How the pavé is prepared for Paris-Roubaix

Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix take care of the cobbles ... but only enough to make the race as hard as it is.

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Every year before Paris-Roubaix the cobbles of the Hell of the North get a little touch-up. Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix, “the friends of Paris-Roubaix”, are responsible for that important job.

“Paris-Roubaix is hard enough as it is,” says Amis de Paris-Roubaix president François Doulcier. “We don’t need to make it even more difficult than it is so we only fix the biggest holes and ruts before the race.” 

Just past the infamous Pont Gibus is a sign that reads ‘Route barrée’. The road is closed for work on the sector from Wallers to Helesmes. On the side of the road, in the bright sunshine of a March afternoon, a group of 15 young men enjoy their lunch break with a tuna sandwich, a coke, and a Twix bar as dessert. They are students of the local school for gardening and landscaping.

“This is part of their exams,” says ‘madame le professeur’ Sabine. She has been an important part of the cooperation between her school just outside of Raismes and Les Amis for the past 20 years. 

“Some students are here for one day. They are the younger ones. The other, older group works here for two days of seven hours. At the end of those two days their paving skills are judged by us as part of their final exams.”

The students of the ‘Sites de Formations Horticoles de Raismes’ (Raismes Horticultural Training Sites).

As the students continue their work, Les Amis president François Doulcier explains the history of the organization. 

“It was back in 1977, so 45 years ago this year, that more and more of these cobbled roads were being asphalted,” he says. “It made organizing Paris-Roubaix very difficult and the problem became bigger every year. We decided to do something about it and help keep this wonderful heritage alive.”

Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix president François Doulcier.

“We have three important objectives: preserving the pavé, promoting the race, and documenting its history,” Doulcier says. “We organize expositions for example or produce video interviews with former winners. We also are in the midst of creating a museum close to the [Roubaix] Velodrome. We have 351 paying members from 17 countries. Some of the former winners are honorary members, like Gilbert Duclos-Lasalle, Marc Madiot, and John Degenkolb.”

Degenkolb is an ambassador after he saved the junior men’s race a couple of years ago. As a thank-you gift for his financial support, the sector in Hornaing – the longest in both the men’s and women’s races – is now named after the 2015 winner. He also contributed items to the organization’s collection.

The Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix organization is run by volunteers only and its most visible objective is restoring the cobbles every year. Over half of the annual budget goes towards this goal.

“We partner with the schools in Raismes and Lille but also with race organizer ASO and the organization of all the local villages united in Porte de Hainaut,” Doulcier continues. “All in all, we have about 100 kilometers of pavé we look after. That’s more than we have in the race [about 55 km for the men and 30 km for the women – ed.] but that gives the organizers options for courses.” 

Those 100 kilometres are not all being maintained by Les Amis every year because that would be impossible. They focus on about 60 kilometres of road. Then another 35 kilometres is maintained by the regional government of the Nord department which has a budget for these roadworks. The remaining handful of kilometres of the world famous Trouée d’Arenberg is maintained by the French state. 

“The Trouée d’Arenberg is owned by the French government because it is in a state forest,” Doulcier says. “It also played an important role in French history [created in the time of Napoleon two centuries ago – ed.] so if we look at it, all the citizens of France own a small part of the Trouée d’Arenberg,” he adds with a broad smile. 

It’s impossible to repair all the damaged sectors every year but that is also not the objective of Les Amis. 

“No, we focus on the roads that are damaged the most on the race course,” he says. “We do the work about a month before the race day. We work with the students but also with our own volunteers. We focus on those places that are dangerous like potholes and deep ruts.

“The race in itself is hard enough and making it too hard will cause certain high-level riders to evade the race altogether. We need to find a balance between hard and too hard or dangerous. In total we do about 1,500 square metres of work every year.” 

Because most of the sectors are roads between two villages it’s a bit of a no-man’s-land in terms of local and regional councils’ financial responsibility. The councils know where to find Doulcier and his organization and inform him of places in need of repair work; work they don’t always have the budget for. 

After the work on the actual cobbles Doulcier and his organization have another important job. They are in charge of the trophies, arguably the most coveted in the world of cycling.

“We also source the trophy cobbles,” Doulcier says. “There is a good collection at my home. I wash them and polish them a bit and then they are put on their bases. You need the granite ones that come from the quarries in Brittany.” 

Some Paris-Roubaix cobbles are also made of sandstone but they are not hard enough and don’t have the right shape to be used as a trophy.

“It’s new that we now have smaller trophies for the other riders on the podium because ASO found that being on the podium of this race is often a monumental moment in a rider’s career as well that deserves a memento,” Doulcier adds.

Sadly, it’s not only Les Amis sourcing cobbles. A lot of the repair work the organization does is to fill the spaces where cobbles have been stolen as a keepsake.

“That’s a huge problem now and it happens more and more,” Doulcier continues. “They do it all year round on the most famous sectors at Arenberg, Mons-en-Pévèle, and Carrefour de l’Arbre. We spend a lot of time bringing in new cobbles to repair it. Sadly, they also steal cobbles the night before the race and that’s really bad. It causes dangerous situations for the riders or can cause punctures. It’s stupid behavior.” 

If you want to support the work of Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix and help preserve the heritage of the race, you can become a member from €20 per year. “We already have 10 American members but more are always welcome,” Doulcier says with a laugh.

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