Tales from the cobbled peloton, April 6, 2006
Theres more to the Pavés du Nord than just the Paris - Roubaix race. Roads were cobbled all over the North East Region of France (and the North of Belgium) as a matter of course because, in the days before Macadam met Tar, the high water table made dirt roads impassable almost all the time. Now it's time to clean them up, so Cyclingnews' Ben Atkins gets stuck into some work on the cobbled chain gang to help Sunday's big race and do his part for the local culture.
Les Amis de Paris - Roubaix is an organisation founded to protect, preserve, if necessary repair and if possible find new sectors of pavé, both for the race to use, and for the identity of the region. Every year, they organise working parties of volunteers - Forçats de la Route - to repair or restore existing sectors - or new ones to be used for the first time. Last year I took part in a working party digging up and replacing a particularly badly surfaced area of the Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle sector at Cysoing - removing the old cracked stones and replacing them with everlasting granite ones. It had been tough, backbreaking stuff - but satisfying - this year was going to be no less challenging.
This years working party was assembled to clear the mud from the surface of a newly reintroduced sector near the village of Mons-en-Pévèle. This sector was last used in the race back in the mid nineties and had disappeared under a thick layer of that other stuff Paris - Roubaix is famous for. We had just one afternoon to scrape the worst of it off, just in case Tom Boonen decides to wear his white shorts in the race this year - we wouldnt want him to get them too dirty, now would we...
Todays volunteer chain gang consisted mainly of locals from the Department du Nord, but as well as yours truly there were a sprinkling of Belgians along for the day. Most Belgians come to Paris - Roubaix and make off with one specially mounted cobble, so it was good of these guys to lend a hand to prepare the ground for their all conquering countrymen!
Work consisted of breaking up the mud using hoes and pics and shovelling it into the fields at either side. Its not as easy as it sounds - especially after a couple of hours riding the local cobbled sectors, as I had - the mud was pretty well compacted after years of floods and farm traffic, this sector was last used in the race in the mid-nineties and had been left to the elements ever since.
Most of us were set to work with the various picking and scraping tools, with others sweeping and raking behind us. Some of the others though, including the Amis President Alain Bernard and todays organiser François Doulcier were investigating the very edge of the road. It turned out the field to one side of the cobbles had encroached about 20-30 cm towards the middle of the road. Half of the working party now dedicated its efforts to reclaiming the land lost to the field, cutting huge chunks of earth away with spades and returning it to the field - to whence it came.
After hours of toil in a howling northerly wind, and under a sky that threatened to empty its contents on us at any minute, we finally called it a day and downed tools. The exhausted forçats made their way to a local estaminet to imbibe a few glasses of the local beer - actually brewed in Mons-en-Pévèle - to swap tales and predictions for this year's race. A shrug of resignation from all the locals greeted my questions about any possible French contenders; nobody could see any outcome other than a certain young Belgian world champion taking his second win in a row. I just hope he notices the work we put in to make his journey through lEnfer du Nord as clean and safe as possible.
More information about les Amis de Paris - Roubaix and the work they do can be found at their website