It’s April, and the Tour of Flanders is done and dusted. Which means Paris-Roubaix is imminent.
To those of you not familiar with the spectacle of Paris-Roubaix, it’s a one-day 250 kilometre long bike race which runs from just outside Paris to a velodrome in the town of Roubaix. In-between it features sections of rough roads and farm tracks which are rutted, and cobbled, and do an excellent job of sorting out the metaphorical men from the boys.
It’s known as the ‘Hell of the North’, and has the ability to reduce some of the toughest pro sportsmen (that’s cyclists, in case you were in doubt), to mud-spattered weather-beaten cobble-shaken shadows of their former self.
Beyond that, there’s not an awful lot I can say about Paris-Roubaix that hasn’t already been said. But what I do know about, and can talk about, is cobblestones. I come from the north of England, you see, and in the north of England we do like a cobblestone.
Here in Lancaster we have rows of back to back terraced houses split by cobbled alleyways; we have steep, narrow, winding cobbled streets which lead you up, around, and back to where you started again; we even have a castle which is surrounded by cobblestones worn smooth over the years by locals, tourists, and possibly even witches (see the Pendle witch trials of 1612).
What we don’t do is ride our bikes on them, if we can help it.
The world of pro-cycling, on the other hand, is obsessed by terrible road surfaces. In March and April it’s not enough to stage a bike race – it has to feature long stretches of racing over whatever is the oldest, most agricultural, and least civilised regional road surface in the area. To English ears it also helps if said road surface has a poetic and romantic sounding name.
So the cobblestones of northern Europe are the Pavé, the gravel roads of northern Italy are the Strada Bianche, and the mucky farm tracks of dirt and gravel in Brittany are the Ribinou – they feature in Tro-Bro Léon, a one day race in April, almost exclusively won by Frenchmen.
Come spring each year these appalling road surfaces are photographed in black and white and spoken about in hushed tones of awe. The Tour de France is over-commercial and bloated, we are told, and the Spring Classics – the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, and the rest – are for the real cycling connoisseurs.
They are the ultimate test of man and bike, and if the weather is bad then so much the better. Or so we’re told. I happen to think that until you’ve negotiated a slippery and badly set Lancashire cobble whilst wandering home from the pub on a wet Friday night, you can’t truly claim to be the king of the Pavé.
You see, a cobble is not just a cobble. There are varying degrees of cobble.
As 2011 Paris-Roubaix winner Johan Vansummeren explained in Rouleur magazine recently:
“The cobbles in Flanders are put there by people who know what they are doing. They are stones, but they’re okay…but in Roubaix, they just opened a truck, drove over it and threw them in from far away. Maybe a few hundred years ago they looked smooth, eh?”
Which might not go down too well in northern France. On the route of Paris-Roubaix you can find a dedicated army of volunteers – les Amis de Paris-Roubaix – who tend to the cobblestones. In fact they dedicate their lives to preserving them, so addictive is their allure.
As described in the Wall Street Journal (of all places) in 2015:
“When Daniel Accou closes his eyes, he sees cobblestones. Half a century of working on them will do that to you. On winding roads all over the Nord-Pas de Calais region, here by the Belgian border, he laid and re-laid them until he was doing it in his dreams.
‘The cobbles are my religion,’ he said.”
Here in the north of England a smooth road would be a novelty and worthy of a voluntary organisation to tend to it, revere it, and pass it down to future generations. Admittedly the idea of a gang of Lancashire cyclists spending their summer months polishing and buffing the tarmac of some local B-road does take quite a leap of imagination.
Also, strictly speaking it’s the job of the local authority. But they ran out of money recently like the rest of us.
So with silky smooth tarmac at a premium perhaps I need to embrace the allure of these appalling road surfaces. Maybe, if I could plausibly create a poetic sounding name for the humble pothole, a pro-cycling race right here in northern England could be born.
Perhaps if we just add an accent – potholé – and pronounce it pot-o-lay. Et voila! A new spring classic is born across the Potholé of northern England.
Obviously we’d have to run it on a wet Friday night and insist the riders tackle three or four beers beforehand.
We don’t want to make it too easy.