Rider on the Carrefour de l’Arbe
Bienvenue en enfer. Those sardonic words, glistening on the back of Bernard Hinault’s red Rapha raincoat, scorn my every pedal stroke as I struggle to hold The Badger’s wheel. Yes, today, I am riding with the Bernard Hinault, five-time winner of the Tour, world champion, and winner of many classics — among them, the object of today’s recon, Paris-Roubaix. The Hell of the North. L’Enfer.
It’s raining. The fields and villages are grey and dreary. I wouldn’t expect otherwise. This is Roubaix. A thunderous scowl is frozen on my face. Riding in the rain, on the cobbles, it’s not for me — even with Bernard Hinault. Give me jet-black asphalt so my wheels purr softly. And sun, blazing sun. Or cool, but dry, leg-warmer weather — that’s fine too. But how, in God’s name, did they convince Hinault to lead us, a gawky troupe of journalists, over the cobbles of northern France?
Le Nord. A shiver runs down my spine. This is the land of Les Ch’tis. If you haven’t seen the film, Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis, do so. Soon. Then you will understand what I mean. No one lives here but trolls who speak gibberish. Even the French want nothing to do with Le Nord, this wasteland bordering with Belgium. And yet it is holy ground, the land where a surly Hinault once won in the rainbow jersey, where Fausto Coppi soloed to victory, and where, this year, Tom Boonen might inherit the title ‘Monsieur Paris-Roubaix’ from the master, Roger De Vlaeminck.
Yes, I know all the tricks — relax, hold your hands loose on the tops of the bars, push a big gear, find the crest in the middle of the stones… Try it once. After three sectors, my palms were blistered and my fingers cramped. Pain is conversely proportional to my ability on this death march. Why am I doing this again? I won’t think anymore, just pedal. I survive. I realize: this is Roubaix. It’s survival of the fittest.
My self-flagellation continues in this shitty weather. The worst is yet to come: Carrefour de l’Arbre, a five-star sector. Michelin awards stars to restaurants for gastronomic excellence. ASO ranks stretches of pavé based on their wickedness. The world has been turned on its head.
Carrefour de l’Arbre is a 2.1-kilometre-long strip of cobbles, running between Camphin-en-Pévèle and Gruson. I shudder. We arrive onto the stones. I count them, one by one. I suffer. It’s as if the cobbles were dropped at random from the back of a lorry. I’m so slow. The road rises slightly, a false flat, then turns ninety degrees onto a perfectly straight stretch that — is it just me? — goes on forever. 2,100 metres. Time slows down when you resist each one.
The end is in sight. Restaurant de l’Arbre rises before me. They serve nothing there but bloody pavé de boeuf. Hinault hits the brakes. I hardly recognize him. No longer red, his raincoat is splattered with mud. Through the brown-grey sludge, l’Enfer is all that is visible. Our eyes meet. For a second, we are soulmates. We understand each other. Carrefour de l’Arbre was our hell.
The next sector of cobbles comes at Gruson. Not so difficult as Carrefour de l’Arbre, it’s one that Hinault will remember, forever. In 1981, the finale was at a crescendo. Hinault had flatted five times and crashed twice. On the stones at Gruson, a third fall nearly cost him the victory. As the road turned to the right, Hinault went down. A black poodle on a red leash was the culprit. The Badger was the width of a hair — the dog, Pitch’s — from losing the victory, or so he tells me, over a beer.