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Gallery: The hellish history of Paris-Roubaix

In-depth
9 Apr 2020
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With no Paris-Roubaix in 2020, we thought it best to remember last year's race and when we dispatched photographer Benedict Campbell to capture the 'Hell of the North' through his unique perspective.

Accompanying these magnificent images, the words of Giles Belbin, as he retells the rich history of this racing spectacle.

Words Giles Belbin Photography Benedict Campbell

Of all the expected events that can conspire against a rider trying to win Paris-Roubaix, misleading directions given by a gendarme would be low on the list.

A puncture or poor weather, a broken bike or a crash – these are perhaps to be expected. But a policeman pointing you in the wrong direction? Not so much.

Yet that was exactly what happened to France’s André Mahé in 1949.

The race had been billed as a showdown between Fausto Coppi, winner of Milan-San Remo the previous month, and defending champion Rik Van Steenbergen.

‘The Paris-Roubaix of the century’ claimed the papers, but as it turned out the two men negated each other, and with the town of Roubaix approaching Mahé was at the head of the race alongside Frans Leenen and Jésus Moujica.

As the velodrome loomed Mahé saw a gendarme pointing directions. ‘That was the way I went,’ Mahé reflected 50 years later.

He had held a slender lead and Leenen and Moujica duly followed, but the gendarme’s directions had been meant for the cars and motorbikes following the race, not the riders.

Instead of sprinting onto the track hell-bent on victory, the three leaders found themselves outside a wall on the wrong side of the velodrome amid all the press cars. A frantic Mahé finally found an entrance only to find it led to the press tribunes.

Pursued by Leenen (in the chaos Moujica had already fallen and broken a pedal), Mahé shouldered his bike, made his way through the seats and onto the track, before remounting and crossing the line ahead of Leenen.

As Mahé celebrated so the large chasing group came in, led by Serse Coppi, Fausto’s brother.

A protest was immediately lodged by Serse Coppi, who claimed that Mahé had not completed the route and so couldn’t be declared the winner. Mahé was disqualified and the win awarded to Serse. Days later Mahé was reinstated.

Appeals were raised and months of deliberation followed. It was farcical. Fausto Coppi, the sport’s greatest star, made thinly veiled threats that if UCI didn’t find in his brother’s favour he would never ride the race again.

In the end, the UCI fudged it and declared Mahé and Coppi joint winners.

‘I felt like a condemned man,’ Mahé told author Les Woodland. ‘I ended up having to justify myself, even though all I’d done was follow the way I’d been directed.’

Battle between titans

Fausto Coppi returned the following year and put on a show, attacking at Arras and striking out alone with 45km still to ride.

Coppi, a man normally seen gliding gracefully up Alpine climbs, was now cruising over the cobblestones of northern France. His winning margin was over two minutes from Maurice Diot who exclaimed, ‘I’ve won!’ when he crossed the line.

When it was pointed out that Coppi had already finished, Diot merely said, ‘Coppi was in a different race. I feel I have won.’

Van Steenbergen had trailed in nine minutes down, but two years later he and Coppi would finally go head-to-head on the pavé, duelling over the final 20km of the race.

Coppi knew he’d have no chance in a sprint so threw everything he had at the Belgian, all to no avail. Afterwards the victorious but distressed Van Steenbergen, dead-eyes set into a dirt-encrusted face, admitted that just one more burst from Coppi would have cracked him.

‘I was very tired,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t take it anymore.’

That battle between Van Steenbergen and Coppi marked the 50th anniversary of a race that had first been devised by two businessmen, Théodore Vienne and Maurice Perez, who had opened a velodrome in Roubaix the previous year and, with the support of the Paris-Vélo journal, designed a road race that would finish on their track.

Among the riders that assembled at the Café Gillet on the northern fringes of Bois de Boulogne in Paris on 19th April 1896 was Britain’s long-distance specialist, Arthur Linton. He actually led the race alongside Germany’s Josef Fischer until he collided with a dog just outside Amiens and broke his bike.

Linton eventually mounted another machine and came in fourth. Meanwhile Fischer rode to a 25-minute victory, despite encountering an escaped horse and a herd of cows on the road, to enter the books as the first winner of Paris-Roubaix.

At that time, Paris-Roubaix was ridden in the shadow of pacers who led the way on bicycles, motorbikes and even automobiles. It wasn’t to everyone’s liking.

‘With all these coaches the risk of crashes is increased,’ said Octave Lapize, the first three-time winner of the race. ‘I put myself in the wake of others, taking care to open my eyes wide.’

Pacing was finally scrapped in 1910.

Courage and strength

Over the next 100 years, the legend of Paris-Roubaix was shaped and magnified as fans flocked to see cycling’s gladiators do battle in the harshest of arenas.

I first went to watch Paris-Roubaix in 2012, one of a van-load of friends that had congregated at 2am on a Sunday in April bound for France.

We drove over the cobblestone roads that day, the van rocking and rolling, bucking like a rodeo horse. How could anyone race a bike over such roads?

Later we stood on the five-starred Carrefour de l’Arbre pavé sector and watched Tom Boonen blaze past in a haze of dust.

‘I was just fighting myself,’ Boonen said afterwards. ‘I was taking it step by step, cobblestone by cobblestone, kilometre by kilometre.’

Boonen equalled Roger De Vlaeminck’s record of four wins that day, but it is De Vlaeminck who’s known as ‘Monsieur Paris-Roubaix’. And for good reason – in 14 starts he finished in the top three no fewer than nine times.

After De Vlaeminck secured his final win in 1977, Eddy Merckx remarked that it was ‘as if he knew the position of every single cobble’.

It was said that De Vlaeminck’s wheels remained as good as new while everyone else’s had to be thrown away, such was his mastery of the race.

That enough sectors of cobbles remain in good enough repair to send professional cyclists over every year is testimony to the work of Les Amis de Paris–Roubaix, an association of volunteers formed in 1982.

François Doulcier has been the president of Les Amis since 2011. For Doulcier, the race has always been special, having first watched it on television in Paris when he was just 10 years old and later riding a bike over the cobbles himself.

‘I watched the Tour de France and other races, but Paris-Roubaix was the most interesting one for me,’ says Doulcier. ‘It was very spectacular.’

Les Amis organise their year-round efforts alongside construction companies and schools.

‘It is very important work because with no cobbles there is no race,’ continues Doulcier. ‘It is very important for the region. It is our identity. To ride on the cobblestone sectors you have to be courageous, you have to be strong, and the people of the north of France recognise this in themselves.

‘It resembles the characteristics of the people. The people of northern France are very strong, courageous and hard-working and it is the same for [the riders in] Paris-Roubaix.’

Doulcier says that the reputation of Paris-Roubaix has changed for the better over the past 30 years or so.

‘It was considered a very old race, the image was not good because it was not up to date. Now we have a modern image. This image of the “Hell of the North” was once very bad, but now it is a positive.

‘It is important that we have a good selection of cobbled sectors that challenge the riders, but only in their physical capacities. We don’t need crashes or punctures, we don’t need potholes. I often say: the cobblestones are hard enough for the riders.’

The least predictable race

Of course, a mechanical or a fall can still end a rider’s dream of entering the Roubaix velodrome alone or ready for a sprint to glory. But that is what makes it such a fascinating spectacle.

Paris-Roubaix is a highly tactical race of attrition like no other – the Grand National of bike racing where ill fortune as much as fatigue can wreck months of careful planning and training.

The relentless onslaught of the pavé – the 2019 race had 54.5km spread across 29 sectors – thins the field with no remorse, leaving only the strong, the courageous and the lucky still standing.

Some of the sport’s greatest ever performances have come during Paris-Roubaix, including Bernard Hinault’s seven-crash thriller in the rainbow jersey in 1981, a race that Doulcier says is his favourite Roubaix memory, reflecting, ‘He was a great winner.’

Hinault famously declared the race ‘bullshit’ that day despite his win. Two years later he abandoned at Valenciennes, reacting furiously when the fans at the roadside booed.

‘He lifted his bike,’ reported the Dutch daily Leidsch Dagblad, ‘threw it at the feet of a spectator and shouted wildly: “Please, just try it for yourself.”’

Dutch rider Hennie Kuiper had his own challenges that day, chasing back following a crash and two punctures before riding into the velodrome alone to win by over a minute. ‘The best win of my career,’ he said.

And that is Paris-Roubaix in nutshell. Heaven and Hell rolled into one, its imperfections making it perfect.

‘It is bollocks, this race,’ Dutch pro Theo De Roojj once told CBS. ‘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 piece of shit. Sure I’ll be back. It’s the most beautiful race in the world.’