Roads to Ride: The Arenberg Forest

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 Route

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 Feel
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.

The Race
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.

The Bike
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

Main photo via Flickr’s Foto!

21 thoughts on “Roads to Ride: The Arenberg Forest”

  1. Another superb article; the Zola reference was particularly germane, I think of that book every time they pass the old mine. I would need a very spare bike to risk it on the cobbles though.

  2. It’s decided now. Whenever I visit France, I would put my base in either Grenoble or Lille. As you mention that Lille has great connectivity and I guess it will be way cheaper than Paris. Also, Lille has a good footy team which I would want to watch rather than PSG. I think Lille city website should have a link for your piece. Thanks!

    • Lille is a good transport destination but a tough place to stay! There are people there but a quick look at the local newspaper La Voix du Nord reveals gunfights, burned out buildings and more. Cyclists will visit but Grenoble is much nicer… although it has rough areas too.

      • Stay in the old town; charming, genteel and civilized. There are some great restaurants, most notably La Terrasse des Ramparts, and a vibrant cafe society.

      • Maybe it’s changed in the decade since I lived in nearby Villeneuve d’Ascq but Lille never struck me as having any more problems than any other big city. Sure, certain parts had an edgy feel at certain times but, again, this is no different to any city really, is it?

        • Indeed, weather and geography aside, France is a relatively homogenous place. You’ll find tougher places in France for crime but Lille and in fact Roubaix do score highest/lowest on some social indicators like life expectancy, obesity rates etc.

    • The railways are a constant problem and the race is planed with timetables in mind. In 2006 several riders were delayed including big names like Boonen and Ballan.

      There are rules here. In simple terms if the gates are closing riders must stop or they’re disqualified. They must wait until the the gates go up. If a breakaway is stopped and they’re not caught by the bunch then they restart, the delay is just part of the race. If chasers catch the break then the race is restarted with the original lead in place.

      More on this

  3. Well done! We walked this entire section last year while waiting for the race. Truly epic. Riding on the “junior” cobbles of Flanders last week was one thing – these monsters are a whole different animal – one I have no interest in sampling. I would love to see Taylor Phinney do well tomorrow – seems to be a good kid and we were friends with his grandparents. W Taylor!

  4. Rode this again yesterday as part of the Paris-Roubaix Challenge. Calling them cobbles or pave really doesn’t give a sense of how savage this particular section is. It’s more like a rock field. We hit Arenberg doing 45kph and my front tyre exploded pretty much exactly from where the above photo was taken.
    Conditions will be good for the teams today – cold, headwind all the way (as usual), but dry and dusty. Respect to them all – this is a true hard man’s race.

  5. Hi INRNG, Roads to ride deserves a special tab in the header of this website. You now have enough content for this tab and the explanation is fabulous (as always). Love your site and keep up the good work!

  6. I really don’t see what all the fuss is about, the lady in the film rode it looking dead casual and she was easily doing over 30mph.

  7. Excellent preview. Many thanks INRNG. For sure many readers may be familiar with much of the content, but I read to build the excitement and this does this perfectly. In particular the photos are expertly chosen, whilst the Zola reference is apt – Germinal epitomises the brutality and exploitation of early industrialisation and mining in particular. To me there’s no other point in the calendar when the history and grand narrative of Northern European cycling – true hard men, working class riders escaping a miserable life etc. seems so poignant.

    If there are any readers who can’t stand the impatience I feel as riders fight to be in or control the breakaway when the tv coverage is still hours away I recommend a read of Germinal if you have a pile of unread classic literature somewhere in the house!

  8. Does anybody know why there is a railway bridge 10meters high above ground level when there’s not a hill nearby? Railway bridges are only built between two high points, like over a valley.

    • I read about it a while ago and the bridge of the cobbles is relatively new. There’s a long-established main railway line running nearby so when they built a new railway line to service the Arenberg mine the new line had to go over the main one so they built the track up and up and then a bridge was needed to pass the Arenberg “trench” road.

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