Roubaix and the hunt for cobbles


Paris-Roubaix is almost upon us. I struggle with this race sometimes. It is brutal, dramatic and legendary but at the same time a lottery, where results can be determined by punctures, crashes and other random events. Riders don’t get to the front without brute force and skill, but once up there, whether they make it to the finish line involves a bigger degree of luck than any other race.

It’s this cruelty that makes it compelling but part of me finds it a circus. If I had to pick, I’d prefer the Tour of Flanders since the cobbles are decisive but not bike-breaking, and the hills are more obvious strategic points. But of course each race can be enjoyed separately and for all its craziness, Paris-Roubaix is unique and extreme. I can’t wait.

Vanishing cobbles
It wasn’t always so wild. Yes, there was the post-war desolation but things recovered by the 1950s. For many years France kept its cobbled roads, especially in the North. These were not farm tracks but main highways. Today some towns have gone out of their way to preserve them and you’ll still find them in Paris. As such many of the cobbles used in the race for decades were fit for normal transport use, smooth enough to ride and drive over at speed. They were not the farm tracks that make Paris-Roubaix famous today.

Jacques Goddet
Jacques Goddet: "go get me some cobbles"

Bring me pavé
Smooth as many cobbles were, many roads were being upgraded in the 1960s. Faced with the loss of cobbles and his race becoming a dreary procession, race organiser Jacques Goddet instructed his no.2 Albert Bouvet to find more cobbles: “go north and take your pilgrim’s staff“.

Goddet turned to a friend, Jean Stablinksi. The son of Polish immigrants who emigrated to work in the coal mines of northern France, “Stab” himself worked in the mines as a child. He won a bicycle in an accordion music competition as his way out of the mines and eventually into pro cycling. He went on to win the Vuelta a Espana and the World Championships. Retired, he was rider with a good knowledge of the local roads. If anyone knew a few bonus sections of cobbles it would be Stablinksi.

Jean Stablinksi

Too hard
Stablinski took Bouvet well away from the traditional route, heading 40km east. It was here that the former miner showed the race organiser the road past his old mine in the Arenberg forest, the now infamous Wallers-Arenberg section. Stablinski would work down in the mine but never rode past it when he became a cyclist, “too hard“.

Stablinksi later admitted to feeling guilty about telling the race organisers about this stretch of pavé. Even the race organisers were concerned it would be too hard. After adding Arenberg and other nearby sections a worried 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. Indeed, come the day it was none other than Eddy Merckx who made it to Roubaix, his first win in the Hell of the North.

Pavé Nouveau
Goddet and Stablinksi were responsible for adding the Arenberg and other sections but new sections of cobbles are still being “discovered” to this day. This Sunday’s race will see three additional sections compared to 2010: Aulnoy, Famars and Millonfosse. Although the first two of these have been included in past editions, Millonfosse is a first.

JF Pescheux

Bouvet’s replacement these days is current race director Jean-François Pescheux. He’s been designing the course for some time, including visits in the 1980s when he worked with Bouvet himelf. On one pre-race visit they had to get their car towed out of mud by a tractor, according to Vélo Magazine. When visiting the section at Haveluy this winter winter Pescheux told Vélo “it was covered in mud, you couldn’t tell the difference between the road and the field” and it was only thanks to a local race organiser that Pescheux and his assistant, ex-pro Thierry Gouvenou, learned of this new section. Even the reconnaissance trip was tough, their car getting two punctures.

Changing history
A bit like the Tour of Flanders seeking out new climbs and adding the Koppenberg in recent times, Paris-Roubaix might be a historic monument race but that does not mean the course is unchanged. The resurfacing of cobbled roads drove race organisers to seek new routes, often picking the more extreme cobbled tracks that were spared from traffic. The iconic Arenberg section, for all its historic significance, is a modern-day addition to the race. Indeed even in the 21st century new sections are being discovered and added to the parcours.

It can’t be said that the race is more extreme than its early days. But the race once represented a normal journey from Paris to Roubaix. In 1896 the rough roads were the norm for horses and even the railway line was slow. The distance involved was huge, something nobody undertook without good reason and self-reliance could be needed to reach the destination.

Carbon meets cobble
Today you can carelessly travel from Paris to Lille in under an hour with the TGV train. As such the race has a new sense, it borrows the hardest roads and tracks possible to make an unusual test that celebrates the extremes of the pavé, rather than a reality, past or present. Cobbles will battle with carbon rims and more often than not it is the cold stones that decide who wins.

19 thoughts on “Roubaix and the hunt for cobbles”

  1. Ha! That’s fantastic!
    By the way, great article. I know what you mean about the great aspect of luck involved in winning the race. Of course, you need it in any race but those big stones offer much more opportunity for things to go wrong. For me, it’s part of the magic but I can understand why some riders simply hate it…

  2. I see the Paris-Roubaix as the cycle version of the Grand National – it has an appeal wider than that of the traditional classic cycle race because fans view it as a race of destruction whilst the Tour of Flanders is the Cheltenham Gold Cup – one for the purists because the strongest guy on the day normally wins through.

  3. sure there is luck, but how many times have guys like Boonen or Ballarini come upstuck because of luck? Not so often I’d say.

    The really good riders are less likely to get punctures as they will be able to sit on the front and pick their line. Sean Kelly said sometime (Cyclesport mag?) that it was your tyre slipping between cobbles and ripping the sidewalls that was the most common puncture. When you are strong, able to go on the front and can pick your line this is less likely.

    So, maybe you can lose because of bad luck (Thor’s fall two years ago or Hincapie’s steerer break) but the winner is rarely just some guy who gets lucky on the day-take a look at the names on the list – in the last 50 years there are only a few guys who have won only this as a major race and not much else (and even they are Olympic gold medal winners, tour stage winners, or have won semi classics – I guess only Demol in 88 is the odd man out)

  4. Jamie W: certainly Roubaix gets big coverage in France and around the world. Last Sunday French TV didn’t even show De Ronde live.

    jkeltgv: they say you get the luck you deserve. For me it’s just the extremity of the cobbles and it can affect the result. Maybe a wheel change takes time, a guy burns energy just to get back on and so his chances in the sprint take a hit.

  5. Bad luck can be avoided by keeping your wits, finding the right lines and being fit.
    Mistakes are not usually forgiven.
    The “weak” have punctures, bonks and accidents at a rate much higher than the “strong”.
    Thus there are very few lucky winners.

  6. My friend Mauro Mondonico (Columbus/Cinelli International Sales Manager these days) who often drives the race jury around in Italian events, told me they used to run the Giro di Lazio along the old Appian Way on the outskirts of Rome. These stone blocks are huge and very uneven these days. He said they stopped using the route because too many of the TEAM CARS were damaged on this “road”. It must have been quite a spectacle. I’ve ridden an MTB and a hybrid/trekking bike out there but would not likely try it on a roadracing machine! May the best man win in Paris-Roubaix, though luck sometimes is affected by equipment choice – I’m sure Hincapie wished he was riding an old, STEEL bike rather than the carbon and aluminum Trek which broke on the day he was in his best form for the Hell of the North.

  7. Larry, I think George was actually wishing his mechanics had properly assembled and tightened his bike rather than screwing it up, which was why it broke. The problem wasn’t the materials, it was an error by the mechanic.

    I enjoy watching Roubaix, but like Inner Ring I think it sometimes seems like a bit of a lottery. I tend to like the races where tactics and clever racing matter, and Roubaix is just a matter of survival. It’s still one of my favorites, but I think there are other races I would rather watch, sometimes. The excitement around Roubaix is hard to top, though.

  8. Skill,expertise,good form,team backup and good luck, are all needed just to finish, let alone win. They are all heroes. Let battle commence.

  9. I went with some friends to see Paris-Roubaix back in the late 80’s or early 90’s. We had rented a car and had marked the route on a Michelin map by getting the route from the newspaper on Saturday. We went to the start in Compiegne and then our plan was to zoom all over the country side to see the race in as many places as possible. At one point we got onto one of the pave sections on the actual route ahead of the race (we could tell by the spectators lining the road!)! Our poor little Renault with 4 people in it took a serious pounding in that small section! The 4 of us couldn’t believe how rough the ride was in a car and couldn’t imagine riding a bike on those stones! Luckily we had taken the full insurance on the car and didn’t have to pay for the repairs. Now, every time I see Roubaix I am reminded of our adventure and wish to do it all again!

  10. Great stuff. What I love about this race is the care-taking of the cobblestones. There’s a whole community organization around preserving them and finding new sections of stones buried under farm land. It’s a bit of archeology and bike racing. It’s truly a race where the past and present meet on the road. You can understand the hardman ethic and why the miners respected the riders.

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