The Psychogeography of Paris-Roubaix

Psychogeography is a concept designed to let people explore places and view the land and environment differently. There are books on the subject but there no rules, it is up to you to link landscapes to what’s on your mind. For example view London via the famous “Tube” map of its metro system and the British capital becomes a collection of lines and stops rather than streets and buildings.

Cycling does the same to parts of Europe. Belgium has crosswinds, as if no matter the wind is always perpendicular. Can you name a famous col in the Spanish Pyrenees? Probably not because for cyclists the Pyrenees are French despite the mountain range being shared by both countries.

Paris-Roubaix is one of the best examples of a race whose myth redefines the landscape, imposes artificial names on places and even manages to turn a crumbling shower block into an sporting Elysium reserved for an elite.

No map needed

Let’s start with the start Paris-Roubaix doesn’t even start in Paris. Kilomètre Zero is in Compiègne, 65km north-east of Paris. But Compiègne-Roubaix just sounds wrong even if it’s right. Already the race is a pretence, mixing up names in and boldly claiming the French capital as its own.

Next, a misconception. Paris-Roubaix is flat, right? Actually no, the opening part of the race is up and down and there’s almost 500 metres of vertical gain before the first cobbled section. Sure, it’s not Alpine but it’s not flat either, there are rolling hills to climb.

Next the cobbles dominate the mind as well as the race. Think of the race and you think pavé but they account for only 52.6km of the 254km race. Each section is rated and if you strip out the relatively easier 1,2 and 3 star sections, the tough four and five star sections add up to 25km, or 10% of the race. This doesn’t make it any easier but this cobbled classic is 80% tarmac. Although for all the myths attached to this race, the cobbles themselves are rarely exaggerated. They really are as brutal as everyone says.

The plain roads are not easy either. It is because the cobbles are difficult that other parts of the race become hard too. The mythology of the pavé creates a self-reinforcing pattern where riders fear the cobbles therefore they must be in a good position ahead of the sector. So the speed goes up and riders jostle for position, increasing the chance of a crash. Which you need to be at the front to avoid. A vicious circle that means the approach to the cobbled section is a violent as the cruelty of the cobbles. This is particular apparent at the entrance to the Arenberg Forest section where the bunch approaches the start of this sector at speeds normally seen by the flamme rouge on a sprint stage of the Tour de France.

Where are we, Hérin or Arenberg?

Did I say Arenberg Forest? This long section of cobbles is the first five star section in the race and famous amongst cycling fans around the world. Only there’s no such place as the Arenberg Forest, locals call it the Forêt de Raismes. Similarly the cobbled section labelled by the race as Trouée d’Arenberg is actually the Drève des Boules d’Hérin. Drève means driveway, from dreef in old Dutch and Hérin is a place up the road. Arenberg is the name of a nearby village and mine but it’s only in the minds of cyclists that the name is applied to this road once a year. The label was created by L’Equipe journalist Pierre Chany in 1970.

Luchin, known as the Carrefour de l’Arbre by lost cyclists

Other places are renamed too. The final five star section is the Carrefour de l’Arbre. Carrefour means crossroads and arbre is a tree. Not the most original name but uniquely a lone building has Arbre written in its roof tiles. Only if the junction and the building are known as the Carrefour de l’Arbre, the crucial cobbled sector is called the Pavé de Luchin for 364 days of the year.

A washroom reserved for VIPs

It’s not just the route that takes on an altered reality and identity. Other places become special. A normal day riding around the Roubaix velodrome must be boring, in fact everyone uses the new Jean Stablinkski vélodrome that’s just been built but for one day of the year everyone, from first to last, longs to ride the old cement track outdoors. It’s the same with the showers at the finish. Ordinarily they look agricultural with stone booths remiscient of a cowshed, only look closer and the brass plates on each stall are not engraved with the name of livestock but past winners of the race. A nameless Swiss journalist whose article is no longer online sumed 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.”

Today every big pro team has a bus with onboard showers yet when the riders finish taking a shower in the old stadium is part of the ritual, a privilege reserved for finishers even if the building is drafty and hot water uncertain.

People too can be different. You might see big crowds but the French are often indifferent to pro cycling. Yes they have the Tour de France but the sport doesn’t have the following some foreigners imagine. So a lot of people by the road are not locals but Belgians who live a cobble’s throw away over the border. Roubaix municipal border is also the national border between France and Belgium so many passionate Flemish fans make the trip.

Finally objects are also transformed too. Each year the race commissions a local stone company called Sloss to find, polish and mount a cobblestone as the trophy. You might visit the home of a champion or the service course of a team and find a big collection of silverware. But that amidst the cups and trophies the mounted stone is immediately recognisable. You know the land where it came from.

Main photo: Flickr’s Roxanne King … who is also on Twitter.

21 thoughts on “The Psychogeography of Paris-Roubaix”

    • Very true. I wrote “for all the myths attached to this race, the cobbles themselves are rarely exaggerated. They really are as brutal as everyone says” because if place names change and the race has fewer cobbles than people imagine, the cobbles that are left still define the competition.

  1. ive just ridden Flanders for the first time last w/e. i actually enjoyed the cobbled climbs – what i didnt enjoy though is the long (1.5-2K) flat sections of cobbles at speed, well 30kph! – they literally loosened my handlebars so they twisted 90 degrees and i could hardly change gear my hands and body were being bounced so much. i have it on good word that roubaix cobbles are far worse. 52k of them – that must get into your head by the time of Le Carrefour de l’Arbre (km 236.5 – 2,100 m) +++++. i cant imagine how difficult that will be other than knowing the velodrome and showers are a little closer. i cant wait to watch races like this

    • The first time I rode the Ronde van Vlaanderen, I didn’t know what hit me when I entered the first “kasseienstrook”. After I finished in Ninove, I thought to myself, well, that wasn’t too hard. But when I entered the first Pavé during my first Paris-Roubaix later that year, it was nothing like the ones in Flanders… Even the “easy” ones in PR are so much more difficult and harder to ride than the ones from RvV. Only the Huisepontweg (before they renovated it) can be compared to an easy Pavé.

      And, yes, PR isn’t a flat race, there’s a total of about 1000m elevation on those rolling hills from Compiègne. Some call that “French flat”.

  2. Another excellent and perspective article inrng. I note your astute comment concerning the general lack of enthusiasm from the French cycling public for professional bike racing. My experience with a French club over many years is the same. They had/have absolutely NO interest in watching a professional race, even if it passed through their ‘patch’. Something I have never really understood – It did mean that they might miss their lunch !

    • I find people will go but they’re often out to see the show rather than observe the race. Even when the Tour de France is on I suspect most people by the road could not name the yellow jersey.

      But this is common for many sports. Many people follow a sport when the biggest and best even of the year is on. Belgium is different because cycling is probably the country’s second sport after football.

  3. I think one of the cruelest aspects of this race is the way that the “gates” to the velodrome are closed to riders who miss the time cut. Some grizzled pros have been known to be close to tears to get all the way there only to be denied the opportunity to ride araound the velodrome and take a shower. I seem to recall that this might have happened to Knaven a couple of years back after he rode about 20kms without a saddle? That just doesn’t seem right to me: every finisher deserves some respect.

    • The same with Fréderic Guesdon last year. He broke his hip in the Tour Down Under and was riding his last season with the plan to finish at Paris-Roubaix. But as miraculous as his recovery from injury was, he could not get the form to finish the race in time and, despite finishing the race, was outside the team cut. As a result George Hincapie is listed as finishing the race 17 times whilst Guesdon is at 16.

    • It was Kurt Asle Arvesen who rode 20km after his saddle broke off following a crash…he retired from the race though. There was a nice bit about that in a Holland Sport documentary by Wilfried de Jong – he met Arvesen on the cobbles, and Arvesen took de Jong’s saddle off to show him what it was like. De Jong did also ride the cobbles with Servais Knaven in that documentary though.

    • In Flanders there is an annual tv series, Pedaal Ridders (pedal knights) where Johan Musseuw and Ludo Diercxksen each take a team of weekend warriors and have three months to get them into shape for a race against each other. Last year Musseuw did a training exercise where his team had to ride +/- 70km of paris-roubaix. One of the riders loses his saddle of his rickety old steel bike and Musseuw challenges him to finish the course without saddle (+/- 30km). He did it! Was awesome to watch!

  4. I’ve driven over the Paris Roubaix cobbles in a car once and they nearly destroyed the car! Not to mention that the drive was the most uncomfortable i have ever done and it was only for 1 or 2 km! I can’t imagine riding those on a bike.

    • It’s a comparison I’ve used before. You can drive the cobbles of the Tour of Flanders, you’d probably slow in places but it’s ok. But Roubaix? You would think twice and if you had to you would use first gear and pick your way through some sections at 5-10km/h. Teams change the alloy wheels and fit sump protection plates under the cars.

  5. I did the non-ASO sportive last year, a great day. The whole ride just feels massively iconic, you are following in the footsteps of true giants.

    This extends to the shower room. Its hardly the last word in luxury but its an amazing place to be – you can feel the history. We were all trying to bag the cubicle of our favourite rider. Great to see Italians literally queuing up for Mosers.

    Thats the beauty of cycling – Imagine a sunday league football team playing at the Nou Camp…

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