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This weekend the best Classics riders in the world take to the cobbled farm roads of northern France for one of the biggest one-day races of the year: Paris-Roubaix. In the lead-up to “The Hell of the North”, Connor Christensen takes us back to the early years of the race, telling the amazing story of a man who won the race twice but who fell on much harder times thereafter: “The Bull of the North”, Charles Crupelandt.
Trouée d’Arenberg. Mons-en-Pévèle. Carrefour l’Arbre.
These are the most feared and famous cobblestone sectors that will confront the peloton in the 116th edition of Paris-Roubaix this Sunday. The names of these traditional rough roads are well known to cycling fans and are expected to feature in the decisive moments of the race. But before the eventual winner hears the ringing bell that indicates a final lap of the Roubaix velodrome, he’ll pass over one last stretch of pavé: Espace Charles Crupelandt.
It’s a short, smooth patch of cobbles, mostly ceremonial and certainly not race-altering. Those cobbles are relatively new, added in 1996 to honor the centenary edition of the Queen of the Classics. Along the short path are individual stones with the names of every Paris-Roubaix champion; Merckx and Boonen and de Vlaeminck and all the rest, honored in rock. The road is appropriately nicknamed the Chemin des Géants, the Path of the Giants.
But as the riders roll over the names towards the legendary velodrome, there’s a reasonable question to ask. Who was Charles Crupelandt, and what did he do to have his name amongst the giants?
The simple answer would be that he won the race. It would be an accurate answer; Crupelandt sprinted to victory in the 1912 and 1914 editions. But not every two-time winner of Roubaix gets a cobbled sector named after him.
Crupelandt was a national champion. A decorated war veteran. A criminal. A failure. A broken man. He was a Roubaisian. A local hero. “The Bull of the North”.
Crupelandt was born in 1886 in Wattrelos, a small suburb in the shadow of Roubaix. Not many details about Crupelandt’s early life still exist, but we do know that Roubaix in the 1800s was something of a boomtown. The textile trade had brought thousands of jobs and immigrants to the region, as well as new forms of sport and entertainment. While Crupelandt likely grew up poor, he was able to take advantage of Roubaix’s brand-new velodrome, which had been built by the newly wealthy textile magnates.
He was drawn into track cycling and began racing at a young age, rapidly becoming a decent sprinter. His budding sprint ability, mental toughness, and huge size led to his eventual nickname, “the Bull of the North.”
The end of the 19th century was the dawn of cycling history, well before most races we think of today even existed. Luckily for young Crupelandt, one of the first contested events was a sprawling race from the French capital, across the northern part of the country, to an industrial city on the Belgian border: Paris-Roubaix. Ten-year-old Crupelandt would have been able to see Josef Fischer win the very first edition, as well as the hefty prize of 1,000 francs, all bankrolled by Roubaix’s textile industry.
There are a few important things, beyond the obvious, that differentiate this early era in cycling from ours. First, much of what we think we know about professional cycling from these early days is either barely factual, apocryphal, or entirely fabricated. We may know who won a given race, but we can rarely be sure of how a race unfolded.
Second, this was a time when cycling was an adventure sport, not a professionalised racing program. Point-to-point events like Paris-Roubaix that are classic races now were endurance tests then, nearly impossible challenges to overcome. Riding a bicycle hundreds of kilometers across northern France was a spectacle — a truly unbelievable feat to observe.
And finally, the competitors in these races were racing because the slim chance of prize money seemed like a far better way to earn a living than the farm or the factory. Crupelandt and thousands like him raced bikes to make their way in a harsh world.
In 1904, 17-year-old Crupelandt achieved his first significant result in his home race: 13th in Paris-Roubaix. It seemed evident that he would contend for years to come, but after abandoning two years in a row at the Tour de France, Crupelandt disappeared from the results pages, likely due to mandatory military service. He earned a contract with a team called Le Globe in 1910, but it was a make-or-break season for Crupelandt.
That season also happened to be the revolutionary year that Henri Desgrange, the first director of the Tour, introduced high mountains to the race. That year’s course included the first ascent of the iconic Tourmalet climb in the Pyrenees, which dominated the headlines for being too dangerous and difficult. After walking his bike to the top of the mountain, Octave Lapize, the eventual overall winner, shouted at Desgrange and accused him of being a murderer.
While the mountains dominated the pre-race headlines, there was little analysis spent on the first stage from Paris to Roubaix, mimicking the already renowned one-day classic. Taking advantage of his knowledge of the region, Crupelandt initiated a lone attack and rolled into his hometown 20 minutes ahead of his closest competitor. Crupelandt won the stage on his home streets, took the lead of the Tour de France, and became a local hero. His future as a professional cyclist was guaranteed.
That 1910 home triumph set everything in motion for Crupelandt, and he became one of the biggest stars of French cycling. After finishing fifth overall in the 1910 Tour, he improved to fourth overall in 1911. Even more impressive were his two stage wins in 1911, one of which fell on the French national holiday of Bastille Day. A Bastille Day victory, even a century later, is still one of the most prestigious wins a French cyclist can achieve. Despite his high-profile successes, though, Crupelandt had yet to reach his most coveted goal.
In 1912, eight years after his first attempt, Crupelandt entered the velodrome in Roubaix with six other riders. But this was his home race, and this velodrome was where he had trained as a youth. In the sprint, he would not be denied. The feeling of winning a monumental race on the track he knew by heart must have been joyous. He was the first and remains the only local rider to have ever won the race.
While the Roubaisian crowds were ecstatic, national commentators were unimpressed, with one noting: “The victory was sadly settled in a sprint and it is a shame that today’s roadmen give the impression they think road races are sprint competitions. Old and young alike just wait. Young riders deliberately don’t go to the front because they’re scared; the older riders watch each other and try not to use too much energy on efforts that may lead to nothing. Where are the Kings of the Road?”
But the finale in the Roubaix velodrome was exciting enough for a young French painter, thinker, and contemporary of Pablo Picasso named Jean Metzinger. He captured Crupelandt’s victory in what was then an emerging, eccentric artistic style called Cubism. The painting of Crupelandt’s shining achievement now hangs as a part of a permanent display in the Guggenheim Museum in Venice.
After obtaining the result he had been chasing for years, Crupelandt continued to dominate French cycling. He sprinted to victory in the opening stage of the 1912 Tour de France, again leading the overall classification for a day. In 1913, he won the prestigious Paris-Tours classic and just narrowly failed to defend his Paris-Roubaix crown, finishing third.
The following year was the best of his career: third place in the 1914 Milan-San Remo, another dramatic sprint win on his home velodrome in Paris-Roubaix, and a victory in the French national championship. At 28 years old, he was at the peak of his powers and proudly stood at the top tier of the sport.
Crupelandt was in rare form that spring, but he had peaked too soon to be relevant in the Tour. He and the rest of his team would eventually abandon the race early in July due to illness and injuries. The Tour that year began with a 241-mile (388km) stage from Paris to Le Havre; it also started on the same day that Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was killed in the streets of Sarajevo by the young assassin Gavrilo Princip, an action that would eventually precipitate World War I.
The Tour continued throughout the international crisis, but Crupelandt took advantage of his other options. As a successful, internationally known star and the reigning French national champion, Crupelandt could go abroad and compete in track races for relatively large sums of money. Late that July, he decided to travel to Germany for a competition on the Berlin velodrome.
Given that Germany would declare war on France on August 1, 1914, this was not a wise choice.
Crupelandt fled Berlin by train, just days before Germany began its invasion of Belgium and France. He escaped by pretending to be from the neutral Netherlands, while also hiding in the train bathroom for fear of being recognized. There’s no way that he would have known then, but that race in Berlin was Crupelandt’s final race as a cycling star.
Like many other young men of his generation, the French Army immediately drafted Crupelandt and sent him off to the front to fight in the Great War. It’s unclear where Crupelandt served, but he was likely not far from home, as many of the early battles occurred in the northern part of France. Roubaix, being the first city over the border from Belgium, quickly became occupied by the Germans. This region would be utterly obliterated by the trenchworks and constant artillery shelling of the battles to come.
The destruction caused by four long years of conflict would lead to Paris-Roubaix’s nickname as “The Hell of the North.” In the first race after the war, while diplomats negotiated peace accords in Paris, the cyclists hardly had roads to ride on. L’Auto, a French newspaper provided a stark account in 1919: “We enter into the centre of the battlefield. There’s not a tree, everything is flattened. Not a square metre that has not been hurled upside down. There’s one shell hole after another. The only things that stand out in this churned earth are the crosses with their ribbons in blue, white and red. It is hell.”
Unlike his comrades below those crosses, Crupelandt was lucky enough to survive the carnage, but at a high cost. Crupelandt was seriously injured early in the fighting and was awarded the Croix de Guerre in 1915 for his heroic wartime service.
Because his injuries prevented him from returning to the brutal frontlines, it seems that he was stationed in an administrative role at an automobile factory. This move away from the hellish trenches likely saved his life, but it also resulted in Crupelandt’s downfall. Despite his high standing as a cycling star and war hero, he was arrested for theft and black market trafficking in car batteries. Times were tough.
Crupelandt likely did what he had to do to survive, but that single choice ruined him. Accounts of when exactly he was arrested vary, but he spent the final years of the war in prison.
Many of the cyclists that dominated the sport before the war had a difficult time returning to the peloton afterward. The great conflict had stolen their prime years, if not their lives or limbs. When Crupelandt was released from incarceration after the war, he discovered that he had been banned from the French cycling federation, allegedly at the instigation of his rivals in the organisation. He would never race in an officially sanctioned event again. His reputation was in shambles, his livelihood had been taken from him, and his remaining career goals appeared unobtainable.
While Crupelandt was able to gain a license at an upstart cycling union, this prevented him from racing in any of the prestigious or lucrative events. He was technically the French national champion in 1922 and 1923, albeit of this fledging and unknown federation. This parallel existence was not enough for him.
To return to his former glory, in any way possible, Crupelandt had to make a pilgrimage home. He snuck into the 1923 edition of the Paris-Roubaix as an unlicensed trespasser, but it made no difference. Unable to make a living, unable to legally contest his home race on the roads that made him a legend, Crupelandt hung up the wheels.
As a retired professional, Crupelandt had hoped to use his formerly recognisable name to operate a local bike shop and bicycle brand. This venture fell through, victim to the interwar economy and the rise of large-scale cycling companies like Renault and Peugeot. He then decided to run a cafe in Roubaix. He would at least be able to take advantage of the publicity from Paris-Roubaix every year to make ends meet. It is alleged that during World War II, he was arrested again for purchasing smuggled products, an echo back to the offense that ruined him. After the war, the café also failed.
Poverty followed. He spent his final days in Roubaix, the former boomtown, now in decline due to the loss of the textile factories. He was destitute and ill, blinded by diabetes. Months before his death, the disease took a turn for the worse. Crupelandt suffered the most brutal fate that should ever happen to a champion cyclist.
Both of his legs were amputated.
Crupelandt died two months before the 1955 Paris-Roubaix, 41 years since his final victory on the legendary velodrome. He remained forgotten and discarded, a vestige of a bygone era. Until 1996.
Roubaix placed a short set of cobbles near the velodrome to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the first edition, but they needed a name for the street. It had to be something that would appropriately represent the city and the race that had made Roubaix internationally acclaimed.
They easily could have named it after Theodore Vienne or Maurice Perez, the textile manufacturers that initially created the event. Or perhaps after Octave Lapize, who took three consecutive wins from 1909-1911, then perished in World War I. But naming it as they did illustrates the fact that no man’s life was more impacted by or more linked to Paris-Roubaix than Charles Crupelandt.
On Sunday, when the contenders race over the cobbles on the Path of Giants, readying for a sprint in the velodrome, they pay homage to the tragic life of a Roubaisian hero, the Bull of the North.
About the author
Connor Christensen is a freelance cycling journalist, covering the forgotten stories of the sport’s early days. He lives and works in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter here.
– “The Story of the Tour de France, Vol 1: 1903-1964” by Bill McGann & Carol McGann
– “The Monuments: The Grit and Glory of Cycling’s Greatest One-Day Races” by Peter Cossins
– “For the Love of the Cobbles” by Chris Fontecchio
– “The Shattered Peloton” by Graham Healy
– “Paris-Roubaix: The Inside Story” by Les Woodland
– La Voix du Nord