Friday, April 10, 2009

Paris-Roubaix: The Hell of the North

For me, this is the BIG ONE. Since 1896 cyclists have ridden this masterpiece of a race, originally north from Paris to Roubaix, but now from Compiègne to Roubaix, across rutted back roads with 27 sections of man breaking, bicycle bending cobblestones of the worse kind. It is the type of race that spawns books and legends. I have a wonderful coffee table book, A Journey into Hell, and maybe the best cycling movie ever made, A Sunday in Hell. Often the weather conditions are brutal, with cold rain and harsh winds. If the rains don't come (a damned shame!) the riders still have to deal with the dirt and dust from between the pavés, and the narrow, dirt shoulders, where much of the race is ridden to avoid the pounding of the pavés. It doesn't have mountains where attacks are made and races won, the attacks come on the cobbled sections. This is where the race will be decided.

The course is brutal, with section 18, the eerie, ancient cart path, the Trench of Arenberg, often the deciding section. It is long, straight and deep enough into the race that the men are being to tire. If you are strong and have the legs, a good place to strike, to launch an attack. It is the place to gain enough time over the peloton to position yourself to win the race and the Golden Pavé awarded to the victor.

In the 1960s and 70s the race was in danger of dying as the cobbles were slowly paved over with asphalt in the guise of progress. The 'Les Amis de Paris Roubaix' was formed by a group of volunteers to preserve and maintain the remaining cobbled sections. Bless their cobbled, little French hearts.

For years the riders rode steel frames, painted and decaled to resemble their sponsors frames. Now a number of the bike manufacturers make special Paris Roubaix models, not always successfully.

Again George Hincapie comes to mind. He is the prototypical Paris-Roubaix rider, hard-ass tough and strong, yet he has never won the Queen of the Classics. Last weekend at the Tour of Flanders he crashed and placed 34th. You need luck to win Flanders, even more to win Paris-Roubaix. At 36 the old boy is running out of the years and the luck to win the big one, his favorite race. The grim, hollow-eyed stone staring man in the photos is big George... as is the snapped stem, crushed bicycle. Hincapie only had a broken collarbone. Others have not fared as well. There will be blood.


Generally Wikipedia is suspect, but in this case maybe because the race is so epic, is quite a good source. From Wiki:

"No sooner was de Rooy off his bike than the CBS crew jumped on him. His haggard face was covered with mud and blood when they asked for his race impressions. He was so exhausted he could barely speak, but he muttered something about how hard and heart-breaking Paris-Roubaix could be. So dejected did he sound and so naive was the crew (who didn't know this was the umpteenth time the Dutchman had ridden the race), that they asked if he would ever ride Paris-Roubaix again. De Rooy's face instantly transformed. 'Ride it again?' he asked incredulously. 'Of course I will. This is the most beautiful race in the world! "

Get your beer and popcorn, feet up in a good chair. Same day coverage on Versus at 5:00 on Sunday.

"This is not just a race. It is a pilgrimage." -Henri Pélissier after his 1919 victory.

(Rory, I know I committed to pulling for your Liquigas boys, but for this one I can't. You're on your own. Enjoy the race, Iowa Boy. I envy you.)

1 comment:

reverend dick said...

Even if it were not the most beautiful race in the world, the fact that it has been run for over 100 years (!) is beatific.