Saving Roubaix, one cobble at a time

In the fourth series of Orbea's Pachamama, we explore the work behind the scenes for saving Paris-Roubaix

Promotional feature in partnership with Orbea

Ta-ta-ta-ta-ta. Ta-ta-ta-ta-ta. Ta-ta-ta-ta-ta. 

The first time you hit the cobbles in your life, it's a shock. You may have prepared for that moment for a long time, but it will always be a surprise when you get there. You never know how it will go.

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"I was at the end of the peloton, and I fell. When I got up, I saw cars in a ditch at the side of the road, motorbikes on the ground, and other riders who fell around me. That is when I realised why we call this road the Hell of the North."In October of last year, Laura Asencio of Ceratizit-WNT Pro Cycling Team took part in the first edition of the Paris-Roubaix femmes. And although she didn't finish it, or maybe for that reason, she will never forget her first experience with the pavé.

"It is, without a doubt, the Queen of the Classics. The only race where we need to change all the equipment on our bikes. The only race with an epic finish. And the type of cobbles you ride on its route, well, you don't find them anywhere else. And when you've ridden them, you understand that this is a race like no other," she says.

The Hell of the North

The tag Hell of the North that so well describes Roubaix is partly shrouded in mystery, and several tales try to trace its origin. But there's one that many people use as a reference point. In 1919, at the end of World War One, a journalist from L'Auto was sent to the north of France. He saw the sheer devastation of the bombing and described the scenes as the hell of the north (c'est l'enfer!). There was not much left of those previously lush and green lands. Only rocks and burned farms remained. 

However, other historic battles contributed to enriching the enfer du Nord narrative. Black-and-white photos and then videos of bike riders covered in mud and dust added connotation to the original meaning of the nickname. The Hell of the North became the perfect description of what riders had to endure to cross the iconic finish line at the André Petriuex velodrome in Roubaix.​

Related: Pachamama. Gravel riding with Mother Nature at heart

The pavé

Paris-Roubaix and the pavé finally became a sporting and human heritage, a heritage that cycling brand Orbea has in its heart. Because riding on the pavé – as well as riding in solitude through a historic pilgrim path or racing Unbound Gravel – represents the spirit of Pachamama, the spirit of riding with Mother Nature at its heart.But the pavé is, first and foremost, a farm road, an agricultural lane that connects the regional farms around Roubaix to its crop fields in a historical connection that has existed since the 17th Century. Its meaning is rooted in the history of these farmlands and their inhabitants.

It has become their identity and encapsulates their values: courage, tenacity, hard work, and team spirit—no wonder the pavé has also become one of the most potent cycling symbols. Several connections and similitudes link the farming background and the hardship of bike racing, even more so in a tough race like Roubaix.

Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix

And that's also why the non-for-profit association Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix has fought since 1977 to preserve the race. They began their mission when modernity and political agenda would have preferred to replace the cobbles with asphalt, sand and new builds. But can you imagine getting rid of the pavé in Paris-Roubaix? It would strip cycling – and the people living in this region – of their identity. The cobbles are for Roubaix what Notre Dame is for Paris. A jewel to fight for. To replace them? Jamais! (Never!).

Related: The highs and lows of Unbound gravel 100

The association – which now counts 351 volunteers from 17 different nationalities – wants to maintain and preserve the pavé for the future, promote the race, and document their efforts through a historical archive.

The sole act of maintaining the pavé is no joke. You need to remove the stones one at a time, lay down a new foundation to the ground, add another for water drainage, and then lay down the cobbles again. It is an enormous task. One that takes countless hours, which the Friends don't count, because preserving the pavé is their passion. But their work has become a heritage too. Their know-how comes from the ancient art of road building with big cobbles. They transcended their intent and have resurrected something that needs to be equally protected.
"We work for a Queen we don't see. A Queen who only lives in our minds," says François Deulcier, the President of Les Amis de Roubaix.

When they started, explains Deulcier, the cobbles were old and in bad condition. Politicians thought that was not a good image for the region. They wanted to replace them with modern roads to make things fast and forget the old, slow past. Hence the need to step up in Roubaix and give it a new, fabulous look. Nowadays, it would feel and sound blasphemous to replace the cobbles with asphalt. It would cause a cycling revolution. Jamais, jamais!

Related. Don't miss the boat! Granguache audax is a gravel race like no others

And although the restoration work done by Les Amis – together with the development of gravel bikes – has made the cobble sectors less intimidating than in the past, riding on these roads will never be easy. It will always be cycling's ultimate challenge of focus and stamina.

Even those riders and cyclists who take part in Paris-Roubaix and maybe get badly injured on its most notorious sections will never allow asphalt to be built on top of the cobbles. Jamais, jamais, jamais!

Pavé, fierté, Roubaix!

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