Think Paris-Roubaix and you think of the roads. It’s not about the 205km of the plain asphalt roads though. No, the majority of the race is run on roads no different from any other on the calendar. The other 52km are what set this race apart. The cobbles are Paris-Roubaix.
As crazy as it sounds now, there was, once upon a time, a push to wipe out these cobbled roads. In the aftermath of World War Two, France began to modernise the damaged road system, and the pavé of the north slowly disappeared.
The race first lost a cobbled sector to the unrelenting march of modernisation in 1939, with more and more covered by asphalt as the years rolled by. The advent of live television only accelerated this process as local authorities, ashamed of their poor roads, would resurface them if the race passed through.
In 1983 that changed. Paris-Roubaix organiser Albert Bouvet and Jean-Claude Vallaeys, founder of Vélo Club Roubaix, founded a new organisation – Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix (the friends of Paris-Roubaix). The group’s aim was to preserve cobbled sectors, repairing and restoring them each year.
Fortunately, they are still at it today, headed up by President François Doulcier. His day job, a car assembly line manager, Doulcier joined the group as a member in 2001, and has been President since 2011.
The organisation has grown from 40 members when Doulcier joined to over 200 today. These members come from around the world, from Belgium to Brazil, and anybody can join for a fee of between €20-30.
This money goes towards the maintenance of the cobbles, and the same local authorities who were once dead-set against the race now work with Les Amis in order to carry out the work, as Doulcier explains.
“For the big jobs, the work is funded by the local government, yes. Smaller jobs are done by the students, and they are funded by us as well as local communities.”
Those students are from the Raismes Horticultural College near Valenciennes. The school has been involved since 2002, and groups of students have worked on the cobbles every spring. Last year they worked on Quérénaing-Maing and Wallers-Hélesmes (otherwise known as Pont Gibus), while this spring has seen them restore sector 19, from Haveluy to Wallers.
“These are future gardeners, and the paving work is part of the landscaping integrated into their training,” says Oliver Codron, the landscaping teacher at the college.
Lugging around twenty-pound stones is some apprenticeship for these students. It’s estimated that over 50,000 cobbles have been repositioned and restored by students of the college over the years.
“There are classes of fifteen to twenty working for fifteen days. The budget for their work is €15,000 each year,” says Doulcier. “The heavy work has a budget of €100,000.”
Of course the organisation, which is entirely voluntary, does not make a profit – their work is a labout of love.
The heavy work described by Doulcier is outsourced to companies. He says a team of four work for several months, with 100 metres of the route taking around a month to renovate.
Such work includes a street sweeper cleaning the famous Trouée d’Arenberg sector – its forest location means that moss and mould thrive on the cobbles there.
Arenberg brings with it another problem – cobble theft. Yes, really. Each year the organisation replaces dozens of stones in the forest and elsewhere. Finding the replacements isn’t a problem though, as the group has a stockpile of over 90,000 thanks to local authorities, who save the stones they dig up.
This year, the work has been extensive, with restoration carried out at a number of well-known sectors, including Auchy-lez-Orchies, Mons-en-Pévèle and Carrefour de l’Arbre. For Les Amis (or the ‘convicts of the road’ as they call themselves), this has just been a regular year.
“The repairs have been a similar level to recent years,” says Doulcier. “In addition to the spring work, the pavé is checked throughout the year in order to identify any potential problems.”
Don’t think that the group is making the race easier though – the challenge is in maintaining the cobbles. That is, keeping them tough to ride as well as preserving them aesthetically.
“We don’t want to turn it into a pool table,” Doulcier jokes. “We have to keep the challenge of the cobbles, but remove the ruts and potholes.”
For now though, he can sit back and enjoy the fruits of his organisation’s labour. On Sunday the peloton will roar over the same rough cobbles that Les Amis have spent months painstakingly renovating.
Sunday’s victor will take home one of the famed cobbles of Paris-Roubaix – one from the vault I’m sure. But then it won’t be long until thoughts turn to next year, for Doulcier and Les Amis, at least. The work is never done.