It’s an old trope; back in my day things were harder. Like the old Monty Python sketch where four Yorkshireman try to out do each other with ever more inconceivable tales of poverty.
“We used to get up in t’ morning, at half past ten at night, half an hour before we’d gone to bed, eat a lump o’ poison, work 29 hours a day at t’ mill for ha’penny a lifetime,” John Cleese’s character says.
“Aye, but you try and tell that to the young people of today. Will they believe yer? No.”
It’s been almost 20 years since Roger Hammond made his debut at Paris-Roubaix. He takes a look at the cobbles of today. Paradise.
“I get the feeling that they’ve done a lot of work on the cobbles now actually. Each year the worst sectors get a little bit better. Basically I just want to say it was much harder in my day!” he says.
“You know what it is, they are repairing them, then a different sector gets slightly worse, but they seem to be repairing them at a faster rate than they are deteriorating. They’re doing a good job.”
Hammond is back in Northern France behind the wheel of the Ineos Grenadiers team car and a crop of young riders that have been tearing up the roads of the Spring Classics. Times have changed. While the young people of today (including 22-year-old Ben Turner and 19-year-old Magnus Sheffield) fine tune tyre pressures, bike setups and racing lines with recon rides in the days leading up to the big race, Hammond remembers racing three times in the week before his debut.
“I didn’t have time to do a recon because our team only found out we were racing two weeks before the race. The only change was my front tyre, I put on a 28mm Vittoria tyre and then went belting into the Forest of Arenberg flat out,” he says.
“I remember getting half way along Arenberg and there was literally a four-metre section of road just missing. It wasn’t bad cobbles; it was just no cobbles. And you know how big the cobbles are in Arenberg, you just dropped off the edge into sand, and then had to somehow jump back out the sand back onto the cobbles. It was absolutely ridiculous. To try and get going again was impossible.”
Cobbles? Luxury. But Hammond doesn’t need to embellish the grittiness of racing Roubaix in the early noughties. He finished 17th that year, just one episode in a love affair with a race that stretched across his entire career and continues to this day. He never got closer than the third place he achieved behind Magnus Backstedt in 2004, the one that got away. However he did get a taste of success in the velodrome André-Pétrieux when he directed Sonny Colbrelli to victory in 2021 from the wheel of the Bahrain Victorious car.
Back in my day... Paris-Roubaix 2003 (Credit: Getty Images)
Walking around the crumbling old track complex and revisiting the showers with their iconic name plaques, it’s still possible to soak up the continuity of experience from Josef Fischer winning on Easter Sunday in 1897, through both world wars, past Merckx and Hammond’s idols like Adri van der Poel, to last year’s first ever women’s race winner, Lizzie Deignan, and to the stars-to-be of Easter weekend 2022. This goes some way to explaining why it is that devotees get so excited about returning each year to this anachronistic sporting event set in one of the most deprived areas of France.
“Paris-Roubaix has got something about it that sets it apart from every other race. I would love to see Tadej Pogačar go there but you accept the race is apart from everything else.
“People are afraid of it. It’s got something completely different about it that brings out a different skillset. If you pay attention to the detail you can really work at it and make sense of the chaos. Then you can actually see a tangible difference in the output when you apply a bit of attention to detail. That’s what I like about it. It’s more than just producing 400 watts.”
That ‘complete package’ was what enabled Hammond to stand a chance with the supreme talents of his era – Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara et al. Yet from where he’s sitting, the race is changing. The cobbles aren’t exactly better, but they are at least becoming predictably bad. Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix, the voluntary ‘friends’ of the race, clean and replace the stones that have sunk into the manure and turnips or have been stolen by trophy hunters (don’t do it, kids). Riders race fewer days and have more time to get to know the area. They are supported by backroom staff who can share the sort of technical and geographical know-how that would take a rider like Hammond years of slumming it in Belgium to absorb.
“I think it’s getting more tame,” he says. “I think equipment has transformed people’s ability to ride the cobbles. In my day it was about paying attention to detail and getting your equipment right. Now everybody has access to it, the knowledge is widely shared.
“The debutants turning up now don’t need to know anything about tyre pressures, diameters, what is the best equipment to use, it’s all there ready for them to go and they jump on and think God, this is easy. It is converting into a more accessible race for more people."
That change has already happened to the Tour of Flanders, Hammond says, after watching Tadej Pogačar finish fourth on debut at De Ronde. “We could have been watching a stage of the Tour where Pogačar rode away from the best riders in the world on a climb. The equipment is making a massive difference and it just shows you that if you have some talent you can just turn up and ride away.”
Ultimately, it means that on Sunday his riders stand a much better chance of success than they did in his era (they certainly stand less chance of plummeting into a four-metre section of missing cobbles). But Pogačar didn’t win Flanders, and for the Roubaix purists it will take an awful lot more than a bit of cobble cleaning to erase the Hell from the North.
“It is becoming more of a brute force race,” Hammond says. “But there is still a little bit about it. On Sunday you’ll still have big riders who will have big problems.”