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You’d have a job trying to explain the attraction of Paris – Roubaix to someone who is not a cycling fan. You’d not be alone in thinking this. The badger, Bernard Hinault famously said after winning the race that, ”Paris Roubaix est une connerie!”(Paris – Roubaix is bull****!).
Not unlike cities in the North of England, the North of France was an industrial heartland with coal mines and it enjoyed a boom in textile production in the 19th century. Nearby Cambrai is famous for its lace. The same economic decay that followed the decline in the cotton industry and mining in the North of England also took place in this part of France. There is that same post-industrial vibe that used to haunt much of the UK, before lots was regenerated. There are lots of disused concrete buildings and mining installations. I haven’t heard of the French version of New Order yet, but maybe that’s still to come. Point is that you’re not really there to take in the views either.
The reason for the enduring popularity of Paris – Roubaix is the challenge of taking on the cobbled roads and the finish on the outside Velodrome of Roubaix. We’re in French Flanders and anyone who is mad enough to take on these roads can call themselves a ‘Flandrien’. They call the event ‘The Hell of the North‘ and the ‘Queen of the Classics‘. Recent editions have however taken place in good weather conditions, and produced some very fast average speeds. Greg van Avermaet won the fastest Roubaix ever in 2017 at a 45km/h average speed. If I’m watching the event on TV, I’m always secretly hoping that it rains. Though that would, I admit, be less fun if I were riding it.
As with races in Belgium with their cobbled climbs, and ahead of hitting the Cipressa on Milan Sanremo, the riders jostle for position ahead of reaching cobbled sectors at Roubaix. The sound of 100 bikes hitting the Arenberg is absolutely incredible to witness from up close.
The Velodrome in Roubaix was named after Jean Stablinski. He was Anquetil’s master domestique and the son of a Polish miner. After falling out with Jacques he rode alongside, Mathieu van der Poel’s grandfather Raymond Poulidor. It was Stablinski who suggested putting the cobbled road through the Arenberg forest. Like the roads, the Velodrome at Roubaix has an uncomfortable feel about it. The concrete outdoor track and the showers are not what you’d call inviting. But, they have both ingrained themselves firmly into the history of the sport of road cycling. Traditionally. the winners of Roubaix are given a name plate on the shower cubicles. They are, you guessed it, made of concrete. In recent years less and less riders have chosen to make use of the showers. You can ride on the velodrome and have a shower here after the Roubaix Challenge.
At the end of Paris Roubaix the riders do two laps of the track. The arena is packed full of people and the atmosphere is electric. The experience is like a cold and damp version of being at Dutch corner on Alpe d’Huez during the Tour de France, but a couple of local beers will warm you up. The Hospitality area is a great place to spend the afternoon as well.
Written by Alex de Waard. Director of Product and Operations at Sports Tours International
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