Book Review: Paris-Roubaix: A Journey Through Hell By Josh Liberles
Paris-Roubaix: The Past Inspires Greatness
When the peloton leaves the capital and heads north, it traverses the industrial suburbs where smokestacks abound. But it's Sunday and no one's working today: “Pass in peace gentleman, you have enough to deal with in Hell...
Paris-Roubaix. So iconic is this 112 year-old race that when a local group ride encounters even a moderately rough patch of pavement, someone is bound to gleefully conjure up its name and briefly envision hurtling along the course of this queen of one day races, the “classic of the classics.”
The 2008 edition of Paris-Roubaix takes place this coming Sunday, April 13th. Nothing will get you pumped and primed for the upcoming race, as well as for a new season of bike riding, like Velo Press' recently released Paris-Roubaix: A Journey Through Hell.
Both new and archived stories from the writers of the French sporting gazette, L'Equipe, comprise the book. The oversized coffee table presentation compiles a stunning array of images to deliver the course's twists, turns, bumps, and grit and the racers' swings from dedication to desperation to exhilaration – and everything in between. Although the chapters do cover the unusual history of the event, more importantly they keep alive the elements of folklore and poetry that are Paris-Roubaix.
It's always the same: he forgets all the wrongs the race did to him, because of all the good. Because of the intense excitement he felt when he bounded into the light of the velodrome, by the fluorescent carpet of the grass that pierced his eyes.
Modern promoters would never get away with instituting this murderous race course, appropriately dubbed the “Hell of the North.” It perseveres precisely because of its storied history. It is the one truly “over the top” event that continues on the pro cycling calendar.
When the race began in 1896, the 280 kilometer course was notable for its brevity in a time when road events were in the 600 km range. The finish line was placed in a velodrome in an attempt to ride on the coattails of the much more popular track racing scene. The brutally punishing cobbled sections of road, which have become the symbol of the race, were the norm of the day.
As progress paved over the cobbles of northern France, just as it did the dirt roads of the Tour de France's alpine passes, the race became faster and less distinctive: another flat, fast spring classic. In the late 1960's, race organizers and residents of the Roubaix region realized they were sacrificing part of the race's, and the region's, character. They sought out new segments and unearthed sections of road long forgotten to assemble the crux of the modern course: 26 sectors of pavé (cobblestones) totaling about 55km joined by stretches of asphalt.
These back roads of the North, which sink to the level of the fields and are sometimes buried by thick earth, are the vestiges of another time.
Weather is typically a decisive factor in the event: with either dry, dusty and blinding conditions or wet, sloppy, and muddy tracks through an invisible road. The one thing that seems to be a constant is the winds. Echelons are continually forming and repositioning at every turn as the peloton is ripped apart and the front groups whittled down. Racers fight for the few good lines through the cobbled sections and battle to constantly stay towards the front. The race, perhaps more so than any other, is a war and the language of the event has come to reflect this: “attacks,” “trench,” “breach,” and “chaos.”
Paris-Roubaix thrives on its nuances and inevitabilities. During dry years, dust is at play. During the damp years, preferred by the public, the puddles become cursed ponds and mud a sinister pitfall. But rain or shine, the Hell is always there because of the cobblestones, the crashes, the mechanical mishaps, the wind, and that disagreeable constant known as the puncture.
The variable early-spring weather, coupled with its grueling pavé sections and its location in an industrial section of France, conspire to make Paris-Roubaix the ultimate blue-collar, hard-man's race. Since the birth of the event, many of the fans were workers, weavers, and peasants from the north who identified with the race and called it their own. They appreciated the difficult conditions the racers needed to overcome with hard work in order to merely finish, let alone prevail.
Paris-Roubaix: A Journey Through Hell is a celebration of the most famous of races, as well as of a beautiful sport that's been around long enough to have talented authors gloriously sing its praises and deify its participants. Revel with the greats - De Vlaeminck, Merckx, and Kelly, but, more importantly, celebrate the everyman-racer plowing through the trenches and, occasionally, getting a taste of the ultimate glory in the velodrome at Roubaix.
As winter begins to subside in the United States, slower in some parts than others, cyclists balance their burning desires to get out on their bikes with their fears of inclement weather. If you need motivation to tackle a sloppy spring, look no further than this book. Remember to tune into the Paris-Roubaix race coverage and celebrate its modern day heroes campaigning in this glorious, anachronistic event.