The first time I watched Paris-Roubaix was in 1985 when it was broadcast on CBS sports. Back then, they would show a heavily edited, over-produced hour long show months after the actual race had taken place, usually on some weekend when there were no other major U.S. sporting events. That year’s edition was won by Marc Madiot who slipped clear of Bruno Wojtinek, Francesco Moser, Sean Kelly and a young Greg Lemond. As I watched the riders, caked in mud, battle cobblestones, crosswinds and each other, I thought it was insane. The distance alone –265 km — seemed impossible. It was the hardest, most miserable thing I had ever seen in sport and I was hooked.
In the years that followed, I watched as many editions of the race as I could. They called it L’Enfer du Nord, the Hell of the North. The inclement weather, the brutal conditions and the extreme distances became synonymous with the sport of cycling. The desire to race on these same roads grew inside me. Eventually, I would make it to France to race bicycles, but nowhere near the level of the professional classics riders. I did a lot of amateur racing around St. Quentin and Château-Thierry, in the Picardie and Champagne regions, the terrain where World War I was fought, over cobblestones, against the relentless crosswinds.
It was much easier to appreciate the effort of riders like Boonen when watched on a large screen TV from the sofa. Tom Boonen won this year’s edition in the style of les grands, going solo from 50km out and riding the final sectors of pavé on his own. I’ve seen victory snatched away so frequently under such conditions, but Boonen held his own. While the live coverage rolled, I could not relax until he crossed the finish in the famous velodrome in Roubaix.
I just recently learned that the origin of the name “L’Enfer du Nord” comes from how race organizers described the route when recon’d in 1919, following the armistice. The land had been so destroyed, so raped by the trench warfare, artillery and mustard gas, that to them it looked like Hell on earth. Nonetheless, they sent the riders through it that following year and would continue to do so for the decades that would follow. A fact, I’m sure that has not been lost on the riders, whether they cross the final line victorious or are lost along the way.