Le Nord: to hell and back in the north of France


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 itineraries rarely visit and the French have negative myths about it. 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. It can make a fine backdrop for a race but just as the race is famously tough, so the whole region has struggled, faced with vanishing industries and other problems. 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 the 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. The wealthy benefactors who started the race are long gone. It’s been 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 accout by 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.

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 to this area.

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

One of the most popular films in France in recent times is “Bienvenue Chez Les Ch’tis“, the comedy tale of a postman transferred from Provence and its warm lavender fields to the supposedly grim North. It’s cinema of course but played 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.


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 and 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. It’s a tribute that probably many urban planners will use as a case study.

Roubaix velodrome

Change comes to Roubaix and cycling too. The original velodrome first used to host the finish in the 19th century has since been demolished. The current finish actually uses a track built in the 1930s. But construction work is underway for a new track next to the existing one. This new velodrome will be indoors, a proper 21st century sports venue. 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 charity dedicated to preserving, restoring and promoting the cobbled tracks used by the race.

But 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 war memorials dotted with white crosses and the bleak fields full of mud. The race is the pure product of this terrain.

20 thoughts on “Le Nord: to hell and back in the north of France”

  1. What a great post! Thanks for this background, and it’s amusing to think that Southerners in France have the same ‘it’s grim up North’ stereotype as we do!

  2. Just in keeping with the grim up north theme, fans of Paris St Germain unveiled a banner a few years back in a agame against Lens (just about part of the Lille conurbation): “incestuous, jobless paedophiles”

    I’d say that’s not something you’d hear said about the North of England! (But probably of Tasmania)

  3. Matt, Fabio, Tim and Duncan: thanks, glad you liked it.

    jkeltgv: that’s football rivalry of course but it does play on the poverty of the north. Note Roubaix is twinned with towns Britain (Bradford) and Poland (Sosnowiec) that are also linked with industrial decline and urban decay. Maybe they add Hobart, but Tasmania just isn’t that depressed, no?

  4. Great background info. Like all places there are points of interest and friendly folk but you can’t escape the feel of the place, like it has seen better days. As you say, it’s no place for a vacation but it’s good for a weekend.

  5. Marcos: thanks.

    David Lane: yes, I’m careful not to dismiss it, it still has its charms including a massive bike race.

    Chris: I suppose each country has these kind of places. I don’t know Buffalo. It’s certainly not Detroit or that bad.

  6. Very nice post. After driving trough it, I once described the region as a great place to leave. But it’s nice to see the situation in perspective. Your post gives the race some extra depth and makes me want to ride the sportif even more. Maybe next year. 🙂

  7. I found the Nord-Pas-de-Calais to be very similar from many of the areas around me in South Wales: the former glory days of coal-mining and agriculture a decaying memory, high unemployment and a tatty appearance. But industrial decay has it’s beauty and provides the perfect backdrop to the race, especially of it’s raining.

    We spent classics week camping in Flanders and that means staying in, and travelling through some of the more interesting places in the region. Before Roubaix we spent a couple of nights at a campsite in a village just to the north of Arenberg. Very clearly out of place in the village bar, the owner asked us what we were doing there. Three hours later we had learnt a lot about the bar and the village and cock-fighting. Not something we agreed with, but the Nord-pas-de-Calais is the only place in Europe where it is still legal to fight cocks and it’s this sort of local customs that make getting off the tourist-route interesting especially when you’re a complete stranger, can barely speak the language and are welcomed into the heart of the community. If you go to watch the Northern Classics, have a look as you pass through villages, you’re likely to see a Gallodrome, these are arenas where they hold the cock-fights, complete with bar, seating and betting. It’s big business, you can fight every day of the year.

    The bar owner told us to come back the next morning and he would give us a lift and show us the best way to get to the Trouee d’Arenberg. Although they had little interest in the race themselves.

  8. Defining Roubaix in most peoples minds definitely conjures up bleak, gray, cold, windy days, full of misery and doom.

    I guess the 67-F temps this Sunday and the blistering 5-mph winds along with it might be a disappointment for many.

  9. @inrngI think it is more Tasmania’s isolation that make them the victims of the insest jokes. They have no football teams in any of Australia’s national competitions and any attempts to plant teams down there inevitably fails. I sometimes feel like the rest of Australia has more in common with New Zealand.

    Although, with Goss & Porte emerging from there in the last couple of years the joke may be on the mainland….it would be great cycling territory i’m lead to believe.

  10. Starr: we’ll see. Each time I’ve got exctited about the weather forecast it’s proved wrong. Maybe it’ll rain?

    jkeltgv: thanks, I get you now. Roubaix and it’s regions problems are not such isolation, more just the vanishing industries. Mines, textiles, factories all provided jobs and prosperity but they’ve gone. But not totally, for example there’s a big Nissan plant nearby etc.

  11. Interesting to note that some of the pit heaps have been retained. I first noticed them when checking out the area via google earth. Here in north east england (geordieland) they have long since been landscaped away, part of the childhood memory along with the filthy smogs. We have a Nissan factory here as well.

    • I do agree to an extent. I was born and raised in Roubaix,and now live in Newcastle itself. Yes things are improving in Roubaix but after living in Newcastle for 4 yearswhich has been revamped and is now a real sparkling gem,Roubaix does feel like a dump. Plus of course,the countryside around Newcastle is far prettier. Im not say Le Nord of France is bad,to me its flat bleak landscape are not as pretty as the North of England (And Scotland) the hills and pretty villages just dont compare.

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