It was among the mining communities of this part of northern France that the novelist, Émile Zola, set the action of Germinal. Ill-paid, dangerous toil, the exploitation by bosses, bitter class war. Into the Stygian galleries and shafts of the coal pits, men – young and old, and wiry lads like Jean Stablinski, following his father, a Polish immigrant – descended to earn their bread.
Deep underground beneath the dark forests and the ancient cobbled Roman tracks of what Caesar’s legions knew as the territory of the Belgae, the fiercest fighters they ever faced, men hacked out the black diamonds.
On rest days, released from their toil in the maw of the earth, Stablinski and his pals rode out into the local forests, away from the mole-blind perpetual night of the subterranean caverns to relax in sunlight dappled through the leaves; to swim in the lakes (the pond at Goriau is actually a depression caused by a collapse of mining galleries below); to hunt and fish, to gather sweet-smelling lilies of the valley (posies for village maidens?), to relish the sound of birds singing, a balmy interlude.
Another son of labour, Raymond Poulidor, said that gruelling as the long slog of a bike race might be, it could never compare to the exhausting toil he’d known in the fields as a sharecropper. He escaped the fields to earn his bread as a professional racer and rode the Paris-Roubaix 18 times, perhaps, in part, to congratulate himself for evading a really hard grind.
Jean Stablinski escaped the mines to sit the saddle, much of his time as a lieutenant to Jacques Anquetil. More than a coincidence, perhaps, that Anquetil, asked why he seemed to evince no great love of the bicycle, per se – the machine which had brought him fame and wealth – replied, humourlessly: “What miner loves his pick?”
The old bike race which originally began in Paris, first moved to Chantilly, famous for lace, whipped cream and the race-course, until fixing its départ in the imperial town of Compiègne. It wasn’t known as the Hell of the North until after the First World War, the reawakened peloton riding through the wasteland in 1919, but not yet through the dense thicket of the Arenberg Forest.
The Arenberg didn’t join the mythology until 1968. The race route traversed the village of Wallers, Stablinski’s home, at the start of the Arenberg trees, and it was he who introduced his friend, Albert Bouvet, to some ‘new cobblestones’.
The race organiser, Jacques Goddet, had asked for their inclusion; Bouvet petitioned Stablinski, Stablinski obliged. “I didn’t dare show him the Arenberg at first,” he said. But, after poking around some undiscovered stretches of pavé, he decided it was time. Bouvet looked, gasped, summoned a photographer and took the pictures back to Goddet, who also gasped. In horror. “I asked for cobbles, not potholes,” he said.
But, there was a perverse streak in the Goddet genes: the Arenberg went in. Pierre Chany instantly christened the 2.4km straight stretch of cobbled track slicing through the crowding trees ‘the trench’, harking back to the slashed conduits of the trenches latticing the 1914-18 battle lines and their hinterland.
The Arenberg was Stablinski’s home Calvary. He’d ridden the tranchée countless times – no more than the self-imposed battering that racers in this corner of the Franco-Belgian cauldron of ritual bike-slaughter embrace as a core part of their being – but he’d never expected to ride it in the race, as he did, his last participation, that first year of its inclusion. Groups of fans turned out dressed as miners to greet him.
The trench is, properly, the Drève des Boules d’Hérin (something like ‘the Hérin bowling alley’) but only to the purist topographers. To the aficionados of Hell, it’s the dugout. To some of the fans it is also a ripe source of souvenirs. They sneak in, presumably in the gloaming of dusk or the pearly light of dawn when the mists give them cover, to prise out a precious bit of the legend – one of the cobbles which a Paris-Roubaix winner takes home as his trophy.
Given the inherent problems of preserving the cobble tracks for the unique satisfaction of rendering the cyclist’s Hell that bit more hellish, this is a blight.
Troops of devoted enthusiasts go out ahead of the race either to scrape a winter’s coating of mud off the knobbly stones, to expose the corrugations of the bone-bruising pavement, or to repair the gutters and plug the worst of the potholes (almost charmingly in French nid-de-poules – chicken nests).
For a long time, riders shirked the cobbles along the Arenberg’s murderous trench – straight, devilish straight, the tiny day-lit cleft of its blessed exit showing between the trees far, far ahead – and rode the easier dirt track at the edges. The organisers got wise and barriered off the soft option: Zut. Au pavé, les gars, au pavé.
The Arenberg quickly achieved legendary status – the Paris-Roubaix’s Alpe d’Huez. Here, in 1998, Johann Museeuw fell and incurred the terrible injury which nearly cost him his leg. I saw him ride into the Roubaix velodrome on his comeback, circling the track, the lone victor, gesticulating at the once maimed leg, free of danger and pedal.
Leaving the Arenberg, there remain 92km to the finish but, if it’s rare that the race is won here, it’s often lost. Any rider out of the leading two-dozen riders going into the trench is, say those who know, already off the board.
Ahead of them lie the Chemin des Prières (Prayer Road) and Chemin des Abattoirs (Slaughterhouse Road) but of the Arenberg, Stablinski, the only man to have walked the ground way underneath its trench and raced its gnarled surface, made the stark comparison: “When you went down in the cage, five hundred metres, you never knew for sure whether you would be coming up again. Not something to dwell on. Like the Arenberg. Best not even to let the fear in.”