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Lost Souls in a Storm: The Hell of the North

Words by @timbladon Photos by @pieter.vanhoorebeke.1

Easter, 1984. Maybe ’85. Half-term holiday with my parents. A Spanish hotel, a TV in the corner of the bar. A bike race, but not like any bike race I’d ever seen before. Not like those sunny Grand Tours scaling the snow-capped, sun-drenched peaks of the Alps; suntanned limbs and a carnival of colour. Shirtless Tifosi pouring Evian over dazzlingly white-socked continentals. No, this was dark, foreboding: crushed into the dour, bleak landscape by the leaden grey skies. Gripped by and pitched into a filthy quagmire. Lost souls in a storm. Attrition.

This was Paris Roubaix. This was something entirely different.  

Paris-Roubaix: La Pascale. The Easter Race. The Hell of the North. 260km of either dust-cloud or slurry, dependent upon weather: a meteorological serendipity that will sharply split racer and roadside observer’s opinion. A ‘Classic Edition’, etc. Unless you’re King Kelly. He Feckin’ loved the rain.

Paris-Roubaix-Bike-Race.jpg

From the outskirts of elegant old Paris to the drab industrialism of Northern France as it butts up against the Belgian border; spit the dust and grime from your tongue as you slump in the old velodrome and you’ll almost hit Wevelgem, Harelbeke. The race’s birth certificate may say France but there’s Flemish blood running thick in its veins. Roubaix: In the north-eastern sprawl of Lille. Roubaix: Grey, drab. Even on race day Sunday there is nothing, its streets mostly deserted. You wouldn’t even know anything was happening. Not a place you would ever visit if it were not for this Brothers Grimm fairytale of a race, brutally enchanting its devotees and mesmerising its would-be winners across the millennia and generations.

Paris-Roubaix rattles and crashes through farmland and over coal seams upon some of the most iconic and fastidiously unkempt roads in all of cycle sport. Roads in name, barely cart-track in nature. The Cobbles: Fractured, pitted, violent. The awful heart of Paris-Roubaix. The amount dwindling over the years due to road network modernisation but still some 50-odd kilometres of bone splintering cobbles.

Riding the Paris Roubaix

You want to know how brutal they really are? No. I’ll tell you how ridiculous they are. You would not ride your bike over these anonymous stretches of agricultural access land, the mythical, eulogised, legendary cobbles, if it were not for this madness of a race. You would unclip after 20 metres, peer ahead and weigh up how far this horrible non-surface lasted, check your destination against the map and find a road that wasn’t going to leave you with a shattered wheel and the feeling you’d just had your head kicked in. You see that wheelbarrow or two’s worth of red brick-ends and smashed in old masonry strewn across the inside of that corner there? That’s a repair, not a blemish.

“Hit them fast – no, real fast - and right on the crown, dead centre,” they said; “it’s the only way. You have to float over them, big-ring, keep it smooth and Keep. The. Power. ON”. Yeh – you just see how that goes in practice. You do not float over them. You are pummelled, shaken to the core; your chain thrown, shades lost to your spokes. You lurch and bounce in and out of ruts and craters as if on a hexagonal wheeled clown’s bike. You are petrified of the noises coming from your bike. You pull up. And, if it’s recon day on the Thursday and Friday before the race, you might just be lucky enough to hear a rattling thunder approaching from behind as one of the professional teams whip past: Real fast, on the crown, the power on – floating over them.

Still, on race day you’ll see fear in their eyes. Not ‘performance anxiety’; we can all feel that. Performance anxiety is ‘I hope my PowerPoint doesn’t crash in front of the boss’; Fear is knowing that out there on those cobbles, things are more likely to go terribly wrong than right, and that the dice are so obviously loaded against you that the only sane choice would be to retreat back to your hotel, and watch the disaster unfold behind the protective down of your duvet.