07 April 2011


But it doesn't start in Paris 
This Sunday the Hell of the North swirls into the town of Compiegne and bounces right back out over the cobbles 258km north into the town of Roubaix. Forty million people reportedly watched the Tour of Flanders live on TV last Sunday, many more will be watching Paris-Roubaix this Sunday.

Paris-Roubaix - but the race doesn't start in Paris? The Paris-Roubaix ends in Roubaix, but it starts in Compiegne (as it has since 1977). Its a French race, the French do things their way. It is tradition! The race's nickname Hell of the North is interpreted as describing the effort exerted by the men, or more often the conditions on race day, but the real story behind the nickname is below.

This Sunday's weather in Compiegne, France, is predicted to be "Mild with brilliant sunshine 19C (real feel 24C)".  I'd say a little more like heaven, and a lot less like hell. 
Paris-Roubaix 2011 route map (link to larger map)
History of the Paris-Roubaix - it is much more than a name
Does any race actually begin in Paris? Not the Paris-Nice or the Paris-Roubaix. The first Paris-Roubaix race was organized in 1896, and did indeed depart form the city of Paris to the town of Roubaix, 280 km to the north. Théodore Vienne and Maurice Perez had built a velodrome in their town of Roubaix the previous year and wanted to attract people to marvel at their accomplishment. They needed fans to fill the stands. They needed local hype and national marketing. They convinced the editor of Le Velo, a daily sports paper in Paris, to organize the start of the race from Paris to their small town in the north.

This was a new race that required new parcours. The cycling editor of Le Velo, Victor Breyer set out to plot the route from Paris to Roubaix. The wind blew, the rain fell and the temperature dropped. Breyer reached Roubaix filthy and exhausted after a day of riding on disjointed cobbles. He swore he would send a telegram back to Paris urging Vienne and Perez to drop their idea, saying it was dangerous to send a race over the course he had just ridden. After the evening meal and drinks set in, Breyer soon downplayed the horrendous conditions of the day, changed his mind and a new race was born, but not the nickname yet, that came much later.

Sure the race usually leaves riders caked in mud and grit from the cobbled roads and rutted tracks of northern France's former coal-mining region. Some of our best cycling photographs to date depict the grueling expressions on rider's faces after completing the Paris-Roubaix. However, this is not how the race earned the name l'enfer du Nord, or Hell of the North. The term originated after World War I. In 1919, twenty-three years after the first race, organizers and journalists again set off from Paris to see how much of the route had survived four years of shelling and trench warfare. They were uncertain if there was still a road to Roubaix? Or if the town of Roubaix remained as it had been.

The car of organizers and journalists made its way along the route, at first all looked well. There was destruction and there was poverty and there was a noticeable shortage of men, but France had survived. Then the scenery changed. As they neared the north, the air began to reek of broken drains, raw sewage and the stench of rotting cattle. "Trees which had begun to look forward to spring became instead blackened, ragged stumps, their twisted branches pushed to the sky like the crippled arms of a dying man. Everywhere was mud. Nobody knows who first described it as hell, but there was no better word."  

The History of the Paris-Roubaix continued as the roads improved over the years and the race organizers sought  more difficult cobbles to add intensity to the race. The Paris-Roubaix is tradition, but the course is not, it has changed over time (2011 cobble sectors). The Arenberg Forest was added in 1968. Read more about the modern history of the Paris-Roubaix race: Roubaix and the hunt for cobbles by the InnerRing, Wednesday, 6 April 2011