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Think of Paris-Roubaix and the first thing that springs to mind are the cobblestone roads.
Rather than the 202km of regular old asphalt, no different from any other race on the calendar, it’s the other 55km that set this race apart. The cobbles are Paris-Roubaix.
As crazy as it sounds now, there was at one time a push to wipe out these cobbled roads. Early editions of Paris-Roubaix included the cobbles out of necessity more than desire — that was just how roads in the north of France were.
But in the aftermath of World War II, the country began to modernise its damaged road system. As a result, the pavé of the north slowly began to disappear.
The race first lost a cobbled sector back in 1939, with more and more replaced by asphalt or concrete as the years rolled by. This process only accelerated with the advent of live television, as local authorities and proud mayors, ashamed of local roads believed to reflect poorly on them, would resurface them if the race passed through.
In 1977 that changed. Paris-Roubaix organiser Albert Bouvet teamed up with Jean-Claude Vallaeys, founder of the Vélo Club Roubaix, to found a new organisation known as Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix (the friends of Paris-Roubaix). The group’s aim — to preserve the cobbled sectors that make the race what it is, repairing and restoring the hallowed stones each year.
Fortunately they are still going strong today, headed up by president François Doulcier. A car assembly line manager during work hours, Doulcier joined the group as a member in 2001 and is now in the seventh year of his presidency.
The 40 members that made up the organisation when Doulcier joined has swelled to over 200 today, with members hailing from Belgium to Brazil. For a fee of between €20-30, anybody can join. The money goes towards the maintenance of the cobbles, and now the same local authorities who were once dead-set against the race work with Les Amis to preserve the cobbles, as Doulcier explains.
“For the big jobs, the work is funded by the local government, the towns and departments,” he said. “Smaller jobs are done by students, and they are funded by us as well as the local communities.”
Those students come from the local horticultural college branches, this year from Lomme, near Lille. The colleges have been involved since 2002, and groups of students work on the cobbles every spring, working last year on sector 19 from Haveluy to Wallers. This time around they’ve been repaving large sections of the five-star rated Mons-en-Pévèle sector.
“These are future gardeners, and the paving work is part of the landscaping integrated into their training,” says Oliver Codron, landscaping teacher at the Raismes branch, who carried out work last year.
Lugging around twenty-pound stones is some apprenticeship indeed, and it’s estimated that over 50,000 of the cobblestones have been repositioned and restored by students of the college over the years.
“There are classes of 15 to 20 working for two weeks, and the budget for their work is €15,000 each year,” says Doulcier of the students, who worked in mid-March. “For the heavy work there is a budget of €100,000.”
Of course it goes without saying that the organisation, which is entirely voluntary, does not make a profit. Their work is a labour of love.
The heavy work described by Doulcier is outsourced to companies. “It’s a team of four working for several months,” he says. “100 metres of the route takes around a month to renovate.”
Such work includes a street sweeper cleaning the famous Trouée d’Arenberg sector. With the road shaded from the sun by the forest, moss and mould thrive on the cobbles, and with the sector closed to road traffic they are free to grow unhindered. This year the organisation has broken out the high-pressure washers.
The race’s most famous sector brings with it another problem – cobble theft. Each year Les Amis replaces dozens of stones in the forest and elsewhere.
It’s less of a hardship for them than for any amateur cyclist who might happen upon a hole in the crown of the road, though. They can call on a stockpile of 90,000 stones thanks to local authorities, who save those that are dug up.
Despite the help — the donations, the volunteers, the politicians — there isn’t enough to revisit every sector of cobbles each year.
Instead, it’s a step-by-step process. Last year Mons-en-Pévèle and Carrefour de l’Arbre got a facelift, while this spring work was carried out at Templeuve and Auchy-lez-Orchies, among others.
“The repairs have been on a similar level to recent years,” says Doulcier. “In addition to the work in the spring, the pavé is checked throughout the year in order to identify any potential problems.”
Don’t think that the group is making the race any easier, though — the challenge is in maintaining the cobbles. That is, keeping them tough to ride as well as preserving them aesthetically.
“We don’t want to turn it into a pool table,” Doulcier jokes. “We have to keep the challenge of the cobbles, but remove the ruts and potholes.”
For now, he can sit back and enjoy the fruits of his organisation’s labour. On Sunday, the peloton will roar over the same rough cobbles that Les Amis have spent months painstakingly renovating.
Sunday’s victor will take home one of those famed cobbles. After that, it won’t be long until thoughts turn to next year. For Doulcier and Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix, the work is never done.