When Arnaud Démare clinched the 2017 GP Denain from Nacer Bouhanni, it was a sprinters’ race: there were two kilometres of pavés. This year, they’ve been stretched to 21 kilometres to create a carbon copy of the Arras-Roubaix stage of the 2018 Tour.
The reformatting is bandied about as an opportunity for the riders, a terroir move towards more authenticity. I can’t help wondering if the organiser or the wider WorldTour calendar imposed the madcap change. It seems to echo Marc Madiot stating that the sport’s top tier is so boring that it forces race organisers to rediscover authenticity – gravel, proper secteurs, local character. If Tro-Bro Léon hadn’t been invented, it would need to be. But a French cobbled classic in March?
“The move of the race from mid-week to the weekend should be a good thing and give bigger Eurosport audiences. Weekday races always struggle,” says Daniel Verbrackel, general manager and DS of the Roubaix-Lille-Métropole continental team. “For us, the GP is one of the big races of the year. Our sponsors are mainly regional institutions, who want to see the team in action.”
On Friday, two days before the race, we meet up with Daniel and fellow directeur sportif Frédéric Delcamp at the Vélo Club de Roubaix clubhouse, opposite the entrance to the legendary velodrome and housing the most famous showers in the cycling world.
Fred and Daniel are employed by the Roubaix Council to run the club and lead the RLM team. Fred is lead coach for the VC de Roubaix, which was founded in 1961. They are a leading French club and the RLM continental team is the tip of their 400-member iceberg.
Daniel is the public persona and the slick talker, Fred the hands-on guy behind the scenes. “I’m not sure about reinventing the race as a pre-Roubaix. The weather can be pretty horrific at Paris-Roubaix. This is almost a month earlier,” says Daniel. “Last week during the recce, the motards struggled to get through some of the secteurs. They’re on road motorbikes, not trail bikes. I suspect they’ll bail out before the riders.”
“All that hassle for 20 kilometres of cobbles,” adds Fred.
“They thought cobbles would attract major teams, but that’s been a bit of a letdown. Big teams like Sky have already been round to recce the main secteurs in the off-season. They don’t need the added risk of racing for that,” says Daniel.
Daniel is disappointed by the lack of giving back on the part of the big teams and stars: “It’s not everyone, but many walk into the club house, taking over the premises without a thought to the club or our kids. It’s a shame they just use the location for its mythical value.” He gives the example of Team Sky, the richest team in the peloton, who came to film here a whole day, taking it for granted that they could occupy the premises without giving anything in return.
Daniel is sceptical about the new-look GP Denain. “Look at the Tour du Poitou-Charentes. They threw in some mud paths and immediately got three or four broken collarbones. That’s just dumb. There’s too much image production and people forget that races have grown organically over years, they’re part of the culture. Like a good wine. There are no shortcuts. You can’t just repackage and reinvent history,” says Daniel.
Fred agrees: “Of course, cycling is a sport, but it’s also a take on a region, a window. When races become too generic, we miss the specifics. Pavés are more than just a surface. This isn’t tennis. Tro-Bro Léon revealed a region most people would never have seen otherwise. Sometimes I think we need to remind ourselves of what Paris-Roubaix actually stands for, see it with fresh eyes, see it for what it is, what it can be, and not just the cliché,” he says.
“Organisers forget that it’s not just about building a circuit. It’s not like planting poles on a ski slope. You need to cultivate and build on the identity,” says Daniel. Daniel and Fred have a real sense of belonging to GP Denain and especially Paris-Roubaix, but the newly-constructed cobble identity threatens to estrange them from one of ‘their’ races.
Driving to meet up with RLM at their race base the next morning, the sense of abandonment and wasteland is reflected in the landscape. Slag heaps are a regular feature along the motorway, traces of the area’s history. Some ridges are overgrown with vegetation and look like they are part of the natural topography, but these are man-made hills, industrial waste. And the same material was used as foundation for the motorway crossing the area.
We are meeting the team at a budget hotel near Valenciennes Airport. In the parking lot stands a giant team bus, an immaculate workshop truck and another van plus two team cars. They look the part.
Over a coffee, I have a chat with RLM rider Samuel Leroux, 23, from Calais. He started out at the VC de Roubaix, spending four years in DN1 before joining RLM. He is the most local of the riders in the team.
Samuel says that they are 14 riders, each earning €1500 per month. “We get kit and everything – Lapierre bikes with Di2 like Groupama-FDJ, but the team doesn’t really supervise riders’ individual training programmes, that’s up to us,” he says.
Our meeting is cut short – the riders have to do their warm-up. Riders and soigneurs pour into a small meeting cum dining room. Jérôme Mainard, 31, Pierre Idjouadiene, 22, and Lander Seynaeve, 25, squeeze onto the line of turbos with Milan-Sanremo live on a laptop in front of them.
While sweating away on the turbo, Jérôme, Pierre and Lander go all-out as Nibali flies down the Poggio, then holds off the peloton in the final kilometres. The RLM boys can’t help sitting up and smiling with a mix of admiration and excitement as Nibali celebrates his victory with an avalanche of sprinters unfurling behind. In that moment, he is where they want to be.
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We leave RLM to their preparations and head over to the Abscon sector to meet Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix chairman François Doulcier and his gentle giant wingman Jean-Guillaume Leperre. No doubt for an outsider this would look like a suspicious meeting: four men out in the cold, conferring at the back of a small hatchback filled with spades and unidentified tools. During our morning recce, we concluded that this was the GP Denain’s most boring cobble sector, so I convince François to drive over to our favourite, Mastaing. It’s only a few hundred metres away and should be the perfect place for some great race shots tomorrow.
As he unpacks the spades and equipment, I ask François what drives him to do this, to spend hours hacking, weeding and digging cobbled roads in freezing temperatures. “First of all, I love cycling. And I love stones, stone work,” he begins.
“As a teenager I lived in Paris and was a passionate cyclist. My dad would take me to watch Paris-Roubaix and it was the highlight of the year. He talked about pavés like some mystical thing.”
François moved to the region for personal reasons. I’d like to think it was for his love of the stones. As dusk takes over, François and Jean-Guillaume do some digging and ‘stone work’ for the camera. These guys are motivated. It’s difficult not to admire their grit. They’ve already spent the whole day working on the Orchies secteur and are clearly frozen to the bone. We all are – we’re submitted to Putin’s Beast from the East Mark II. But Les Amis are still out here, digging for the cause, keeping the roads bumpy and fork-breaking.
These are the guys who enable Paris-Roubaix and the new-style GP Denain. “But Paris-Roubaix and other cobbles races also make our work viable. It’s a synergy,” Jean-Guillaume says. So there wouldn’t be any cobbles Classics without guys like you? “Again, we wouldn’t be here without them either. We work with old professional ‘pavers’. Their craftmanship was on the way out and is valued again thanks to our work. People realise the value of passing on knowledge,” he says.
“We also work with kids from the Horticultural Lycée in Lomme. It gives the kids the chance to pick up traditional skills as well as getting appreciation from the community as a whole,” says François.
Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix were founded in 1977, the year when Roger De Vlaeminck won ahead of Willy Teirlinck and Freddy Maertens. Mythological times. François’ dad must have loved hearing about De Vlaeminck training for the cobbles by riding on train rails.
“In the early days, it was about resisting the invasion of tarmac, about not losing more secteurs to the smooth stuff. Secteurs like Mons-en-Pévèle, Auchy-lez-Orchies and Wallers [better known as the Arenberg Forest] were saved in this period,” says François. I picture bulldozers and fuming tarmac machines on one side; François, Jean-Guillaume and his gang on the other, in a Monkey Wrench Gang-style stand-off.
“Depending on the size of the project, renovations are sometimes taken on by private companies,” says François. “We work with volunteers and can’t do large-scale projects. When properly done, the foundation of a cobble section is 70 centimetres deep, so you can imagine the volumes of material. We mainly restore and maintain.”
Who pays for the work? “It depends. The maintenance is based on a combination of public money, donations and volunteer time. When a job is too big, say several hundred square metres, private contractors have to be hired. There is clear popular support – today when we were working over at Orchies, a group of British cyclists spontaneously gave us €60 cash,” says François.
So what distinguishes the secteurs? “The level of difficulty of pavés is judged on three main criteria: the spacing between the stone; the difference in level between the stones; and the shape of the pavé – well or poorly-cut stones, that could be flat or pointy for instance,” says François. “When repairing a secteur, we need to respect its level of difficulty. At the five-star Carrefour de l’Arbre for instance, the restoration work has to be done with a light touch to make sure it remains challenging for the riders.”
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The next morning sure feels challenging. It’s raw. It’s snowing. It’s 8am with a feel of -10 degrees Celsius. The start area is crammed with people. We rush from gazebo to gazebo, slip-sliding over the fake grass, desperate for a coffee.
We’re not interested in brochures or display stands selling the region. We want a hot drink. Coffee, hot chocolate… Anything not to seize up in the Siberian wind. Having a steaming cup from her private thermos, the coffee lady tells me her stand opens at nine – one hour from now. Merci beaucoup. We drive to a McDonald’s around the corner, the only open place in town. Man up! This is Macron’s France, not ‘A Year in Provence’.
As we finish our McDonald’s coffees in the parking lot, a guy from the Wanty-Groupe Gobert crew tells me that all the secteurs except one have been cancelled because of the snow and the cold. The decision was made less than an hour before the start after discussions with Direct Energie veteran Sylvain Chavanel.
Good thing we spent all of the previous days recceing the cobbled sectors…
With the delayed start and changed route, we’ve completely lost our plan, our vantage points. Daniel’s reservations regarding the new format prove to be spot on. We have to go last-minute chasing for new camera positions during the race and, reluctantly, accept that the Abscon cobble section that we had categorised as the dullest is the only one we’ll get.
At our first stop, it’s clear the temperature isn’t going up today. If anything, it gets colder and darker as the day goes by. The bone-chilling wind sweeps over the frozen fields sprinkled with snow in a landscape defined by churches and slag heaps. The pylons look like a Chinese shadow play against the horizon. It’s so cold it’s impossible to stay out of the car.
This is a bitter day for the riders. There’s no hiding from the wind in the open landscape. It might actually be worse than a more ‘normal’ day with cobbles. I’d certainly rather be shaken than frozen.
Chavanel features in every attack throughout the race. Is he trying to prove that his role in the cancellation of sectors wasn’t a sign of weakness? It’s been a gruelling race all the way and he shows no signs of relenting. There’s still life in the old dog. He can do it!
Although this looked like the dullest section, there’s nothing boring about the riders coming past. They’re right up against it – the biting, cold headwind. Watching them grimace, it’s clear this is the real deal. No cushy job, no fucking poseurs. This is the mining of cycling. Chavanel comes past chasing, only to have a flat at the end of the secteur. I believed in him. He was in the perfect position to take Denain.
Watching the riders, in that dusky light, on that snow-sprinkled, frozen field is like standing in a Brueghel painting. Riders squeezing past between the petrified mud and the slippy stones, dodging the cars on the narrow secteur, struggling to hold their lines, going beyond deep in the numbing cold. In the end, the cold is just as hard, if not tougher, than the pavés. Next year, why not go all-out and move the race to January? Make it an even cooler classic.
Olivier Nilsson-Julien is the author of The Ice Cage.
Michael Blann: michaelblann.com
This is an edited extract of an article that originally appeared in Rouleur 19.1