There are many tales of men who left the rigours and drudgery of manual labour behind for the life of a professional cyclist. British rider Vin Denson, a longtime Anquetil domestique, Ieft the colliery and “came to make four times more money as a cyclist”. Roger Walkowiak, the 1956 Tour de France winner, worked briefly in a steelworks.
Cycling was an escape from an even more exacting labour, but in Paris-Roubaix, there is no avoiding the Arenberg Forest. Coming 95 kilometres from the finish, it is not only the prime position for spectators, but also the meeting place of the race and the region’s industrial tradition.
After the Second World War, France had over 300,000 miners and the Nord-Pas-de-Calais mining basin, a 120km-long strip, was the richest seam in France. But by 1990, coal mining in the region was no more. The closed Arenberg mine was only saved from demolition by the filming of Germinal, starring Gérard Depardieu, in ’93. Many retired miners were extras and now lead tours twice a week, taking visitors around the film set and up the towering pithead where redundant machinery remains, coated in decades of dust. From the top, 80 metres above the ground, the thick canopy of horror movie birch trees can be seen below, deviating slightly for the thin, straight road: the Arenberg Trench.
It was an Arenberg worker who helped bring this hellish stretch of stone to Paris-Roubaix and worldwide renown. Jean Stablinski was briefly a young carpenter in the mine before becoming a world champion cyclist and multiple Tour de France stage-winner. In 1967, he took organiser Jacques Goddet’s right-hand man Albert Bouvet to see the cobbled track, a key route for miners between the mine and Hasnon.
Bouvet was suitably impressed and the Arenberg’s inclusion the following year permitted the miners to emerge from their Sunday shifts to cheer for Stablinski in his final Paris-Roubaix. One miner, Aimable Patin, would do the same for the next two decades, supporting his fellow dark-faced sufferers.
Patin followed his forebears into the mine as a teenager in 1960. “You had no unemployment, it wasn’t a word then. You left school and if you didn’t work, you had no money.
“The noise, the heat, the darkness: it was pitch black,” he remembers. “Everyone is scared the first time they go down, you’re only 15 years old. You’ve got to be brave. But I wet myself the first time. Your ears pop, like on a plane, because the lift goes down so fast.” Fast. And deep: 650 metres below the surface.
“You had dangers every day. When you’re back up…” – he sighs, miming breathing in a lungful of air – “you’re happy, you have a great evening. It was a relief to get back to the surface every day, because you weren’t sure what would happen down there.”
One-hundred-and-seventeen men never returned from their shifts at Arenberg over the years and there were worse death tolls elsewhere in the mining basin. It’s healthy to gather some perspective for a race that often attracts exaggerated comparisons with war and religion. Paris-Roubaix is a mad, loveable challenge, cycling’s toughest test, but it is certainly not life or death.
The Arenberg Forest was a newly discovered secteur pavé that toughened up the race, confirming its position as one of cycling’s most gruelling contests. Into the ’90s, the public was won over, the vast majority recognising Paris-Roubaix as a proud symbol of the Nord. Many of the race’s sectors now have protected status.
But the mines did not enjoy the same fate. “The coal down there was too expensive. It was cheaper in Poland or South Africa, elsewhere. They can pay 20 African men for the cost of me going down there,” Patin explains.
A lifelong inhabitant of Wallers, Patin remembers the day in March 1989 that the Arenberg mine closed. “We had twelve cafés. Twelve. Then the shops and cafés closed. Now there’s nothing,” he says.
Wallers is quiet now, save for the occasional dog’s bark coming from inside the rows of little corons, the miner’s cottages that form the bulk of the town’s housing. It’s the same story at several other Paris-Roubaix calling points similarly affected by mine closures, like Denain and Douchy-les-Mines.
But the sense of community is not completely lost. Patin adds that there is one occasion of the year everyone comes out of their houses and the old miners reunite at the Arenberg mine and reminisce: the Sunday of Paris-Roubaix.
Nordiste was originally published in 1 issue 53