It is a strange object to worship. A big lump of grey stone. Placed alongside a thousand other big lumps of grey stone. Inanimate, hardly very dynamic. And yet we cycling fans love the cobble intensely, we revere and fetishise it. For us, it holds secret meaning and evokes fear, awe and excitement. If the novelist J.G. Ballard, that infamous bard of suburban life, had gone to watch Paris-Roubaix, he would have come back with a fair bit of material. Let’s unpick this weird relationship, starting with the basics.
When is a cobble not a cobble?
Most of the time, actually. When we talk of the cobbled Classics, we are using the wrong word. Cobblestones are of a naturally occurring size and shape, harvested from the beds of streams and rivers. In other words, they are big pebbles (Thankfully, the term “pebble-dashed Classics” never caught on.) When laid in sand, they can create a very durable and well-drained road. Or a lovely driveway. And your nag will thank you for the extra grip cobblestones provide.
Disadvantages include being very noisy when crossed by a horse and cart – in the olden days, the families of sick people would throw straw across the road in front of their house to dampen the sound and not wake the invalid – and being horribly uncomfortable to ride across on a bike.
The stones of Roubaix and Tour of Flanders are setts, rock that has been quarried and cut into rough squares or rectangles. Setts have almost exclusively been sourced from the Lessines quarries, a few kilometres south of Geraardsbergen. Since 1862, porphyry stone has been quarried there. An igneous rock formed of fluid magma 500 million years ago, it was first discovered at Lessines in the 15th century.
Once the locals established that its hardness and durability made it perfect for road-building, they recruited gangs of convicts for a spot of hard labour. Soon the grey blocks of Lessines covered roads right across northern Europe, including the farm tracks that we see in Paris-Roubaix.
The boulevards of Saint Petersburg were laid with them. Even the most famous avenue in cycling, the Champs-Élysées, is made from interlocking arcs of porphyry stones. Belgian traders setting out from Antwerp for the United States would add setts to the belly of their empty ship as ballast, replacing them in New York harbour with whatever goods they were bringing back to Europe. The setts were then used to lay roads in SoHo, the West Village, Tribeca and the Holland Tunnel. Consequently, setts became known in the United States as Belgian block.
Other than heritage projects and the driveways of discerning cycling fans, setts are not so much in demand these days. The quarries at Lessines and nearby Quenast stopped producing them on an industrial scale in the 1950s. Their focus recently has been producing gravel for infrastructure works such as the Channel Tunnel, the Delta Works in The Netherlands and the TGV train lines that criss-cross France. They have not, to the author’s knowledge, been asked to get involved in gravel racing.
What did the Romans ever do for us?
Last October, I was in Rome with my family. Between gelati, we took in a bit of history. In mellow autumnal sunshine we walked through the ancient ruins adjacent to the Colosseum. This was where the wealthy and powerful lived and worked; Mayfair, Westminster and Chelsea all rolled into one.
Some of the original roads remain and they were constructed of huge cobblestones. Polished by millions of tourists’ shoes, these cobbles were so big that we hopped from one to the next, like stepping stones across a river.
The Romans were the first civilisation to design and build roads systematically. Cobbled roads and paths had existed before the Romans (the first examples being in Mesopotamia, Babylon and Crete) but they were principally ceremonial roads connecting palaces and temples. For the Romans, roads were integral to their empire; at its height, their network stretched over 50,000 miles across Europe and Asia Minor.
Roman road builders didn’t mess about. For an important road, they started by digging parallel drainage trenches ten metres apart. The excavated earth was then used to build a foundation one metre above the trenches, on top of which were added five layers – sand, crushed rock, gravel in cement mortar, cemented sand and gravel, and topped off with paving slabs such as the ones I marvelled at in Rome.
The finished road had two lanes, a crown at the centre, high kerbs, and two side-lanes for pedestrians. Had the bicycle been invented then, the Romans would have made some superb bike lanes. They set the standard in early road-building, and after the empire fell, it was more than a millennium until roads looked so good again.
During the Industrial Revolution, engineers experimented with various combinations of sand, gravel, rocks, bitumen and even wood. In Northern Europe, drainage was a common problem. Durability too, for loose surfaces inevitably became rutted with heavy use. In the second half of the 19th century, the proliferation of a wonderful new piece of technology – the bicycle – was the catalyst for a resurgence in road-building.
Setts were the dominant material, with asphalt used only occasionally. When set in sand and laid closely, these quarried stones provided strong, well-drained and (relatively) smooth surfaces for cyclists, horses and the first automobiles. Belgium was at the epicentre of a sustained explosion in road-building; the lads at Lessines were very busy.
Laying the foundations of myth
The two most famous cobbled (I’m going to keep referring to cobbles rather than switching to setts, it just sounds too weird) bike races are Paris-Roubaix and the Ronde van Vlaanderen. Today we equate them because of their famous stones, but the impetus for their creation was very different.
Paris-Roubaix was conceived in 1896 as a way to promote the newly built velodrome in Roubaix; the route just happened to pass along some cobbled farm roads. The race was an immediate success, with the public and the organisers noting that the cobbles gave the race’s finale a certain frisson of unpredictability. Most of the roads in the area were dirt. Those that were cobbled had seen a lot of use from industrial and agricultural traffic and were in a state of disrepair, with missing stones, big gaps and rough edges.
By ensuring that the race took in these sections during the final 60 kilometres, the organisers created the template that still provides so much entertainment more than a century later. De Ronde was an exercise in nation-building by its founder Karel van Wijnendaele.
In 1913, when the first edition was held, Flanders was weaker and less affluent than neighbouring Wallonia. Van Wijnendaele wanted to create a race to unite the Flemish community and act as a symbol for its regrowth. It would take place entirely on Flemish roads, which just happened to be cobbled.
No one called it a cobbled Classic back then. Indeed, riding on cobbles probably seemed like the height of luxury compared to the dirt roads found elsewhere. The turning point came in the middle of the 20th century. Specifically, for Paris-Roubaix, in 1968, a year that was culturally significant for France in much wider terms.
Four years earlier, the Dutchman Peter Post won with an average speed of more than 45kph. There were fewer than 30km of cobbles on the course that year. The organiser Jacques Goddet was appalled. He didn’t want a fast race over tarmac roads. What was the point in that? In 1968, he sent his colleague Albert Bouvet out into the French countryside with one brief: find more cobbles. Rather than waste his time driving around aimlessly, Bouvet knew just the man to ask: Jean Stablinski. The 1962 world champion had worked in the coal mines at Arenberg, near Valenciennes, and was a friend. He showed Bouvet many kilometres of little-known cobbled roads, including the Trouée d’Arenberg, a sector which has become notorious. When asked if he ever rode through the trench in training, Stablinski shook his head. Too hard, he said.
Later, once the diabolical section had been incorporated into the race, he admitted to journalists that he felt guilty for his role. In 1913 a third of the Ronde’s route was cobbled.
After World War Two many of these roads were paved with asphalt. Concerned that the modern roads would kill off their race, the organisers also went off on a porphyry treasure hunt. It turned out to be a fruitful exercise – among other bergs, they discovered the Muur van Geraardsbergen, the Bosberg and the Oude Kwaremont. Now the cobblestones are tourist attractions and protected by government legislation.
One of the most famous features of the modern route has been the Koppenberg climb. This steep, narrow and roughly cobbled ascent, sunken into the farmland and covered by trees, provided both attacking and photo opportunities. After the farcical incident in 1987, when Danish racer Jesper Skibby fell off his bike and watched helplessly as a race organisation car ran over it, the Koppenberg was withdrawn from the route. Keen not to lose the special character it gave the race, the organisers spent $500,000 on importing new cobbles from Poland to relay the surface.
(Image by Zac Williams/SWPix.com)
Downtown Abbey, Le Nord
Halfway through A Sunday in Hell, the classic 1976 film about Paris-Roubaix, the focus switches from the dustblurred chaos of the race to a study of a group of fans waiting by the roadside. The camera scans from a middle-aged woman in a sparkly black top, playing cards with her friend, to an old gent who trains binoculars on the horizon, to a teenage boy holding a radio to his ear. There are some young men in suits, a dude in a leather jacket. Everyone is in high spirits, enjoying the sunshine. These are local people, the narrator points out, who come out to watch the torture and masochism of the race that has made their region famous. They look for a cloud of dust in the distance. Now, were you to stand on that same corner, it’s likely that you would meet the children and grandchildren of those 1976 spectators, staring at their phones instead of the horizon. You would also meet fans from a range of countries.
Like all big bike races, Paris-Roubaix is now a more international affair. We love the cobbled Classics because they provoke in us a complicated emotional response, just as mountain stages of Grand Tours do.
Whether misshapen stones or steep climbs, they are obstacles for the riders. They cause visible suffering; didn’t we all revel in the photographs of Lizzie Deignan’s blood-stained handlebars? Cobbles call for exemplary bike handling, one of the reasons we love to watch the professionals. They also introduce an element of luck. We may not care to admit it, but this appeals.
A very skilled rider may be able to minimise his or her chances of punctures and crashes, seeking out the crown of the road, but there is always the possibility of fate striking, and striking hard. “Paris-Roubaix is the last folly cycling offers its followers,” said Jacques Goddet.
Sometimes the Gods of Le Nord seem to delight in conspiring with the cobbles. Isn’t that so, Mr Moscon? So our emotional response is layered, shifting. We feel for the poor riders, at the same time as wanting to put them through this hell. We applaud their acrobatics whilst watching crashes in slow-motion. It is a sadistic form of theatre.
Today, the cobbled Classics have moved beyond folly. They are period dramas. Like an English country house story played out in the rural backwaters of northern France and Belgium. It’s no accident that the cobbled roads are close to Flanders Fields, to the French battlefields of the First World War. They are part of the wider landscape, which has changed little over 150 years.
The bare ground and bleak horizon are as much a part of these races as the cobbles. There is a sense of the timeless; man and machine pitted against the elements – wind, rain, stone.
Sport may be folly but it can also be heroism. In Roubaix velodrome, the winner hoists aloft their trophy: a grey sett. A humble, if weighty trophy. The cobbles connect us to our collective past. They stand for suffering, on many levels, and the passing of time. They stand for resilience and bravery. That is why our April festival of worship will continue to thrive.
*Cover image by SWPix.com