Paris-Roubaix: You Don’t Know ‘Till You Know
“Tomorrow he’ll understand.”
That’s what Monsieur Paris-Roubaix Roger DeVlaeminck stated, in Flemish, in my general direction, on the night before the 1988 race. His tone was both conciliatory and congratulatory, a sort of welcome-to-the-pain-club statement that eerily resembled the time when I was five years old and smashed my finger to bits, and the doctor said, as he got ready to put it back together, “Sorry, this is going to hurt.”
If, in the ‘80s, you were an aspiring bicycle racer from the United States, there were two races that you knew about: Paris-Roubaix and the Tour de France. Of course I’d seen pictures in magazines and read stories about some other European races, but I had seen video of Paris-Roubaix and Le Tour.
People who aren’t students of sport typically reduce them to the most basic literal descriptions. Auto racing is people driving cars around in circles. Baseball is a bunch of people standing around while one of them hits a ball. The first time I saw any TV coverage of the Tour de France I saw a bunch of guys pedaling bikes through France. I failed to see the brilliant nuance in any of it. I mean, it was sunny, the guys were clean — it seemed to my untrained eye like a leisurely bike ride.
The coverage of Paris-Roubaix was different. For starters, the show was highly produced and was more of a documentary than normal sports coverage. It was raining, so the riders were covered in a kind of gunk and grime I had never seen before. And they were riding on cobblestones — the narrowest cobblestone roads ever. The crashes were brutal. And watching Marc Madiot fight with his bike all the way to the victory in the Roubaix Velodrome captured my interest completely. Watching Paris-Roubaix sealed the deal. Less than three years after I watched Madiot win, I crossed the line to finish Paris-Roubaix myself.
In late January of this year, I joined a couple of mountain bike racers and a film crew, in Belgium, for a project for Santa Cruz Bicycles. I’d been invited along to add a bit of color and contrast to the featured athletes, and to act as a tour guide, I suppose.
We spent a couple days rolling through the Flemish Ardennes on the endless combinations of roads that make up the Ronde van Vlaanderen, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, E3 Prijs, Dwars Door Vlaanderen, etc. And then we went to France to check out some of the sectors of pavé that make Paris-Roubaix famous.
We drove to the Velodrome de Roubaix to start a route that Santa Cruz rider Mark Scott had loaded into his direction device. I’d be lying if I tried to tell you that staring the old velodrome face-to-face again wasn’t meaningful. But I didn’t think it would be as meaningful to me as it was.
In 1987, a 20-year-old me finished the amateur version of Paris-Roubaix on the Velodrome de Roubaix. It had been a brutal day, complete with all of the things that make the Spring Classics so special. I’d personally ridden through wind, rain, crashes, flat tires and a broken wheel before entering the velodrome. And even that proved tough for a first-timer to l’Enfer du Nord — I finished dead last in my group for a 14th place on the day.
The old, cold, concrete showers weren’t that much more forgiving. The slow dribble of uncomfortably cold water, a bar of soap and a bottle of rubbing alcohol seemed to be outmatched by the road grit and grime that had been glued to my legs by the embrocation that had been applied to them hours earlier. It felt like whole chunks of pavé had worked themselves behind my eyeballs. A day or two later, remnants of Paris-Roubaix were still coming out of my nose, ears and eyes. And it was worth it.
Looking at the velodrome earlier this year, the memories that came back to me were more than three decades old. And the silence of the place on a weekday in January served to intensify them. I remembered the feeling of making that strange right turn onto the track. I remembered looking down at my bike, doing that nervous gear-checking thing you do before a sprint, and noticing the layers of dried and drying mud on my shins and knees. I remembered how horrible I rode as a velodrome rookie.
I freely admit to an abundant amount of sentimentalism, but I am not always completely stupid. Mark’s route was to leave from the velodrome and head toward Le Bois de Wallers and the Trouée d’Arenberg via about 50 kilometres of windy French asphalt. I figured that having memories of Paris-Roubaix that are older than my riding partners made it perfectly acceptable for me to skip the warm-up and stay in the van till we got to the pavé of Arenberg.
It was a good call. By the time Mark and Alex “Krunk” McGuinnis arrived at the Arenberg sector they were about done with the howling wind that had been slowing their roll and forcing them to fight with their bikes just to stay on the road. The film crew set up their shots and the boys shed layers of clothing they’d been wearing since Roubaix.
When everyone was ready, we rolled up the road a bit and prepared for our assault on the Trouée d’Arenberg. When we turned around, I said I would tow them in. If we’d been riding mountain bikes on big terrain I would have been following them, watching their lines and speed, looking for visual indicators for how to approach the trail ahead. This was different — I was getting us up to race pace for the entrance to the most iconic section of cobblestones in cycling.
Ever since my first meeting with the famous Arenberg pavé, I’ve been telling people that you cannot fully understand how gnarly the Paris-Roubaix cobbles are until you try to walk or ride them. For the record, no one ever believes me until they experience it for themselves.
“Ready?” I asked. And whether I uttered anything aloud or not, I thought about the words Roger De Vlaeminck had said so many years before. They were about to understand, too.
I put the wood to it the best I could, peeking under my arm from time to time to make sure the guys were still on my wheel. When I slithered through the traffic gate that keeps vehicles off the old stones on normal days I was doing 55 kilometres per hour — perhaps a click or two off of race pace on a frantic Paris-Roubaix year, but close enough to the real thing.
And the second I hit the ancient cobbles, the Stigmata bike that Santa Cruz had supplied for the trip became an old aluminum Vitus. The single-ring gravel drivetrain setup was transported in time back to a 53×46 front and a six-speed straight-block in the back, and the modern carbon wheels that sported tubeless gravel tires became 36-hole tubular wheels shod with four-year-aged Paris-Roubaix sew-ups.
I was 21 years old again. The noise from the non-existent crowd was at a near-deafening level in my imagination. I remembered the chaos of riders and camera motorcycles and team cars — my group was still chasing from a split that happened on an earlier section of stones. I remembered the position of the television camera that I’d careened off. And just exactly as I had done three decades earlier, I spent all but the first hundred meters or so of the Arenberg sector looking for cleaner, smoother sections of cobblestones — lesser levels of hell, you could say.
When we exited Arenberg our speed had dropped to maybe a kilometre or two an hour slower than what the pros normally do. But of course we’d only been “racing” for two kilometres and change whereas the pros would have already been battling for more than 150.
On the drive from Belgium that morning, I told the guys that the first few metres of asphalt after exiting the Trouée d’Arenberg would be the smoothest bit of road they would ever experience in their lives. It was.
I stood up out of the saddle for a couple short seconds on that asphalt and could see the legendary early-80s Belgian cycling hero Fons de Wolf as he sprinted ahead to join the next group. I’d let him go back then but wanted to be with him this time around.
We slowed down and regrouped and I looked back at Mark. His eyes were wide open and there was a faint hint of an understanding smile. You really won’t fully understand it until you experience it.
We soldiered on, stopping intermittently for another shot or for me to tell them a story. If you’re a fan of the race you know that the sectors come hot and heavy after Arenberg.
Riding the cobblestones is a learned skill, something I believe never completely goes away. If you get it, if you can do it, you never really forget. No matter how slowly we transferred from the end of one sector to the start of the next, I hid from the wind and hung on to their wheels for grim death as if it were the final of the actual race. But back on the stones, I was in my element. At least for a while.
I rode Paris-Roubaix once as an amateur and once as a pro. Philippe Gilbert, who won the 2019 event, was five years old when I crossed the finish line in 1988. And yet, as I rode bits and pieces of this monument’s course, I could still remember where I was, the riders around me, lines I took, and what I felt like all those years ago.
I think I’d add a thought to De Vlaeminck’s wise words. It’s true that you really don’t understand the reality of Paris-Roubaix until you ride it. But the mark it leaves never goes away.
Since 1896, this most incredible of all Classics has only been stopped by World Wars and the current global pandemic COVID-19. Paris-Roubaix is brutal and magical and the stuff of myth. When the world gets back to some semblance of normalcy, go see it for yourself. You’ll understand when you do.
About the author
Joe Parkin is a former pro cyclist — one of the first Americans to venture over to race in Europe in the mid 1980s. He’s also a former magazine editor and author who, in his own words, writes “about bikes, bike riders and bike parts”. He is the author of “A Dog in a Hat” and “Come & Gone”. You can follow Joe on Twitter.