!

Greeny April 4, 2012 at 12:27 pm

Absolutely my favourite one-day race of the year, and great articles like this help to explain why…

Eisel for the win this year ;)

Chris April 4, 2012 at 12:27 pm

I read your piece last year and enjoyed it again this year. With the new track is the old track going to stay?

Cam April 4, 2012 at 12:28 pm

It’s rare these days to be engaged by an article, let alone be compelled to finish it. I’ll be (hopefully, if location and facilities allow) watching Paris-Roubaix online with this excellent backgrounder in mind.

The only negative about this post is that you’re not getting paid to write it. However, I am well aware of why you’d invest the time into such a piece; the pleasure of sharing it. Thankyou!

Ankush April 4, 2012 at 12:37 pm

Yours’s is the best cycling blog, I just love it

Al April 4, 2012 at 12:47 pm

off topic …

a vote for Bienvenue chez les chtis – it’s such a nice film :)

Ian April 4, 2012 at 1:32 pm

Sadly, not even a renaissance of sorts and France’s biggest grossing movie at the box office can change soem attitudes:

“The more significant drama of the game came just after Lens’s equaliser on 52 minutes. That was when PSG fans unfurled a giant banner that made reference to Bienvenue Chez Les Ch’tis , the film currently breaking all box-office records in France. It read, ‘Paedophiles, Unemployed, and the Inbred – Welcome to Ch’ti Land’”

http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/2008/apr/01/europeanfootball.sport2

Guy April 4, 2012 at 1:49 pm

Yet another fantastic article. Thank you.

karsten April 4, 2012 at 1:56 pm

@owen and Larry T I’ll be at Carréfour de l’Arbre, after a quick dash from the arenburg – did it last year with 20 mins to spare. Going to ride the cobbles on Friday and Saturday for the first time as well.

Does any one know the time for the presentation on Saturday in Compiegne?

The Inner Ring April 4, 2012 at 2:22 pm

Chris: I gather the track is staying.

karsten: 2.30-4.30pm in the Place du Général de Gaulle.

Larry T. April 4, 2012 at 2:43 pm

Karsten – the dash from Arenberg to Carrefour is our tentative plan too, but being a newbie at it, I wasn’t 100% sure we can pull this off. No riding on the cobbles though, we’re flying in and out of Brussels on the cheap – so no bikes. Send an email to larry@cycleitalia.com if you want our Italian cell phone # to try to meet up. Saturday we plan to visit the Ronde museum.

Dave April 4, 2012 at 3:14 pm

Looks like a clear dry day!
So no one should look like LeMond did in 1985:
http://bit.ly/HfTk6G

karsten April 4, 2012 at 3:14 pm

Inner Ring – thanks

Larry T – If you park up on the road to Arenburg with car facing towards A23, you can watch them at the forest then run to the car as soon as they go past and get on the A23 (watch out for team cars doing double speed limit). For Carréfour de l’Arbre get off the A27 at Junction 3 then D93 to D941 and park up near turning Rue Saint Amand (Police close road off). Then its a walk/run to either section 4 or 5.

I heard people do 4 viewings but don’t know how.

cd April 4, 2012 at 3:27 pm

I visited Roubaix once in college for a paper I was writing (1991). Visited the velodrome (it looks bigger on TV). Went to a Kraftwerk concert. Good times. I enjoyed it. You can see the industrial routes of the city, but I liked that about it. Good to see the area is having a come back. Thanks for the piece.

Dave April 4, 2012 at 3:36 pm

My favourite race of the year by an absolute mile , I can’t really find much respect for pro riders who avoid this race no matter what else they’ve won , this is a proper bike race

Martin April 4, 2012 at 4:42 pm

Great read! I think this is the article that drew me to your site a year ago and I’ve been following ever since. Great articles, and a great community of informed, passionate commenters too.

JimW April 4, 2012 at 5:20 pm

Hey!
You’ve got a new bookmark logo.
I was confused at first.
Looks good.

john April 4, 2012 at 6:44 pm

oh my…yet I still want to ride the course just so i could forever quash my endless romantic notions about Europe in general

Velobadger April 4, 2012 at 7:57 pm

I had the opportunity to ride in the fictional “Hell of the West” stage race as an extra for the movie “American Flyers,”– there was no hell involved in that bike race and the film a bit schmaltzy.

I look forward to the infernal Paris-Roubaix every year as my favorite classics race, and coupled with the beautiful film “Bienvenue Chez Les Ch’tis,”– it makes for a great weekend.

Inner Ring, awesome product. Stumbling upon your blog has changed my life — well, maybe just my morning routine.

Larry T. April 4, 2012 at 8:00 pm

Grazie Karsten! We plan to have CYCLEITALIA logos on our car so if you pass us (or we pass you – I’ve driven in a few pro race caravans over the years) blow the horn and wave. Just bought some folding umbrellas to take with us (along with raincoats) so it should be dry and dusty rather than wet and muddy – but epic no matter what!

GRJim April 4, 2012 at 8:06 pm

There’s been some scuttlebutt about more pressure to pave the cobbles – anyone got a link?

The Inner Ring April 4, 2012 at 9:22 pm

GRJim: this has been true since asphalt arrived. But yes, towns want to make these rough tracks into normal roads. Here the Amis de Paris-Roubaix organisation (Friends of Paris-Roubaix) work to preserve the roads. There’s practical help like fixing the roads but they also try to persuade people of the cultural value of these roads, the link to past and the value of the race in promoting the region.

GRJim April 4, 2012 at 9:33 pm

Inrng, thanks for the reply. I’ve know about Amis for awhile and I’m positive they do great work. Someone who has a reputation for being dumb said the townspeople are winning, so take that for what it’s worth. It would be hell (sic) to drive on that stuff every day but who cares – P-R forever!

Hussein April 4, 2012 at 10:13 pm

I have only recently got into pro cycling (laid up with knee injury last TdF so watched every stage) and this website is really amazing, I’m learning so much every article I read.
Thank you!
Really looking forward to watching the race on tv, my first Paris-Roubaix!
Thanks to Larry T for mentioning “a sunday in hell” in a previous article, just finished viewing. Loved it.

TheSkullKrusher April 4, 2012 at 10:21 pm

I’ve visited Lille, Calais, Saint-Qiuantin and of course Roubaix, and I can honestly say people in the northern part of France are the coolest in the country, and that includes Marseille. They have this “leave me alone” attitude (which reminds me of native New Yorkers), but once you talk to them they are awesome, if a little crass. Love them.

Alan April 5, 2012 at 4:56 am

I second TheSkullKrusher’s observations. I went to Lille in 2010 and the people were fantastic. Very very friendly. I had a great time and really enjoyed myself. Also, the beer selection was outstanding. Wish I could have brought more through customs.

Bundle April 5, 2012 at 6:41 am

Very nice piece. I think I’ll cook a Flamiche au Maroilles this weekend to celebrate. :)

Caspar April 5, 2012 at 9:12 am

great article!
My mom is a ch’ti.
My grand father used to be an engeneer in the coal mines.

Have good souvenirs of terrils, bricks, and that deep dark clouded sky.

mmmbop April 5, 2012 at 10:50 am

Agree with Chris’s comment. Very interesting read and it’s articles like this that make Inrng a cut above. Keep up the good work.

Nick Squillari April 5, 2012 at 3:13 pm

Won’t lie, been hoping for a wet Roubaix for a few years now. I hope it’s a wet one come Sunday (sorry to all watching). Fingers crossed no broken bones, just a great battle.

Dave A April 11, 2012 at 8:21 am

Thanks for your web best around gives you REAL insight to our sport just watched the video on track building truly intriguing
Looking forward to all your feeds
Coming from down under makes me feel I’m there

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