When it comes to springtime in cycling it can only mean one thing – the arrival of one-day classics racing. Traditionally the ‘Cobbled Classics’ incorporating four races – E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem and the two biggies Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
Which is best in terms of ability is always open to debate. What isn’t in doubt is that Paris-Roubaix really captures the public imagination as well as the demands it makes on the riders. It’s an enigma of a race. You win it, you’re a hero – for many riders who never get to lift the cobble trophy – it’s a farce, a lottery and akin to riding your bike into a washing machine.
In some respects it has a parallel with Horse Racing’s Grand National. It’s not always the favourite that makes it home. There are so many circumstances in which the 250km plus course and bad luck can take its toll. In terms of Paris-Roubaix there are two significant obstacles. The 28 sectors of cobbled roads or pave´ are a stern examination of a rider’s abilities. The cobbles are tricky enough but the irregularity of the paving can make some sectors, especially in rain, absolutely treacherous. Two-time winner Sean Kelly spoke for many riders before and after when he described it as ‘a horrible race to ride, but a beautiful one to win’. The other obstacle?...every other competitor!
There’s so much personality to Paris-Roubaix – the velodrome finish in the unremarkable town of Roubaix, the brutalist shower room which carry small plaques of the names of previous winners and of course, it’s nickname ‘The Hell of the North’. For many riders, Paris-Roubaix is a hell – but that’s not why or how the race earned its name.
Although the race first ran in 1896, the Great War brought the postponement of the 14-18 races. When organisers began plotting the route post hostilities for the 1919 edition they were shocked at the devastation caused by the trench warfare over the four years of the war. The organisers setting out from Paris were not even sure if Roubaix still had a road or whether it still existed – communication wasn’t anything akin to modern times and certainly Parisians had been somewhat cloistered to the unremitting devastation of the battle fields of The Nord. As they made their way north they were confronted with a barren scene of post-war carnage and a ghost of a landscape. Rotting farm stock, broken sewage and once healthy tress, blown to pieces leaving only broken stumps, blackened charred branches earned the name ‘The Hell of the North’ and that has remained ever since – but as mentioned it takes on a different perspective these days.
“Arenberg is like a descent into the coal mine. If you start to think of the danger you won’t even go there”
Jean Stablinski – French cyclist, World Champion – never won Roubaix!
The first pavé sector doesn’t come into effect until 100km into the race but from that point, it becomes a war of attrition and the battle to avoid the prospect of puncturing or a pile-up. The effect of the pavé isn’t just about the jarring bones, the finite balance of suspension and tyre pressure – it’s a battle of tactical racing to find a line that effects the least resistance on the already tiring body. The only problem is that everybody else wants that line! The characteristic of the race is the grit, mud and dust that leaves their mark on the riders faces as they finish in the Roubaix Velodrome.
Karen Edwards’ (karenm.edwards on Instagram) brilliant shot of German John Degenkolb illustrates the full effect of the exhaustive effects of the race. Degenkolb won the race in 2015, but when it comes to the ‘Cobbled Classics’ there is only one man who has won the lot in one year – the exceptional Belgian, Tom Boonen in 2012, who along with fellow Belgian Roger de Vlaeminck, are the only two riders to have won Paris-Roubaix four times. So yes, the race can be a lottery at times, but it takes a bit more than just good fortune to win this brutal race four times! You can find our full collection of Paris-Roubaix posters on our website including the geometric which incorporates a paragraph of the first running of the race.
Sunday 8 April, will see one of sport’s great occasions – not least because of the intensity and enthusiasm of the legions of fans who enjoy the fleetest of glimpses of the riders yet are so much part of the day – part of being there – a big part of cycling. Paris-Roubaix is ‘The Hell of The North’ but in so many ways, it’s a heavenly sight.