Roubaix: The Road To Hell and Back


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  race’s “Hell of the North” title doesn’t come from cobbles but the state of the region.

Apologies if I upset the locals but Roubaix and the surrounding places are grim. Tourist rarely visit and the French share negative myths about the area. 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, from cratered landscapes to fields of white crosses marking mass graveyards. More recently the whole region has struggled with vanishing jobs and entrenched social problems. It’s a tough place with the toughest race.

Paris-Roubaix was first run in 1896 after two textile entrepreneurs put up the money to fund a velodrome in Roubaix. Keen to attract crowds to the track, they hit upon the idea of a race from Paris where the attendant public would pay money to watch the finish; it’s not dissimilar from today’s VIP tents on the Paterberg. But back then the race wasn’t about cobbles, after all most roads were cobbled. Instead the difficulty was the distance, 300km.

Roubaix Postcard
Wish you were here? A postcard from 1906

The wealthy benefactors who started the race are gone, along with their textile industry too. Distance is meaningless, you can do Paris-Roubaix in little more than an hour with a TGV high speed train. Yet Roubaix and the region are still 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.

The region has been on the slide since the race began. War caused hardship and destruction, the area was flattened by artillery fire in the 1914-1918 war. Indeed when the race restarted in 1919 it was not uncommon to find rusting military vehicles standing taller than any vegetation, a lifeless scene. In an account by the late 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. Hell is not cobbled, the term comes from the war.

Then came the Great Depression and then war in 1939. Once the Second World War ended the mining, steel and textile industries never recovered, slipping into gradual decline but new industries grew up around, in particular in the auto sector, agribusiness and logistics.

It’s not a scenic place. Often the horizon is only interrupted by the artificial terrils of the mines and beffrois church towers. Factories are closing, it’s a hot bed for the political extremism and the region scores badly across a range of social and economic indicators, for example the worst obesity rates in France.

As such the “hell of the north” is not rough cobbles once a year, it is rough life every day. 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. If cyclists dream of arriving in Roubaix, many locals probably long to escape.

One of the most popular films in France in recent times is “Bienvenue Chez Les Ch’tis“, a comedy tale of a postman transferred from the Mediterranean Provence region and its warm lavender fields to the supposedly grim North. It plays on French preconceptions of Le Nord (the north) being ridiculously cold, where temperatures peak around freezing in summer and reach -40°C in the winter, where “people die early” in misery.

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. There’s a saying that “you cry twice in the North, once when you arrive and once when you leave“.

Indeed, just as a film showed the region in a good light, the good news is that things are improving in reality too. The region is undergoing a bit of a renaissance. Besides what counts for a poor region in France is still far ahead of many other areas of Europe, yet alone beyond. That high obesity rate? Well if Le Nord was a state in the US it would have the second lowest rate, only just beaten by Colorado.

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, a case study for urban planners.

Velodrome Jean Stablinksi

Roubaix is changing and cycling symbolises this. The original velodrome from the 19th century has since been demolished and the race finishes on the concrete track built in the 1930s. But now a new €25 million indoor velodrome stands next to the track, one of France’s few functional indoor tracks. Traditionalists can rest assured Paris-Roubaix race will finish on the old track and the showers will be preserved.

Once seen as ancient today the cobbled sections used by the race are now celebrated as part of the region’s heritage. 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 that works with local colleges to pass on skills and train people. Crucially they are not looking to preserve the past but to maintain the cobbles, to repair these roads and keep them in working order. Whether it’s the track, the Carrefour de l’Arbre restaurant or the cobbles, note how the past is preserved and cherished whilst modern life surrounds it, as if the hellish past is finally slipping away. Even the famous house on the Carrefour de l’Arbre cobbled section, once abandoned, is now a good restaurant.

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 riders will arrive with faces darkened by dust, reminiscent of the miners covered in coal dust after a day’s work under the Arenberg forest. Look for the war memorials dotted with white crosses and the bleak fields full of mud. And see the no-frills trophy, a square cobble mounted on a stand.

The toughness of the event goes beyond the brutal cobblestones, it is a reflection of the landscape, the hardship of the past and the difficulties of today. It’s what makes the race.

34 thoughts on “Roubaix: The Road To Hell and Back”

  1. I should mention this piece is rework from this time last year. But given there are so many more readers these days and the race is the same, I hope it new readers get a feel for the region and it’s been updated and adjusted in case you saw it last time.

  2. Watched the 2008 doco today, surrounding the 2007 race “Road to Roubaix” and tonight I’ll watch “A Sunday in Hell”.

    Slowly getting psyched.

    • that’s my annual ritual

      roubaix and the ronde are the most exciting and eagerly anticipated races of the year for me..

      huge battle of attrition, big distance, big supports, long tv coverage and rarely a a sprinter in sight come the finish line..

      up early, out and get some tired legs, then an afternoon on the couch with some empathy for the pain

  3. Enjoyed reading it last year…and again this year. Went up there last year, it really is grim, but to me (just like last weekend in Belgium) one does not go there for the scenery, food, etc. It’s to see a part of history being made in-person. Once was enough and forever after I can watch the TV and remember the time “I was there”. I find it interesting that while so many whine about the UCI’s draconian rules preventing the uncontrolled development of “technology” when it comes to the equipment, somehow keeping the sport from being more interesting than it is, events like this (and the other cobbled classics) continue to be interesting, despite the ancient, low-tech racing surfaces they feature along with is quite often brutal weather. I’m still thawing out from wobbling around the 80 km Flanders citizen event in 4 C temps with spitting snow!

    • Agree pretty much word for word Larry. I would say that Lille is very nice and a good place to base yourself, but the rest of the surrounding area is not so appealing. Still, if you’re going for the race then it doesn’t matter as it’s very easy to get swept up in the history. I think P-R is also a great candidate for the ‘rally’ style of watching as it’s not too difficult to get from sector to sector.

      Great piece, and it’s reminded me to watch Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis again, as part of the pre-race warm-up.

  4. You really need to give ProCycling a call and get a guest column – your writing is excellent and always incredibly interesting to read, not the same old drivel about latest team news and repeated speculation about winner any rattling off anyone who’s vaguely in form

  5. Thanks for writing something that I can pass along to my none-cycling/racing friends. If this doesn’t convince them that the history of cycling is worth knowing, that such history makes the sport truly great, and that the sport is so much bigger than “you know who from Texas,” I don’t know what will.

  6. Great article. My mother’s side of the family is from near Valenciennes, quite close to Roubaix. I absolutely love this region of France. I’ve lived in Scotland all my life, but in an area with a very similar industrial past to Le Nord. If you’re going to the race, go to a friterie and get a Pain Americane avec merguez. Grab a cold Jupiler or several while you’re at it! I’m going over for a family thing in may and will be doing just that.

    Also, Spartacus is going to win this race.

  7. Me too, enjoyed the article also. If you want more about this Classic of Classics, try Les Woodland’s book: Inside Story: Paris Roubaix, All the Bumps of Cycling’s Cobbled Classic.

  8. My pick for this weekend: a Sky rider, perhaps EBH or Stannard. The team’s under pressure to pull out a win this spring.

    My favorite is Fabian C., but he looked too relieved after winning the Ronde; he’s loosened the reins–for now.

    • Fabian also hit the deck twice in the past two days, but hopefully with little ill-effect.
      Lamenting Tornado Tom’s absence.
      Lady Luck has to be there for the well-prepared rider.

  9. Excellent as always Inrng. I don’t know why people think you should be doing columns elsewhere – you are the internet equivalent of a hand-made bike from a local builder. It would be a shame to slap a Trek sticker on you.

    FWIW the Velominati crew are there this week and have ridden the route. They say the wet weather has packed more mud around the cobbles this year and so the ride is not as lumpy – I guess in the same way that some sandpaper is not as rough as others.

    Might open up the race a bit more by making it harder for the powerhouses to get away without someone on their wheel.

  10. I’ve been watching Paris-Roubaix last year live in place, and the region is really not beautiful or scenic like the sun flowers field in the Tour de France, the most part of the cities the race pass by are grey, but there is one thing that’s really kept my eyes and feelings. The people, how much they love this mad man running bike in the cobbles. Every cobble section we stopped was crowded, long before the race pass by. And still remember in one of this sections a guy right next to me telling every rider name as they pass us, I could barely seen the jerseys and call the teams but this guy was telling the names of each one! And the finish in Roubaix, amazing, the Velodrome was full and when Tom Boonem crossed the gates the crowd went crazy cheering for him. And the French got even more excited when one of theirs was in the mix for second place. Really one thing that I really love to enjoy again!

    After watching and feeling Paris-Roubaix, I’ve made even more my mind, win the Tour de France is for boys, win Paris-Roubaix is for the real cyclist.

    Cheers, can’t wait for another Sunday in Hell.

    Conrado Calvet

  11. Thank you for another great post inrng! This has quickly become my favourite bike blog and I have made it an anticipated daily read. I have just gotten seriously into cycling over the last couple of years and this is the first year I’ve closely watched the racing from the tour down under through the spring classics. I’ve loving the classics this year and all of the detail you provide is just great – it gives a real flavour. I really look forward to making a pilgrimage myself in the next couple of years. Keep up the great work – it is really appreciated.
    Sky is going to come up short once again – maybe getting someone inside the top ten. Fabian too hard to beat but my joker will be Taylor Phinney – he sounds really up for it and seems in good form despite dropping de ronde due to a sore knee. Hoping he can make the podium. Cheers!

  12. I’m going to ride the challenge event – now I’m more worried about leaving my car parked in Roubaix than I am at the prospect of dealing with Arenberg.

  13. Greta piece and that area of France really has to be seen in person to get a feel of the place. the open spaces, biting winds and desolate landscape mark it with an ugly beauty. I’d strongly recommend anyone interested in the area to read Germinal, as it depicts the brutal lifestyle of the peasant workers in the mines. Like the race and the region it’s not a joy-filled or happy read, but it’s satisfying in its brutality.

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