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Tranchée d’Arenberg: How the most notorious sector of cobbles made it into Paris-Roubaix

Book extract: By 1967, Paris-Roubaix needed a facelift. Former miner and cycling legend Jean Stablinski knew of a treacherous sector he thought was too difficult for the race.

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Book extract: The discovery and introduction of the Arenberg Trench to the Paris-Roubaix route, described by Peter Cossins in The Monuments: The Grit and the Glory of Cycling’s Greatest One-day Races (Bloomsbury)

In the wake of the 1967 edition, when the Pas-Rolland had become toothless little more than a beautifully surfaced pimple that barely extended the main contenders at all, race director Jacques Goddet instructed his route director, ex-pro Albert Bouvet, to continue the search for new sections of pavé.

Bouvet turned to his friend Jean Stablinski for guidance. Born and brought up in Bellaing, a few kilometers to the west of Valenciennes, Stablinski was of Polish stock. His father, Martin Stablewski, had come to northern France in the mid-1920s looking for work in the mines, leaving his wife and four children in Poland. Once established, his family joined him in France, only for his wife to die soon after giving birth to a fifth child. He subsequently met and married his second wife in Poland, and returned with her to France. Jean was born in 1932. 

His father died when he was over by a German army truck in June 1940. Four years later, Jean Stablinski left school to become an apprentice plumber in order to prevent the family losing their home. Very much against his mother’s wishes, he also began to indulge his passion for bike racing, quickly attracting plenty of good notices, including one that predicted a very bright future for “Jean Stablinski”. The name stuck. 

At 19, Stablinski went to work in the mine at nearby Wallers-Arenberg, moving wagons full of coal and wooden supports for the tunnels dug into coal seams. As he worked underground, his mother would cycle through the Arenberg forest hundreds of feet above him to her in a pottery works at St-Amand-les-Eaux. When Albert Bouvet came to see him in 1967, as Stablinski, who was preparing for his last season as a pro, it was this road the forest he took him to see.

“I knew where there were hundreds of terrible cobbled stretches deep in the countryside, including the Tranchée d’Arenberg. I was worried about showing him it,” the 1962 world champion and four-time national champion later admitted to L’Équipe. “Nevertheless, I did so and he was impressed. He brought a photographer with him. When they showed Jacques Goddet the pictures, he said to Bouvet: ‘I asked you to find pavé, not a rutted track.’”

‘I could never have imagined that Paris-Roubaix would ever go there’

Today the sector is one of the big attractions at Paris-Roubaix. (Photo: James Startt/VeloNews)

Stablinski described the Arenberg forest as “a lung for the miners”. Although overlooked by the huge lift-tower of the Compagnies des Mines d’Anzin mine at Wallers-Arenberg, the forest remained untouched, offered the locals hunting, fishing and mushroom-picking as distractions. 

In April 1968, Stablinski was one of the 136 riders who tackled the Arenberg for the very first time.

“I could never have imagined that Paris-Roubaix would ever go through there,” said Stablinski, who is now commemorated by a monument just to the left of the entrance to the cobbled section through the forest. “Not many people know it but an underground roadway runs directly below the Tranchée. I am the only man to have walked under and raced over the cobbles of Arenberg. I felt such extraordinary emotion when I went into the ‘trench’ for my last Paris-Roubaix. My supporters were waiting for me, all dressed as miners.”

What would become the most mythical and feared section of cobbles on the route is often referred to as “the Arenberg trench”, which was how L’Équipe’s Pierre Chany described it, seeing the way that it cut through the deep forest and the intensity of the contest between the combatants. The description also offers an insight into the peril that riders face in this dank environment untouched by the sun’s warming rays. Extending to 2.4km, the riders approach it via a straight and slightly downhill road past the Arenberg mine, ensuring they are traveling at very high speed before they reach the pavé.

Unlike the more regular setts of cobbles seen in Belgium, these stones are more irregular both in their squareness and top surface. Plenty of edges jut up in puncture-inducing fashion. 

The road continues to drop over the first 800 metres of the trench, passing beneath a rusting railway bridge over which coal trains have not rattled since the mine close in 1990. Although there are dirt paths to either side of the pavé, where the dry soil that lacks any kind of humus-like quality billows up like Moon dust when touched, crowd barriers ensure the riders in the current era have no chance of finding relief on them.

The best line, the riders say, is down the central ridge of the pavé, where the cobbles may stand out more proudly because they weren’t as worn by traffic, but offer a more regular and less pitted surface than the sides, which at some points 20cm below the central crest. The trick, the riders say, is to ride as fast as possible, thereby “floating” over the cobbles rather than bouncing from one to the next as most amateurs tend to do riding at a much more sedate, but consequently more bone-jarring, pace.

As well as the introduction of the Arenberg, 1968 saw plenty of other changes too. Several more cobbled sections featured as the race headed much more towards Valenciennes than Denain, as it had done previously. The result was a total of 56.5km of pavé, more than 30km up on the low of 1965, including one unbroken section of almost 15km between Templeuve and Bachy. 

The Monuments is on sale at here and here.