Paris-Roubaix: Ultimate Guide To Cycling’s “Hell Of The North”

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One of the oldest day races still running today, Paris-Roubaix is perhaps the most infamous race in cycling.

The aptly-named “Hell of the North” takes riders over extremely difficult terrain, including 30 cobbled sections totaling over 50km of the route. The race is one of the five Monuments of cycling, and probably the most famous and prestigious race outside of the three Grand Tours.

But what makes Paris-Roubaix so iconic, and why is it so feared by professional cyclists?

To get you up to speed on the Paris-Roubaix, we’ll be covering:

  • Paris-Roubaix: The Overview
  • History Of Paris-Roubaix
  • What Type Of Riders Do Best In The Paris-Roubaix
  • Three Legendary Paris-Roubaix Races
  • What Happened at the 2022 Paris-Roubaix?

Ready for the lowdown on the most infamous race in cycling?

Let’s get going!

Paris-Roubaix Guide: Title Image

Paris-Roubaix: The Overview

Paris-Roubaix, ominously nicknamed the “Hell of the North” (“L’Enfer du Nord” in French) is a brutal one-day race dating back to 1896.

The race is shrouded with infamy, notorious for accidents, and revered as one of the most important races in the cycling calendar.

The route famously includes long sections of cobblestones (pavé), which are extremely difficult to traverse on a road bike. This gives the race its reputation as the most challenging and dangerous of the five Monument races.

The weather is another factor that can make the Paris-Roubaix so challenging. The pavé is often wet and muddy, making it slippery as ice, increasing the danger and excitement for its spectators. Even when it’s dry, cyclists are sprayed by the dust kicked up by the cyclists ahead, severely impairing their vision and even their breathing.

The route runs for 260 km across northern France, starting 80 km north of Paris in Compiègne, and ending in the velodrome at Roubaix. Coming out of Compiègne, riders must follow 96 km of paved rolling hills, battling for position before hitting the first section of hellish cobbles in Troisvilles.

The last 150 km of the route contains over 50 km of pavé, split into 30 sections. Cyclists are often grimacing to such an extent towards the final sections, it can resemble an old English gurning competition. When crossing the finish line, they are usually covered in sweat, dirt, and mud from head to toe.

Since 1977, the winner of Paris-Roubaix receives a mounted cobblestone. This can serve as a source of irony for some, as it’s not uncommon for participants to assert that they will never again set their eyes on the pavé of the Hell of the North.

The peloton rides past a field of yellow flowers at the Paris-Roubaix.

History of Paris-Roubaix

Founded in 1896, Paris-Roubaix has a long and eventful history.

The second oldest surviving race in cycling, Paris-Roubaix is sometimes called the “Queen of the Classics”. Liège–Bastogne–Liège is the only Classic cycling race to predate it.

In 1895, two entrepreneurs constructed a velodrome in the small city of Roubaix. In an attempt to attract more publicity to the project, they contacted a Parisian sporting magazine, Le Vélo, with the proposal of initiating a race starting in Paris and ending at the new velodrome.

The race was planned for Easter Sunday, 1896, but was later moved due to backlash from both fans and cyclists as the race clashed with Easter mass. After moving the date, the very first Paris-Roubaix was won by German cyclist Josef Fischer.

Since 1977, the race has kicked off in Compiègne, 80 km north of Paris. However, this wasn’t always the case. Before 1966, the launching-off point was always somewhere in Paris, with the exact location regularly changing. However, for the following decade, it started in Chantilly, 50 km north of Paris.

These route changes are usually to preserve the character of the race, with organizers in constant pursuit of more and more cobbled roads, always attempting to increase the proportion of the route that is cobbled.

Since 1983, this has been the task of “Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix” (The Friends of Paris-Roubaix), a community-organized group consisting of thousands of dedicated fans of the Queen of Classics. They patrol roads between Paris and Roubaix, trying to find more cobbled surfaces to be used in the race.

An example of potholed cobbles on the Paris-Roubaix course.
Credit: F Lamiot, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Edited from the original.

What type of riders do best in the Paris-Roubaix?

The Paris-Roubaix arguably doesn’t suit any riders. The bone-shaking cobbles are not fun to ride, even for seasoned professionals. Having said this, there are some riders who seem to consistently outperform their competition in the Hell of the North.

Roger De Vlaeminck – nicknamed “Monsieur Paris-Roubaix” for his exploits – won four editions of Paris-Roubaix during the ’70s, beating even the great Eddy Merckx‘s record. Merckx, a three-time Paris-Roubaix champion himself, once reflected:

“Roger was just better than the rest. I respected everyone but he was the only one I really feared.”

Eddy Merckx

Tom Boonen would later match this record between 2005 and 2012. So, what set these two apart from the competition?

Roger De Vlaeminck was a Classics specialist, one of just three cyclists to win all five of cycling’s historic Monument races. You could call him an all-rounder, an excellent time-trialist, climber, and sprinter, but he clearly showed a special aptitude for the cobbles. Fellow Paris-Roubaix champion Eddy Planckaert once remarked:

“Roger didn’t ride over the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix, he hovered over them.”

Eddy Planckaert

Tom Boonen was arguably less of an all-rounder than De Vlaeminck. Although he was still a Classics specialist, he was particularly good at sprinting. However, he also had a reputation as one of the “hardmen” of cycling. During his career, he suffered separate fractures to his skull, collarbone, and ribs – yet still competed in the Paris-Roubaix after each of these.

It’s difficult to tell what sets these two apart from the rest, besides a distinct lack of fear exhibited by either of them. Clearly, this race favors all-rounders and sprinters to some extent, due to the flat nature of the route, but that doesn’t explain the domination of these two riders in particular.

Perhaps the pavé could be considered a specialism itself, favoring those who possess a certain fearlessness – such as the two Kings of the Cobbles, De Vlaeminck and Boonen.

Three Legendary Paris-Roubaix Races

Paris-Roubaix, 1927: wait, who crossed the line first?

Paris-Roubaix: Ultimate Guide To Cycling's "Hell Of The North" 1
George Ronsse and Charles Pelissier lead the field at the 1927 Paris-Roubaix.

Young Belgian rider George Ronsse had sustained an attack for nearly the entire race, only to be caught by the chasing group in the final kilometers into Roubaix. Included in this group was French rider and home-favorite Joseph Curtel.

Curtel and Ronsse fought it out to the finish line in an intense sprint, with fellow riders and fans alike believing Curtel had won.

The French fans began celebrating, along with Curtel and his fellow teammates. The French national anthem blasted over a loudspeaker for all to hear.

The celebrations proved premature, however, when the official results revealed Ronsse to be the winner – sparking scenes of fury and controversy that ensure the Paris-Roubaix of 1927 lives on in cycling folklore today.

Paris-Roubaix, 1975: Settling an old rivalry

Arguably the greatest road cyclist of all time, Eddy Merckx was the one to beat for many cyclists at the 1975 Paris-Roubaix.

With a final group of just four riders, Merckx led out the sprint in typically terrible conditions, with Roger De Vlaeminck only just making it around him to take his third win.

This win mattered more than any other to De Vlaeminck, as it was his biggest rival, Eddy Merckx, who he pipped at the line for first place.

The importance of this rivalry to the two Belgians came to define one-day racing in the era. When asked about his record-breaking fourth victory, which came two years later in 1977, De Vlaeminck reminisced:

“Winning Paris-Roubaix ahead of Willy Teirlinck [in 1977] was a disappointment. I wanted Merckx to be second.”

Roger De Vlaeminck

Paris-Roubaix, 2012: Boonen takes his fourth

Tom Boonen equaled De Vlaeminck’s tally of four wins in the Hell of the North by winning the 2012 Paris-Roubaix. Perhaps Roger De Vlaeminck’s title “Mr. Paris-Roubaix” should be shared with his more modern challenger – though controversially, De Vlaeminck has described Boonen as “unworthy” of his legacy, claiming that bike racing is less competitive in the modern era.

Boonen was a dominating figure at Paris-Roubaix from his debut in 2002, in which he finished an impressive third place. In fact, in 12 total entries to the race, he only ever finished outside the top 10 once, and was on the podium 7 times.

This is an incredible record, arguably unmatched, with the original “Mr. Paris-Roubaix” De Vlaeminck requiring several more attempts to achieve his four victories.

What Happened at the 2022 Paris-Roubaix?

After all this history, you might be wondering what happened in the most recent edition of the Paris-Roubaix. Going into this year’s edition, cyclocross legends Wout Van Aert and Mathieu Van Der Poel were considered the favorites to win.

However, victory was clinched by an extremely impressive showing by outside contender Dylan Van Baarle of Ineos Grenadiers, who dominated the race to finish almost two minutes clear of Wout Van Aert in second place.

He began his race-winning breakaway relatively early, enduring 18 km of solo riding before emerging victorious at the finish line.

The conditions were relatively good (at least, for the Hell of the North), except for a crosswind that helped to separate the peloton after just 47 km, leaving many of the favorites chasing the race from early on. The split lasted for a number of the cobbled sections and signaled that Ineos Grenadiers meant business this year.

It was a message that proved telling, as Dylan Van Baarle became the first Ineos rider to lift the coveted cobblestone trophy at the top of the podium.

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Jack is an experienced cycling writer based in San Diego, California. Though he loves group rides on a road bike, his true passion is backcountry bikepacking trips. His greatest adventure so far has been cycling the length of the Carretera Austral in Chilean Patagonia, and the next bucket-list trip is already in the works. Jack has a collection of vintage steel racing bikes that he rides and painstakingly restores. The jewel in the crown is his Colnago Master X-Light.

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