“cycling’s last folly” – Jacques Goddet former organiser of Paris Roubaix
Paris Roubaix is cycling’s most prestigious classic, with a rich history of great victories and painful defeats. It is probably the most grueling race in the pro cycling calendar and for this reason is venerated as the ‘Queen of the classics’
History of Paris Roubaix
Paris Roubaix was first run in 1896 when most of the roads from Paris to Roubaix were unkempt and cobbled. The inspiration for the race came from two industrialists Théo Vienne and Maurice Perez, who wished to publicise the new cycling track they had built in Roubaix. At the time Roubaix was at its height of industrial power; Vienne and Perez built the track with their profits. They hoped that Paris Roubaix would match other famous races like Bordeaux Paris and Paris – Brest Paris.
The first race was run on Easter Sunday, and this encountered opposition from the local clergy who opposed racing on Sunday. But, a compromise was reached with a special mass for cyclists; the race started and in the first year was won by Josef Fischer a German – in a time of over 9 hours 17 minutes.
Traditionally, the race is held every April and is often referred to as “La Pascale” because of its Easter roots.
The route of Paris Roubaix used to simply follow the main road from Paris to Lille. But, over the twentieth century, improvements to the road surfaces meant that the race was beginning to lose its characteristic cobbles or ‘pave’ in French. Therefore, there have been frequent revisions to the route, with the organisers sending the race zig zagging through the various sections of cobbles that remain. Because of this the start was moved 40 miles to the north of Paris to Compiegne.
The race also passes through many former battlefield sites. The first few editions after the first world war were particularly evocative – for the ‘hell of the north’ was matched by the ‘hell of the countryside’ with its many reminders of the former conflict, such as trenches, shell holes and a devastated landscape.
Route of Paris Roubaix
The key point in the races are the pave sections, especially the extended part through the Foret de Wallers Arneberg and the Carrefour de L’Arbe. The carrefour is the last and longest section of 4km and also runs slightly uphill.
There is often fierce competition amongst the riders to be in the leading 20 or so riders before the race hits the pave section. Crashes are frequent and riding at the back of the bunch means you can easily lose contact with the leaders, making it almost impossible to regain contact.
Why is Paris Roubaix Held in such High Regard?
“There are just three races in the season. Paris Roubaix, the Tour de France and the World Championship.” – Greg Le Mond.
- Difficult conditions. Snow, rain can make the cobbles treacherous, making the pave like a skating rink.
- Frequent crashes
- Hardmen of the Peleton. In recent years Paris Roubaix has favoured the older more experienced riders in the peloton. It is rarely a race that can be won by a promising newcomer. To do well in Paris Roubaix requires great stamina, perseverance, skill and endurance (and a bit of luck)
- A throwback to cycling’s past. Riding on the pave and finishing on the velodrome in Roubaix evokes many memories of the early cycling races. It has tried to stick to its routes whilst many other races have evolved onto better roads.
- Great Champions. Although Tour de France favourites no longer ride Paris Roubaix. Many great champions of the past have won at Paris Roubaix. – Eddy Merckx, Bernaud Hinault (who admitted he loathed the race) Fausto Coppi, Johan Museeuw, Rick van Looy, Francesco Moser, Sean Kelly.
Bikes for Paris Roubaix
Because of the difficult nature of riding on the cobbles. (Some riders compare it to riding with a pneumatic drill- tenditis is a common ailment after the race) Riders have sought to make adjustments to their bikes to deal with the terrain. These adjustments include:
- Extra tape on handlebars.
- Extra thick cycling shorts
- Cyclo Cross style brakes to avoid getting clogged with mud
- Front Fork suspension.
- Fatter tyres with slightly less air in than usual.
Whatever happens Paris Roubaix is also a nightmare for mechanics who have to completely strip a bike and degrease it after a race
Strange Incidents in Paris Roubaix
1949. – The leading 3 cyclists were sent the wrong way by a judge who was directing cars away from the velodrome. To get onto the track 2 cyclists ended up coming through a press box to get onto the track. The Sprint was won by Andre Mahe. The chasing group tried to protest that Mahe had taken the wrong route, but, their protest was not taken up.
Film of Paris Roubaix
In 1976 the race was videod and made into a film – Sunday in Hell. The film took close up shots of the cyclists and cobbles; it tried to offer an artistic interpretation for the suffering that the cyclists had to go through. The 1976 race featured Eddy Merckx, Joop Zoetemelk
Great Champions of Paris Roubaix
Roger de Vlaeminck
One of the great champions of Paris Roubaix was Roger de Vlaeminck. Nicknamed the ‘gypsy’ Roger was one of the toughest cyclists. He was adept at bike handling, having been a great cyclo cross champion. He was dominate throughout the period 1969 and 1982, where he missed only 1 race, winning 4 times and coming second four times.
- Rik Van Looy, 3 times
- Octave Lapize 3 times
- Francesco Moser 3 times
Picture of Sean Kelly, Paris – Roubaix San Diego Bicycle club