"It's never scared me. In the end it's just a race. You have to keep on riding and hope that nothing happens to you. It's a race of natural selection: the strong and the lucky survive." Michele Bartoli, 2004.
it has always seemed a tad strange to my velocipedinal constitution, that the cobbles of paris-roubaix are not as well kent as the hills and roads of the tour de france. having commenced its existence seven years prior to those three weeks in july, it has everything that the tour occasionally does not. granted, three weeks is a greater period of time for the latter event to invade the psyche of the civilian population, but surely the deeds of derring-do, cobbles, mud (occasionally) and folks standing with wheels held aloft ought to hold greater sway.
the branch of the sport with which it holds closest ties, that of cyclocross, has been oft recommended as the ideal form of cycle racing to hold a limited attention span. races of a mere hour ought to offer a level of visibility guaranteed not to create consternation amongst the average couch potato. rustic, gritty racingness in a one day event would surely only dent the cushions for a trifle longer.
yet there are more books written about the tour de france and the history of same than that of malt whisky. (actually that's stretching credibility just a smidgeon too far. there are squillions of the latter, all saying much the same thing.) paris-roubaix, despite the fact that it hasn't left from paris since 1967, has a history that easily tracks the integral history of the sport, ostensibly in a more graphic manner than the highways and byways of the tour de france. surely it is indicative of the spark provided by paris-roubaix, that many of those risking life and limb in the early days of april subsequently shun the smoothness of le tour.
yet it has the same parent as its lengthy counterpart.
since 1968 the race, one of cycle racing's monuments, has begun its northward trundle from the city of compiegne, but still finishes in the town of roubaix, admittedly not one of the jewels in france's crown. "And so it goes for the town of Roubaix. For cyclists it is the end of the rainbow. For the rest of France, it is an embarrassment, a rundown place so close to Belgium that you wonder they don't push it across the border. If an enemy again invaded, nobody would defend Roubaix."
les woodland is one of british cycle writing's best kept secrets, for despite having written gems such as the unknown tour de france, cycling heroes, cycling's 50 craziest stories and this island race, there are authors whose names roll off the tongue more readily than that of woodland. this is, in itself, something of a travesty, for he has one of the most relaxed, chatty styles of writing to appeal to not only the cognoscenti, but the more casual reader. in fact, he is one of the few writers (along with richard moore and herbie sykes) who transcends the genre about which he is writing. you wouldn't need to have a specific interest in cycle racing to enjoy paris-roubaix; the inside story.
the race has its origins in the vision of theo vienne and maurice perez, owners of a textile mill in roubaix's rue de pays. according to reports, both had seen and perhaps organised races in the parc barbieux, and had seen the commercial possibilities. "Anybody could watch races in a park for nothing; put them in an arena and money could change hands. According to one account, they bought 46,000 square metres at the junction of the rue verte and the route de hempempont. There they would build a velodrome."
the race had its idiosyncracy in travelling from paris, rather than to the city, and had its beginnings as a training race held three weeks before the far longer and more strenuous bordeaux-paris. woodland describes the initial running of the race in superb, atmospheric detail, offering character studies of the principal protagonists accompanied by an intriguing narrative following "La Course Velocipedique Paris-Roubaix"
"'The crowds from Hempempont onwards hindered the riders considerably', the Journal de Roubaix reported, 'obliging them to ride on the cobbles. The cars, bicycles, tandems and triplets which crowded the road were a serious nuisance.'" zydnek stybar would, i'd warrant, find much sympathy with that latter observation.
this is history, jim, but not as we know it. woodland traces the event's past in characterful detail; were the book to have been illustrated by other than period photographs, the works of pete english, to which i recently paid tribute, woould have been an excellent choice. it makes for compulsive reading, even in the kindle version from which i have made my review. it is perhaps a telling indictment, if i may make so bold, that this volume is published by an american publisher, and rather perspicaciously if i might say so. thus one or two spellings are less than european, though i mention this by way of observation rather than any minor form of criticism.
it must surely be a fitting testament not only to the contemporeneity of the book, but to its most recent victor to leave with the following 2008 quote from fabian cancellara
"The closer we came to the Arenberg forest, the more alone I was. I was already a few minutes behind in the forest. I was going, like, 5 kilometres per hour on the rocks and going bump, bump, bump. It was so bad. I was so upset about how I rode that I stopped at the second feed zone.
a beautiful book about the sport's most beautiful race.
wednesday 17th april 2013..........................................................................................................................................................................................................