A look inside Paris-Roubaix, a 121-year-old war between road, machine, and man
*words and photography by Sean Hardy
There is a romance that surrounds this race. It’s one of cycling’s oldest—running since 1896—and commonly known for its ability to test the hardest of riders and never fails to surround its reputation with drama and beauty.
Riders are faced with kilometer after kilometer of cobblestoned sections that not only drain legs of energy but test their bike handling skills to the fullest extent. There are sections of uneven pave you would question taking your car over. Extra bar tape is applied to riders’ handlebars to provide support and combat the rattle and shake from the cobbles. They wrap wrists with support bandages, load their bikes with wider tires, and desperately search for marginal gains to improve their chances of winning one of the most prized races on the calendar. Even as a spectator you can feel the strain as you look on in amazement and cheer at an army of legs bouncing their way across a terrain that curves through the landscape.
You can see cyclists fighting to find the best line, trained to locate the easiest way to the finish line. Sunlight will shimmer off the top of slippery stones, laying in wait to de-seat an unexpected racer. Every pedal stroke along the 260 km route is earned.
Paris-Roubaix is for the hard men. The winner is regarded as one of the strongest riders in the peloton and will be instantly propelled into the history books with the likes of Eddy Merckx, Tom Boonen, and Fabian Cancellara.
"This is not just a bike race. It is a war between road and machine..."
Riders speak about the scars this race leaves, unable to pick up a glass of water the following day due to the bone shakingly painful pave and flashbacks of mini-battles for the best line on the road. Some riders will nostalgically repeat tales of previous winners, memorable stories, and how they would give up everything to gain that podium place. Others can be seen with a nervous glint in their eye at the start line. When asked how they feel, you hear, “I can't wait for this to be over.” You can love or hate what Paris-Roubaix delivers, but respect for what it is capable of is universal—just finishing is a tall order for anyone.
The sides of the road can be seen littered with hundreds of fans seeking a glimpse of their favorite warrior. This race never fails to bring out the old seasoned supporters through to the new wave of wig wearing screamers. They will usually trek across multiple fields to be standing on what they consider to be the most feared section of pave and patiently wait for a 10-second glance of fighting riders.
Paris-Roubaix produces an atmosphere that has to be experienced, rather than explained. The air is different—emotion can be seen on the faces of all, along with an underlining nod of respect for years of history that surrounds one of the most favorited races to date.
This is not just a bike race. It is a war between road and machine that encourages the rider to effectively balance the scales of conflict for 200 plus kilometers of dramatic encounters. This is the Hell of The North.