Paris-Roubaix is one of the 5 classic cycling ‘monuments’, with a rich history of heroism, derring-do, pain and drama.
The first race ran in 1896 – it was started by two Roubaix businessmen trying to drum up interest in a Velodrome they had just built there. That race was won by a German, Josef Fischer, with local hero Maurice Garin finishing third – although Garin did manage to win the 1897 race. The crowds in the Roubaix Velodrome were visibly shocked at the appearance of the riders caked in mud and grit.
The race now starts from Compiègne north of Paris but has always finished in the Velodrome at Roubaix. The course can vary slightly from year to year but is usually 250-260 km long and includes 50-55kms of cobbled road sections.
It’s these cobbled roads that give the race its legendary status. Rough and unpredictable at the best of times, the cobbles are greasy and slippery when wet and throw up blinding dust when dry. It means the best laid plans and tactics can go wrong instantly, teamwork is less predictable and its often individual acts of strength that win the race. They also make watching the race an intense and gripping experience.
The race is popularly known as ‘The Hell of the North’, which many people think refers to the hellish riding conditions – but the truth is somewhat more poignant. In 1919, after the horrors of the first world war, a group of race organisers set out by car from Paris to Roubaix, to see if the course was still viable. The scenes of utter desolation that confronted them led one of the party to declare that they had truly entered hell.
Nonetheless the race went ahead in 1919, with the winner Henri Pélissier dedicating his victory to his fallen comrades.
By the 1960’s many of the cobbled roads were being resurfaced, and the cobbles began to disappear. Fearing for the future, followers of the race got on their bikes and hunted down little-known cobble roads to add to the route.
This eventually led to Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix in 1983, a group of enthusiasts determined to preserve the unique character of the race, and who still help to maintain vital sections of the course today. Their job has become easier with time – Alain Bernard, President of ‘Les Amis’ said in 2007:
“A few years ago, there was barely a village or an area that wanted anything to do with us. If Paris–Roubaix came their way, they felt they were shamed because we were exposing their bad roads. They went out and surfaced them, did all they could to obstruct us. Now they can’t get enough of us. I have mayors ringing me to say they’ve found another stretch of cobbles and would we like to use them.”
The gruelling course provides unique technical challenges and in recent years special Paris-Roubaix bikes have been constructed with strengthened frames, gears, wheels and tyres.
But the race remains a unique challenge calling for large amounts of skill, strength and fortune. Perhaps rider Sean Kelly best summed it up when he said “Paris-Roubaix is a horrible race to ride but the most beautiful one to win.”
You can take a look at our Paris-Roubaix shirts here.