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 race’s “Hell of the North” title doesn’t come from cobbles but the state of the region.
Apologies if I upset the locals but Roubaix and the surrounding places are grim. Tourist rarely visit and the French share negative myths about the area. 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 marking mass graveyards. More recently the whole region has struggled with vanishing jobs and entrenched social problems. It’s a tough place with the toughest race.
Paris-Roubaix was first run in 1896 after two textile entrepreneurs put up the money to fund a velodrome in Roubaix. Keen to attract crowds to the track, they hit upon the idea of a race from Paris where the attendant public would pay money to watch the finish; it’s not dissimilar from today’s VIP tents on the Paterberg. But back then the race wasn’t about cobbles, after all most roads were cobbled. Instead the difficulty was the distance, 300km.
The wealthy benefactors who started the race are gone, along with their textile industry too. Distance is meaningless, you can do Paris-Roubaix in little more than an hour with a TGV high speed train. Yet Roubaix and the region are still 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.
The region has been on the slide since the race began. War caused hardship and destruction, the area was flattened by artillery fire in the 1914-1918 war. Indeed when the race restarted in 1919 it was not uncommon to find rusting military vehicles 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 comes from the war.
Then came the Great Depression and then war in 1939. Once the Second World War ended the mining, steel and textile industries never recovered, slipping into gradual decline but new industries grew up around, in particular in the auto sector, agribusiness and logistics.
It’s not a scenic place. Often the horizon is only interrupted by the artificial terrils of the mines and beffrois church towers. Factories are closing, it’s a hot bed for the political extremism and the region scores badly across a range of social and economic indicators, for example the worst obesity rates in France.
As such the “hell of the north” is not rough cobbles once a year, it is rough life every day. 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, many locals probably long 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 around freezing in summer and reach -40°C in the winter, where “people die early” in misery.
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 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. That high obesity rate? Well if Le Nord was a state in the US it would have the second lowest rate, only just beaten by Colorado.
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.
Roubaix is changing and cycling symbolises this. The original velodrome from the 19th century has since been demolished and the race finishes on the concrete track built in the 1930s. But now a new €25 million indoor velodrome stands next to the track, one of France’s few functional indoor tracks. Traditionalists can rest assured Paris-Roubaix race will finish on the old track and the showers will be preserved.
Once seen as ancient today the cobbled sections used by the race are now celebrated as part of the region’s heritage. Les Amis du Paris-Roubaix (“The Friends of Paris-Roubaix”), a 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. Crucially they are not looking to preserve the past but to maintain the cobbles, to repair these roads and keep them in working order. 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. Even the famous house on the Carrefour de l’Arbre cobbled section, once abandoned, is now a good restaurant.
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.
The toughness of the event goes beyond the brutal cobblestones, it is a reflection of the landscape, the hardship of the past and the difficulties of today. It’s what makes the race.