A day in Hell - Mid-winter across Europe - CycleBlaze

January 3, 2007

A day in Hell

Ever since setting off through Holland on new year's eve, the wind has been against me. Maybe not always dead against; sometimes it came rushing at me in a shoulder charge. But it has never been helpful and often it had rain on its breath.

When you ride with the wind, you don't notice it. Unless it's a gale, it goes no faster than you do. You ride with it and because the air then seems still, you think wonderful thoughts of how fit and lithe and athletic you've become and you bowl along in a delusion that lasts until you have to turn round and come back again.

On a one-way ride, it's never like that. If you're against the wind in the morning, you can't console yourself that you'll have it with you in the afternoon. And if the wind is behind you, it's rare you appreciate it as you should.

This, other than a little wavering, was a straight ride. It was a straight ride straight into the wind. And it's why I couldn't help noticing that all the people coming the other way were enjoying themselves much more than I was. When we waved in greeting, they did it with a looseness of limb and a happy smile; I lifted a hand while riding so low to keep out of the blast that I could nibble the handlebar tape.

But it could have been worse. I could have had cobbles. I'd had short stretches by the docks in Antwerp and that had been enough. Real, wheel-jarring cobbles, that is, not the ones they have in town centres to make them look nice.

Alain Bernard knows about cobbles. He was my reason for a day off in Roubaix. Alain is president of an organisation called Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix and it was he, out for a ride one day in 1980, who discovered the Carrefour de l'Arbre. It is now the last truly bone-crunching section of cobbles in a race that sets off from north of Paris each spring to ride all the cobbles the organisers can find.

At the end of the race, Alain presents the winner with a cobble mounted on a wooden base. The winner is expected to lift it triumphantly. If you notice that it's achieved only with a struggle, it's not because the rider is tired or faking: those cobbles are heavier than they look. I know because they let me try one when I called at the VC Roubaix's café and bar opposite the track's entrance.

When you see the winner of Paris-Roubaix lifting one of these, he's not faking if it looks hard. They are very heavy. By the way, it's not me who's back to front; it's the picture of Eddy Merckx that's been reversed.
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I always thought the track was ancient. But it's not. It was built one side or other of the second world war, which makes it youthful as outdoor tracks go. I found a way into the finish stretch and stood there where the riders go when they have just the last metres to ride. Often they are cut and bruised from crashes; almost always they are covered in filth. More than one rider has taken his mud-encrusted jersey home and had it framed. Unwashed.

Alain has a huge collection of press cuttings, books and documents concerning "his" race. I suppose other bits of cycling must interest him as well but you'd never think so. I sat looking through them, drinking coffee delivered from a bar which had as its surrounds the names of all the winners of the race since it started in 1896.

Not many people get to see the bar in the Roubaix clubhouse but until Alain discovered the Carrefour de l'Arbre - "Tree Junction" - nobody at all went to the bar that stands incongruously as the only building anywhere near this junction of cobbled farm tracks and an insignificant country road.

"Until the race came", he said, "it was open only one day a year. In France, a bar has to open one day a year to keep its licence. That's all it did, because it's out in the middle of nowhere and nobody went there to drink any more. With the fame that the race brought it, it's now open all year and a busy restaurant as well."

We drove out there, Alain pointing out where this had happened in earlier years, where that had happened, who had crashed where, which races had had their destiny shaped at which bend in the road. Even the railway crossing where riders skipped in front of a train in 2006 and got disqualified for their trouble.

As it happened, the Carrefour was closed for some sort of stock-take or planning session - something I never understood properly - and Alain took me home instead to eat with his wife.

"A few years ago, there was barely a village or an area that wanted anything to do with us" he said. "If Paris-Roubaix came their way, they felt they were shamed because we were exposing their bad roads. They went out and surfaced them, did all they could to obstruct us. Now they can't get enough of us. I have mayors ringing me to say they've found another stretch of cobbles and would we like to use them."

There are 250 Amis de Paris-Roubaix. They include former riders such as Jean Stablinski, who discovered the Fôret d'Arenberg, which is worse even than the Carrefour and where the French rider Philippe Gaumont crashed and broke his thigh. The Hell of the North, they call it.

The former editor of L'Équipe called Paris-Roubaix "the last great madness of cycling." Gaumont could only agree. So could two young American professionals who grew so terrified that they skipped their hotels the night before the race, went back to America and were never heard of in Europe again.

The Amis no longer go looking for pavé because there's so little left that it's not worth their time. It's the mayors who do the looking. The Amis content themselves with raising money and persuading agricultural colleges to lend them apprentice paviers to restore roads that are too bad even for Paris-Roubaix or, as at Orchies, create a new stretch of cobbles.

Unfortunately, Alain smiles, Belgian fanatics pull up cobbles to take home as a souvenir. They've even gone off with the milestones.

Shortly, I am going to meet a man who was forced to share his victory in Paris-Roubaix because a policeman directed him the wrong way into the track. The row took several months of international meetings to sort out and the man concerned is, I gather, still pretty upset about it. I was only two years old at the time, so he has been bitter for a long time.

And unless the weather changes, I'll have bigger and harder headwinds ahead of me because first-war country and the plains of Picardy are just ahead.

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