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Paris-Roubaix - A History
By Staff
Date: 4/10/2009
Paris-Roubaix - A History

Paris-Roubaix - A History 
An historical look at arguably the toughest Classic of them all: The Hell of the North, Paris Roubaix – the Queen of all the Classics

By Giles Belbin

“Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.”
Paradise Lost, John Milton, (1608 – 1674)

The first week in April is a tough one for cycling's professional peloton. It is a week that starts with the Tour of Flanders, features the midweek classic Gent - Wevelgem and concludes with Paris - Roubaix. So that's two monuments and one “mere” classic in the space of eight days then. Yet it is the final race of week that perhaps captures the imagination of cycling fans the most, for Paris - Roubaix, the Hell of the North, is the Queen of the Classics.

It's 1896 and the first Paris
 Roubaix race attracts some (soon to be) famous names.

Despite its name, the modern-day start line is actually 80 kilometres north of Paris, in the French city of Compiègne (the starting  town has changed a number of times since moving from Paris). The route takes the riders northwards for over 250 kilometres to the French/Belgian border and the velodrome in the city of Roubaix. The first running of the race was in 1896, the brainchild of two textile manufacturers and cycling fans, Theo Vienne and Maurice Perez, who had built a velodrome at Roubaix. Keen to devise a race that started in Paris and ended at their velodrome they contacted the sports paper Le Velo and pitched the idea of the race to the paper's director. Amazingly they presented their race as the perfect training ride for the well established and mammoth one-day race, Bordeaux - Paris (now defunct as a pro race). Le Velo's director liked the idea, pledged the paper's support and the Queen of the Classics was born.

Tom Boonen pre riding  the Arenberg Forest  cobble section.
Photo © 2009 Fotoreporter Sirotti  

The inaugural race attracted riders from far and wide including a couple of names that will be familiar to all cycle racing fans. Henri Desgrange, the originator of the Tour de France and Maurice Garin, winner of that very first Tour, both contested the first ever Paris - Roubaix, albeit with differing fortunes. Desgrange abandoned, whilst Garin finished third and would go on to win the second race a year later. The first race was won by a German - Josef Fischer, but over the years the race has become a battleground for French and Belgian riders -  despite France claiming 17 of the first 20 races, Belgium now holds the upper-hand with 52 victories to France's 30. The race has only ever been  interrupted by the two world wars, meaning that the 2009 edition will be the 107th running of the race.

Cobblestoned Chaos
Although the race's route changes slightly most years, the race is synonymous with the many cobblestoned stretches of road, or pavé, that comprise the second half of the route (2009 sees 27 separate stretches). Ironically the race's popularity and success almost killed the very thing that set the race apart from others. As the race grew in coverage, mayors of local towns commenced work on the cobblestone roads, replacing them with smooth, modern surfaces for fear of being seen as behind the times. This prompted the race's organisers to seek out new stretches of cobblestones in order to protect the race's identity and contributed to the race's start town having to be moved.

The sections of pavé are highly strategic areas of the race. They are incredibly tough to ride over and their very narrowness means that they cause tailbacks and bottlenecks. Coming a mere 15 kilometres from the end of the race, one of the more important stretches is the Carrefour de l’Arbre. This stretch is categorized as being of the toughest severity (classified five of five) and lasts for over two kilometres. If you want to win Paris - Roubaix you need to be near the front here.

However the pavé does more than just influence the result of Paris – Roubaix. It is indelibly linked with the legend of the race. It is the landscape of the vivid images that are caught and transmitted to race fans the world over during this remarkable race. The roads of pavé that the riders cross on the way to Roubaix are used by the region's farmers to access their land. In dry conditions the cobblestone roads become a choking dust bowl. Worse still, in wet weather the cobblestones become roads of filth, smothered in mud and animal waste, rendering them as perilous as ice. Whatever the conditions the riders are covered in dirt and grime when the reach Roubaix, resembling miners  more than bike riders. It is images such as these that encapsulate the very meaning of the race, and that, when combined with remarkable stories of courage, bring life to the legend of perhaps the most revered classic of them all.

The Peloton passes leaving a cloud of dust. Photo © 2008 Bart Hazen

A who's who of Cycling.
The list of former winners of Paris - Roubaix reads like a who's who of professional bike racing. Roger De Vlaeminck is the record winner, with four wins. Other winners include the afore mentioned Maurice Garin, Fausto Coppi, Rik Van Looy, Louison Bobet, Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault. The race however, is not universally loved, even by those who have triumphed in it. On winning the race in 1981, after falling innumerable times, Frenchman and five time Tour de France champion Bernard Hinault declared that, “Paris-Roubaix est une connerie.” (Paris-Roubaix is bulls**t) before vowing never to ride it again (a vow he wouldn't keep).

Classic Classics 
Paris - Roubaix has given us many memorable races, including joint winners in 1949 (see below list of previous winners). Here are just a couple of them.

The 1983 race saw Francesco Moser break away with three other riders just prior to the cobbled Arenberg forest section before being joined by the Dutchman Hennie Kuiper. With the pace setting high,  Kuiper was maintaining his place in the lead group, he fell. Picking himself up swiftly, Kuiper climbed back on his bike and managed to catch the lead group again.

Then Kuiper's wheel again slid out from under him on the treacherous cobbles, causing him to crash once more. Once again, through nothing more than misfortune. Kuiper had lost touch with the leaders and once again he was forced to clamber back on his bike and expend valuable energy in order catch his rivals.

Once more back in the leading group, Kuiper, fearful of the sprinting abilities of his rivals opted to attack and soon opened a lead of well over a minute with a little over 15 kilometres to go.

With only 6 kilometres left of the race Kuiper suffered a third case of bad luck, suffering a puncture. The puncture caused irreparable damage to the wheel of his bike meaning he had to wait for the support car carrying his spare bike to catch up, losing valuable seconds in a tense wait. Eventually, after suffering two crashes and one puncture in the closing stages of the race, and atop his replacement bike, Kuiper rode alone into the Roubaix velodrome to record a memorable victory.

Finally comes perhaps the greatest classic of all time (certainly according to The 1952 race featured a clash of two of cycling's biggest stars - Fausto Coppi of Italy and Belgium's Rik Van Steenbergen, considered a specialist in one-day races. With 60 kilometres to go Coppi was leading a breakaway of five riders. Van Steenbergen, with the hopes of the Belgian nation on his shoulders and facing criticism after failing to ride well in the Tour of Flanders a week earlier, hadn't made the break and was trailing badly. Then, Van Steenbergen dug deep and began his unlikely pursuit of Coppi.

Eventually, as the cobbled sections intensified and grew tougher still, he began to claw back time. With 20 kilometres to go Coppi's fearsome pace had cracked the breakaway and he was alone. Not for long. Van Steenbergen was flying and remarkably managed to join Coppi for the culmination of the race. Coppi knew that if the race was to go to a sprint in the velodrome there would be only one winner - Van Steenbergen possessed a far more potent sprint - and so he attacked. Again and again Coppi tried to ride Van Steenbergen off his wheel but the Belgian desperately clung on. Over the last cobbled section and ascending the final hill at Hem, Coppi again attacked incessantly but to no avail.

Despite Coppi's relentless attacking they entered the velodrome together and Van Steenbergen, as Coppi had feared, out-sprinted the Italian to take a momentous and impressive victory. No-one knew just how close Coppi had come to victory until an exhausted Van Steenbergen admitted “if Coppi had attacked just one more time I would have cracked.”

 2008: Ballan, Cancellara and Boonen arrived together - final lap on the track
Photo © 2008 Bart Hazen

Paris-Roubaix is the greatest of all the Classics, it is simply unique. As well as the demanding route the weight of history being written is felt by all. The cycling world's eyes will be fixed on Northern France this Sunday to search for the answers to those all-important annual questions: who has the strength, the commitment, the endurance necessary to win? Who can battle through the mud and the dirt, over bone-jarring cobbles, to emerge victorious? Who has the spirit and the mind to keep pushing when every part of their body is screaming through pain? In short, just who will reign in Hell?

Additional Historical references:
102nd Paris Roubaix Preview

Paris - Roubaix Winners
Year  Nationality Name
2008 - Belgium Tom Boonen
2007 - Australia Stuart O’grady
2006 - Switzerland Fabian Cancellara
2005  - Belgium Tom Boonen
2004 - Sweden Magnus Backstedt
2003 - Belgium Peter Van Petegem
2002 - Belgium Johan Museeuw
2001 - Netherlands Servais Knaven
2000 - Belgium Johan Museeuw
1999 - Italy Andrea Tafi
1998 - Italy Franco Ballerini
1997 - France Frédéric Guesdon
1996 - Belgium Johan Museeuw
1995 - Italy Franco Ballerini
1994 - Russia Andreï Tchmil
1993 - France Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle
1992 - France Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle
1991- France Marc Madiot
1990 - Belgium Eddy Planckert
1989 - Belgium Jean-Marie Wampers
1888 - Belgium Dirk De Mol
1987 - Belgium Eric Vanderaerden
1986 - Ireland Sean Kelly
1985 - France Marc Madiot
1984 - Ireland Sean Kelly
1983 - Netherlands Hennie Kuiper
1982 - Netherlands Jan Raas
1981 - France Bernard Hinault
1980 - Italy Francesco Moser
1979 - Italy Francesco Moser
1978 - Italy Francesco Moser
1977 Belgium Roger De Vlaeminck
1976 - Belgium Marc De Meyer
1975 - Belgium Roger De Vlaeminck
1974 - Belgium Roger De Vlaeminck
1973 Belgium Eddy Merckx
1972 - Belgium Roger De Vlaeminck
1971 - Belgium Roger Rosiers
1970 - Belgium Eddy Merckx
1969 - Belgium Walter Godefroot
1968 - Belgium Eddy Merckx
1967 - Netherlands Jan Janssen
1966 - Italy Felice Gimondi
1965 Belgium Rik Van Looy
1964 - Netherlands Peter Post
1963 - Belgium Émile Daems
1962 - Belgium Rik Van Looy
1961 - Belgium Rik Van Looy
1960 - Belgium Pino Cerami
1959 - Belgium Noël Fore
1958 - Belgium Léon Van Daele
1957 - Belgium Fred De Bruyne
1956 - France Louison Bobet
1955 - France Jean Forestier
1954 - Belgium Raymond Impanis
1953 - Belgium Germain Derycke
1952 - Belgium Rik Van Steenbergen
1951 - Italy Antonio Bevilacqua
1950 Italy Fausto Coppi
1949 - France André Mahe
Italy - Serse Coppi (Ex-Æquo)
1948 - Belgium Rik Van Steenbergen
1947 - Belgium Georges Claes
1946 - Belgium Georges Claes
1945 - France Paul Maye
1944 - Belgium Maurice De Simpelaere
1943 Belgium Marcel Kint
1939 - Belgium Émile Masson
1938 - Belgium Lucien Storme
1937 - Italy Jules Rossi
1936 - France Georges Speicher
1935 - Belgium Gaston Rebry
1934 - Belgium Gaston Rebry
1933 - Belgium Sylvère Maes
1932 - Belgium Romain Gijssels
1931 - Belgium Gaston Rebry
1930 - Belgium Julien Vervaecke
1929 - Belgium Charles Meunier
1928 France André Leducq
1927 - Belgium Georges Ronsse
1926 - Belgium Julien Delbecque
1925 - Belgium Felix Sellier
1924 - Belgium Jules Van Hevel
1923 - Switzerland Henri Suter
1922 - Belgium Albert Dejonghe
1921 - France Henri Pelissier
1920 - Belgium Paul Deman
1919 - France Henri Pelissier
1914 - France Charles Crupelandt
1913 - Luxembourg François Faber
1912 - France Charles Crupelandt
1911 - France Octave Lapize
1910 - France Octave Lapize
1909 - France Octave Lapize
1908 - Belgium Cyrille Van Hauwaert
1907- France Georges Passerieu
1906- France Henri Cornet
1905 - France Louis Trousselier
1904 - France Hippolyte Aucouturier
1903 - France Hippolyte Aucouturier
1902 - France Lucien Lesna
1901- France Lucien Lesna
1900 - France Émile Bouhours
1899 - France Albert Champion
1898 - France Maurice Garin
1897- France Maurice Garin
1896 - Germany Josef Fischer

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