The Surprising History of Paris–Roubaix


, by Max Leonard

Paris-Roubaix 2021. Photography by: A.S.O. / Pauline_Ballet

Paris–Roubaix is many cycling fans’ favorite of the Monuments – the great one-day Classic races that open and close the road cycling season in Europe. Known for the unique chaos of its pavés – stretches of often poorly maintained cobblestone farm tracks winding through the fields and forests of northern France – Paris–Roubaix demands daring, strength, and luck. At any moment a wrong move can lead to a race-ending fall, broken bones, and career-threatening injuries.

The birth of a legendary race

But it wasn’t always as feared as it is today. Indeed, in 1896, the first Paris–Roubaix was, at ‘only’ 280km / 174 mi long, something of a warm-up event for the popular Bordeaux–Paris race. At twice the length, this 560km / 348 mi epic was much more typical of racing at the time. However, Roubaix’s popularity soon grew because of the prize pot and the dynamic and fast racing this ‘short’ course encouraged.

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Henri Desgrange, who seven years later founded the Tour de France signed up for this first edition, but did not take the start line (he would race in the second); at 5:30 a.m. on the 19th April, the starting gun was fired and the 51 competitors took off. Just over nine hours later, after traversing dirt roads, rutted, potholed tracks, and 50 km / 30 mi of cobbles, Josef Fischer, a German, won, inside the velodrome in Roubaix.

The pavés, though unique to this region, were not the worst surfaces those riders encountered: Tarmac, which would revolutionize roads, was not patented until 1901, and all “road” racing in those days took place on irregular and unpredictable surfaces. So, for Fischer and his rivals, it was business as usual.

Photography by: A.S.O. / Pauline_Ballet

The Hell of the North

It was only in 1919 that the Roubaix legend began to take hold. 1919 was the first edition after the devastation of the First World War. In five years since the previous much of northern France and Belgium had been reduced to a wasteland.

The war also exacted a heavy toll on the professional peloton. François Faber, a Luxembourgian rider who had won in Roubaix in 1913, as well as the 1909 Tour de France, had been killed in fighting near Arras in 1915; George Passerieu, winner in 1907, had been gassed in the Somme; and Paris–Roubaix’s big star, Octave Lapize, who won a hat-trick of races between 1909 and 1911, had been shot down and killed in a dogfight with the Germans in 1917.

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Nevertheless, there was a strong feeling that the show must go on, that normal life must, somehow, resume. So the organizers of the race dispatched a journalist and a famous rider, Eugène Christophe, in a car to survey the course. They returned with an image of absolute devastation. Cycling historian Les Woodland translates the report thus: “The countryside was nothing but desolation. The shattered trees looked vaguely like skeletons, the tracks had collapsed and been potholed or torn away by shells. The vegetation, rare, had been replaced by military vehicles in a pitiful state. The houses of villages were no more than bare walls. At their foot, heaps of rubble. Eugène Christophe exclaimed: ‘Here really is the Hell of the North.’”

The countryside was nothing but desolation. The shattered trees looked vaguely like skeletons, the tracks had collapsed and been potholed or torn away by shells... Here really is the Hell of the North

The race was resurrected, fittingly, on Easter Sunday 1919, and was won by Henri Pélissier, one of the only pre-war riders to start who had a new bike. Metal for bicycle frames and rubber for tires were in short supply, and, of the 139 riders who entered, 77 started and only 25 finished. Pélissier took a decisive lead when, with two other riders, he dismounted from his bike and climbed through a stationary train that was blocking their progress at a level crossing.

“This was not a race, it was a pilgrimage,” he said as he won.

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The post-war years

In the post-war years, many of the cobbled farm roads were improved and tarmacked over – civic pride and the need for people to get around trumped the demands of a once-a-year race that many locals felt showed the area was backward and needed modernizing. But this put Paris–Roubaix, now famed for its cobbles, in a difficult spot. As a result, the history of the race since the 1960s is of the race organizers drawing an increasingly sinuous path across the countryside in search of as many secteurs of pavé as possible.

Sonny Colbrelli won the last truly wet Paris-Roubaix in 2021. Photography by: A.S.O. / Fabien_Boukla

However, the epithet the ‘Hell of the North’ has stuck. Nowadays we use the phrase to describe the pounding of the cobbles on the riders’ bikes, bodies and minds, and of the infamous secteurs like the Arenberg Trench, an arrow-straight path of monstrous, misshapen stones through the Arenberg Forest. And we say it when, in those years when it rains, the riders slip and slide their way across the countryside, before emerging, clad in mud, to the deafening cheers of the crowds in the velodrome.

Paris–Roubaix 2021 was the last wet edition. That was won by Sonny Colbrelli – and Lizzie Deignan inscribed her name in history by winning the inaugural women’s race. Before that, the last Roubaix mudbath was in 2002. Many fans will be hoping that this year we will get another glimpse of the mud-covered racing of old, and the legend of the Hell of the North will be renewed once more.

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