09 June 2022
In the fourth series of Orbea’s Pachamama, we explore the behind-the-scenes work to save Paris-Roubaix
Promotional function in collaboration with Orbea
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The first time you hit the cobblestones in your life, it’s a shock. You may have been preparing for this moment for a long time, but it’s always a surprise when it arrives. You never know how it will go.
“I was at the end of the peloton, and I fell. When I got up, I saw cars in a ditch on the side of the road, bikes on the ground and other riders falling around me. That’s when I realized. by what do we call this road the hell of the north.” In October of last year, Laura Asencio of Ceratizit-WNT Pro Cycling Team participated in the first edition of the Paris-Roubaix femmes. And even if he hasn’t finished it, or maybe because of that, he’ll never forget his first experience with pavé.
“It’s definitely the Queen of the Classics. The only race where we have to change all the equipment on our bikes. The only race with an epic finish. And the kind of cobblestones it rides on its course, well , you don’t find them anywhere else. And when you’ve ridden them, you understand that this is a race like no other,” he says.
The hell of the north
The label Hell of the North that so aptly describes Roubaix is partly shrouded in mystery, and various tales attempt to trace its origin. But there is one that many people use as a benchmark. In 1919, at the end of the First World War, a journalist from L’Auto was sent to northern France. He saw the devastation of the bombing and described the scenes as the hell of the north (c’est la infero!). There wasn’t much left of those once lush and green lands. Only rocks and burnt farms remained.
However, other historical battles contributed to enrich the narrative of the Inferno du Nord. Black and white photos and then videos of cyclists covered in mud and dust added a connotation to the nickname’s original meaning. The hell of the north became the perfect description of what the runners had to endure to cross the iconic finish line at the André Petriuex velodrome in Roubaix.
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Paris-Roubaix and cobblestone eventually became a sporting and human heritage, a heritage that the cycling brand Orbea has at its heart. Because riding on the pavé, as well as riding in solitude along a historic pilgrim path or racing Unbound Gravel, represents the spirit of Pachamama, the spirit of riding with Mother Nature at heart. But the pavé is, first and foremost, a farm. road, an agricultural road that connects the regional farms around Roubaix with its farmland in a historical connection that has existed since the 17th century. Its meaning is rooted in the history of these farmlands and their inhabitants.
It has become their identity and encapsulates their values: courage, tenacity, hard work and team spirit; it’s no wonder the pavé has also become one of cycling’s most powerful symbols. Several connections and similarities link the agricultural background and the difficulties of bicycle racing, even more so in a tough race like Roubaix.
The Friends of Paris-Roubaix
And this is also why the non-profit association Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix has been fighting since 1977 to preserve the race. They began their mission when modernity and the political agenda would have preferred to replace cobblestones with asphalt, sand and new construction. But can you imagine getting rid of the cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix? It would strip cycling, and the people who live in this region, of their identity. Cobblestones are to Roubaix what Notre Dame is to Paris. A gem to fight for. To replace them? Never! (Never!).
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The association – which now has 351 volunteers from 17 different nationalities – wants to maintain and preserve the pavé for the future, promote the race and document its efforts through a historical archive.
The sole fact of keeping the pavé is no joke. You have to remove the stones one by one, put a new footing on the ground, add another footing for water drainage, and then put the pavers back. It’s a huge task. One that takes countless hours, which the Friends do not count, because preserving the pavé is their passion. But his work has also become heritage. Their know-how comes from the ancient art of building roads with large cobblestones. They transcended their intent and resurrected something that needs to be protected anyway.
“We work for a queen we don’t see. A queen who only lives in our minds,” says François Deulcier, president of Les Amis de Roubaix.
When they started, Deulcier explains, the cobblestones were old and in poor condition. Politicians thought it was not a good image for the region. They wanted to replace them with modern roads to make things fast and forget the old and slow past. Hence the need to step into Roubaix and give it a new and fabulous look. Nowadays, it would look and sound like blasphemy to replace paving stones with asphalt. It would cause a cycling revolution. Never, never!
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And although the restoration work done by Les Amis – along with the development of gravel bikes – have made the cobblestone sectors less intimidating than in the past, riding these roads will never be easy. It will always be the ultimate challenge in concentration and endurance cycling.
Even those riders and cyclists who take part in Paris-Roubaix and perhaps get seriously injured on its most notorious stages will never allow tarmac to be built over cobblestones. Never, never, never!
Pavé, pride, Roubaix!