Paris-Roubaix | l’Enfer du Nord

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What I absolutely love about the Classics is that every single race is fought for like it’s the World Championships. In most other sports, there’s always another game next week. In the Classics, only a handful of riders make the final selection there is no second chance until next year. Names go down in history books because of a single race and there’s no question – these guys want it BAD. Every race is a Grand Final.

Paris-Roubaix Party Competition

If you’re like most other cycling fans you’ll be attending a Paris-Roubaix party on Sunday. Yes, it’s gonna hurt on Monday morning, but it’ll be worth it. Pull a sickie or do whatever you need to do.

It was suggested to me that it would be fun to get photos from the various Paris-Roubaix parties to post on Monday morning. There’ll be heaps of groups of mates around the world geeking-out in retro cycling jerseys and caps with plenty of beer and frites in front of the big screen.

Send your photos to along with a short caption of your location and anything else of note. Extra points will be awarded to a collective effort in front of the television footage. You can also tweet your photos with the hashtag #PRParty so we can see what’s going around the world.


I don’t have much for prizes, but I can offer one DVD copy of SBS’s documentary “Hell of the North” as well as a couple Shut Up Legs t-shirts as a token for your enthusiasm.

If you’re having troubles getting in the mood, there’s nothing like a good promo video to get you pumped up:

And if you want to take a virtual ride down the cobbles from your cubicle, look no further:

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Our history and trivia buff Jamie Jowett has recalled some of the greatest moments at Paris-Roubaix throughout the years. Hot damn I’m excited!

Have a great weekend, enjoy staying up late and watching Paris Roubaix, and send in your photos!

Paris Roubaix – l’Enfer du Nord

by Jamie Jowett

‘This is the race that drives you crazy. Whether it evokes love, passion, and loyalty, or anger, fatigue, and resentment, it crushes both body and soul’.

The Hell of the North is by far my favourite Classic. Beauty, pain, disaster and glory, all in the one day’s race. Forget all previous misuse of the word ‘Epic’, and just use it here.

Gilbert Duclos-LaSalle won twice in his fifteen Roubaix’s. He said, “I am made for this race, but does she want me?”, and then after his second win said, “She gives you back everything you had to do to seduce her”.

Really no one said it better than Dutchman Theo de Rooij, who was in the lead bunch in 1985 when he crashed. Afterwards he said, “It’s bollocks this race! You’re working like an animal, you don’t have time to, so you wet your pants. You’re riding in mud like this, you’re slipping…it’s a pile of sh.t!”

When asked if he would race Paris Roubaix again, De Rooij replied, “Sure, it’s the most beautiful race in the world…”

Always on a Sunday, the race is without comparison in any sport. Starting 60km’s North of Paris, travelling North through industrial suburbs and mining villages near Belgium, it ends in one of the greatest finishes in cycling – on the velodrome at Roubaix. In between are many different sections of pavé, around 1km for every 3km of the parcours. Unlike Flanders’ smoother, tightly packed and almost road-like cobbles, these pavé are sparingly-used farm roads, littered with irregularly spaced granite blocks jutting out.

Light weight riders and climbers know to stay home from Paris Roubaix, as the Rouleurs and sprinters dominate this race. In addition to an ability to withstand immense suffering, the riders of Paris Roubaix have a definite skill, where selecting the right gear and cadence is vital.

This year the pavé starts at Troisvills, where the leaders first put their foot on the gas. Known as the Gates to Hell, riders are often photographed here rounding the bend, still nervously adjusting brakes, suddenly wondering if two layers of bar tape and a second pair of nicks will be enough.

This year, three new sectors of pavé have been added prior to the infamous Tranchée d’Arenberg (Arenberg Trench). Arenberg is only 2.4km long, but arriving at it seems to cause a sudden rush of terror among the riders. Eddy Merckx said to Cycle Sport Magazine “this isn’t where you win Paris-Roubaix, but it’s where you can lose it”. Once the scene of heavy shelling in WW1, the Arenberg Trench is entirely straight and sometimes as dark and eerie as a tunnel.

Be sure to check out Rapha’s Paris-Roubaix Challenge video. Wouldn’t it be great to do this sportif?

Instead of a 10km break after Arenberg, two fast sectors of pavé have also been added this year, meaning less chance for team-mates to regroup and race leaders may be left without support.  As ever, the Mons-en-Pévèle pavé sector is crucial, being in the front group at this point is vital for success.

By the time they reach the Carrefour de l’Arbe, riders have over 200km in their legs. This is where the lead group makes its mind up on the outcome of the race. If you’re not in that group, you won’t win.

On a good day, Paris Roubaix is a dust-eating smash fest. It must be like riding at top speed while having your legs and arms pounded with a hammer for six hours by a very angry Mini-Me. In between that are short road sections, then it’s back to rattling along until your eyeballs fall out. If wet, add an extra two compulsory crashes on the slick stone cobbles, several punctures and the equivalent of seven buckets of mud being thrown at you.

Paris Roubaix winners come from the best in cycling. Il Campionissimo Fausto Coppi won it in 1950 after he attacked during a feed zone about 60km from Roubaix. After catching the two leaders, he rode past to a solo win of nearly 3 minutes. The year before, his younger brother Serse had been treated poorly by French race officials, who awarded the win to local French rider Andre Mahé. Mahé had been leading coming into the stadium but had been directed the wrong way by officials. Finding himself off course and outside the grandstand, he climbed under the seats to cross the line in first place. Serse won in a bunch sprint behind, having completed the proper course.

Eddy Merckx won it three times, but his greatest win has to be 1970 in rain and mud, when the Cannibal laid waste to the field and won in the greatest winning margin ever. Roger de Vlaeminck was second, 5 minutes 21 seconds back.

But even the greatest are sometimes fallible. In ‘75, Merckx and Roger de Vlaeminck were in the lead bunch of four, playing cat & mouse before the finish, looking behind for the fast closing duo of Maertens and Moser. In his classic Molteni rainbow jersey, Merckx watched the moves of de Vlaeminck and Marc DeMeyer. Between them, they won 8 times. Entering the velodrome, Demeyer took his chance and darted away, knowing he did not have the speed to match the two heavyweights. With 50m to go, Merckx had pulled him back and hit the front, but in a gut-wrenching final kick, de Vlaeminck crossed the line a tyre width ahead of Merckx and became the most successful ever.

Bernard Hinault won it just the once, but did so on a day that would break anyone else. Hinault had 3 punctures and 7 crashes, and when the photographers’ motorbikes crashed ahead he ran through a boggy field with his bike over his shoulder. Hinault made a break 8km’s from the finish, but was brought back and then crashed into a dog. Joining the lead group just as they entered the velodrome, Hinault was in 6 man sprint against the likes of Moser and de Vlaeminck. He won by sprinting from nearly a kilometre out, almost winning by sheer intimidation. Later, the Badger called it a “glorified pig fest” and said ”Paris Roubaix est une connerie!” (“Paris Roubaix is bullsh.t!”).

Ballerini won it twice, screaming like a kid on his bike through the open fields. ‘Monsieur Roubaix’ was beautiful to watch. But in ‘93, he lifted his arms in triumph with the finish line in sight only to have Duclos-Lasalle dart underneath to win by a matter of centimetres. The Italian swore bitterly, “I will never come back!” But he did come back, and as a winner he said, “You take your blows, but you must not repeat the same errors. And when you love it like I do, one day or another you will win it”.

In ‘88, twice winner Sean Kelly crashed on the pavé and had his ear sliced in half by another rider’s chainring. But in ‘84 and ’86 in cold wet conditions, he won both times in the final sprint, emphasising his dominance of the Classics and overall greatness.

The only Aussie to ever win is Stuart O’Grady. The Super Domestique known for being as hard as a cat’s head, even Stu was overwhelmed by his win in ‘07. Surviving constant attacks while the others were shelled, he punctured in the Arenberg and his chances were disappearing in a dust cloud. But on a day as hot as any in Adelaide, teammate Fabian Cancellara worked to get him back on to the lead group. There, Stuey turned the screws again and finally broke clear on his own after the Bourghelles pavé. He held on over the last 7km’s to win by over a minute. “I was going to win today, or die trying”4, he said afterwards.

Proving that everyone in Paris Roubaix pays a price, even party boy Tom Boonen crossed the line battered and bruised when he first won in ‘05, and again in ‘08, and ‘09.

Last year Cancellara attacked on the Mons-en-Pévèle pavé, leaving a big chasing group behind but with over 50kms still to go. Spartacus had been advised that the winner is likely to be in the first three to leave the cobbles at Mons, just as Moser and Kelly had done in winning years earlier. Deciding to put it beyond doubt, he spent over an hour off the front on his own, before crossing the line with 2 minutes of daylight behind.

If I had to best explain why I love the race, I would simply point to two images of Paris-Roubaix’s greatest warriors.

The first is Marc Madiot screaming into the cold windswept velodrome to win in ’85, Big Ringing it solo around the track and lifted by the wave of emotion from thousands of screaming fans. Madiot had beaten down a chasing bunch of eight that included Greg LeMond and Sean Kelly. Entering the velodrome over a minute behind Madiot, Kelly and LeMond swerved around a crash and onto the muddy infield, cyclo-crossing and still racing hard for the minor placings. Madiot said afterwards,”Before I got to the velodrome, I slipped into my 12 tooth gear and gave it all I had, just for the thrill of it”…[1]

Then there is the Lion of Flanders, Johan Museeuw, who won three times. In ‘96, he crossed the line with his two Mapei team-mates just behind. Just before, the team owner called the DS to tell him the finishing order, and Museeuw must be first. Then in ‘00 he crossed the line pointing to the knee cap he shattered and left leg almost lost to gangrene in a crash in the Arenburg Forest two years before. But for me, his best win was his last, in ‘02 at aged 35. On a solo break of 41km’s, he crossed the line mud-spattered and glorious.

In rain and a headwind most of the way, Museeuw blasted from the chasing pack on the Arenberg trench, dragging up Hincapie and Knaven and soon caught the lead bunch four minutes up the road. Being warned the Lion of Flanders was coming fast, Cassani attacked from the lead bunch with 60km to go. Panic then set in amongst the lead bunch as Museeuw joined them, then put the hammer down on the next short but tough section of pave at Meringnies. Only Hincapie and Boonen could stay with him, but with three more pavé sections to go, Museeuw had a lead of 25 seconds. By the notorious Camphin En Pevele pavé, he had another minute and a half, where Hincapie famously crashed into a ditch. “Hands in the hooks, mouth wide open, snot dripping from his nose, Museeuw powered his huge gear away from one and all”4.

Truly a great race.

REFERENCES: [1] ‘Paris-Roubaix – a journey through hell’ (Bouvet, Callewaert); [2] – quote taken from Wikipedia; [3] – Cycle Sport Magazine; [4] – Cycling News.

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