‘The hell of the North’

Inside the velodrome: Paris-Roubaix 2015.
Source: Andrew Curry. CC BY-NC-SA

I recently spent a few days in Lille so I could watch Paris-Roubaix, which is for me one of the great one day cycle races, run over sections of cobbles, starting these days from Compiègne, and finishing as it did in the very first race in the velodrome at Roubaix, close to the Belgian border. Since we were there anyway, we also decided to visit the area of Great War fighting around Ypres—the Ypres salient.

Happily, we found a Flemish cyclo-tourist company, Biking Box, which was able to guide us on a one day ride across the last eight secteurs of the race, before dropping us at the velodrome to watch the race unfold on the big screen. And then picked us up the next day to ride the route around the salient, learning more about the “war of the mines” as we went.

Afterwards, reading Iain MacGregor’s chatty history of the race, built around his attempt to do the amateur sportive that now precedes the professional race, I discovered that in a way, these two were related.

Paris-Roubaix has always been run in April, and in 1919 Henri Desgrange, of the race sponsors L’Auto, sent one of his reporters, Victor Breyer, and the cyclist Eugène Christophe to recce the route, to see if it would be possible to hold the race. Lille and Roubaix had been behind the German lines for most of the war, so the race would have to run across the battlefields.

Neither was prepared for what they found. The images of the mud and desolation of the trenches are familiar to us now, but little of the news that came from the front described the conditions. Breyer’s report has a shocked tone:

”From Doullens onwards, the countryside was nothing but desolation. The shattered trees looked vaguely like skeletons, the paths had collapsed and been potholed or torn away by shells. The vegetation, rare, had been replaced by military vehicles in a pitiful state. The house of villages were no more than bare walls. At their foot, heaps of rubble. Eugène Christophe exclaimed, “Here, this really is the hell of the north”.”

And yet … as MacGregor explains, on Easter Sunday 1919, after a minute’s silence, the race did roll out of Paris, a peleton of 130 riders, flanked by columns of French soldiers, with crowds cheering them on. Henri Pelissier’s winning time was the slowest on record, as was the average speed, down to a mixture of the road conditions, the lack of racing fitness of the riders, their pre-war bikes, and possibly a deal done by the peleton not to race until the last 70 kilometres or so.

”The resumption of the race”, writes MacGregor, “certainly attracted the crowds, but there was also a definite sense of starting anew—an attempt to reignite enthusiasm for such an event, perhaps any social event, so soon after the devastation of the Great War.”


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