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Gallery: Reflections on Paris-Roubaix

James Startt captures the bleak beauty of the empty pavé on a winter's day.

For as long as I have covered bicycle racing, I have covered Paris-Roubaix. Arriving in France for the long haul in the autumn of 1992, I covered my first Roubaix for VeloNews in 1993. And I instantly understood it was a race like no other.

That year Frenchman Hervé Duclos-Lassalle was the defending champion, but he got off to a bad start in the 1993 edition when he had a mechanical shortly before the race entered the first cobblestone section in Troisvilles, about 100 kilometers into the race. Chasing back, he was well off the pace. I assumed his race was over. But as the day went on, Duclos-Lassalle battled back, eventually caught the leaders, and went on to win by only millimeters against Italian Franco Ballerini with a bike throw across the finish line in the Roubaix velodrome.

I understood then that anything could happen here in Roubaix, and as I often like to say, all of the drama of the three-week Tour de France is packed into this single day in early April. It’s a race that truly deserves its moniker, the “Hell of the North.”

Over the years I came to know the different cobblestone sectors, their own unique character, and why they are central to the race.

And of all of the races canceled due to COVID, Paris-Roubaix was undoubtedly the biggest victim last year. And it was a race that I truly missed.

Also read: Paris-Roubaix postponed until October 2-3 due to COVID-19

So at the start of this year I took a little trip up north from Paris to visit my favorite cobbles and see just how they were holding up during this time of hibernation as they waited for the race to return in the springtime. Little did I know then, that the wait would have to continue.

Leaving in the morning, I first drove to Troisvilles. It is here the real racing always starts as the pack rolls through town before hitting the first section of cobbles during the day. Only a few years ago, one could still find homes with packed dirt floors, and it is safe to say that this cobblestone classic is one of the real annual highlights in this remote town in northern France. But even on this cold winter’s day, signs of Roubaix could be seen on the red brick architecture typically found in this northern corner of France, and certain streets were even named after local heroes of the past like Jean Stablinski.

Next, I skipped across toward Wallers and the epic Trouée d’Arenberg. On race day, I always position myself at the end of this legendary forest, as I have a better opportunity to get a glimpse of the favorites. But without the constraints of the race, I actually could visit the town of Wallers, its melancholic houses that once lodged the miners, and the monumental old mine shafts that tower above it.

But undoubtedly, the highlight was actually to be able to climb up on the old train bridge that once provided access to freight that came to fill their cars with the coal from the mines. Today these long-unused tracks are gently melting into the dense forest. But while the bridge too has long since been forgotten, it still provides the most spectacular perspective of the long, straight stretch of cobbles—la trouée—that virtually tunnels its way through the dense Arenberg Forest. And seen from above, the subtle colors of the cobbles that virtually melt into grass and fallen leaves along the side appear like a subdued Mark Rothko painting of large abstract colors.

Leaving the forest, I then drove past the Pont Gibus, another iconic crossroads of the race, before making my way to Orchies, another iconic section, but one that I never actually see on race day due to its proximity to the Arenberg.

I will never forget watching the film A Sunday in Hell for the first time and listening to the narrator in Jorgen Leth’s film describe how this sinuous section that straddles the A23 autoroute was often where the first big selections happened in the race. Orchies is not the longest section of cobbles, but the stones here can be brutal and particularly hard to negotiate through the thick crowds and sweeping turns.

Next on tap was the section I call the “Mother of Defections,” Le Carrefour de l’Arbre.

I will never forget speaking with two-time winner Marc Madiot in one of my very first interviews for VeloNews back in 1992. When I asked him what was the most crucial section of cobbles, he responded immediately, “Le Carrefour de l’Arbre! They are just so hard. And it is here where riders have their last real opportunity to get away!”

Stretching out for several kilometers, the cobbles found here are simply tortured. I know, and even my car struggles to get across them on race day without doing serious damage underneath the chassis. The tracks from tires and tractors are so deep here on these roads that the center of the cobbles rises of like a long set of sharp teeth.

And while it may be one of the most feared sections for the riders, visually it is one of the most striking. The Carrefour is simply iconic as this stretch of road is so exposed, only to be crowned by the forlorn red brick tavern with the word l’Arbre etched into the tiles of its roof.

For years I would position myself just here at the tavern, but in recent editions I have opted to position myself even further down the road. Little matter, it remains one of the tensest moments of the season as you see the television helicopter that dances above the lead riders inching its way across the field until I finally get a view of the rider’s heads bouncing between the string of fans as they approach. And then suddenly the first riders come into view, often just behind the TV moto. You rarely have more than a split second to identify them, focus and click. But if you get the shot, it is guaranteed to be one of the best of the day.

And finally, it was time to hit the Roubaix velodrome itself. It would of course be impossible to return to the roads of Roubaix without a visit to the iconic open-air velodrome, not to mention the old stone showers, so lost in time.

On race day, I am sprinting into the track myself as the riders hit the final kilometers into town. I barely have time to take position and set up my camera. But on this early-January day, I saw another velodrome altogether. I was really surprised to see just how worn the concrete surface had become, and even the finish line had serious checking. Already I remember just how rough it was nearly 20 years ago when I rode around it myself and it did not appear to be aging gracefully with time.

On race day of course, the riders appear unphased as they are simply focused on finishing. But then I guess, after spending much of the day on the worst cobbles known to bike racing, they must feel as though they are suddenly taking a magic carpet ride when they enter the velodrome.

And then it was time for the showers.

I walked through the Roubaix clubhouse, filled with vintage images of Paris-Roubaix’s gone by, and suddenly I was in the showers, with its stone stalls and the impersonal showerheads dangling above. Fewer and fewer riders actually still come here, as many modern cyclists prefer the comforts of the team bus. But for some riders and some photographers, the Roubaix showers are one of cycling’s meccas and there are always the faithful few that return. And in each shower stall, there is a gold plaque with the name of a previous winner. Jean Forestier, one of the oldest living winners has his plaque next to modern-day greats like Tom Boonen or Peter Sagan.

I rarely have time when the riders enter after the race to look around at the plaques and see just who has managed to add their name to this hall of champions. And then I wonder, just who would add their name this year when Roubaix returns?