We revisit our long read from 2017 looking at the history of one of cycling's most iconic tests.
Paris-Roubaix. The Hell of the North. Cobblestones and suffering. Right in the middle of this infernal course there lies a 2,400-metre-long straight surrounded by greenery and woodland where danger and defiance reach unmatched heights. This is the Trouée d'Arenberg, or the Arenberg Trench; an unparallelled sector full of intrigue and fascination.
"It’s a b******s this race! You’re working like an animal, you don’t have time to piss, you wet your pants. You’re riding in mud like this, you’re slipping around, it’s a piece of s**t…"
It’s April 14, 1985 and Theo de Rooij, like so many others, has just been forced to abandon Paris-Roubaix. Exhausted, covered in dust and his body throbbing in pain, the Dutchman launched this scathing attack on a race that even Steffen Wesemann – the German who twice finished on the Roubaix podium – declared “abnormal”. But when asked a few moments later whether he would come back and race it again, de Rooij gave the reply that would go down in history: “Of course, it’s the most beautiful race in the world.”
In his words, de Rooij captured the palpable appeal of the so-called Queen of the Classics. This curious link between attraction and repulsion is part of Paris-Roubaix’s DNA. If the appeal of cycling lies in pushing yourself to your limit and teetering on the edge of the abyss of suffering, then no other event in the world encourages this fine balance of madness and bravery than Paris-Roubaix.
And throughout this extraordinary test of will the stakes are never higher than during the savage 2,400 metres of the Arenberg Trench. In less than half a century this captivating place has become at once the most emblematic cobbled sector of them all, but far more than that it has become the incarnation of Paris-Roubaix itself. So join us as we discover the history of this wonderful race and its countless compelling aspects. But beware: hell is just around the corner.
Tom Boonen has won Paris-Roubaix four times
Image credit: AFP
1 - The Birth of a Legend
John Loudon McAdam never knew Paris-Roubaix, but he almost killed it. Born in 1756, the Scottish engineer would revolutionise the way roads were built in the nineteenth century. His new process of “macadamisation” created roads with a smooth, hard surface that were considerably more durable and less muddy than soil-based tracks. It brought McAdam fame, fortune and – like Sir Bradley Wiggins – a knighthood. He became known as the “Colossus of Roads”. But it was also thanks to his invention of “macadam” that one of the world’s most famous bike races found its very existence threatened some 130 years after his death.
Put simply, macadam is the sworn enemy of pavé. With more and more people driving during the 1960s there was a greater need for improved road surfaces. Cobbled roads soon became a thing of the past, covered by macadam or asphalt. This may have been a good thing for local people and drivers but it was poison for Paris-Roubaix. By 1965 there remained just 22 kilometres of cobblestone roads in the entire 265.5km course. Modernisation was threatening the exact nature of the race. Two years later, when Jan Janssen won Paris-Roubaix in a sprint between 15 riders, fears grew that the race was no longer selective enough.
Had Paris-Roubaix become too easy? That was the major concern of Jacques Goddet, the race director. “Goddet was livid,” says cycling historian Pascal Sergent – a man who knows the cobbles of Roubaix like the back of his hand. “Although it was a thrilling finish he couldn’t comprehend such a race being decided by a sprint. As a result he asked [the recently retired rider and Paris-Roubaix course designer] Albert Bouvet to find some new cobbled sectors, even if that meant completely changing the itinerary of the race.”
It’s here where Jean Stablinski enters the story. Winner of the 1958 Vuelta and world champion in 1962, Jacques Anquetil’s old road captain was a huge figure in French cycling. Crucially, he was also born and bred in the north of France and knew the region inside out. Entrusted by Bouvet to locate some new cobbled sectors north of Valenciennes, Stablinski instantly thought of Wallers-Arenberg.
As Sergent explains: “Jean said to Albert, ‘Look, I know a cobbled sector but I don’t know if it’s possible to ride over it. It’s in a forest next to the mines.”
Stablinski knew the area well because he had worked in a mine shaft at nearby Bellaing before his cycling career took off. It was in this very mine where the director Claude Berri shot the film Germinal during the 90s. A prominent feature of the mine was a bridge which, until operations ceased in 1989, was used to transport shale to the spoil heaps. It’s this same bridge that marks the gateway to the cobbled sector. “I must be the only rider to have passed both under and over this bridge,” Stablinski would often joke.
The mines and the cobbles: the history of Arenberg
Image credit: Eurosport
Reconnaissance of the area continued until January 1968 but the race director had yet to give the green light, because Goddet was in fact horrified by what he saw. “When he went to the site for the first time he thought it was not possible to make the riders go there,” says Sergent. It was too difficult, too dangerous, too much, tout court. A long debate between Bouvet, Stablinski and Goddet ensued, with the latter finally persuaded to test it out in that year’s edition of Paris-Roubaix. But Goddet – who was also race director of the Tour de France and editor of L’Equipe – was still far from convinced. Even before the Arenberg appeared, its future was being questioned. “All it would take was the kind of crash that we would later see with [Johan] Museeuw or [Philippe] Gaumont and the Arenberg would have not returned a year later,” Sergent adds.
There’s no way to imagine this race without extreme difficulty. It’s called the Hell of the North, after all
To think that the existence of something that would become so legendary was almost nipped in the bud. In the end it came down to Stablinski’s hunch, to Bouvet’s perseverance, and to a bit of chance. For everything went without a hitch in 1968 and Goddet quickly put his concerns to one side. Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle, who would become one of the legends of Roubaix, believes that the role played by Stablinski and Bouvet cannot be overestimated. “Jean was a true supporter of Paris-Roubaix and he knew that the race needed difficult sectors. Because there’s no way to imagine this race without extreme difficulty. It’s called the Hell of the North, after all,” says the two-time Roubaix winner.
Stablinski’s role in Paris-Roubaix’s history was commemorated in 2008 when, one year after his death, a plaque was unveiled to honour his memory. You can see it just on the left as you enter the Arenberg Trench. Could you say that the Arenberg saved Paris-Roubaix? Well, it certainly gave the race an epic dynamic which had been lost over the years. “The introduction of the Arenberg in 1968 certainly marked a complete overhauling of the race. With the exception of the start [which moved from Chantilly to Compiègne in 1976] the course has not changed much since then,” says Sergent. The modern day Paris-Roubaix had been born in 1968, the year of worldwide protests and revolutions. Over the bone-jangling cobbles of the Arenberg, glory had indeed returned to the roads of Roubaix.
What is the real name of the Arenberg?
Arenberg? Wallers? The Hole (Trouée)? The Trench (Tranchée)? How should we address this hallowed place in cycling folklore? Its official name – the one that appears on maps – is ‘Le Drève des Boules d'Hérin’. A ‘drève’ is a straight, tree-lined path that is suitable for motor vehicles. What did they call it in 1968? They didn’t call it anything, laughs Pascal Sergent. It was the journalists who, over the course of time, allowed its name to evolve.
So it was not the name which made the place famous, but quite the opposite. The term ‘Trouée’, which appears on the course profile today, was born in the 70s. For others it is the Trench, that evocative nickname that stretches back to the First World War. No matter what people call it, to me it’s just Wallers or Arenberg, says Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle.
At the entrance to the Arenberg Trench
Image credit: AFP
2 - Arenberg, the Cathedral of Roubaix
Arenberg remains something of a sacred paradox. On Sunday it will be used for the 40th time in the 115th edition of Paris-Roubaix – so historically speaking it is rather a recent phenomenon. It has nevertheless become the true emblem of this legendary race. Arenberg is to Paris-Roubaix what Alpe d’Huez is to the Tour de France. After all, the Alpe only first appeared in the Tour in 1952 and, having been forgotten for almost a quarter of a century, was not reused again until the 70s. Today, however, its 21 hairpin bends are synonymous with the Grande Boucle. Alongside Mont Ventoux, the Col du Tourmalet and Col du Galibier, Alpe d’Huez is certainly the Tour’s most famous climb.
The same argument can be made for the Arenberg – a feature of Paris-Roubaix that is at once relatively young, but seemingly so ubiquitous. If you ask Paris-Roubaix fans both in France and beyond to name a cobblestone sector that features in the route, the Arenberg will far outweigh all others. It brings to mind that old saying about children: you can cope just fine without them, but once they arrive, you wonder how you lived without them.
Thierry Gouvenou tackles Arenberg in 2002.
Image credit: AFP
But there are good reasons why the Arenberg became so important to the race – not just historically, but geographically, and on a sporting plane, too. In the simple words of Thierry Gouvenou, ASO’s chief route-planner who, as a rider, won the amateur Paris-Roubaix before finishing seventh with the professionals in 2002: “Arenberg is unlike anything else.”
An anthropomorphist might say that the Arenberg has its own distinct charisma and personality, that its soul is rooted in the history of the mining region where it is found. It’s anything but harmless, and accordingly the identity of Paris-Roubaix is married to the mining villages and torn between pride and pain. “You cannot ride Paris-Roubaix without suffering,” stresses Duclos-Lassalle. “The people of the north appreciate what you’re doing because it gives them the impression that you’re a bit like them – people who work down the mines.”
It’s a magnificent and majestic place. It gives the impression that you’re standing in a cathedral
Then we have the geographic reasons. Mother Nature was kind to the Arenberg. Here is a sector unlike any of the 30 others during the race. Its uniqueness makes it stand out. François Doulcier is president of Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix, an association created 40 years ago to preserve the heritage of cobblestones threatened by the modernisation of roads. For him, nothing compares to the charm of the Arenberg. "It’s a magnificent and majestic place,” says Doulcier. “It gives the impression that you’re standing in a cathedral. Even if it were tarmacked over, it would be impressive.” Sergent agrees. “The configuration of the place is incredible,” he says. “There is this long straight which is lined by trees. It’s a completely particular place – a naturally impressive site. And when you add a load of riders hurtling along at breakneck speed, it’s really something.”
There’s no denying that the Arenberg really catches the eye. Indeed, its introduction to Paris-Roubaix would later coincide with the rise of television and the two became formidable allies. But if TV cameras gave a perfect platform for the outstanding and natural drama of this special place, then the real breakthrough did not come until the 80s. Until then, the Arenberg did not enjoy the kind of aura that today surrounds it like a magic coat. Introduced in 1968, the sector was even taken off the course between 1974 and 1983 before returning for good – primarily thanks to television.
Sergent recalls a little story which helped change the perception of the Arenberg both for spectators and the media. “In 1984 Alain Bondue and Gregor Braun [team-mates at La Redoute] arrived together at Wallers-Arenberg leading the race. It was the first time that the Arenberg was shown live on TV and all the ingredients were there to make it memorable: the leaders rode for a team from northern France, their fans lined the road, Bondue himself was born in Roubaix and was celebrating his 25th birthday that very day. All this contributed to give the show a mythical sheen and people spoke of the Arenberg for the days to come.” After an inspired ride, Bondue finished on the podium while Braun took fifth place. While neither of them won that day, both went down in Arenberg history.
Since that day the cathedral of Arenberg has become one of the most iconic sporting stages covered by modern media – to the extent that any interruption in the coverage of the race at any point during the Arenberg passage would be viewed as sacrilegious. Between 2 p.m. and 2.30 p.m. every year the world tunes in for an event which signals the start of the business end of Paris-Roubaix. It’s here where the gloves come off and the race properly gets going.
But as extravagant as it is, the Arenberg is not simply a visual spectacle for fans. If its crossing captures our imagination it is primarily because of its high sporting stakes. Why is it feared so much by the peloton when it’s neither considered the most decisive part of the race nor even the longest cobblestone sector? For a simple reason: the irregular, degraded nature of the cobblestones makes it arguably the hardest sector of the race.
“It’s the hors-catégorie of the pavé,“ says Gouvenou with relish, referring to the classification of climbs in major races. Majestic underneath its canopy of branches, the Arenberg’s cobbles are as rustic as the ground they cover. Let’s go as far as saying there’s a certain dank putridity that slaps the riders in their face when they arrive. “Objectively speaking, it’s the worst-maintained sector of cobbles in the whole race,” explains Doulcier. The reasons for this are threefold:
Size of stones: “The surface of the stones is not flat, it’s rough and grooved. The stones are badly cut. The exact technical term is bush-hammered. When the stones were manufactured, depending on the quality of trimming that was wanted, the tread was trimmed erratically. The stones in the Arenberg are of the most degraded cut that exists."
Gap between the stones: “The Arenberg is one of the sectors where the thickness of the joints between cobblestones is the widest. The wider the gap, the bumpier it is to ride over. If the stones are closer together it’s naturally much easier to tackle. But here the joints are deep and accentuate the grooves.”
Positioning of the stones: “On top of being degraded, the stones are badly laid. Regardless of the thickness of the joints, when you look at the height of the stones in relation to one another there is a minimum difference of 1 or 1.5 centimetres. At times it can be as marked as the edge of a pavement.”
Taking to account all of the above there is actually no preferred trajectory for the riders to take in the Arenberg Trench. Riders are often stopped in their tracks by the bumps in the same way that gravity hinders progress on a climb. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that given its impact on the race and the weight of its well established legendary status, everyone has to treat the Arenberg like no other place. Riders anticipate it with a mixture of excitement, trepidation and stress. From its approach to its conclusion, the Arenberg encapsulates in such a short space of time the two facets of cycling: courage and danger. Each rider, battling himself as much as anyone else, is forced to put Napoleon’s famous motto into practice: “Commit yourself, then wait and see.”
3 - The Crossing of Arenberg: War, Then Hell
“You cannot understand the Arenberg without having ridden Paris-Roubaix. It's impossible to describe, we're really deep in the Hell of the North." Filippo Pozzato is right. Words will always struggle to describe adequately the experience of the Arenberg, which has become a rite of passage for professional cyclists. Riding its cobbles is revelatory, both physically and psychologically. You can’t trick anyone in the Arenberg, not least the sector itself.
“When you leave the Arenberg badly placed or in the red it’s then that you know that you won’t be in the mix in the final,” says Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle. “Once out of the forest you may not have won the race, but you’ll certainly know if you have lost it. If you’re obliged to ride on full-gas for the next 30 to 40 kilometres, passing the 200km mark at Cysoing, you know that you’re going to explode. On the other hand, if you leave the Arenberg in an OK state, you know you’re in a good position to go on and contest the final victory. On every occasion when I did well in Paris-Roubaix – finishing first or second – I flew like a plane through the Arenberg.”
Thierry Gouvenou adds his two centimes: “The race can clearly be split between what happens before and what happens after the Arenberg. Because until you have crossed the threshold of the Trench it’s not even worth thinking about what comes next. Once you have left it behind, and if you’re still in credit, then you can start to plan out how you’ll play the rest of the course. But before, there’s no point.”
The battle of the Arenberg begins, in truth, before the entry into the forest and that infamous corridor mined with misfortune. “You’re riding at 40kmph before Wallers,” smiles Duclos-Lassalle, perhaps recalling his past glories. The approach of the sector whips the peloton into a frenzy. Like the moments before a sprint finish, everyone is jostling for the right position. “Being in the right position is key for the entire race but no more so than in the Arenberg,” says Frédéric Guesdon, the last French winner of Paris-Roubaix, in 1997 when he was just 20 years old.
For positioning, nothing beats experience and knowledge. Duclos-Lassalle kept an eye out for visual cues, prompting him to beware or return to the front. "I would often pick up on these during recon rides that I did before the race, incognito. For example, before Troisvilles [the first cobbled section of the course], we know that there are two water towers and that the last one is found 3km before the sector. That’s my cue to get to the front. It was the same thing for Arenberg. I often went through the forest without a puncture and without crashing because I knew the place very well and anticipated all the difficulties."
Preparation is one thing but it doesn’t anticipate a scenario where everyone is fighting to be on the front but there is not enough space to accommodate them all. “Before Arenberg it’s complete warfare,” says Pozzato, runner-up to Tom Boonen in 2009. “One kilometre before the entrance there’s already a storm brewing because of the tension in the pack. Everyone is nervous and many riders take unnecessary risks. Personally, I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary to be in the first three positions to attack. It’s enough to be in the first 15 to 20 riders. But those who don’t have the legs still try to get on the front and that also causes problems.”
As Gouvenou explains, “I can’t recall anyone winning Paris-Roubaix after leaving the Arenberg in 60th place – and the favourites all know that.” Occasionally, it may happen. But very seldom. Duclos-Lassalle has not forgotten his first experience of the Arenberg: “It was in 1983. I remember that there were three of us fighting to enter the Arenberg ahead of the pack. It was me stuck between Francesco Moser and Gregor Braun and I told myself that I was going to be the slice of ham in the sandwich! None of us yielded an inch until Braun crashed.”
It’s very, very dangerous at the start
The danger of the Arenberg is no exaggeration, as Gouvenou is at pains to explain: “It is rare not to see, even at the best of times, a handful of riders on the ground.” When the peloton hits the sector it is rolling along at 60kmph and owing to an opening 700m of downhill false flat, the frantic rhythm only moderately stalls. The nature of the terrain is then responsible for making the task in hand all the more arduous. “The slight slope means the risks are multiplied,” says Sergent. “When you enter the forest,” Pozzato continues, “everyone is pushing to finish this part of the race as quickly as possible. It’s very, very dangerous at the start. Afterwards, it’s OK.”
Or is it? For no-one is ever totally at ease on the Arenberg Trench. No more so than in the years before the crash barriers first appeared in the 90s. Until then, the Arenberg was probably more dangerous than difficult because the riders could take a detour onto the muddy verges to avoid riding along the cobbled track, which is less than three metres wide. But this only resulted in producing an anarchic situation where riders rode so close to the fans that crashes were inevitable. “For the most part we used to ride next to the cobbles,” recalls Gouvenou. “We only rode on the pavé for perhaps 400 of the 2,400 metres.”
Today the barriers mean it’s impossible to give the cobbles a wide berth. And if the riders are suffering then spare a thought for their bikes. Cyclists are like Formula 1 drivers: they have to push for maximum performance but not to the detriment of their machines. “The major problem facing riders on the Arenberg,” says Gouvenou, “is that it’s not merely enough to get through it at top speed. You need to avoid any mechanical issues so you have to balance your physical efforts with a respect of your bike because you’re going to need it in good condition for the rest of the job in hand.”
The dangers of Arenberg
Image credit: Eurosport
If experience, power and talent clearly play a major role in Paris-Roubaix, then no-one can master everything in the Arenberg. During those frantic two-odd kilometres the pendulum swings equally between bad luck and good fortune. There’s no knowing who Lady Luck will favour on this passageway to courage and suffering. And while no-one ever won Paris-Roubaix by being jammy, it’s a race that can easily be lost at the roll of the dice. Here more than anywhere else. Here’s Gouvenou once again: “When the riders arrive there’s an element of leaving matters to chance. You certainly need a bit of luck to leave unscathed.”
The last external element to take into consideration – and over which no-one has any control – is the weather, which can change everything in Paris-Roubaix. Whether sunny or wet, the Arenberg will not be the same. Sunshine is synonymous with dust while the rain evokes images of puddles and cloying mud. These are two very different nightmares – and the lesser evil comes down to a question of preference. With a few caveats.
“Either eventuality produces an entirely different race,” explains Duclos-Lassalle. “When it’s dry you have to be a steamroller and physically extremely strong. You can never dip into the red and you have to maintain the same pace. But with rain it’s more about agility and bike-handling – that’s where you make the difference. Often when it’s dry there’s also a favourable wind or a crosswind. When it rains it usually comes from the west or the north, which means it’s often a headwind.”
It’s undeniable that rain gives the Arenberg a further epic dynamic. “I have in mind the photo of Wilfried Peeters in the early 2000s. He is entirely covered in mud. You can’t even see his jersey and it’s hard to even make out his face. This image embodies the difficulty of Paris-Roubaix in general and the Arenberg in particular,” says Pascal Sergent.
Wilfried Peeters in Arenberg
Image credit: AFP
4 - Setbacks and Dramas on the Arenberg
Next year the Arenberg Trench will celebrate its half century on Paris-Roubaix. It will also mark the 20th anniversary of one of the most dramatic and memorable scenes played out on its stage since its introduction to the race in 1968.
It’s 12 April 1998 and in near-apocalyptic conditions Johan Museeuw lost it all at Wallers. Victim of a terrible fall in the Arenberg, the Lion of Gistel saw his dreams of a second victory (after that of 1996) disappear in an instant. It came when Museeuw was at the peak of his powers. Entering the race, the Belgian had picked up three cobbled classic wins at E3 Harelbeke, Dwars door Vlaanderen and, most significantly, the Tour of Flanders. But the Arenberg does not take pedigree into account when choosing its victims. In its ferocious cruelty it throws everyone into the same sack from which it draws indiscriminately.
Museeuw could well have lost more than a mere bike race that day. He could have left his leg on the Arenberg. In 2015 he explained to Le Monde what happened in this dramatic episode: “We were riding at 50kmph. There was a load of s**t on the cobbles and I slipped. In the adrenaline of the moment I didn’t feel a thing and I wanted to continue. But as I got up I looked down at my knee. It was all open and I saw the bone. I said out loud, ‘F***, what’s that?’”
With his kneecap in pieces and open to the elements, the Flemish superstar went through an ordeal that lasted an age. “The problem was that I crashed in horse s**t and the wound became infected,” he told Le Monde. He needed eight days with the doctors to find the right antibiotic to avoid the radical solution of amputating his left leg. But this story has a happy ending: the Belgian would go on and win two more times in the Roubaix velodrome in 2000 and 2002. The Queen of the Classics may be a cruel mistress, but she at least knows how to reward those who show her the most respect.
I often think of Museeuw’s accident
This episode is without a doubt the most dramatic of the 39 times the Arenberg has appeared in Paris-Roubaix to date. It’s certainly the first which comes to mind when you think of Wallers. It has haunted the peloton for the past 19 years. “I often think of Museeuw’s accident,” Pozzato admits.
Three years later, in weather just as deplorable, Philippe Gaumont also paid dearly for the muddiness of the Arenberg cobbles. The Frenchman stayed rooted to the ground for a long time, incredulous after his fall, which had seen Ludo Dierckxsens exquisitely swerving to avoid his sprawling body. Gaumont was flying that day. But he ended up needing a nail 40cm long to pin his femur back together – an injury that kept him off the bike for three months.
Despite these rough memories and sometimes painful hazards, the Wallers-Arenberg sector was nevertheless born under a lucky star. During its very first appearance in the race, in 1968, it was Roger Pingeon who entered the forest alone in the lead. Winner of the previous year’s Tour de France, the Frenchman was a pioneer of prestige. “Symbolically, it was wonderful to see the last yellow jersey inaugurate the Arenberg,” says Sergent. “It was perhaps a sign that this place was going to reach cult status.” Even more so given that, a few hours later, the first edition featuring the Arenberg Trench was won by the great Eddy Merckx – the first of the Belgian’s three victories in the Queen of the Classics.
If Museeuw’s patella crosses our mind each year, then fate is not always as terrible for the Arenberg stricken. Even if, in a sporting sense, the consequences result in the same shattering of illusions. The list is endless of those champions who have seen their dreams dashed by a crash that may well have been benign on their flesh but fatal for their ambitions. This includes perhaps even a simple puncture. Even the biggest names have been caught out by this scourge – harmless to the health, but hampering to any hopes of success. Take Tom Boonen, for instance. In 2011 the Belgian was left standing in the middle of the Arenberg, forlornly holding his bike in his hand after picking up a puncture. By the time he could pick up a new wheel, the race was already lost.
In the vast majority of cases, Wallers-Arenberg does not prove too decisive on the outcome of the race. Despite its significant distance from the finish (95km), it is rare that any meaningful time losses are incurred. The most famous exception probably comes from Duclos-Lassalle. In 1993, “Gibus”, the defending champion and 38 years young, was gunning for a historic double. A year earlier, he had finally tamed the Queen of the Classics. Calling the seemingly cursed Duclos-Lassalle unlucky would have been an understatement. Since his first appearance in 1978, he was obsessed by Paris-Roubaix. Year after year he moved heaven and earth to try and win the thing, only to come up agonisingly short. He finished runner-up in 1980 and 1983, fourth in 1989, sixth in 1990.
It was out of respect for his frequent high placings that journalists politely continued to name Duclos-Lassalle among the outsiders for the race. And then came the breakthrough, in 1992. The race of his dreams. “When I won in 1992 I experienced no problems throughout the race – no punctures, no crashes, nothing,” recalls the Frenchman. But having finally yielded, the Hell of the North wouldn’t be so accommodating 12 months later when it threw everything but the kitchen sink at the defending champion in his 15th appearance. His Gan team was decimated as early as Troisville by which point Duclos himself had punctured and hit the deck. At Arenberg his fortunes did not change.
“I crashed again and came out the other side with a two-minute deficit on the favourites, with the impressive Mapei team leading the way.” Logic should have dictated that his chances were over. But he managed to bridge over to his surviving team-mates with 30km remaining. And the rest, as they say, is history. In a classic clash of experience verses youth, Duclos entered the velodrome shoulder-to-shoulder with Franco Ballerini. On paper the Italian was clearly the strongest, but Duclos channelled his previous experience on the track to take the slenderest of wins and secure the most unlikely of doubles – but not before Ballerini did a lap of honour believing victory was his. (There would be no such doubt when the Italian soloed to success in 1995 and 1998.)
Beyond these episodes which have marked the history of the Arenberg, everyone has their own memories which collectively contribute to the whole. It’s a place that can be both cruel and forgiving at any given moment – as emphasised by Gouvenou: “Believe it or not but for a long time I didn’t rate the Arenberg as particularly difficult because I tended to stick to the path beside the cobbles. That all changed on the day I came to the Arenberg behind the peloton after an earlier puncture. I was riding flat-out when a mechanic came out of a car to assist a rider. I had no time to react and we collided at 45kmph. It felt like my sunglasses were buried into my face for the next three weeks.”
Such are the small hazards and huge dramas of the Arenberg – that perfect cocktail of cobbles, crashes, sweat and tears. Ambitions shot down. Hopes dashed. Personal memories creating one collective history.
La trouée d'Arenberg, un enfer dans l'enfer
Image credit: Eurosport
5 - Arenberg From Beyond the Barriers
The uniqueness of cycling as a sport is perhaps best encapsulated by the relationship between the protagonists and the public. Cycling’s arena is the great outdoors; public roads are its stadia where anyone can gather and watch for free. The vicarious relationship between fans and riders borders on the physical. To see a peloton swoosh by is an experience that can be seen, heard and even felt. And it’s in some of these most extreme places, where pain and effort are at their maximum, where the intensity of this physical connection at its strongest. If this is true on some of the Tour de France’s most demanding climbs, then it’s also true of the Arenberg.
While establishing itself as the most mythical location in the Queen of the Classics, the Arenberg has accordingly become the gravitational point for most fans during the race. But it took until the 80s for this cycling mecca to really cement itself. “When you look back at photos of the Arenberg – of [Roger] de Vlaeminck in 1973 or [Eddy] Merckx in 1974 – there are clearly many fans but you can still see gaps on the verges,” says our historian, Pascal Sergent.
Fans cheer riders on at Arenberg
Image credit: AFP
The chaotic crowds of the 80s were another world entirely. There are even radical examples of fans inadvertently playing a role in proceedings on the Arenberg. At the crossroads of the 80s and 90s the crowd’s tendency to get too close to the action, or only move away at the last possible moment, would become problematic. For their part, the riders seeking out the pathways to avoid the cobbles risked brushing against the spectators and coming a cropper. Having initially opted to use a single cord to hold back fans along the 2,400 metres of the straight, the organisers, convinced by Johan Museeuw’s infamous fall, decided to take the drastic step of putting up barriers to separate fans from riders.
We’re not talking crowds of Germans drinking beer
Thankfully, this change has not had a negative effect on the Arenberg. “The barriers have not limited the number of spectators,” says François Doulcier, who reckons at least 10,000 fans flock to the stretch of cobbles every year. “It’s a very family-orientated type of fan who comes,” he explains. “We’re not talking crowds of Germans drinking beer. It’s a far cry from that. The atmosphere is relaxed and people spread out picnics when the sun’s out. It’s a bit like you see at kermesse races.”
For many Arenberg aficionados, their presence on the race marks something of a pilgrimage. Take Philippe, for example, who admits he has not missed attending the race for two decades. “My parents-in-law live at Wallers,” he tells Eurosport, “and so I’ve only ever watched the race from the Arenberg forest. Every year I’m there with my son, who is now 26. I feel privileged to be able to go there – especially when the sun is shining like it has done for the past few years.” Philippe also is quick to stress the “jovial” nature of the spectators: “It’s a real family atmosphere with buses of fans coming along. There’s chips, beer and singing… Loads of Belgians come from Flanders. They gather near the beginning or end of the sector so that they can jump in their cars and make a beeline for the sector at Orchies afterwards.”
In today’s era of smartphones and social media, roadside fans have also become important witnesses from the heart of the action. Aerial cameras capture the action of the Arenberg from above and fixed cameras at the exit show a perspective from front on, but the vibrations from the cobblestones means the motorcycle images are often jumpy and compromised. This is where the roadside fans hold the upper hand. They can often capture images and videos of an intensity and proximity that even the host broadcasters would struggle to replicate.
This was indeed the case last year when a huge crash inflicted widespread damage – most notably to Elia Viviani. After a number of bodies hit the deck in the Arenberg just underneath the mining bridge, the Italian, who had stopped to avoid the carnage, was hit by a tipping motorcycle which had failed to brake in time. Luckily, neither Viviani nor the motorcyclists were seriously hurt. But the whole episode was caught on camera by a British spectator and it quickly went viral.
While the public can often play a huge role in the epic nature of the Arenberg some fans get a little bit carried away and end up pilfering what makes the place so special. Such is the strength of the Arenberg’s myth that many can’t resist stealing a cobblestone to take home as a trophy for themselves. They even come with pickaxes to dislodge them, says cycling historian Pascal Sergent. The crimes are usually committed on the two extremities of the Arenberg, where the perpetrators can escape the quickest.
It’s a phenomenon which occurs throughout the year but reaches its peak on the evening of the race itself or the day after. Every year cobblestones are regularly stolen. It’s unfortunate but it is what it is, says François Doulcier, president of Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix. The association, which is linked to the horticultural college at Raismes, works hard each Spring to fill in the holes with new cobblestones… which thieves will no doubt try to steal one day.
6 - Life Without the Arenberg
The great temples of cycling mythology all have their emblematic altars. For Milan-Sanremo, think the Poggio. For Flèche Wallonne, the Mur de Huy. For Liège-Bastogne-Liège there’s the Côte de la Redoute. The list goes on. These historical anchor points form indispensable markers for the great classics. And the same can be said for Paris-Roubaix, whose Arenberg Trench has arguably become the most sacred place in the entire canon of cycling’s one-day races.
The famous stages of the routes du Nord Click on the pins to find out more about the key stages
The key points in the North
The notion of running these great classics without their key calling cards may seem ludicrous. Could you imagine a Paris-Roubaix without the Arenberg in 10 or 20 years’ time? It’s worth remembering that the Queen of the Classics still reigned supreme for 70 years before the Arenberg was introduced. And even after its arrival on the race towards the end of the 60s, there have been editions which have given the Arenberg a miss. Indeed, for almost an entire decade – from 1974 until the start of the 80s – the Arenberg did not feature on the route.
Paris-Roubaix without the Arenberg? It’s very possible
Now consider this: despite its absence, these years marked a golden era of the race during which Roger de Vlaeminck notched three of his record four wins, Francesco Moser won a legendary hat-trick and Bernard Hinault also stood atop the podium. “These guys were no slouches,” says Doulcier, reminding us that even Tom Boonen won a 2005 edition that eschewed the Arenberg. And Boonen – who holds the record number of wins alongside de Vlaeminck – is no Roubaisian wallflower.
“Paris-Roubaix without the Arenberg? It’s very possible,” explains Douclier. “It would represent a blow for the course, because it’s such a mythical sector. It would be a shame and, personally, I’d miss it very much. But the race has survived without it.” Gouvenou, the man who looks after route-planning for ASO, admits it has crossed his mind. But it’s one thing to think about it, and another to actually go through with it. “Honestly, as the race organiser, I would love to skip the Arenberg once in a while. But when you witness its impact on TV and see how popular it is with the locals – it wouldn’t be an easy decision to make,” he says.
“Such a decision couldn’t be taken lightly,” admits Doulcier. “It would have to be made with local representatives and with a clear back-up plan. I do appreciate Thierry Gouvenou’s point of view, however. To change the course every now and then would allow the race to visit other cobbled sectors. Jean-François Pescheux [Gouvenou’s predecessor] wanted to skip the Arenberg once every three years. In the end he did not act on this, but it remains a distinct possibility.”
To push this point, supporters of an Arenberg time-out would argue that the Tour de France does not use its most famous climbs – Ventoux, Alpe d’Huez, the Galibier or the Tourmalet – every year. But is this a fair comparison? The Tour route has infinite possibilities; it is not dependent upon one or two key spots in the same way as the classics are. For Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle, the idea of skipping the Arenberg is now unthinkable.
“If it wasn’t there it wouldn’t be a proper Paris-Roubaix,” claims Gibus. “It’s one of the favourite legendary sectors which the fans love to watch. I understand from an organisational point of view, but to find a sector as long and as hard as the Arenberg would be impossible.” Another former professional from the area, Cédric Vasseur shares this opinion: “The Arenberg is part of the heritage of Paris-Roubaix. Without it the race wouldn’t be the same.”
In the short term such an outcome seems unlikely. And omission from the race is perhaps not the biggest danger facing the Arenberg anyway. Even if the sector continues to be sanctioned by ASO, there’s no stopping it being threatened by other factors. The potential enemy here is not macadam: thanks to the efforts of Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix, the site has been protected since 1999. No, the biggest threat is posed by Mother Nature herself, whose work is slowly overwhelming the masterpiece that is the Arenberg.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the degradation of the Arenberg Trench was so acute that it had to be omitted from the 2005 edition so that work could be done repairing a 200-metre portion that had become too dangerous. “The sector had become entirely covered by a roof of branches and vegetation,” explains Gouvenou. “Underneath, it was permanently moist and damp. It became quite a marshy and branches had to be cut back to allow the sunlight to shine through once again.”
A picture taken on April 2, 2012 in Arenberg, northem France, shows the Arenberg trench
Image credit: AFP
Today the main threat comes from the grass. A dozen years on from the last repairs and the place has changed appearance once again. “The sector is almost unrecognisable compared to what it was like before,” says Gouvenou. “It has become completely green. We’re soon going to have to call it the Green Trench.” Grass isn’t the only problem. “There are also small shrubs that are growing out of control and are extremely dangerous,” says Doulcier. To combat these concerns, ASO has joined forces with Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix and local businesses since 2012 to undergo a systematic weeding of the sector with a special sweeping tool. “It’s not ideal by any stretch but it at least allows us to let the race pass through under reasonable conditions of safety.”
For many this represents merely a bandage on an open wound. In the long term, the Arenberg will not survive without serious repairs. “Taking away the grass and weeds is just palliative,” says the president of Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix. “There is some real work that must be done in order to reset the joints of the cobbles with limestone grouting. It’s a huge job and unfortunately we don’t have the finances to get it started.”
It has become too dangerous
By some miraculous quirk of fortune, the past 10 editions of the Queen of the Classics have taken place in dry weather. “But if we don’t do anything then it will be very difficult to pass through the Arenberg when it rains. It would be a catastrophe,” warns Doulcier. Incidents of the same scale as those which derailed Museeuw in 1998 or Gaumont in 2001 are a mere downpour away from returning to the race – and that would call into question the viability of using such a hazardous sector. “It’s hard for ambulances to come to the rescue quickly and when the injury is as serious as mine, there could well be a tragedy. It has become too dangerous,” stresses Gaumont.
The challenges facing the Arenberg – that sublime cycling cathedral condemned to perpetual reprieve – are far from over. It’s clear that the concept of a Paris-Roubaix without the Arenberg is difficult to imagine: this mystical place has given the race too much for us to forget it at the drop of a hat. And if nothing or nobody is irreplaceable, there are nevertheless some losses from which it is impossible to recover.
No-one is more attached to the Arenberg than the hundreds of riders who have ridden over its coarse cobbles – for better or for worse. “You curse it when you’re riding but as soon as it’s all over you have but one wish and that’s to do it all over again next year,” says Vasseur, echoing those famous words of Theo de Rooij from 30 years before. It’s finally left to the honey-tongued Pippo Pozzato, with his wit and love of a good soundbite, to extract some sense from this legendary location: “The Arenberg is the crappiest place in cycling – but I mean that in the nicest possible way.” So, long live the Arenberg and the hell that it inflicts.