This review was written for www.pezcyclingnews.com
Greg Lemond famously said about cycling:” It doesn’t get any easier. You just get faster.” And for a sport that values the ability to suffer, the least easy of all races is Paris-Roubaix, variously feted as “the Queen of the Classics” and cursed as “the Hell of the North.” In 2006, L’Équipe published a gorgeous history of the race and it is this book, in an excellent idiomatic English translation by cycling historian David Herlihy, that has now been published by VeloPress. Compared to the vast tide of books about the Tour de France, this one appears to be the only substantial work in English about Paris-Roubaix, in spite of the race’s legendary status. This in itself merits its inclusion on a cyclist’s bookshelf, but the book has intrinsic qualities that make it a must-have.
Paris-Roubaix is a throwback to another age. When it began in 1896, the velodrome ruled the land and road races were the exception: difficult to organize and with only a few racers, unable to compete for the rich prizes of the tracks, available to participate. To enliven proceedings, some velodrome owners promoted road races to end at their tracks. This was the case of Paris-Roubaix, and at the first race was so novel and popular that part of the grandstand collapsed under the weight of spectators. The winner, the German strongman Josef Fischer, completed the race at an average of over 30 km/h. So this race had everything: an international field, a challenging route and an exciting sprint finish. It has gone from strength to strength as the other classics from that year (Paris-Mons? Paris-Royan? Bordeaux-Paris?) are long gone, along with most of the velodromes. This book covers the race from its beginnings, a time when cobblestones were commonplace and men and bikes seemed to have been made of iron, to today’s carbon-fiber age but the race has always been brutally hard, a merciless test of men and equipment.
The authors have approached the race in a clever and unusual fashion. Rather than following a chronology, the majority of the eleven chapters of Paris-Roubaix: A Journey Through Hell are divided into different aspects of the race These include: the cobblestones themselves; the impact of the weather; messed-up finishes; unexpected winners; the Roubaix velodrome; and a brilliant chapter devoted to the effects of getting a flat tire. There is a gallery of the most celebrated winners and the whole book is stuffed with marvellous photos taken from the archives of L’Équipe. There appear to have been photographers present at every dramatic crash, or else there are always so many crashes that you just have to stand around and wait.
The race has attracted cycling’s greatest figures, who seem to have always had a love-hate relationship. Bernard Hinault felt that Paris-Roubaix was a ridiculous race, a lottery where chance ruled but he knew that posterity demanded that he win Paris-Roubaix. He did it in convincing fashion in 1981, wearing the rainbow jersey of the World Champion, and crushing five opponents (four of them previous P-R winners!) in the final sprint at the velodrome. Although the race counts several other Tour de France victors among its winners, including Garin, Lapize Coppi and Merckx, it is more notable for its special “hard men,” who have specialized in beating the cobbles, such as four-time winner Roger de Vlaeminck, three-time champion Francesco Moser and the indomitable Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle, who participated in the race seventeen times, finally winning on the 14th attempt and repeating the following year. Their stories are all told in loving detail in this book.
Details indeed. For example, there is a section recounting how Jean Stablinski, a former World Champion, suggested a particular section of cobbles to the race organizers and the famous Wallers-Arenberg stretch, a positively medieval piece of road, was added in 1968. The modernization of France meant the removal or paving over the cobbles that are such a characteristic (and feared) part of the race and by 1968 the race against time was on as the countryside was scoured to find more cobbled roads. At its lowest point in 1965, the Queen of the North had only some 22 kms of cobblestones in its 294 km route. Today efforts have been made to protect and preserve the famous roads and the pros can look forward to more than 50 kms of pavé in twenty-six sections. And the mud and the dust are with us always.
And the people who protect and preserve the roads are the subject of the last chapter, “The Angels of Hell.” Described as the “guardians of the temple,” these include journalists, fans and even the artist, who painted 12 kilometers of cobbles (using 18 tons of paint) as a work of art and a tribute in 1986. This is the kind of insight so lovingly presented in Paris-Roubaix: A Journey through Hell. There is no reference to the amateur version of the ride, held in September rather than in the third week of April as is the pro race, but the Everyman participants in that ride are given a piece of pavé when they reach the velodrome in Roubaix as a memento, echoing pro cycling’s most cherished trophy, the single cobblestone mounted on a plaque, that goes to Cycling’s Strongest Man every Spring. A beautiful book about a beautiful race.
(note: all photos courtesy of VeloPress)
Paris-Roubaix: A Journey Through Hell
by Philippe Bouvet, Pierre Callewaert, Jean-Luc Gatellier and Serge Laget
trans. by David Herlihy
VeloPress, 2007hardcover, 224 pp., $39.95