“Things are always less beautiful than the dreams we have of them.” Marcel Proust
When we think of Paris-Roubaix, what comes to mind? A lone rider juddering over slippery cobbles, covered in mud, breaking away to victory, the pleasure overriding the pain. Certainly not Roubaix itself. It’s a good thing too, as there is a crushing disconnect between the illusion and the reality.
Such is the power of sport, making young riders dream of this grim Lille outpost of red-stone houses and tumbling population. It’s far from alone; Wembley is football’s equivalent. Players and fans go dizzy and sing songs about making it to an austere suberb on London’s North Circular ring road.
Most of France maligns the whole Nord département as one big Wembley, a place of unintelligible accents, chain-smoking factories, saturated in rain and booze, and virtually unchanged since Zola wrote Germinal.
In the professional cycling milieu, the place is regularly passed over in the context of Paris-Roubaix too. It’s easy to mistake the legendary cobbled Classic as Flemish: it falls the weekend after De Ronde, the race goes within 200 metres of the border and Belgium has by far the most winners. Flanders and the Nord even share the same coat of arms, that iconic black lion on yellow background.
But this isn’t Flanders: you can tell as much from the muted atmosphere in Roubaix velodrome whenever a Belgian neighbour wins. This is the Nord, the Hell of the North. All 27 cobbled sectors of Paris-Roubaix fall in the region. Flanders has lions, the Nord has mines, factories and pavé. It’s a cycling hotbed that has witnessed hard times and produced tough Nordistes who dream of winning their home classic one day.
And that’s the point. It doesn’t matter what Roubaix or Wembley are actually like. Cup final or Classic, it’s the grandeur of what the places represent: the culmination of a lifelong journey, the feeling of a vast history pressing down its full weight. That’s enough for any talented cyclist to feel stirred.
But if you’re a local? The attachment is immense, the desire different. For some, it becomes a piece of them. They grow up around it; often, it’s where those first dreams of winning sprout wings. They represent themselves, but something far bigger: a terroir, a whole people.
“Bon-due! Bon-due! BON-DUE!”
Thirty-one years later, as he surveys the empty blue seats of the velodrome grandstand, maybe Alain Bondue can hear the ghostly chants. On April 8 1984, he was celebrating his 25th birthday in style. All along the route of Paris-Roubaix, the fans bellowed support, believing that the local boy’s long breakaway might hold out.
Bondue remembers seeing the people in the velodrome rise to their feet, his father and VC Roubaix president Jean-Pierre Vallaeys embracing one another as he completed the best lap of the many he’d completed there.
It seems a shame, almost immaterial, to add that Alain Bondue didn’t actually win that year’s Paris-Roubaix: the Frenchman’s hopes dashed by a late crash, he was third to Sean Kelly. There’s no prize in cycling for moral victors.
Our only other company on a chilly January day is a jogger, doing his best to avoid the waterlogged section after the finishing straight. Bondue nimbly sprints up the banking and rubs his hand on a gouge in the weathered concrete. “This is my second home. How many laps have I done? Uncountable, a million,” he says. He first rode on the velodrome as a nine-year-old. Regularly training here as a Velo Club de Roubaix member, the young Bondue went on to become world individual pursuit champion in 1981 and 1982.
Born on the Roubaix outskirts in Hem, Bondue’s first cycling memory is standing on the roadside, transistor radio glued to his ear, watching Eddy Merckx chase back onto the leaders after a puncture in the 1968 Paris-Roubaix.
“You don’t forget it after that first meeting. We are brought up in this story of Paris-Roubaix and the cobbles,” he says. “For many people from the Nord, Paris-Roubaix is the most beautiful race in the world. It’s sentimental.”
As we swap the cold exterior for the warmth of the VC Roubaix clubhouse, populated with many race relics, I say that I can’t quite understand how the Classic could be both brutal and beautiful at the same time.
“It’s not brutal. Give me Paris-Roubaix every weekend, no problem. A stage of the Tour de France with six cols: that’s hell,” he replies.
Racing Roubaix as a contender was, and remains, all about energy conservation and intelligent positioning. The battle for placement before the sectors is as fierce and decisive as the rough pavé itself. Bondue identifies the four sectors where a favourite must be at the front, but not in the wind: “Neuvilly [the race’s first cobbled sector until 1984], the Arenberg Forest, Mons-en-Pévèle and the Carrefour de l’Arbre.”
Bondue knows the traits of each sector, where the going can be generous or unrelenting. “There are gaps between the stones in the Carrefour de l’Arbre, while Mons-en-Pévèle is really tough – they’re laid badly. We have a saying for when it gets hard: you count the cobbles. That’s to say, you feel every single one.”
Bondue was meticulous about Paris-Roubaix. He wouldn’t touch a drop of alcohol after New Year’s Eve and used his race reconnaissance to make mental markers for positioning. For instance, before the first sector in Neuvilly, he knew the water tower was 500 metres from its start and the town sign 200 metres away, so moved up accordingly.
Come that sacred Sunday in April, he was in his own bubble, on edge. “It wasn’t worth talking to me. Only my father and my soigneur could. I was friends with Francesco Moser and one year, he rode alongside me at the entrance to a cobbled sector and started jostling me. I punched him. After the race, he came over and went, ‘Alain, you hit me!’”
The bruiser’s reply was short and sweet: “Yeah, so what?” he laughs. “But I was super motivated, I was mean. There were two races where I was like that: Paris-Roubaix and the World Championships.”
His 1984 race odyssey, pulling away in the Arenberg Forest with La Redoute team-mate Gregor Braun, was an accident. “The aim was to have good positioning and not take any risks. But the advantage is that when you’re in front, you can pick your line. If you look at the race replay on TV, you see us turn to each other afterwards and go ‘Shit, where are the others?’” The answer: all over the shop. The Arenberg Forest was back in the route after a ten-year hiatus and its misshapen, muddy cobbles caused chaos behind them.
“We were hoping that a small breakaway would come up to us, because two riders, 85 kilometres from the finish, is almost suicidal,” Bondue says.
No help was forthcoming, so they put their heads down; Roubaix wouldn’t be as renowned without such foolhardy romance. Along the route, Nordiste fans waved banners wishing Bondue a happy birthday. The Dutch Kwantum squad had four riders in the group of 20-plus behind and the gap never exceeded two minutes. Even allowing for two Braun punctures, the La Redoute pair took some catching.
Sean Kelly and Rudy Rogiers joined them in Wannehain, 25km from the finish. Braun dropped back, but his Nordiste leader rode on strongly. You’d have thought Bondue favourite to work over two rivals on his home track until he hit the deck on the Carrefour de l’Arbre.
Incongruously, a smartly dressed man picked him up and pushed him on his way. “At a Belgian race the next week, this guy comes up and says: ‘Do you recognise me?’ It was the same man. He had been at a communion, saw that I was leading Paris-Roubaix, went to the course and I fell right in front of him. He was in a suit and tie, but he didn’t hesitate to help. He got covered in mud.”
Bondue rode like fury in pursuit, aware that his bike didn’t feel right. He thought he had a puncture. But it held up. After riding around the velodrome to a stirring ovation, finishing 36 seconds behind Kelly and Rogiers, the day’s hero went off to his parents’ house for a birthday party.
His La Redoute mechanic turned up halfway through the celebration. Bondue takes up the story.
“‘Damn, you were lucky,’ he goes.
‘Well, I fell flat on my face, I had a puncture and I got third. Are you sure?’ I said.
‘Alain, when I took your front wheel off to put your bike on the roof rack, your fork fell off. It was broken from the crash…’”
Rather than being downcast at his third place, Bondue (above, in 1984) saw it as confirmation that he would win one day. That underdog performance – how the French love a bit of panache – on the back of his two world titles made him famous in the Nord. “I’d often go to restaurants with [British riders] Paul Sherwen and Graham Jones, who lived in Lille, and people made me sign their bills. Sometimes I heard people go: ‘Wow, Bondue eats chips!’”
Rough seemed to closely follow smooth in Bondue’s career. His bittersweet third place wasn’t even his greatest squandering of a Classic: in 1982, he slipped twice on the wet descent of the Poggio, practically gifting Milan-Sanremo victory to breakaway companion Marc Gomez. The following year, Bondue crashed eight times in Paris-Roubaix and still finished tenth. “Today, Bondue possesses the class of Moser, the courage of Duclos-Lassalle and the elegance of De Wolf. Tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, he will cross the cobblestones without trouble and win Paris-Roubaix. It’s written in the sky and his sheer will,” Guy Croussy wrote in L’Equipe.
But that destiny never arrived. By the time he was 29, Bondue had retired, first caring for his ill parents, then going into a communications role with MBK in Paris. Ever the Nordiste, he moved back to Roubaix years later, unable to get the hang of life in the capital.
“The only regret of my career is that I didn’t win this fucking race,” he reflects. Because it is so local, so personal? “Because this is a love story.” Ultimately, the passion outweighs the pain. Bondue will be back in the track centre for Paris-Roubaix again this year. The race stays in his mind, even subconsciously.
“It still happens to me, even now before Paris-Roubaix. I wake up in the morning and go, damn, I dreamed about it. I did the race [in my head].”
In the early ’80s, Bondue headed a promising pack of Nordiste racers, several of whom accompanied him at La Redoute, the team sponsored by a mail order company based in Roubaix. Elsewhere, Philippe Poissonnier rode with Kelly at Skil and Dominique Lecrocq was a bright Peugeot talent.
“We had good riders in the Nord because they were tough people who knew how to suffer. Bernard Hinault used to say that Brittany, with its fishermen and farmers, has hard-boiled people. It’s the same here. At the same time, that’s no longer valid because there are no longer mines or many Nordiste racing cyclists.”
Originally published in 1 issue 53. Parts 2 and 3 coming soon.