Nostalgie de la Boue: riding the Hell of the North

It may not be the longest – that’s Milan-San Remo, the Primavera – it may not feature the climbing profile of the Tour of Flanders or the ‘Race of the Falling Leaves’, the Giro di Lombardia and it’s not the oldest of the 5 Monuments of cycling – that’s ‘La Doyenne’, Liege-Bastogne-Liege. But Paris-Roubaix, the ‘Hell of the North, deserves its reputation as the Queen of the Classics.

There is no other race quite like it – it’s memory made flesh, as if the Giants of the Road have ridden out of the mural on the walls of the Cafe de l’Arbre or the faded black and white photos on a thousand brasserie walls. Thanks to the tireless work of ‘les amis de Paris-Roubaix’ – who jokingly refer to themselves as ‘les forcats du paves’ – each year the race rolls out over the fields of Northern France on cobbled roads that date back to Napoleon. The dense granite setts are roughly laid – as if thrown carelessly  from a helicopter and beaten down roughly with the back of a spade – these are rural roads with a workaday purpose, not the elegant cobbled boulevards of Paris or the well driven cobbled routes of Flanders.  And these fields are scarred with history – When Victor Breyer was asked to assess the feasibility of renewing the race after World War I he was appalled by what he saw: “Shell-holes one after the other, with no gaps, outlines of trenches, barbed wire cut into one thousand pieces; unexploded shells on the roadside, here and there, graves. Crosses bearing a jaunty tricolour are the only light relief.” His companion on that journey in 1919 was Eugene Christophe. The first Yellow Jersey in the Tour de France (though he would never take it to Paris) took one look at the desolation and exclaimed “here this really is the hell of the north.”

Riders on the start line at Paris-Roubaix

Riders line up for the Hell of The North
© Philip van der Ploeg

Sean Kelly famously said “A Paris-Roubaix without rain is not a true Paris-Roubaix. Throw in a little snow as well, it’s not serious.” Images of shell-shocked  eyes in mud caked faces are an instant passport to that  mythological time of little sweeps and coal miners, hard men, ‘ouvriers de la pedale’ escaping grinding poverty for a life on two wheels. It’s a romantic image and one that we haven’t seen in years – the last time a rider crossed the finish line with merde and mud caked thick on his features was in 2002, when Johan Museeuw wiped the filth from his face and crossed the line in the velodrome to heft the winner’s trophy.  But even if the rain stays away there’s still the dust and dust is the true enemy – dust that clogs eyes and streaks faces, choking dust that gets into the lungs, dust clouds that kick up out of nowhere to obscure the wheel in front, the winning attack, the exact line across the treacherous granite.

And after all that, one final test. After close to 260 kms, after one final  stretch of cobbles, the road takes a sweeping right hander into the road that leads to the velodrome – the last great goosebump moment  –  delivering the riders onto the most famous concrete loop in the world. The vélodrome André-Pétrieux has welcomed the race finish since 1943. They play rugby on the grass that fringes the curvaceous  concrete track. It’s seen better days – the paint is peeling, but the surface remains a smooth ochre sheet.  For some it is a simple solo ride to the finish, cruising the banking towards the V of victory. But if you enter the velodrome in a group you need another set of skills – the ability, after all that’s gone before, to use your track smarts and outsprint the opposition, swooping off the banking as Guesdon did, coming over the top to become the last French winner of Paris-Roubaix.

And for his pains: for crossing those  27 sectors graded in difficulty from the one starred Templeuve l’Epinette to the five star brutality of the Carrefour and the Arenberg; for driving his body and bike for close to six hours through that inhospitable, windblown landscape; for jumping and jarring every fibre until he wants to puke with fatigue  – for this he receives 30,000 euros and a cobblestone that is beyond price. Supplied by a family of masons in Orchies, that simple lump of granite is the Jules Remy trophy of cycling. When Andrea Tafi  finally took a famous, sentimental victory in 1999 he let the organisers know he wanted to use his pave as the keystone of his new house. Obligingly, they provided another for his trophy cabinet.

Finally, when the TV cameras have turned their attention elsewhere and the crowds are drifting away, as the grime and pain of a day in the hell of the north sluices away down the drain, each rider will find himself reflecting on disappointment or triumph in the velodrome showers. Simple open concrete cubicles, shoulder height, each bearing a brass plaque with the name of a previous winner, they are the final iconic stop on the road that leads from Compiegne to Roubaix. “When I stand in the showers in Roubaix,” Tom Boonen said in 2004, after finishing 9th behind Magnus Backstedt, ” I actually start the preparation for next year.” True to his word, Boonen scored his first win a year later.

Quickstep ride the Carrefour de l'Abre

Quickstep ride the Carrefour de l’Abre
© Philip van der Ploeg

Jacques Goddet called Paris-Roubaix “the last madness that cycling offers to its participants.”  At 280 kms, and originally designed as an appetiser for the monster that was Bordeaux-Paris (at 560 kms one of the longest races in cycling and scene of Jacques Anquetil’s legendary exploit in 1965 when he won there 24 hours after winning the Dauphine-Libere), Paris-Roubaix quickly outstripped its parent race. Bernard Hinault famously called it ‘a connerie’ and described the course designers as ‘torturers’. Hinault hated the cobbles where he felt he’d been betrayed in the 79 Tour – but won on them 2 years later in the Rainbow Stripes of the World Champion in a wet, miserable mudbath of a race suffering multiple punctures and crashes and  winning by sheer force of will and bloody mindedness from a 6 man group including that giant of the Classics,  Roger de Vlaeminck aka Mr Paris Roubaix. De Vlaeminck earned the nickname by winning the race 4 times, a record equalled only by fellow Belgian Tom Boonen. But de Vlaeminck is one of only three riders – with Rik van Looy and Eddy Merckx – to win all the 5 Monuments, prompting Boonen to declare himself not worthy of the comparison.

Gilbert Duclos-Lasalle won twice, with back to back victories in 1992/3 and said of the experience “I hurt everywhere, hands, shoulders, back.” Marc Madiot was another two time winner (85 & 91) who then took Frederic Guesdon, riding for his newly minted Francaise de Jeux team, to a famous victory in 1997. Andrei Tchmil’s 1994 victory remains a favourite, the Ukrainian becoming the first Eastern bloc winner after  launching a stinging, grimacing, brutal  solo attack 62 kms from the finish – the longest in the modern era.  Jean Robic, the ‘Hobgoblin of the Brittany Moor’ crashed and broke his skull on the cobbles in 1944. Tough and stubborn, he finished the race but  ever after wore the leather skullcap that earned him another nickname ‘tete de cuir’. When Coppi won in 1950, he caught two breakaway riders, then calmly paused to eat an orange before urging them to press on. Coppi rode the last 100kms alone for a glorious win. Of his breakaway companions, one ended the race in the broom wagon, the other retired a week later. Jean Stablisnki may never have inscribed his name on Paris-Roubaix’s palmares but it was he who urged the ‘amis de Paris-Roubaix’ to create the trouee d’Aranberg, that eerie tunnel through the forest that is one of the centrepieces of the race. It’s the ‘secteur de pave’ that strikes fear and panic  into the peloton’s heart, where 3 time winner Johan Museeuw crashed and smashed his knee cap in 1998. The wound turned gangrenous and the Belgian came close to losing his leg. But 2 years later, after a long and painful recuperation,  he would return and win again, pointing at his scarred and battered kneecap as he crossed the finish line triumphant.

There have been other triumphs and tragedies – superdomestique Johan Van Summeren’s scream of joy after he triumphed in 2011 and then proposed to his girlfriend in the velodrome (she said yes, he said “some people give a ring when they propose, I gave a rock”), Steve Bauer’s agonizing ten minute wait in 1990 to find out that he’d lost the by less than a centimetre to Eddy Planckaert in the tightest finish in the race’s history, George Hincapie’s bewilderment as his handlebars come away and he crashes  within touching distance of achieving his dream of winning the Queen in 2006 or Hennie Kuiper grabbing a brilliant victory from the disaster of a puncture in the closing kilometres of the 1983 race, the unbearable moments of waiting for a wheel erased in the joy of a solo victory.

The greats have ridden Paris-Roubaix- from Garin and Lapize, Pelissier and Maes to Bobet and Coppi, van Looy and Merckx and Kelly. Gone are the days when the Grand Tour riders like Hinault and Lemond and Merckx lined up in Compiegne ready to do battle with the Arenberg and Orchies and the Carrefour de l’Abre.  Perhaps the watershed was 1988 when Laurent Fignon became the last GC contender to climb on the podium, finishing third behind Dirk Demol and Thomas Wegmuller, whose chances of victory were destroyed by the plastic bag that jammed his gears.  Two men have dominated the race in recent years, taking 7 of the last 9 wins between them. Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen are the Classics specialists of the modern era – a fascinating contrast in styles though both are of a similar height, weight and age. Cancellara is the elegant rouleur, the multiple World Champion time trialler who simply rides the rest of the race off his wheel – though his track skills in 2013 were far from shabby as he beat Vanmark in a perfectly judged sprint.  Boonen is the true sprinteur  who battles across the cobbles and has the street smarts to take the win in the famous Roubaix velodrome – though he out Cancellarad Cancellara when he staged a bruising, dominant attack from 56kms out in 2012 and rode to that  record equalling fourth win.

The official race report for 13 April, 2008 says that a resurgent Tom Boonen beat Fabian Cancellara to claim his second cobblestone in the Roubaix velodrome. Also on the start line that dry, unexpectedly bright day in Compiegne was a 22 year old Kenyan born British rider in his first season as a neo pro. Sporting the vivid red and white of the South African Barloworld team, Chris Froome stood on the start line of the 2008 Hell of the North.

Chris Froome lines up for Barloworld at the Queen of the Classics

Chris Froome lines up for Barloworld at the Queen of the Classics, Paris-Roubaix, in 2008
© Philip van der Ploeg

How did it feel  to line up at the start of one of the Monuments of cycling – it must have been quite a culture shock?

I was both nervous & excited, I was looking forward to the challenge of the event, but also apprehensive that it was not something that I’d experienced before.

Where was the team based?

I arrived at 2am the morning of the race because I’d competed in Holland (at the Profronde van Drenthe, also featuring cobbles and also known as the Hell of the North) on the Saturday and driven through the night to get to the start of the Roubaix.  I don’t remember where we stayed, I was just happy to get into bed. (Barloworld were staying in the Roihote, Roye, near Amiens – a clean, comfortable place that offers a ‘warm welcome’ and a restaurant-bar. A step up from the Novotels and Campaniles that so many teams use during the season.)

How did you prepare for the race – did you talk to a cobbles specialist or did you rely on your teammates?

On the team we had Baden Cooke & Robbie Hunter who were probably the most experienced with the cobbles, so I took advice from them on what to expect.

 Did you enjoy the experience? Paris-Roubaix is a special race…

I did enjoy the experience, as I’d never been part of a race like Roubaix before, the atmosphere out on the road was amazing with the number of spectators that came out.  I was around mid-peleton but my role for the day had been to get in the early breakaway which I failed to make.  It took about 100km’s for the break to form and I’d spent a huge amount of energy trying to get into the breakaway which eventually went without me.  I remember being amazed at how fast the race was before arriving at the cobblestones in order to fight for position.  

The break of the day – Matthé Pronk (Cycle Collstrop), Jan Kuyckx (Landbouwkrediet) and Alexander Serov (Tinkoff) – finally formed at kilometre 87.

I’ve seen a quote where you told Nilsen that the infamous cobbles were ‘the easy part’ – did you have the chance to do any reconnaissance or had you had any previous experience over cobbles?

Unfortunately I didn’t get the opportunity to do any reconnaissance back then but I will ahead of the 2014 Tour.  I haven’t had any other experience on the cobbles.  I found the difficult part of Roubaix was the fight for position ahead of the cobbles, rather than the cobbles themselves, which I thought felt similar to riding a time trial.

You were DNF in that race – did you end up in the team car or the voiture balai? Did you see the famous showers?

I didn’t have any big expectations but I would have liked to finish.  Unfortunately my race ended after I crashed into a commissaires car.  I had stopped to give my team leader (Baden Cooke) my wheel after he punctured before the forest of Arenberg.  I was chasing back when the commissaires car braked for a rider in front of them.  I had to replace yet another wheel as I’d bent my front wheel when I crashed, by then the race had disappeared.  I was riding toward the finish with Daryl Impey when the broom wagon picked us up.

The race split entering the infamous Arenberg Forest – when the peloton  emerged from one of the most iconic sections of pave in the race, Baden Cooke was in a group of 28 riders with Boonen, Cancellara and Ballan who would finish 1,2,3 on the podium. Cooke eventually finished 31st, 11’08” down on the winner.

Barloworld at Paris-Roubaix, 2008

Barloworld at Paris-Roubaix, 2008
© Philip van der Ploeg

How will Team Sky prepare for the crucial cobbled stage in the 2014 Tour – do you think your experience in 2008 will be useful?

We will head out to ride the stages, when is still to be decided.  Any experience is useful but the stage recon will be crucial.   

Is this a key stage in the 2014 race or will the selection for the Tour be made elsewhere?

It’s not a stage where you can win the tour, but it’s definitely a stage where you can lose the tour.

That’s  what Eddy Merckx said about the Arenberg ” this isn’t where you win Paris-Roubaix, but it’s where you can lose it”…Who will be your key teammates for this stage – Bradley Wiggins has stated his ambition to do well at Paris-Roubaix: if he rides it this year will he be a key superdomestique at the Tour?

The team selection will obviously be made closer to the Tour, but I’d hope to have someone like Yogi (Ian Stannard) with me.

Would you like to ride Roubaix again – a lot of fans would love to see a Yellow Jersey at the classics like in the old days

I’d love to do Roubaix again but it’s a big risk if I were to get injured there ahead of the Tour de France.  I’m more likely to do Liege Bastogne Liege or Milan San Remo (especially with the new route) with the hope of winning it.  

And last but not least, will Sky be using  the new skinsuit in this stage?

It depends on the weather! 

On stage 5 of the 2014 Tour de France the race will hit the cobbles of Northern France. For once, the GC contenders will be forced to confront this most testing terrain. As Merckx has noted “It’s a shame to say it, but Paris-Roubaix is losing more and more of its value because the great riders aren’t there. I’ve always said that to win without risk is to win without glory.” With Sky’s recent announcement that both Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome will be on the start line of Milan San-Remo in  March are we about to see the Grand Tour champions coming back to the Classics, seduced again by their beauty and their cruelty?  For those of us who think that the racing between la Primavera and the Doyenne is the greatest the sport has to offer that can be no bad thing.

As for Chris Froome – who has ridden his way from domestique to Yellow Jersey – it will be interesting to see how he enjoys  his second bite of the granite cherry.

With thanks to Michelle Counde for arranging this interview, Chris Froome for talking about his experiences at Paris-Roubaix and to Phillip van der Ploeg for his depth of knowledge, input into the questions and the use of his photos

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