Project Diabolique: Paris-Roubaix Is All Grown Up

Words by Jen See | Photos: Kristof Ramon; Courtesy

The official website for Paris-Roubaix describes the race as striking a balance between tradition and modernity. This modern word, do they know what it means? People, there is nothing modern about racing bicycles over bread-loaf sized cobbles. If this is modern, my car is a jetpack.

Paris-Roubaix dates back to the beginning of cycling time, which is quite a bit shorter than geological time, but longer than dog years. The race’s first edition took place in 1896, and its inventors, Théodore Vienne and Maurice Pérez, conceived it as a training race for the then-prestigious Bourdeaux-Paris race.

In pitching Paris-Roubaix, Vienne and Pérez suggested their new race would serve as a “baby toy” for the riders hoping to succeed at the rather ridiculously lengthy Bourdeaux-Paris. The cycling magazine, Vélo (that accent on the é is especially important here) stepped up to the challenge of organizing the cobbley toy.

And so Victor Breyer, the poor suck from Vélo, charged with course reconnaissance, headed out to scout the route. Breyer spent a day in the rain on the pavé, and came home convinced that the race was a really rotten, no-good, stupid idea. Enough with this “project diabolique!” he reportedly exclaimed. Feel free to imagine that he threw his bike in the nearest ditch. It only seems right.

Diabolique: it sounds so much better in French than it could ever sound in English. Breyer’s bosses ignored his pleas, and the first edition of Paris-Roubaix ran in 1896. Josef Fischer won the day solo after nine hours of racing over 280 kilometers.

These days, the race’s first major selection happens in the Trouée d’Arenberg, that infinitely long forested stretch of cobbles that arrives around 100 kilometers to go. The Arenberg was discovered in the 1960’s by Jean Stablinski. It was just sitting there waiting to be discovered, waiting to become a big star.

The Arenberg, it goes on and on and on. The road that follows is a revelation: So smooth, this road, the bikes roll so easy, like marbles on a glass table. There is always a regrouping on that smooth road that follows the Arenberg, but it never lasts long. For there’s barely enough time to breathe before the next sectors of cobbles.

When you paddle out to surf the winter swells, the waves travel from the North Pacific in sets of ten or twelve. They roll down the point, inexorable like a freight train and nearly as loud. You can hear the size before you see it, and behind the first wave, there’s always another. The next one is always bigger. Take a deep breath, paddle for the horizon, hold on tight.

Riding the cobbles is a little like that. There’s a fierce battle for positioning before each sector. Get caught too far back, and be prepared to take a beating. Take a deep breath. The impact is relentless. The bike wants to escape the planet, to break free from gravity. Hold on, pedal hard, push through. Then, at last, breathe.

The Pont-Gibus returns after a four-year absence as the first sector to follow the Trouée d’Arenberg. Gilbert Duclos Lassalle earned the title “Gibus,” because he picked this impossibly difficult spot to attack, despite the apparent impossibility of success. He won his first Paris-Roubaix at age 38 and his second, at 39.

Another new sector — the word “new” is something like the world “modern” — comes not far from the finish. The 3.7 kilometer stretch between Hornaing to Wandignies is the longest of the race. The five-start Mons-en-Pévèle comes next, followed by the often decisive Carrefour de l’Arbe. In 2009, Thor Hushovd crashed at Carrefour de l’Arbe as Boonen rode away to a solo victory.

Paris-Roubaix is a race where luck is queen. Race favorites do not always win, and a relatively unknown rider sometimes reaches the velodrome first. Four-time winner Tom Boonen is out of the running after a crash ended his classics season. He stands equal with Roger De Vlaeminck on victories, though try if you can to get De Vlaeminck to admit it.

Bernard Hinault denied De Vlaeminck a victory in 1981. Really, they don’t make riders like this anymore, the riders who won the grand tours and the cobbled classics. Hinault, he was badass. But Paris-Roubaix was not his favorite race, though he won it by outsprinting a group of six that included De Vlaeminck.

According to legend, Hinault climbed off the bike at the finish, said, “this is bullshit,” and swore he’d never ride Paris-Roubaix again. Of course, Hinault did ride it in subsequent years, though he only won in Roubaix on that one occasion.

After his smashing of the Ronde van Vlaanderen, Fabian Cancellara ought to be the favorite for Paris-Roubaix. But the crashing that stopped Boonen’s classics season has proven contagious. Cancellara has crashed twice since the Ronde: First during the midweek Scheldeprijs, then during a training recon on the pavé. Still, I wouldn’t bet against him — not even a beer among friends.

Outside the favorites there sits a stack of riders who could win with the right combination of luck, legs, and tactics. Johann Vansummeren is the most recent such winner: A strong rider who made the right late-race break, Vansummeren won in 2011 with his team captain behind him. Paris-Roubaix likes to overturn the best-laid plans.

Sylvain Chavanel, Jurgen Roelandts, Greg Van Avermaet, Lars Boom, Sebastian Langeveld: In truth, there are too many to name. All strong, and all capable of crossing the line as a surprise winner in the Roubaix velodrome, that magic space that echos with the sounds of races past and present.

No longer a training race or a baby’s toy bunny, Paris-Roubaix is all grown up now. It ranks as one of the most difficult one-day races in cycling. It’s both modern and ancient, if modern means carbon bikes with all the fixings, and ancient means the stones passing beneath the riders’ feet.

There’s no formula to winning, no connect-the-dots map that leads to triumph in the Roubaix velodrome.

The trick is to keep breathing.

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