Paris Roubaix – “The Hell of the North”

There are one or two clips of the early 70’s documentary about Paris Roubaix “A Sunday in Hell” that can be found on You Tube. The pantheon of cycling films is not vast and most seem to remain marketable. The full version remains available and the snippits available online work well as a part trailer, part advert for the main event.

In many ways it’s ageless; the landscape, the cobbles that haven’t changed in years, if at all. Shot on film, the english voiceover very precise in a way it can only be when not done by an Englishman or perhaps someone who entered the recording studio just concerned with reading the script and collecting their fee.

Nevertheless it’s a classic (in every sense). I’m always struck at how little the bikes seemed to change from the 60’s through to the 90’s even when watching older footage. I love the narrow Reynolds tubing aesthetic but do not possess the engineering or design smarts to see how the curved and kicked out forks can work like the straight blades used today. Paris Roubaix is a race for those skilled in bike handling as much as strength and speed.

The pleasing visual aspects continue with the sight of Peugeot 505’s with sponsors boards fastened to the radiator grill and bendy aluminium roof racks. The musical air horns are a sound that can transport me to a narrow road in northern France in my imagination.

This clip opens with Roger De Vlaeminck. For many years it was reasonable to assume that Paris Roubaix would (perhaps could ) only be won by someone like De Vlaeminck or Merckx. A ‘Flemish Superman’.

De Vlaeminck can perhaps claim to be the most super of the supermen with his four wins but he could be surpassed by fellow Belgian, four time winner and superman Tom Boonen (last years winner) in 2013.

George Hincapie describes riding on the pave like ‘..riding on railway tracks’. The literal translation from the Flemish for cobbles is babies heads!

The finish line, appropriately enough, is at the Roubaix Velodrome. Anyone familiar with the lower divisions of the Football League or Speedway and Greyhound tracks would feel right at home here. The winner of the race is immortalised with a small brass plaque fixed to one of the communal shower cubicles which have an air of a farmyard milking parlour.

For me it’s the determination to maintain as many of the original elements of the race as possible that makes Paris Roubaix a must see.

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