editor NOS Sport in Roubaix
In Roubaix, history is on the street. Or rather, down the street. Just before the riders turn towards the velodrome, they once again ride over a strip of cobblestones in the city. It doesn’t represent much, the stones are laid quite evenly. Call it a well-maintained garden path.
There, among the cobblestones, are the names of cycling icons such as Joseph Fischer, the first winner of the Paris-Roubaix in 1896. And there is also Maurice Garin, a two-time Roubaix winner and the man who won the first edition of the Tour de France in 1903.
Thousands of fans pass in front of those stones on Saturday, a few hours before the end of the women’s race, the last meters of their Hel van het Noorden.
Men and women who want to experience in the northern French countryside what Fischer and Garin experienced long ago, and Johan Musseeuw, Fabian Cancellara and Alison Jackson in the more recent past.
After that last cobbled stretch, cyclists turn right. They drive between soccer fields on one side and some old and dilapidated buildings on the other to turn towards the famous velodrome near Vélo Club Roubaix.
For a cafe with a view of the Northern Hell Cathedral, opening hours are limited. “On weekends, usually,” says one of the bartenders. “And if there are events.”
icons on the wall
When the doors are open, the visitor sees the classic icons everywhere. The names of all the winners are written on the wall, along with images of bloody knees, muddy faces and devastated cyclists with a wheel in hand, waiting for help from team management. Cycling heroism up to and including.
Hardly anyone gets the velodrome as clean as they started the day. Although it is even more noticeable with a white cycling jersey. Because what is white in Roubaix does not stay white.
His right side is still fine, but Julian Paynter’s left is stained from head to toe. He came from Australia with ten friends to put together the tour version of Paris-Roubaix.
Caked mud and blood stains.
He doesn’t even remember which strip of cobblestones Paynter landed on. “The eleventh, but he may have been the twelfth.”
With a bloody elbow, a red stain around his knee and caked mud all over the left side of his body, he is recovering at the velodrome. With a medal, yes.
The fascination with Paris-Roubaix attracts enthusiasts from all over the world to the North of France. But for a career with such allure and the nickname ‘La reine des classiques’ (the queen of the classics), real greatness is sometimes hard to find.
Find a museum
At the back of that cafe, facing a half-covered deserted parking lot, is a museum. You just need to know that. Or just run into him, who also wants to help.
You enter, on a Friday afternoon at least, through a door that appears to be open more by accident than design. Of the three doors at the bottom of a staircase, the two bathrooms are the most striking, but behind the third door is that museum.
Drawings of all the winners in 119 men’s and 2 women’s editions hang on the wall. On the ground lies a strip of cobblestones between photos, bikes, T-shirts (clean and dirty) and old cycling magazines. The trophies for the winners of the 2023 edition are also ready.
The museum does not attract the least amount of visitors. The last person to sign the guest book was none other than Eddy Merckx. “Yes, he was here yesterday,” says an employee.
One of the last cobbled sections, Camphin-en-Pévèle, was officially dedicated to the three-time winner earlier this week. A visit to the museum could not be missed.
But anyone who wants to take a look after a hellish mile-long drive on Saturday won’t get more than a few lost turns in that parking lot. Who knows, he points to a locked door.
The same goes for the famous laundromat. All those names in there too, from Fischer to Dylan van Baarle to Elisa Longo Borghini. When the gates open on Friday afternoon for TV taping, it quickly fills up with keen runners. Wearing helmets and cycling shoes, they pass the granite changing cubicles.
But on Saturday the door will remain closed. The keys are in the possession of ‘Les amis de Paris-Roubaix’, the friends of Roubaix, who also maintain the cobblestones. See the volunteers participating in your classic as a calling.
They are just working on Saturday around the women’s race. Because the next edition of Roubaix is even more important than history for the most fanatical fans.