The hell of the north


There is something like it in every sport. An event so rich in history and tradition, that it eventually becomes a legend of its own. It might not be the most glamorous or even the most important, but it is undoubtedly one of the most prestigious. For many sports, the rivalry games represent this. But for cycling, the role is taken by a single race: Paris-Roubaix.

While most people know of the Tour de France, the three-week stage race for the famed yellow jersey, very few are aware of the one-day races in Northern France and Belgium, an area that is a stronghold for cycling fans. In this region, cycling is a working class sport, enjoyed by middle class, blue collar families.

These grueling events, raced in the cold early spring months over muddy, cobbled roads are the embodiment of the gritty, brutal nature of the sport. No race shows this quality quite like Paris-Roubaix. Raced in April through Northern France, Roubaix is a showcase for the hardmen of the sport.

“A Sunday in Hell,” a 1976 Danish documentary, covered the 1976 edition of the race. It follows the favorites throughout the race weekend. Belgian Eddy Merckx, widely regarded as the best cyclist of all time, is seen as a near lock for the race, having won three times earlier in his career. His compatriot, Roger de Vlaeminck, had also won three times, including the 1975 running. Young rising stars such as Freddy Maertens and Francisco Moser are also seen as outside threats for the title.

The film starts in the team hotels, where the soigneurs, or caretakers, helped the riders prepare for the race. Legs are shaved, medical checks performed, and bikes prepared for the hellish race ahead.

The race gets off to a slow start, meandering through town streets until the true start flag drops. However, the racers will not get far. A group of activists blocks off the road, causing chaos in the bunch. The riders are allowed through, though, and the attacks become more furious and numerous. However, the breakaway already has a lead on the bunch. The riders in bunch start chasing harder.

When talking about Roubaix, it is impossible not to talk about the cobblestones. Sections of road made up of large, rough cut stones give the race its character. There are no steep, leg burning climbs, and no long, grinding ones either. There is only the unforgiving, muddy cobbles, usually used only by farmers. In fact, the cobbles were so rough and antiquated that many mayors began paving their cobbled roads in order to not be seen as backwards. However, the cobbled sectors have become so legendary that their names live in infamy. Carrefour de l’Abre. Trouée d’Arenberg. Mons-en-Pévèle. Just saying these names will bring memories rushing back to a cycling fan.

As the riders hit the rough surfaces, the high speeds quickly established a pecking order and shredded the bunch, spitting the slower riders straight out to the back. The pace got quicker and quicker each mile, and the cobblestones soon started taking victims. Riders who had worked for their teammates in the beginning were being picked up by the broomwagon, the van used to collect riders who were too far back. In fact, many were just giving up.

Paris-Roubaix is the ultimate example of the importance of teamwork in cycling. Riders are suffering along the worst roads in the world, just to make sure that their team leader doesn’t have to ride in the wind. They are giving them tires after the inevitable punctures, and giving them water out of their own bottles. It is a sport where the individual sacrifices ultimately spell glory for the leader, and Roubaix is a race that can only be won by someone with great teammates.

The race is starting to come back together. The attacking group from the early cobbled sections, containing pre-race favorite Roger de Vlaeminck, are being reeled in as the second group, where Eddy Merckx finds himself, starts to push the pace. Another early favorite, Freddy Maertens, has tried to bridge to the leading groups out of the main group. As the pace skyrockets, more and more stragglers are forced to retire for the day.

As attack after attack comes in the later stages of the race, Roger de Vlaeminck makes the critical attack with around 31 kilometers to go. Taking four other riders with him, including Italian national champion Francesco Moser, de Vlaeminck is content setting the pace, believing in the strength and conditioning of his own legs. However, as the final sprint is contested in the storied Roubaix Velodrome, Belgian Marc Demayer, himself a veteran of the spring classics, outsprints the three-time winner, and immediately places his name in cycling history.

Roubaix is unlike any other race. There is no leader’s jersey, there is no advertising caravan and there are no picturesque climbs through the French Alps or the Italian Dolomites. There is only a select group of hard men, riding their bikes over the most dangerous, hallowed roads of all.