06 April 2011

Hell of the North (or the Glory that is Paris-Roubaix)

photo courtesy of Rapha
"The 2011 Paris-Roubaix looks set to be another cracker, with a tougher course, more cobbles and plenty of teams and riders coming into the race with a point to prove."

photo courtesy of Reuters
In popular imagination, the hellishness of Paris-Roubaix is epitomized by the legendary (and I seriously mean legendary; we're talking Holy Grail status for cyclists [and particularly reliquary for fans of the Spring Classics]) cobbles. So ingrained in the powerful mystique of the race, so representative of the trial and (hopeful) triumph, the cobbles have become synonymous with the event. Evocative of the suffering, the culture, the history, the panache, for the cobbles are the race for many spectators. Perhaps more poignantly, after riding approximately 260km, significant portions which involve the body jarring and mentally discombobulating pavé (distance varies from year to year as older roads are resurfaced and organizers seek more cobbles to maintain the character of the race), the winner is presented with a trophy comprised of a giant hunk of granite mounted atop a wooden plinth (which has to be seriously sturdy given the heft of the pavé it is supporting). Overcome with joy (from winning), disorientation (from the cobbles), relief (from surviving) or some combination thereof, the winner promptly proceeds to kiss the prized pavé (see Fabian above).

photo courtesy of Rapha

In a stroke of brilliant business acumen and bespoke tailoring, Rapha is comemorating the 2011 running of the Queen of the Classics with not one, but two separate Roubaix inspired events. In collaboration with ASO they've teamed up to create an amazing sportive (i.e. opportunity to ride the route with professional support and absent of the embarrassment of failed attempts to keep pace with Boonen, Cancellara, among countless other less-well-known-yet-still-ridiculously-strong-riders). To be held on 9 April 2011, the day before the pros race, the appropriately titled Paris-Roubaix Challenge is "an event that is strewn with obstacles." Scroll down for a short film documenting the efforts of five riders who pre-rode the Paris-Roubaix Challenge, as a recce for the real thing on 9th April.

Alternatively, you can choose to celebrate Paris-Roubaix on race day with a free 100km North London ride (including 20 gravé [see above for definition] sectors). Complete with "Belgian style hospitality at the finish" Hell of the North 2, promises to showcase the best features of Paris-Roubaix. If last year's inaugural edition was any indication (check out photos here) the course should be epic, the scenery iconic, and the camaraderie classically sportsmanlike. Riders lucky enough to depart with the Rapha crew from Highgate will the watch live coverage of Paris-Roubaix from the friendly confines of Black Horse Pub "accompanied by beer and frites."
"This wasn't a race. It was a pilgrimage."
Henri Pélissier, winner of inaugural 1919 Paris-Roubaix
photo courtesy of Wikipedia 
For more about the history behind the "Hell of the North" moniker, please read Les Woodland's "The real Hell of the North." It's a quick and interesting look at the the lore behind the Queen of the Classics. Although he debunks some of mystique associated with the hellishness, Woodland does nothing to tarnish the prestige. Quite oppositely, Woodland's historical grounding helps engender a richer and more complex (not to mention historically grounded and more accurate) appreciation for the determination of all those associated with this event (cyclists, promoters/organizers, spectators, etc.). Be sure to skim Woodland's article. For a more in-depth treatment of Paris-Roubaix, check out Paris-Roubaix: A Journey Through Hell (Velopress, 2007) or for an intimate celebration of all the storied one-day campaigns, The Spring Classics: Cycling's Greatest One-Day Races (Velopress, 2010).

Find a streaming webcast of the race here (no promises that it will be broadcast in English; in fact, the odds are against it - French, Dutch, or Flemish are infinitely more passionate languages for cycling races anyway). For a more cartographic sense at the race, take a look at the route map.