The Last Act of Madness

There’s no other race like Paris-Roubaix. The severe cobbles, the velodrome finish, the bleak landscape and the soil. It seems old-fashioned but here is an event that’s made for TV and it thrives because of its exceptional character.

Paris-Roubaix est la dernière folie que le sport cycliste propose à ses officiants
(Paris-Roubaix is the last folly that the sport of cycling proposes to its celebrants)
– Jacques Goddet, race director, 1968

Paris-Roubaix vs Time
The race has ridden against society’s direction of travel. It was gruelling competition when it began at the end of the 19th century but no more than other emergent races like Bordeaux-Paris or the daddy of them all, Paris-Rouen. The race wasn’t fearsome because of the cobbles, they were a normal means to surface a road and found all over the world. After World War I the “Hell of the North” label came from the scenes of devastation all around, if anything the roads were repaired first and the race could pass through the ruins. Jump forward to 1950s and after another war and France’s economy was leaping forward in a period labelled “the glorious 30”. As part of this many roads were being upgraded and tarmacked. Transport links were improving for everyone. But better roads and bikes were making Paris-Roubaix into a long procession and by the 1960s it had nothing unique to offer, especially as the course was so flat. It’s here Paris-Roubaix took its definitive turn.

Jacques Goddet

Faced with the loss of cobbles and his race becoming a dreary parade in 1967 race organiser Jacques Goddet instructed his No.2 Albert Bouvet to find more cobbles: “go north and take your pilgrim’s staff“. The recently retired rider Jean Stablinksi who showed Bouvet some new cobbled tracks including the infamous Arenberg Forest. “Stab” later felt guilty about telling the race organisers about this stretch of pavé because of the suffering it would impose on the riders. Even the race organisers were concerned it would be too hard. It could be a myth but apparently 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. Here we see the race going backwards, finding old tracks in deliberate opposition to the trend of upgraded roads.

But Paris-Roubaix wasn’t a rejection of modernity and a retreat to a past era. Instead the changes seized on a new trend: the rise of television. During the 1930s man races were filmed and shown in the cinemas, although of course these were brief reels. In 1950 there fewer than 4,000 TV sets in France as a television cost around 150,000 francs, equivalent to six months’ salary for the average consumer. This changed with a boom in TV sales during the 1960s and by the end of the decade many could see Paris-Roubaix live on TV. Forget backwards roads in an old race, it was the height of modernity to sit at home and watch Eddy Merckx win Paris-Roubaix in 1968. Viewers could finally see for themselves what print and radio had tried to deliver in the past. Today the race has a timeless quality, the riders might change but the scenes remain the same.

Sean Kelly in the Arenberg

Cycling’s only stadium
The race has rejected some commercial aspects for the sake of romance. Take the finish, it’s the last great race to feature a velodrome. This kind of finish was once the norm, allowing organisers to ticket a captive audience but now Roubaix is the exception. It wasn’t always this way and in the 1980s it finished on a road outside the HQ of La Redoute – then a giant mail order catalogue firm, now shrinking – and race sponsor. But race director Jean-Marie Leblanc had a coup de coeur, he changed the finish for no other reason than emotion and the race duly returned to the velodrome.

The velodrome itself has its legends including the showers. The are some famous finish lines, think of the Champs Elysées, the Avenue de Grammont or the Avenue Rif Nel on Alpe d’Huez. But these are addresses and not buildings, they are borrowed for the day. Roubaix’s velodrome almost belongs to the race and the track is preserved despite a new velodrome complex next door. The crumbling Roubaix velodrome isn’t merely a track, it’s famous for the showers where its cement stalls resemble a cow shed yet represent cycling’s true Elysium. A Swiss journalist whose article is no longer online summed 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.

Alternative tech
The Roubaix pavé is wild and so savage that the following vehicles are different. Police outriders use off-road motorbikes, team cars fit oil sump protector plates. This experience also applies to the fans too. You can walk to the most strategic point of the Tour de France and even the Tour of Flanders in your Sunday best but to see Paris-Roubaix means embracing the mud. This hell has become heaven for the cycling industry and the race has turned into a shop window for pro cycling’s manufacturers where new products are validated.

Muddy Roots
No other event embraces the local terrain to the same level, the soil is what makes this race. Every year the cobbles are repaired and preserved as a way of promoting the region and the race. The Strade Bianche has similarities with its use of dusty roads but they are not preserved for the event itself and if they’re pretty, they’re part of a set of Tuscan clichés with horizons lined by rolling hills and pointed cypress trees. Paris-Roubaix offers no such postcard images. The backdrop is post-industrial, a landscape of slag heaps and abandoned mines with modern concessions like large-scale agriculture, electricity pylons and high speed rail lines.

Dead end
The race’s exceptionalism extends to the calendar as the road to Roubaix is one of the season’s few dead ends. Depending on your point of view cycling’s calendar is either blessed with the curse or the subtlety where the big races are not raced by all the big racers but are appropriated for training. Right now the Tour of the Basque Country is a prime example with some riders fighting for the win but others are contentedly cruising around for condition. For most of the year if a race doesn’t work out there’s always an alternative next week or next month. This means the sport gets fixated on the future rather than the present, even failure in the Tour de France can be amended at the Vuelta. But this isn’t the case with Paris-Roubaix, nobody will start for training and fail here and there’s no second chance to follow. The cobbles of Paris-Roubaix are not stepping stones to another race.

A stone for the winner
Finally there’s the prize for the winner. Races offer silverware and some give out wacky tridents or shiny porcelain or the traditional silverware but Paris-Roubaix rewards the winner with a cobblestone mounted on a wooden base, an item whose cash value is next to nothing yet it is one of the most exclusive prizes in the sport.


This is the most unusual race of the year with a wildly difficult route, a unique finish as well as a special place on the calendar and in the sport’s legend. The cobbled tracks aren’t a throwback to the past, they’re an invention, a deliberate stunt. Goddet and Bouvet went on the hunt for something spectacular and extreme, a stroke of sports-marketing genius. A new audience could watch the spectacle from the comfort of their home as television ownership took off and the legend has grown ever since.

Today it lives on and has become embedded as part of the region’s identity to the point where sections of the course are preserved and cherished by local mayors, an act of benevolence towards the sport that’s not seen elsewhere as street furniture and commercial pressures push cycle sport away from towns and cities. It’s exceptional and this is why it survives, a once-in-season test for riders and manufacturers alike. The 111th edition of Paris-Roubaix takes place this Sunday.

It’s bollocks this race! You’re working like an animal—you don’t have time to piss! You wet your pants. You’re riding in mud like this, you’re slipping – it’s a piece of shit.
Will you ever ride it again?
Sure! It’s the most beautiful race in the world!
CBS reporter John Tesh interviewing Dutch rider Theo De Rooij, 1985

37 thoughts on “The Last Act of Madness”

    • With some planning and rental car you can see the race several times. Watch the start, drive to the feed zone, see them roll thru, drive to some cobbles, maybe Arenberg and then repeat.

      • I’ll second that, it takes some preparation and planning. You can use the interactive map at to find out exactly where. Some people make a sport of it, they’re the ones you see running away from the scene as soon as the leaders have gone through. That’s probably excessive.

        If not any of the latter cobbled sections are good with big crowds and you’ll see the action in front of you. It’s got rowdy in recent years but the Carrefour de l’Arbre is the obvious pick with famous pavé, food being served and it’s often decisive.

        • With some decent route mapping you can watch the first section at Troisville (you see who isn’t up for the fight right away), make it to Arenberg, maybe one other sector before (just) getting to the velodrome. Don’t go too deep into the sector so you can get out to the car asap. Always park in the direction you want to leave in…

          • Inner Ring / GP,

            Thanks for the tips. I’m an expat living in Paris, and am planning on catching the train out to see the race tomorrow (as I don’t have access to a car). Do you know if any of the sections will have big screen TVs to watch the race before/ after they come by? I was at Flanders last weekend was impressed by how spectator friendly the race was (great website, free shuttles, food/beer tents, big screen TVs, etc), but the Paris-Roubaix website is quite lacking. I was planning on catching a local train from Lille to St Amend Les Eaux, which looks to be about 5km from the Arenburg and then would try to catch it back into Lille and then to Roubaix to try to see the riders come into the velodrome. Thoughts?


  1. Did Michele Ferrari write about this race but broke it down in numbers about the vibrations the riders go through and the physical stress ? I think i read it here but could be wrong

    • Here’s his quote:

      A total of 51,000 meters of pavé, with five or six stones every meter, is about 250,000-300,000 hammer blows on the legs of each rider. At 40 km/h, that’s an average of 10-12 blows per second, a constant vibration that leaves its mark on the entire body: neck, hands, arms, back and even the blood circulation get extremely stressed from the outside. Vibrations slow down the venous return from the legs (but also from the arms), hindering the delicate work of the valves that is necessary to defeat gravity’s pull.

  2. Nice preview! Couldn’t help but giggle at the idea of bike makers proving their stuff to sell to consumers. But instead, far too many buyers come home with bikes optimized for racing up Alpe d’Huez instead of Paris-Roubaix. This race is probably the showcase for examples of teams using what works whether their official suppliers furnish it or not. Bikes not really made by whoever’s name is on the downtube, rebadged tires, wheels, saddles, you name it, including riders using mechanical shifting despite their component suppliers constant hype about how much better their electronic stuff is. If a guy like Spartacus doesn’t believe it, why should we?

  3. Cobbled classics season is always over so quickly! For a series of races that teams build an entire squad for it is so small, what 10 days racing? Considering the Climbers and the sprinters get so many opportunities with stage racing on every week it would be great to increase this unique part of the calander.
    Perhaps move the enco tour closer? Or promote some of the smaller cobbled races?

    • Lots of one-day racing before and after. Another block of high-ranking Belgian racing coming with the Ardennes Classics!

      Also, most of the riders will work in shorter stage races and get grand tour invites by the team depending on lots of factors. One-day racers definitely have a very long cycling season..

      I realize it’s not the same calibre of racing, but Tro Bro Leon in Brittany is fun watching.

  4. I trashed a rental car on the pave years ago! I had a blast watching the race live. Everyone should go to it once in their lives…like the Hajj for a Muslim!

  5. Did any mayor ever go so far as to have new cobbles installed on a section of road that was paved before, just to get the race to come to town? Given the trend, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this happen in the near future.

  6. Been lucky enough to see this quite a few times, especially in 2004 when a club mate won the Pro race and a fellow Welshman won the junior race.
    Saw the race 7 times in all that day.
    Go to the start an hour before and stalk the team buses park right at the end of the Avenue so you don’t get blocked in, leave 15 mins before the race and go to KmO and watch the early birds try to form a break. Head to the autoroute and quickly head up to Troisvilles, park beyond where the cobbles cross the N road. Leave after the bunch cross the N road and quickly drive to solesmes for the feed-Don’t go into Solesmes but park before the Course.
    Leave quickly and drive to Wallers, park as close to the end as you can, squeeze in between cars if it’s not muddy. Leave quickly after the race and drive to Orchies. This is usually chocca so park as close to the autoroute entrance as possible, even up on the roundabout if there’s space, If there’s not then don’t park anywhere else as it will be a nightmnare to leave. Go to Carrefour de l’Arbre, park up and walk to the 90 degree left about a k before the building and get a good space. Leave quickly after the break and you can get to the stadium, just in time for the finish. Be careful parking close as it’s not the best area, leave nothing on display.
    After the finsh, stalk the buses again. You won’t see the winner as he’ll be in interviews for a couple of hours but as we saw in 2004, you may see the champagne awaiting his return!

    • Just saw your post Dai Bank, great tips! (ignore my previous post)
      Anyone have room for a 35 year cycle nerd in their car?
      I’ll put in some money for gas etc!

  7. I’m gonna go watch it on sunday. Any tips?
    I’ve been before at the startline in Compiègne, and it’s a good way to see a bit more of the riders/buses etc. In a dream world I’d catch a ride up the road w someone and watch as they hit the arenberg forest.
    It probably be hard though, lots of roads closed etc. Tips? Anyone else going?

Comments are closed.