The past and future of Paris-Roubaix

Since its first competition in 1896, this Monument has grown into a keystone of cycling celebration

In early spring, there are a few things you can count on in northern France. Daffodils pop out of the ground with their yellow smiles in March. Above those new blossoms, sparrows fill the air with their cheerful chirps. And in April, cyclists race along the backroads of Roubaix.

The longstanding Paris-Roubaix race, one of five prestigious Monuments of cycling, originally hatched from the imaginations of two textile businessmen in 1896. They wanted to bring the emerging sport of cycling to their industrial region.

Since then, Paris-Roubaix has become a stalwart of the cycling calendar with last year providing fans with the 117th race. The parcours snakes racers over deeply rutted cobble roads and produces the drama of unpredictable crashes in often grueling weather.

It’s a spectacle that will be deeply missed this week as the race is postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. It’s on our minds, so we’re spending some time thinking about the deep history of the race as we look forward to bumping along those famous back roads sometime again soon.

For more than 100 years, Paris-Roubaix has been a moment of joy fans can count on under gray April skies. Only two World Wars disrupted the race’s schedule. Organizers were unable to hold Paris-Roubaix from 1915-1918 and 1940-1942.

It is a race Fabian Cancellara loved, and won three times, with his last win taking place in 2013 riding the Trek Domane. He hit the podium three times while riding for Trek, achieving second place in 2011 and third in 2014.

The 2020 Paris-Roubaix would be the 118th time cyclists throw themselves into this narrow bike-wrecking cobbled course, a misery they thoroughly enjoy.  This year’s race was scheduled to take place on Sunday, April 12 but was postponed as governments limit anything that would draw a crowd and create an environment where coronavirus could spread.

Paris-Roubaix, a high point in the springtime Classics craze that fuels fan joy, will be something we all return to with relief when the coronavirus pandemic passes.

Cycling historian Dries de Zaeytijd at the KOERS museum in Roeselare, Belgium said Paris-Roubaix’s long history means that it will be an important moment for fans when the race returns. Just like the race of 1919.

“1919 was the first year for the race after World War I and the year it earned its nickname ‘Hell of the North,’” De Zaeytijd said.

The nickname reflected the devastated landscape the race traversed. The violence of war left a deep mark on the region around Roubaix. Along the rural, artillery pockmarks deeply pitted the fields. Things that should’ve stood upright, like homes and trees, were charred nubs, consumed by fires that came with battle. Imagine the stench of a landscape filled with rotting cows and human sewage, and you will understand how the race earned a nickname invoking the underworld.

“The whole region was still grieving,” De Zaeytijd said. “And the race provided hope. Cheering at Paris-Roubaix was a sign that life was restarting again after the war. It meant that people were free again.”

Sparking enjoyment is true to the roots of the race, it was a part of why those two textile businessmen wanted to bring cycling sport up north to their region.

“Road cycling was the sport where everyone could watch for free, and at that time it was a way for working class people to relax,” De Zaeytijd explained. Many fans and also cyclists who hailed from Roubaix and surrounding areas had connections to the coal mines that fueled the region’s economy. Paris-Roubaix provided a break and a source of pride, especially if someone from your town won.

The distance of the race has ranged over the years from 280 km when it first began down to 244 km, the shortest race by distance was in 1949. In 2019, the parcours covered 257 km with 29 cobble sections.

The cobbled roads included in Paris-Roubaix are a remnant of an older infrastructure that was all but removed from northern France. These old roads have risen to the level of local monuments now. An association called Les Amis de Paris Roubaix maintains the remaining cobbles so the race can go on, over the challenging surface that made it famous.

The course’s most famous cobbles in the Wallers-Arenberg Forest was first included in the race at the suggestions of a Jean Stablinski, a successful French-Polish racer turned Paris-Roubaix organizer who also worked as a coal miner in the region. He used the forest road to commute to the Wallers coal mine as a worker and thought it would be the perfect challenge for riders.

The infamous 2.4 kilometers of cobbles is completely tree-shaded and therefore cool and slippery with notoriously deep grooves between the paves. Now, as one of the coveted elements of the race, it is an understatement to say Stablinski was on to something.

Below, Trek-Segafredo rider Edward Theuns remembers his efforts to position the team on the front in 2019’s race. It’s a key moment in Paris-Roubaix. Theuns notes that you may not be able to win the race there, but you can definitely lose the race in the Waller-Arenberg Forest.

The depth of tradition attached to places like the Wallers-Arenberg Forest cobbles and the Roubaix velodrome, where the race has finished since its inception, generates an experience for teams and fans that ascends beyond simple competition and into the realm of legend.

“The race is filled with history, it is a bucket-list experience for racers and fans,”  De Zaeytijd said. “Paris-Roubaix is my favorite race. When they now start the race again after the coronavirus, it will be a sign of hope.”

Watching the race is an experience that every road cycling fan will look forward to until the race returns. And then, together, we will find joy in the rural Roubaix roads.