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Photo Essay: The brutal reality of Paris-Roubaix

In-depth
1 Oct 2021
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Words: Joe Robinson

If you really want a sense of just how insane the whole concept of Paris-Roubaix actually is, just try explaining it to somebody who doesn't know cycling...

...So, yeah, 200 or so guys will ride at over 40kmh for about six hours to cover the 250km route from Compiegne to this little industrial town in northern France called Roubaix, which in itself isn't really its own town, but more just a suburb of Lille.

Then, at 29 different points along the way, they will all be forced to ride their £12,000 bikes on their skinny tyres and rigid frames over these cobbled farm roads that were laid in the era of Napoleon.

And I'm not talking about the cobbles you find in Covent Garden, no, I'm talking about stones so severe that they could shake out the bottom of your car if you are not careful.

Each section of pavé will see guys sprinting as fast as they can into it as the front is the safest place to be and it's easier to ride the stones at speed. It causes this crazy surge which means they are usually hitting the cobbles at closer to 50kmh despite the road being pan-flat.

As soon as you hit the cobbles, they come at you like a series of punches. Left, right, up, down, you get hit from every angle and all you can do is just keep pedalling as hard as possible till you get to the finish.

One of the sectors, called the Arenberg Forrest, was so dangerous that they had to relay the cobbles and fill the gaps with cement to stop people crashing so much.

It doesn't really matter what line you take, it hurts like hell and will give your hands huge blisters and your arms will ache for days after.

Your chance of puncturing is higher than in any other race, as is the chance of you falling off or crashing into another rider. Also, every year fans pray to the weather gods for copious amounts of rain the day before and the day of the race so that it makes it even harder for the riders and, who knows, it may cause some gnarly crashes.

The guy who wins gets given a massive cobble for winning and instantly becomes a legend in the sport. Some guys cross the finish line an hour after the winner, having long been disqualified, just to say they'd reached the end. 

It usually helps if you're from Belgium because you will have spent your whole childhood riding on cobblestones and you probably won't win if you're from Spain but the Italians tend to do ok.

Every year riders complain about how hard and brutal the race is, yet every year they come back for more, like a skinny bunch of sadomasochists who want to inflict unrelenting pain on themselves for no real reason at all.

Like Theo de Rooij who was going to win in 1985 before a crash on the cobbles put an end to his chances. At the finish he told TV cameras: 'It's a bollocks, this race! You're working like an animal, you don't have time to piss, you wet your pants. You're riding in mud like this, you're slipping ... it’s a pile of shit.'

But then when he was asked if he would turn up next year, De Rooij replied calmly, 'Sure, it's the most beautiful race in the world.'

Oh, and by the way, the race is 125 years old and only now do we get to see a women's race. 

In the end, explaining the race tells of a pretty harrowing experience but pictures tell the story far better. So here are 30 of the best images from Paris-Roubaix.

Paris-Roubaix by pictures