Not long after, my friend and I sought out a VHS tape copy of the 1976 film, A Sunday in Hell. It was equally compelling, and a fascinating window into simpler times when cycling somehow just looked better. To this day it remains one of my favourite cycling films.
I had certainly seen road cycling races before. I grew up watching relatives riding in Australian one-day classics, stage races, and on the outdoor country velodromes. As a child, I had seen behind the scenes in cycling and knew how big efforts in tough races made a rider look at the end.
But until I discovered Paris-Roubaix, I had never seen riders look so utterly battered and broken at the end of a bike race – the faces, the eyes, the dirt and mud, and the blood. The images could have been from a war.
Indeed, the connection between Paris-Roubaix and war is a close one. It is said that the race was given its L’enfer du nord (‘Hell of the North’) nickname in 1919 after journalists covering the return edition after WWI saw how the conflict had obliterated the landscape in northern France.
Those Paris-Roubaix pictures and the Sunday in Hell film didn’t inspire me to start riding or racing. I was doing neither in the 1990s. The closest I got to cobbles at that time was walking past the old night-cart lanes in Melbourne’s inner city suburbs where I lived.
What the race did help to inspire in me was a keen interest in cycling culture and history, particularly the moments and periods where Australian cycling had an impact on the world stage. The Paris-Roubaix classic is a clear an example of that.
Australians in the Paris-Roubaix
For a one-day spring cycling classic so far away in continental Europe, the reach of this great race into the consciousness of Australian cycling is remarkable. So far, 29 Australians have crossed the Paris-Roubaix finish line in a history of affinity with this race that started over a century ago in 1914.
The first Australian riders were a group including Ivor “Snowy” Munro, Don Kirkham, Charlie Snell, George Bell and Charlie Piercey. They had travelled together to Europe with the goal of riding the Tour de France and started their campaign riding as professionals for the Gladiator Cycles & Clement Tyre team.
History shows that in the 19th edition of Paris-Roubaix “Snowy” Munro finished 34th (just 7 minutes behind the winner), followed by Snell 57th and Bell 64th. Piercey abandoned after breaking a wheel and Kirkham couldn’t continue after breaking his bike. Fred Keefe, a Tasmanian road and track all-rounder, had also travelled with the group and rode some preliminary races with them. In Graham Healy’s book ‘The Shattered Peloton’, he describes what the Australians found there:
“…the roads of France and Belgium proved a great disappointment to us. We all expected to find smooth, hard, dustless highways, whose surface would compare with the first-class racing tracks of Australia. Instead…there seemed to be endless miles of what is known as pavé, which is surely an invention of the evil one himself. This pavé consists simply of small blocks of stone set in the road without any remarkable degree of evenness, on which the vibration caused by riding and speed is beyond imagination. How we Australians sighed for once-despised roads of our homeland after our experience.”
However, the pavé served to attract future Australian cyclists to this race, not discourage them. Down the years since that first foray into international road racing, some of Australia’s greatest ever cyclists have made their way into the Paris-Roubaix classic. Names like Russell Mockridge, Phil Anderson, Dean Woods, Baden Cooke, Heinrich Haussler, Robbie McEwen and many more have completed what is often referred to as the World’s toughest one-day classic.
The Australian presence in Paris-Roubaix over the years has been successful by any measure. Our 79 finishes in the event have delivered two winners (O’Grady 2007, Hayman 2016), five other top-tens (O’Grady 2008; Hayman 2011-12; Haussler 2009, 2016), and eight top-twenty finishes (O’Grady 1997-98, 2003, 2005; Cooke 2006; Docker 2011; Haussler 2013; Durbridge 2016).
The Paris-Roubaix classic is a popular race for Australian cycling fans too. Speak to anyone in the weekday and Saturday morning training bunches, and they all know what the Queen of the Classics is. Everyone knows about the Hell of the North.
In fact, the Paris-Roubaix race arguably enjoys cult status within cycling circles in this country. The signs of cultural significance are there.
Each year there are Paris-Roubaix parties across the country, and regular pilgrimages to the race are made by Australian cycling fans with various cycle-tour companies, and as DIY adventures. Since 2006 we have seen Andy ‘Fyxo’ White's Melbourne Roobaix event (an ode to Paris-Roubaix ridden over the backstreets and cobbled laneways) grow in size to the point of now selling out well in advance each year. There’s even a Melbourne bistro / wine bar called ‘Hell of the North’ devoted to this European Queen of the Classics.
There has also been the ‘Hayman effect.’ Hayman’s 2016 win came after breaking his arm at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad race and doing five weeks using the Zwift program on his garage trainer. The win and the story behind it was so popular it has also enhanced the popularity of the Zwift cycling simulator, particularly in Australia where uptake has been very high, along with sales of turbo smart trainers.
Why we love Paris-Roubaix
The Hell of the North is popular amongst Australian cycling fans because it is the toughest and hardest classic. It is an event where the solidly built barodeurs and rouleurs from the super-domestique ranks can come to the fore, rather than the usual GC favourites who dominate the Grand Tours.
The imagery around the race leaves little doubt on what we are seeing. It’s all about the history, crashes, dust and mud, cobbles, broken bikes and broken men, pain and hardships, and hard men.
Paris-Roubaix is partly a story about the vanquished and the victors. We celebrate them all. That’s why we love this race.
But Paris-Roubaix is also a story about the ‘dilemma of the road’ in cycling. Regardless of how and where you ride, all cyclists recognise the simultaneous appeal and fear of the road. The symbolism of the road is powerful – it represents escape and freedom, a journey to somewhere else. We all know the allure and exhilaration of long rides on new roads, tracks, and gravel. We know the potential dangers too.
Especially in Paris-Roubaix where those roads are made of pavé, covered in dust and sometimes mud, there’s the added possibility of difficulty, discomfort, and dangers that make each rider’s victory over them seem even more impressive.
The 115th edition in 2017
The provisional team lists for the 115th edition of the 121-year-old Paris-Roubaix name eight Australian riders as possible starters. Apart from the Orica-Scott duo of Hayman and Durbridge, another notable Australian is first-timer Miles Scotson (BMC) – he will be worth watching as the current Australian road champion flying the national colours.
Four riders are named as substitutes, including Will Clarke (Cannondale Drapac) and Alex Edmondson (Orica-Scott). Heinrich Haussler (Bahrain-Merida) and Mark Renshaw (Team Dimension Data) are also named but both are injured and unlikely to start.
Assuming Mat Hayman completes this year’s race, his 15 finishes will put him in equal second place for most race completions with Frenchman Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle. Duclos-Lassalle was also a Paris-Roubaix specialist who finally won the race towards the end of his career in 1992 and then won it again in 1993.
Duclos-Lassalle is also listed as the oldest Paris-Roubaix winner ever. He won it aged 38 and 8 months in 1993. Hayman was also 38 when he won the race in 2016.
Here’s hoping that history serves as some sort of omen so that, in the words of Matt Keenan, we see Hayman “going home with the stone” again this Sunday.