Straining with effort and heads bent low over the handlebars, a peleton of riders hurtles on towards the Croix Blanche crossroads, a decisive cobbled stretch of three kilometres in Mons en Pévèle... Or rather that what I imagine. On this March day I’ve come to meet two enthusiasts in the Pévèle district some twenty kilometres south of Lille. François Doulcier, a star of the Paris-Roubaix, the so-called “Queen of the Classics”, a keen cyclist and President of the Association des Amis de Paris-Roubaix, is on my right. Françoise Gomez, a Greeter full of enthusiasm for her village tells us about the history of Mons en Pévèle.
From the square in this commune which reaches to 107 metres above sea level, we turn into a track alongside the abbey, the presbytery and a number of farmhouses built on a square plan, typical of the region. Our feet sink into the fertile soil in which the farmers grow leeks, endives and, in the summer, delicious strawberries. Down the hill, Françoise points out an old quarry known as the Pas Roland quarry. "This is where the Battle of Mons en Pévèle is supposed to have been fought, in which the Flemish were pushed out of the Pévèle by the French in 1304...
But it's also where they get the stone that makes up the famous cobbles of the Paris-Roubaix, the so-called "grès de Pev", says Françoise with evident pride. There is also a legend that relates how Roland's horse sent a clod of earth flying with its hoof as far as Mont St Aubert, near Tournai in Belgium, and so formed the boundary of the Pévèle. We continue our walk along a path just a metre wide, used by market gardeners and their wheelbarrows. We cross over the PP green lane, formerly the route of the local railway and now a walking and cycling trail and bridleway, where a few riders wave to us.
François stations himself by a right-angle bend. "This is the most decisive cobbled section for the riders, coming from Orchies, they pound away at the pedals and take on the cobbles at the Croix Blanche, the Grand Cat and the Blocus. It's here that the front riders will break way and confirm their lead." Just another 60 kilometres to go to the Velodrome in Roubaix, some will crack up here. Leaving Compiègne in the morning, the riders hit the first cobbled stretches at Troisvilles (close to Caudry), as François says: "at this spot here the riders are sprinting away and getting onto the cobbled stretch" Which is the most mythical place on the race? Without hesitation, François replies "the Trouée d'Arenberg, the riders are travelling at 50 - 60 km an hour, these are the most difficult cobblestones in the race. It runs through the forest so it's damp and that makes the cobbles slippery."
My thoughts wander, I begin to visualise the rest: Every race since 1896, the leader enters the last stretch of cobbles. Supporters encourage their favourite at the Carrefour de l'Arbre, a place on the plain by Cysoing known for its legendary falls. A bit more pedalling and some twenty kilometres separate them from the crowning glory, the Velodrome in Roubaix. François is in one of the front seats. The leader launches himself on a lap and a half sprint round the concrete track, François and the spectators give him an ovation and a shudder of excitement runs down his spine. Will Tom Boonen meet his match on April 7th next year? The Hell of the North has still a few more good days ahead of it...
7th April 2013: Paris-Roubaix bike race
The Hell of the North … it was the end of the First World War, in a landscape ravaged by bombs and trenches, with hardened cyclists pedalling through the middle of it. The expression stuck and was associated with the cobbled roads, which we continue to lovingly maintain today.
The Paris-Roubaix is the most difficult race in the world; those who reach the end earn universal respect. It’s less hellish now than in the past, but it’s still hard, very hard, especially for the competitors. The spectators can get a drink and sample the local food at the inns and cafés that bring life to the villages dotted around in the fields and on the plateau.
Every year, the arrival of the riders in the cycle stadium in Roubaix and the crowning of the winner are occasions of great sporting excitement.
As a town, Roubaix itself is well worth visiting. Ambitious and full of vision, it now stands proud and defiant as the home of a host of grand projects and has completely changed in appearance. It is exploiting with consummate skill its many positive aspects by adding a new dynamism to its town centre in the form of its shops, cultural attractions and fashion outlets and providing an excellent environment for its inhabitants to enjoy.
A first spin at the Roubaix velodrome
Become a racing cyclist for half-an-hour and discover the thrills of the velodrome! Have you ever ridden a bike with fixed gears? Now’s your chance to try it and ride at serious speed. Before you’re allowed on the track a sports tutor will explain the workings of the bike and then you’re off! Do you have it in you to test the camber of the track? While great for anyone, this first spin at the velodrome is also specially for beginners. But you have to be more than 1m50 tall. While you’re here, pay a visit to the mythical Paris-Roubaix velodrome (just a few minutes walk away) where the riders face up to each other for the last few laps.