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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

From Hell with Love: Paris-Roubaix

Hell of the North on 4/11

The Paris-Roubaix is known as The Hell of the North, The Queen of the Classics, and the Easter Race. It is a one day race that makes up one of the sport's "monuments", along with Milan-San Remo, The Tour of Flanders, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and The Giro di Lombardia. Paris-Roubaix is usually 260km of narrow back roads, cow paths and the notorious cobbled stretches that are as heralded as much as they are reviled.

The race was established in 1896 as a venture between textile merchants who wanted to raise their profile and later the P-R acquired its fitting moniker, "The Hell of the North" following WWI, when a scouting expedition for the race returned from the countryside aghast at the level of destruction. The name stuck as it can aptly be applied to describe racing conditions, which are often wet, cold, muddy and fraught with all sorts of danger.

"Thousands line the road in this annual rite of spring cheering their larger than life heroes. Urging, at times, even helping them victory. They ride in the tracks of bygone legends dreaming of distant fame and glory. But glory is not without a price.These bloodied and battered warriors struggle through the rain, the cold, the mud, on roads better suited to oxen cart than bicycles. But for the victor there is glory, immortality and a place in history amongst the giants of the road. Since 1896, the greatest bike racers on earth have come to test their very souls in this brutal and beautiful spectacle".

CBS Sports - 1987

Clip from A Sunday In Hell
"Let me tell you, though - there's a huge difference between Flanders and Paris–Roubaix. They're not even close to the same. In one, the cobbles are used every day by the cars, and kept up, and stuff like that. The other one - it's completely different ... The best I could do would be to describe it like this - they plowed a dirt road, flew over it with a helicopter, and then just dropped a bunch of rocks out of the helicopter! That's Paris–Roubaix. It's that bad - it's ridiculous." - Chris Horner
The cobbled sections are incredibly dangerous and many a wheel and steerer have been eaten by the cobbles resulting in some serious carnage. The most notorious section of cobbles (pave) runs through the Arenberg forest; a stretch of uneven stones that has sat in place for centuries and now remains unused by all but farmers driving cattle to the fields.

The route is so punishing, many teams come prepared with modified equipment specifically designed for this race. Teams typically run wider tires at lower pressures, switch out carbon fiber stems and bars for aluminum, use double or triple wraps of bar tape and some even come with specially designed bikes that barely pass UCI rules. Many teams have been known to use modified cyclocross bikes with their longer stays and relaxed geometry--Anything to take the sting out.

“It's a bollocks, this race!” said de Rooij. “You're working like an animal, you don't have time to piss, you wet your pants. You're riding in mud like this, you're slipping ... it’s a pile of shit.”--Theo de Rooij
When then asked if he would start the race again, de Rooij replied
“Sure, it's the most beautiful race in the world!

After the first rider enters the velodrome in Roubaix and does a couple spins he can collect his trophy; a single cobble stone mounted on a plaque.

When I built my own bike up I had Paris-Roubaix in mind. I wanted a bike that could soak up the bumps on Taiwan's roadways where, due to the construction economy, roads are patched and repatched regularly. I thought of the modified CX bikes and thought I could do the same. So far so good.