This Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix has to be the unique race on the calendar. Its cobbles are enough to make the Oude Kwaremont look new. The velodrome finish is unusual but the exceptions don’t end there, this is a race where reaching the showers has become part of the ritual. Even the name stands out, Roubaix is celebrated as a strong brand by the cycle-trade when in the reality it’s France’s poorest town and rarely something to celebrate.
The race didn’t start out this way. Like many if not most races, it was launched as a money-making publicity stunt. At the end of the 19th century Roubaix was France’s textile capital, the “Manchester of France” in relation to the bastion of Britain’s industrial revolution. Two wealthy cloth entrepreneurs put up money to fund a velodrome in Roubaix. Keen to attract crowds to the track, they hit upon the idea of a race from Paris that finished on the track, the culmination of such a long ride would occur right in front of an attendant crowd of workers who’d paid money to watch the finish.
So far so normal, it wasn’t until after the First World War that things started to change. 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. We should use the term “hell” carefully, hell is the legacy of war rather than a bouncy farm track. The race wasn’t alone in riding through the area, Rouleur tells the tale of the Circuit des Champs de Bataille from 1919.
Post-war reconstruction came twice and by the 1960s Paris-Roubaix was a race that reflected modernity as cobbled roads all over Northern France were being sealed with tarmac. With growing income and improved technology it was possible to watch the race live on TV and French television deployed Robert Chapatte, apparently the first in TV sports commentary to work with co-commentator. But as exciting as the novelty might be live television only exposed the boring landscapes and the processional aspect of racing. In the past cycling had been a fine sport to read about, the mere act of riding from Paris to Roubaix was a feat to marvel at but TV required action. The organisers responded and in 1968 the start was moved to Compiègne, beginning a conceit that exists to this day: the race starts nowhere near Paris. While the main roads had been resurfaced many tracks created to haul mining equipment from site to site remained.
The son of Polish immigrants Jean Stablinksi worked below ground as a child and spent his spare time playing the accordion at weddings and parties to earn enough money from which he bought a racing bike and eventually turned pro, winning the world championships in 1962. It was “Stab” who showed the race organisers the Arenberg Forest section as they hunted for new roads to make the race more exciting. As France modernised, the race regressed to a battle across old roads and it’s this switch that’s given the course its identity. Today the route is preserved and celebrated as part of local heritage but are hidden to most who cross the region by car or train where the brick houses, electricity pylons and mining slag heaps are the only things that break the linear horizon.
The difficulty of the cobbles makes the race a shop window for the cycle trade where the most extreme race of the year is used to sell goods for everyday use. If a bike can stand up to the cobbles then it’s strong enough to be used by weekend warriors. Carbon rims looked fragile until they passed the pavé test. It’s an old idea, the earliest bike races were marketing ploys to suggest if a bike could last a long race then it was good enough to ride to the farm or factory. Today no other race offers the same validation.
Arriving in Roubaix might be the stuff of pro cycling dreams and marketing messages but the reality is somewhat different, Roubaix has an unflattering range of socio-economic statistics and tops the list of France’s poorest towns and cities with 45% of Roubaix’s population living below the French poverty line. Added to that there’s an unemployment rate well above the national average and some of France’s highest obesity rates. The textile industry that indirectly created the race vanished long ago and the town had a sideline in mail order catalogues which have predictably been picked off by the internet. Many cyclists might long to arrive in Roubaix but many locals might dream of an opposite journey, to leave Roubaix and make it in Paris.
If cyclists long to arrive in Roubaix it’s because they’ve conquered the cobbles in a race that hurts like no other. The appeal is helped by the Roubaix velodrome which offers a victory lap for all who arrive and the strange showers inside. The original velodrome that inspired the race has been demolished and the current finish line’s future isn’t certain to remain as the new Stablinski velodrome with its indoor track and “Le Stab” makes the old track redundant. The showers are a curiosity, Paris-Roubaix is the only race where the post-race facilities are part of the legend, helped by the need to wash all that mud away when in other races a wipe with a damp cloth is enough. This is more than a washroom, it both a museum and Elysium, a resting place for heroes.
The showers are plumbed because rain showers are a rarity, curiously the race takes place at the height of the region’s dry season. It hasn’t rained since 2002 despite the surrounding Lille agglomeration being France’s 13th out of 118 for annual rainfall. The chart above is from climatedata.eu and the vertical bars are precipitation. The driest time of the year? March and April while July is the wettest which explains why it’s more likely to rain when the Tour de France visits in the summer.
The Tour de France’s use of these roads is also a big celebration of Paris-Roubaix. Too often Le Tour obscures the rest of the sport, it is the reference point by which so many other races are judged. Yet it “borrows” the roads of Paris-Roubaix. We don’t talk about the Tour “borrowing” the roads of the Critérium du Dauphiné or the Route du Sud, in fact the Tour makes Alpe d’Huez, Mont Ventoux or the Col du Tourmalet famous. For once the Tour de France borrows its reference points from another race.
There’s no other race like it. The cobbles are special with rougher, larger stones than are typically found in a Flemish race, some competitors will arrive in Roubaix with lacerated hands and this is used to demonstrate the toughness of bicycles. It’s a race that’s unique for other reasons too, arguably one of the first bike races to bend to the TV era and seek out spectacle and today the last major race to finish on a velodrome. The sport visits for a day or maybe two if the Tour de France joins in but for the rest of the year Roubaix can be a bleak place.