Riding in the Panasonic team car after abandoning the mudbath of the 1985 edition of the race, dazed and confused, drunk with pain, Theo de Rooy put it with typical Dutch directness:
“It’s bollocks, this race, it’s a whole pile of shit. You’re working like an animal, you don’t have the time to piss and you wet your pants. You’re riding in mud like this and you’re slipping. It’s a pile of shit – you must clean yourself otherwise you will go mad.”
Asked if he would ever ride it again, de Rooy instantly replied, “Sure, it’s the most beautiful race in the world!” Conceived in 1896 by a pair of canny Roubaix textile mill owners, the inaugural edition was held on Easter Sunday and intended as a loosener for Bordeaux-Paris – at the time the most prestigious race of the early season.
At around 300 kilometres, it was half the length of Bordeaux-Paris, but soon gained a diabolical reputation on account of the rough unpaved roads and cobblestone tracks that criss-crossed the fields and forests of the France’s northern borderlands. These borderlands become badlands when drenched and churned by the rain and the wind that sweep down from the North Sea.
The race has always courted controversy. Local clergy denounced La Pascale, the Easter race, as a distraction from religious observance. In those days road racing was a far less popular spectacle than races on the track, but the final laps were raced on the brand new velodrome, which brought in the crowds.
There were so many spectators that one section of stands collapsed under their weight. Soon, Northerners had adopted the race as their own.
The race draws on the raw character of the Northern expanses: a dour landscape of tough lives and hard times. These are great swathes of land, featureless but for lonely water towers, gloomy gothic steeples, collieries, blast furnaces and their mountains of slag.
The dark density of man-made volcanoes can drain the very light from the sky. If it is wet, brightly-coloured team jerseys surrender to the mud and the filth until each rider wears the same grim uniform. Cement grey – how fitting for the convicts of the road!
Within a few years, a special bond had formed between the brave riders and the locals who line the route. For the farm labourers, factory workers and miners at the turn of the century, the echoes of their own daily toil were all too obvious, but so too was the dignity and the pride. It immediately became a favourite race for local heroes to try their luck. Roubaix-born Charles Crupelandt delighted the home crowd with wins in 1912 and 1914, achieving the second while turning a colossal gear.
This land was their land but it was soon to bear witness to a terrible conflagration of mechanised death and destruction.
From that moment onwards the land would bear the memory of a generation of young men sent to kill and be killed, to rot in the trenches of the war they said would end all wars. In 1919, six months after the Armistice, the race’s twentieth edition followed the line of the Western Front north of Arras and passed through the towns devastated by war. Bomb craters and grim wreckage scarred fields that entombed the fallen millions. Shell-shattered buildings and trees formed ghostly silhouettes of destruction along the course of the route.
This apocalyptic scene was described by a journalist as L’Enfer du Nord – the Hell of the North – and the name stuck.
Extract from issue 9. Jack Thurston hosts The Bike Show on 104.4 Resonance FM.