Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose
(The more things change, the more they stay the same)
Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr , 1808-1890
‘Since 1896 the Paris-Roubaix has imposed immeasurable pain and agony on successive generations of racing cyclists.
"Paris-Roubaix est une connerie" ("Paris-Roubaix is bullshit"). So said Bernard Hinault having just won the 1981 race!
In 1985 Dutchman Theo De Rooy had been a major player with his breakaway attempt. On the finish line a TV interviewer asked De Rooy about the race "It's a pile of shit, this race, it's a whole pile of shit ...” After he had finished his tirade the TV interviewer asked him if he would ever ride it again. "Sure, it's the most beautiful race in the world!" With this response both the TV crew and De Rooy burst out in laughter.
Over that same period millions of fans have flocked to what is now considered the greatest one day race of them all.
Each new generation looks back to the past as something quaint and not particularly pertinent to the advances of the modern day. In cycle racing two races in particular defy that generally accepted truism. Every spring the Ronde Van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) and the Paris-Roubaix are greeted with unbridled enthusiasm by cycle racing fans all over the world. Both races trace ancient Flandrian roads peppered with long stretches of bone rattling cobbles. Flanders is characterised by its numerous short and steep cobbled climbs known as ‘bergs'. Paris-Roubaix is mostly flat but its famous long sectors of cobbled roads (most of which feature in the second half of the race) test any racing cyclist to his absolute limit. Both races are an unbelievably brutal test of athletic skill but it is generally accepted that the Paris-Roubaix is the most prestigious of them all.
From the first Paris-Roubaix in 1896 until about World War II the roads of Northern France and Belgium comprised mainly of cobbled road or dirt track. When journalists first ventured back into the region after World War I the horrific devastation to the towns, villages and countryside was described as a vision of hell. With the Paris-Roubaix race route following much of what was the 1914 front line, it was not long before “The Hell of the North” became a very apt nickname for the race itself. Today it is also known by the much more peaceful nickname as “The Queen of the Classics”. Over the course of its history the race has used many variations for its journey through Northern France. Before WWII the philosophy was exactly the opposite of today's approach - the organisers were constantly seeking roads that avoided the atrocious cobbles.
The trend in recent years has been to both protect and restore many of the old cobbled roads used by both the Paris-Roubaix and the Ronde Van Vlaanderen. It is therefore a valid exercise to compare past races with contemporary race performances. Since WWII, the pre-war efforts to avoid cobbled roads have been completely reversed. Riders of the 1920's and 1930's would very much recognise the roads that Stuart O'Grady took on his journey to P-R victory last year.
So if the roads can be fairly compared to times past what other factors affect these great races. Naturally the weather and in Flanders you can get everything from bitter cold rain, wind and snow, strong winds and even, like last year, a summer-like heat wave. Of the other variables technology, training and nutrition sciences obviously give the modern peloton a huge advantage over their predecessors.
At least, that would be a natural conclusion, but race statistics tell a very different story. The fastest ever Paris-Roubaix was won by Peter Post in 1964 at an astounding 45.1 km/h. The second fastest was won by Rik Van Steenbergen (Rik I) in 1948 at 43.6 km/h. Over the past decade the fastest Paris-Roubaix was won by Fabian Cancellara in 2006 at 42.2 km/h. The average winning speed for the last ten years has been 40.1 km/h.
Heavy steel frames, leather saddles, 5-speed gear blocks, toe straps, heavy woollen shorts and racing shirts and no race radio. Yet nearly 60 years ago Van Steenbergen was racing faster than anyone since (except Post) over the unforgiving roads of Flanders. These facts tell a fascinating story and that is that the champions of the past were racing at the same level (or even higher) than their modern day high-tech counterparts! But comparisons of terrain, weather and technology do not tell the whole story. What we do discover is that it is the racers themselves, and not equipment or technology that makes bike races eternally fascinating.
1964 - Still the Fastest
On close inspection, every Paris-Roubaix tells its own story and to illustrate the fact we will look at Peter Post's record breaking 1964 victory. The story starts with a look at one of the greatest champions of all time, Rik Van Looy (Rik II).
Van Looy was the first rider to win each of the ‘five monuments' and he twice won the World RR Championship. He also excelled at stage races where won the Green Points Jersey at the Tour and the climbers jersey at the Giro. As was common of star road riders of his era (the '60's) he also took to the six-day track in the winter to maximise his income by leveraging his star power from the road. He was often teamed with the undisputed six-day king of the 1960's, Peter Post, and this incredible duo guaranteed sold out stadiums night after night. Living and racing together in such close proximity the six-day stars usually became great friends. On a business front the relationship also created infamous combines which evolved into the famous “Blue Train” comprising the top track stars like Post and Patrick Sercu. Behind the scenes the “Blue Train” dictated who would be allowed to race, who got paid what and much more.
On the road big stars like Van Looy also exercised their influence over race organisers as well as the peloton. In the Tour the benign term “Le Patron' is often heard. Jacques Anquetil was a ‘patron'. Bernard Hinault was the last really great ‘patron'. Armstrong liked to think of himself as ‘Le Patron' but while he ruled his team with an iron fist most of the peloton saw him as not much more than an arrogant bully. Van Looy was a ‘patron' mainly during flatter days in the Grand Tours. In single day races he was the scourge of the bunch. His famous “Red Guard” team was totally dedicated to him. They literally terrorised the peloton and in turn Van Looy ruled his own troops with an iron fist. Known as the “Emperor of Herentals” Van Looy did not know how to race easily. He was often described as a pit bull tearing away at his opposition and in every way epitomised the Flandrian “flahute”. [read the first paragraph of our April 2005 feature for the definitive definition of a flahute]
This brief picture of Van Looy is key in understanding the 1964 Paris-Roubaix because that year, possibly above all others, there were many riders wanting to bring the great man down. The previous year (1963) Van Looy had been beaten to the line by his compatriot Benoni Beheyt at the World RR Championship. Van Looy claimed that in the final lunge for the line Beheyt pulled his jersey, while Beheyt claimed that he was just easing himself past Van Looy who had switched across his wheel. To this day the outcome of that race is still discussed with great passion in Belgium. In true Van Looy fashion he never forgave Beheyt and the new World RR Champion soon became a condemned man who saw a rapid decline to his racing career greatly orchestrated by Van Looy. Earlier that fateful year (1963) Van Looy had been in the winning break of the Paris-Roubaix alongside his great six-day track partner and friend Peter Post. Apparently Van Looy offered Post a considerable sum of money if the track king would lead him out on the Roubaix Velodrome. Post consented but the plan was thwarted when Belgian rider Emil Daems snuck past Van Looy and Post on the line to claim a great victory. There is no concrete proof of Van Looy's deal just as there is no proof that he failed to compensate Post. What soon became apparent though was that their relationship rapidly became very ugly.
Race day at the 1964 Paris-Roubaix started with rain which added to roads already puddled with water to make the famous holes and ruts of the cobbles particularly treacherous. A brisk wind was buffeting the riders but it was blowing them from Paris to Roubaix. The aggression started long before they got to “hell” and the speed of the race put the leading riders 30 minutes ahead of the fastest estimated race schedule by the time that they had reached the first cobbles.
The wind may well have been co-operating, but it was the storm in the peloton that was raging with full fury and driving the race forward at an incredible rate. Thirty two riders hit the first stones with a full minute and a half advantage over the main peloton. The speed was an unbelievable 41 km/h at that point.
In the week leading up to the race Van Looy had confidently been predicting another great P-R win for himself. His legions of fans were beside themselves with anguish, “why had the ‘Emperor' missed the break?” Good question. But he was not the only one now consigned to chasing for other super-stars like Jacques Anquetil, Raymond Poulidor, Vittorio Adorni, Gianni Motta and Rudi Altig had also missed the big split.
Up front World Champion Beheyt and Post were working hard in the break to ‘pay back' Van Looy. They were not alone as others like Fore and Planckaert also wanted the ‘Emperor' to eat humble pie. Both these riders had been team mates of Van Looy and now it was time to get some revenge for a less than pleasant working relationship. Interestingly three Englishmen also featured in the break; Tom Simpson, Barry Hoban and Michael Wright. Simpson had already established his pedigree in the Northern Classics with a tremendous victory in the 1961 Ronde Van Vlaanderen. A few weeks earlier he had also won the Milan-San Remo and was thus on great form. For the knowledgeable Belgian fans Hoban (who lived near Gent) was seen as a potential winner of the P-R. The rest of the break included other highly accomplished riders of the period including the great Jan Janssen, Jo De Roo and Italo Zilioli.
The roads were slippery and coal dust coated the cycle paths with grease-like grime (the coal mines were still very much in business back then). Sharp corners, vicious little hills and the merciless cobbles added to the agony as the annual crop of crashes and punctures took their toll. The frenetic pace instantly eliminated anyone suffering a misfortune. Crashes took Simpson and Hoban out of contention and by the time the race reached the final 20kms only four riders were left in the lead (Post, Beheyt, Bocklandt and Molenaers). Post and Bocklandt were Flandria-Romeo team mates and Beheyt and Molenaers were Wiels Groene-Leeuw team mates, so an interesting finish was assured assuming that no further crashes or punctures dictated otherwise.
As the king of the six's, Post was odds-on favorite on the Roubaix track. Now on his own terrain Post coolly reached down to tighten his toe straps with one and a half laps to go while his team mate lead with Beheyt glued to his wheel. In the final back straight Beheyt jumped hard as his many fans groaned “too early!” With almost consummate ease Post used the gravitational advantage of the final banking to accelerate his effort. He pounced on Beheyt and took the only classic victory of his career by several bike lengths.
To his credit Van Looy did not throw in the towel. He continued his pursuit and finished 16th about three minutes after Post. Beheyt savoured his ‘victory' over Van Looy and also proved to the largely unsupportive Belgian fans that his World's crown belonged to a rider who was no mere “wheel-sucking kermesse sprinter”. Likewise Post greatly enjoyed sticking it to Van Looy while proving to the fans that he too was more than just the glamour boy of the winter tracks.
It's the Riders, Stupid!
The 1964 P-R had been ridden at a still unsurpassed 45.1km/h. However this does not mean that this was the best P-R ever. There is no such thing. It is said that the World Championship RR is often won by a lucky rider not necessarily of the highest pedigree. This is not so with the ‘five monuments' and in particular with the Paris-Roubaix or the Ronde Van Vlaanderen. Speed is not the ultimate measure of such races but rather the complexity of the competition itself. On great days the lone exploits of the great champions who have powered away from the world's best in these events often evolve into legends.
Considering the advances in technology and training techniques of the past decade it puts Post's ride into sharp focus. And consider Rik Van Steenbergen's P-R win in 1948 at an astounding 43.6 km/h. Any riders today who think that they are the best and fastest racing cyclists ever, should think again. Those who think that the champions of the past would have little to say in today's modern peloton should consider themselves lucky that Van Steenbergen, Coppi, Bartali, Post, Van Looy, Anquetil and countless other great champions of the past are not riding along side them today.
The allure and grandeur of the five monuments (as well as the Grand Tours) is founded on their unique ability to extract the very best from the world's elite athletes. At every race the speed, the weather and the terrain play their role but the quality of every race is determined by the riders. As we have read here, the 1964 Paris-Roubaix was like a keg of gunpowder that was ignited by some very raw relationships between certain riders. Every year each of these great races have a story of their own. It is these facts that draws the fans and makes every serious racer want to win at least one of these legendary races. The more things change, the more they stay the same!
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