As the next part in a series exploring the famous roads of cycling, here is the Trouée d’Arenberg in France. The idea with this regular series is to discover the road and its place in the world, whether its part in cycling’s folklore or to explore what it is like on a normal day without a race.
Having covered climbs like Alpe d’Huez and and Mont Ventoux, now it’s time for a piece of flat road.
A fixture in Paris-Roubaix this is a legendary part of the race even if it comes too early to pick the winner. But this only confirms the cobbled sector’s status, it is venerated despite not being crucial to the race.
The approach is important. You can take different routes to the start of many climbs but run-in to these cobbles is highly strategic and riders have to commit the route to memory. In Wallers turn right and head to Arenberg, note the roundabout and you can follow the signs to the “site minier” or the mine as the road bends around to Arenberg. Here turn left and take the principal road north, passing the mine and its towers. Cross the railway but instead of following the road to the right, contiue straight on. Here begins the 2.4km section, a straight line parallel to the red line on the map above. At the end of the section turn left to follow the race route back towards Wallers.
The approach is atmospheric. You can sense the past with the small brick houses, the pages of Zola’s Germinal turn as fast as your pedals as you pass the workers lodgings. Does the bakery in Arenberg still find hard up customers asking for credit? What hidden chambers lie a hundred metres beneath the ground?
The start of the cobbles is blocked by a gate to keep cars out but cyclists can pass. Since the gate means you can’t imitate the 60km/h approach, stop here to see the memorial to Jean Stablinski, the 1962 world champion. Stablinski was one of many Polish immigrants who came to work in the mines. He worked here as a child. Many locals today have Polish origins, the phonebook has more ‘skis than the Alps. Arenberg itself is twinned with Nowa Ruda, a town in Silesia, a region of Poland known for its coal and steel.
After the entrance is a bridge, a defunct railway build for the mines passes overhead but few have time to look skywards as the absurd cobbles demand attention. On race day they put barriers up to separate the riders and the crowds but also funnelling the riders over the pavé. Because otherwise any sensible cyclists will take the smooth cycle path on the side.
Even the club cyclist might try the cobbles for a thrill but after 30 seconds of pounding the temptation to flick over to the smooth path is obvious. Why try to snap your forks? But if you can, try to return to the cobbles because the boneshaking feeling is an experience to be felt. The stones are rough, their tops are uneven and they often have hard edges defiantly jutting up into the air to bite your tires and made harder still by the wide gaps between the stones, you don’t cross from one stone to the next but can dip between them, especially when slow. Try it also for the reward when you return to the tarmac. The D40 road back to Wallers is quite ordinary but after the pavé the cyclist can close their eyes for a moment and the road surface beneath them feels so soft and rewarding, a velvet path.
In 1967 race director Jacques Goddet said the was race doomed but sent his deputy Albert Bouvet on an archaeological mission to discover new cobbles. Bouvet met Jean Stablinski who showed him the road above the mine where he worked as a child. The section was included in 1968 and the race changed, becoming all about the cobbled tracks rather than distance and crosswinds. In 1970 L’Equipe journalist Pierre Chany swapped the Drève des Boules d’Hérin name for the Tranchée Arenberg, the Arenberg cutting and the rest is history.
On a normal day
The Forêt de Raismes is one of the region’s largest woodland areas and a peaceful spot for locals. There are forest trails and wildlife, lakes and more. In a densely populated area where cities are surrounded by featureless open fields, the forest offers a real change of perspective. People walk dogs, families pedal their bikes. It’s not all bucolic, the A23 Autoroute roars in the background.
The cobbles themselves are different for much of the year. They’re even worse because moss grows in winter and in summer grass takes over whilst autumn brings rotting leaves. It’s only in April that they get an annual clean-up to make them ridable.
You can ride any bike you like over the cobbles and if you’re visiting France for the famous Alpine climbs a detour this far north is unlikely. But it’s not the place to use your finest ride. Obviously wheels can be broken, it’s easy to plant your front wheel into the gap between two cobbles and let the edge of the stones shred the rim. But it goes beyond obvious damage, you can easily crack the rails of your saddle and the seatpost can snap. It’s that wild.
The Name, the History
First the name of the road. We start with the real name of the Drève des Boules d’Hérin, with drève meaning driveway and Hérin is a nearby village. This track was surfaced in order to allow horses to pull heavy loads across the flat and muddy terrain, whether timber, coal or mining equipment. The cobbled section starts in Arenberg. The -berg suffix hints at a hill, berg meaning hill or mountain in Dutch. But it’s flat. So why the berg? It’s because of what’s underground: a coal mine.
The Compagnie Des Mines d’Anzin was created in 1757 and lasted 200 years with over 180 mines in the north of France until it was nationalised in 1946. In 1837 the company began exploiting a seam of coal near Hasnon, a village at the end of the cobbled section. The work moved south and in 1840 the Fosse des Bouils was mineshaft sat right next to the cobbled track and mined for several years, it got its name from the road name, Boules and Bouils being the same. The exploitation continued until in 1900 a large mine was built at the southern end of the drève. The company decided to name the mine after a Auguste Louis Albéric d’Arenberg, a board member of the mining company and aristocrat with the title of the Duke of Arenberg, today a village in Germany called Aremberg… which does indeed sit on a hill.
The mine proved so successful that workers were housed on site and a new village adopted the name of the mine and its aristocratic patron. The mine stopped in 1989 but everything else lives on. The village is there and the mine has been preserved as part of the regional heritage. It was used extensively for Claude Berri’s film adaptation of Germinal. Today the Arenberg mine is on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites.
Lille is the region’s main city. It’s a part of France where one city can merge into another, Roubaix is really a suburb of Lille. From here you can do a loop that heads south-east towards Valenciennes and beyond. First take the normal roads on the way out and then you can do the route of Paris-Roubaix to return, trying as many cobbled sections as you dare.
Lille has high speed rail and is easily accessible from Paris, more so because the French capital’s Charles de Gaulle airport sits to the north-east of the city and so even closer to the cobbles. In part thanks to these transport options the city is underdoing a certain renaissance, exploiting its place at a crossroads in Europe between France, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Britain. It’s worth a weekend visit. But you can stay longer as it’s far north to the bergs of Flanders nor east to the Ardennes and their quiet hills. In other words you can visit the area and tick off a lot of famous roads in just a few days.
More roads to ride at inrng.com/roads
Main photo via Flickr’s Foto!