There’s no other race like Paris-Roubaix. The severe cobbles, the velodrome finish, the bleak landscape and the soil. It seems old-fashioned but here is an event that’s made for TV and it thrives because of its exceptional character.
“Paris-Roubaix est la dernière folie que le sport cycliste propose à ses officiants”
(Paris-Roubaix is the last folly that the sport of cycling proposes to its celebrants)
– Jacques Goddet, race director, 1968
Paris-Roubaix vs Time
The race has ridden against society’s direction of travel. It was gruelling competition when it began at the end of the 19th century but no more than other emergent races like Bordeaux-Paris or the daddy of them all, Paris-Rouen. The race wasn’t fearsome because of the cobbles, they were a normal means to surface a road and found all over the world. After World War I the “Hell of the North” label came from the scenes of devastation all around, if anything the roads were repaired first and the race could pass through the ruins. Jump forward to 1950s and after another war and France’s economy was leaping forward in a period labelled “the glorious 30”. As part of this many roads were being upgraded and tarmacked. Transport links were improving for everyone. But better roads and bikes were making Paris-Roubaix into a long procession and by the 1960s it had nothing unique to offer, especially as the course was so flat. It’s here Paris-Roubaix took its definitive turn.
Faced with the loss of cobbles and his race becoming a dreary parade in 1967 race organiser Jacques Goddet instructed his No.2 Albert Bouvet to find more cobbles: “go north and take your pilgrim’s staff“. The recently retired rider Jean Stablinksi who showed Bouvet some new cobbled tracks including the infamous Arenberg Forest. “Stab” later felt guilty about telling the race organisers about this stretch of pavé because of the suffering it would impose on the riders. Even the race organisers were concerned it would be too hard. It could be a myth but apparently Bouvet asked aloud “And what if nobody makes it to the finish?” a few days before the race. “So long as there is one rider” replied the stoic Goddet. Here we see the race going backwards, finding old tracks in deliberate opposition to the trend of upgraded roads.
But Paris-Roubaix wasn’t a rejection of modernity and a retreat to a past era. Instead the changes seized on a new trend: the rise of television. During the 1930s man races were filmed and shown in the cinemas, although of course these were brief reels. In 1950 there fewer than 4,000 TV sets in France as a television cost around 150,000 francs, equivalent to six months’ salary for the average consumer. This changed with a boom in TV sales during the 1960s and by the end of the decade many could see Paris-Roubaix live on TV. Forget backwards roads in an old race, it was the height of modernity to sit at home and watch Eddy Merckx win Paris-Roubaix in 1968. Viewers could finally see for themselves what print and radio had tried to deliver in the past. Today the race has a timeless quality, the riders might change but the scenes remain the same.
Cycling’s only stadium
The race has rejected some commercial aspects for the sake of romance. Take the finish, it’s the last great race to feature a velodrome. This kind of finish was once the norm, allowing organisers to ticket a captive audience but now Roubaix is the exception. It wasn’t always this way and in the 1980s it finished on a road outside the HQ of La Redoute – then a giant mail order catalogue firm, now shrinking – and race sponsor. But race director Jean-Marie Leblanc had a coup de coeur, he changed the finish for no other reason than emotion and the race duly returned to the velodrome.
The velodrome itself has its legends including the showers. The are some famous finish lines, think of the Champs Elysées, the Avenue de Grammont or the Avenue Rif Nel on Alpe d’Huez. But these are addresses and not buildings, they are borrowed for the day. Roubaix’s velodrome almost belongs to the race and the track is preserved despite a new velodrome complex next door. The crumbling Roubaix velodrome isn’t merely a track, it’s famous for the showers where its cement stalls resemble a cow shed yet represent cycling’s true Elysium. A Swiss journalist whose article is no longer online summed up the experience:
The showers are the only strategic place to get hold of a Paris-Roubaix rider. They all go there. And they dream of the place like a dog dreams of a bone. With time the communal showers have become a legend, as much as the cobbles. They are the wall of tears, the place where riders grimace, lament, compare injuries, describe their crashes… it’s the place where they wash dust, wounds and fatigue.
The Roubaix pavé is wild and so savage that the following vehicles are different. Police outriders use off-road motorbikes, team cars fit oil sump protector plates. This experience also applies to the fans too. You can walk to the most strategic point of the Tour de France and even the Tour of Flanders in your Sunday best but to see Paris-Roubaix means embracing the mud. This hell has become heaven for the cycling industry and the race has turned into a shop window for pro cycling’s manufacturers where new products are validated.
No other event embraces the local terrain to the same level, the soil is what makes this race. Every year the cobbles are repaired and preserved as a way of promoting the region and the race. The Strade Bianche has similarities with its use of dusty roads but they are not preserved for the event itself and if they’re pretty, they’re part of a set of Tuscan clichés with horizons lined by rolling hills and pointed cypress trees. Paris-Roubaix offers no such postcard images. The backdrop is post-industrial, a landscape of slag heaps and abandoned mines with modern concessions like large-scale agriculture, electricity pylons and high speed rail lines.
The race’s exceptionalism extends to the calendar as the road to Roubaix is one of the season’s few dead ends. Depending on your point of view cycling’s calendar is either blessed with the curse or the subtlety where the big races are not raced by all the big racers but are appropriated for training. Right now the Tour of the Basque Country is a prime example with some riders fighting for the win but others are contentedly cruising around for condition. For most of the year if a race doesn’t work out there’s always an alternative next week or next month. This means the sport gets fixated on the future rather than the present, even failure in the Tour de France can be amended at the Vuelta. But this isn’t the case with Paris-Roubaix, nobody will start for training and fail here and there’s no second chance to follow. The cobbles of Paris-Roubaix are not stepping stones to another race.
A stone for the winner
Finally there’s the prize for the winner. Races offer silverware and some give out wacky tridents or shiny porcelain or the traditional silverware but Paris-Roubaix rewards the winner with a cobblestone mounted on a wooden base, an item whose cash value is next to nothing yet it is one of the most exclusive prizes in the sport.
— Fred Retsin (@FRETSIN) April 9, 2014
This is the most unusual race of the year with a wildly difficult route, a unique finish as well as a special place on the calendar and in the sport’s legend. The cobbled tracks aren’t a throwback to the past, they’re an invention, a deliberate stunt. Goddet and Bouvet went on the hunt for something spectacular and extreme, a stroke of sports-marketing genius. A new audience could watch the spectacle from the comfort of their home as television ownership took off and the legend has grown ever since.
Today it lives on and has become embedded as part of the region’s identity to the point where sections of the course are preserved and cherished by local mayors, an act of benevolence towards the sport that’s not seen elsewhere as street furniture and commercial pressures push cycle sport away from towns and cities. It’s exceptional and this is why it survives, a once-in-season test for riders and manufacturers alike. The 111th edition of Paris-Roubaix takes place this Sunday.
“It’s bollocks this race! You’re working like an animal—you don’t have time to piss! You wet your pants. You’re riding in mud like this, you’re slipping – it’s a piece of shit.”
“Will you ever ride it again?”
“Sure! It’s the most beautiful race in the world!”
CBS reporter John Tesh interviewing Dutch rider Theo De Rooij, 1985