The Road to Hell Is Littered With Cobbles

Do you have the cobbles to ride these cobbles?

Do you have the cobbles to ride these cobbles?

It’s Easter Sunday, which means as Christ is busy rising in churches across the world, professional cyclists will be falling all over themselves in the annual slog through the French countryside known as The Hell of the North. That’s right; it’s time for the 107th running of the Paris-Roubaix, a grueling 259 km single day race stretching from Compiègne (located in Northern France) to Roubaix, at the edge of the Belgian border.

Ok, with that introduction out of the way, I’ll open up the floor to questions.

Where did the race’s morbid/ominous/badass nickname, The Hell of the North, originate from anyway?

The race’s nickname (of the many) actually originates from two distinct sources. The first, most popular explanation arises from the sheer difficulty of the race. Covering approximately 160 miles through some positively ancient French backcountry/farmland, including no less than 27 sections of primitive cobblestone roads (rated from one to five stars in level of difficulty), Paris-Roubaix elevates balancing on two wheels to something of an artform. It often rains; it is always muddy. Punctured tires, broken bikes and injured riders are par for the course, leading to a lot of acrimony between riders and race organizers — Bernard Hinault famously called the race “bullshit,” while two-wheeled greyhound (and the first 5-time Tour champion) Jacques Anquetil called it a lottery and refused to ride it after 1958. Not surprisingly, most of the complaining comes from French riders.

The second, lesser known (but more accurate) reason for the race’s nickname actually comes from France’s place in world history. According to Cyclingnews.com writer Les Woodland, the phrase dates all the way back to 1919, as the European continent worked to recover from the most brutal war the world had then seen.

…By then, Roubaix and northern France were devastated by years of static war. Nine million had died and more from France than any other nation. Further south, news from the war zone was scant. Communications were down. Sure, there could be another race. But who knew if there was still a road to Roubaix? More than that, was Roubaix still there? So in 1919 the organisers drove off to look.

At first all appeared well. There was destruction and misery, yes, and a strange shortage of men, but the country had survived. You can imagine the restrained relief in the little exploratory party. But suddenly things changed. The air began to reek of sewage and rotting cattle. Trees became blackened, ragged stumps. Everywhere was mud.

To describe it as “hell” was the only word. The little party had seen the hell of the north – in this particular case, the French administrative region of the North in which Roubaix stands. And that’s how they reported it in their papers next day.

Perhaps the race’s Easter association is appropriate in one way or another.

Will Lance be there?? OMG!!!

Modern cycling has become a sport of incredible specialization, with a few major players (including Lance) and a lot of team riders called domestiques. Because the big names spend most of the year training for the most prestigeous races on the calendar (read: the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia) they do not participate in many, if any, of the Spring Classics.

Needless to say, any race nicknamed “A Sunday in Hell” isn’t likely to draw many marquee names, but there has grown a hardy crop of riders who relish the opportunity to tackle the brutal course, and many in the cycling world consider the race to be one of the sport’s finest (obviously depending on whether you think bike racing should involve more mud and pain).

Lance really won’t be there?

No, I’m sorry. But do you have any other questions about the Hell of…

Well, then what’s the point? I won’t know anybody.

The 2009 Paris-Roubaix will give you plenty of opportunities to learn some new names in the cycling world (well, not new to the sport, but new to you). Highly talented riders like George Hincapie, a former Armstrong domestique and experienced Spring Classic rider; Tom Boonen, a sprinting badass and 2005 winner; and Fabian Cancellara, the 2006 winner, will saddle up on Sunday to tackle the cobblestones. Of course, Lady Luck has always had a big hand in Paris-Roubaix — the forecast says light rain early on — and it’s really anyone’s guess as to who will be standing on the podium when it’s all said and done.

Interestingly enough, the Paris-Roubaix has favored Belgian riders over its history, with Beligans taking 52 victories, besting the French by 22. This may be in part because Belgian races in the spring are full of cobblestones and climbs (see: the Tour of Flanders), or because all modern-day Flems have been bred with the seed of Eddie Merckx (remarkably still not a banned substance).

Not that I care, but when is it?

4:00 pm (central standard time) on the Versus network. You should watch it.


Okay. Good enough.

[The Hell of the North is a Tough One to Call – VeloNews]


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