By Barry Boyce,


Top 20 All Time Major Classics #1

xParis-Roubaix 1952: The Clash of Two Titans!

CR Timeline 1952

Rik Van Steenbergen (Bel)

Fausto Coppi (Ita)

Two Titans !

“The Clash”: Rarely in the history of cycling have two champions created such a show of extraordinary effort and an undying will to win. Paris-Roubaix has always been a trial of strength, experience and the will to overcome all obstacles. The 1952 clash of a fast Belgian sprinter and powerful Italian climber will go down in cycling history as the most memorable classic race of all times.

The 50th edition of Paris-Roubaix brought together the top stars of cycling on a sunny spring day. The Italian contingent, led by campionissimo Fausto Coppi, came north in search of a victory in the Queen of the Classics. The hopes of Belgium rested on the shoulders of a highly motivated classics specialist, Rik Van Steenbergen. After a disastrous Tour of Flanders, a week earlier, Van Steenbergen needed a great effort to answer his critics.

The pace of the race was very fast from the start in St. Denis (a Paris suburb). Small groups tried unsuccessfully to breakaway and through Arres (approx. 80 km from Roubaix ) the race had come back together. After a short lull in the action the contenders began to take control of the race in Courrieres 60 km from the finish. A strong 5 rider group formed with Fausto Coppi driving the pace. A poorly placed Van Steenbergen failed to join the breakaway. Losing time and feeling the pressure, Van Steenbergen started his impossible chase. He was flying across the rough cobbled sections and closing. The harder the cobbles, the faster he rode.

Slowly Coppi's brutal pace thinned the group to three. By Wattignies (20 km from Roubaix ) Van Steenbergen trailed by only 50 seconds. The breakaway began to unravel as Ferdi Kubler cracked and Jacques Dupont punctured on the cobbles at Lesquin. Van Steenbergen flew past them and made the connection with Coppi. The two great champions began their epic battle with less than 20 km to the finish.

SPECIAL NOTE: years later Fausto Coppi bitterly revealed that his one regret was not riding harder at Wattignies with 20 km to go and holding the 50 second advantage over Van Steenbergen.

Coppi knew Van Steenbergen had the superior sprint and he needed to enter the velodrome alone to have a chance for victory. The Italian launched numerous and continuous attacks with no success. The opportunities were running out as the race exited the final major cobbled section at Hem. There remained only one major difficulty before the flat run-in to the finish, the hill at Hem and Coppi attacked AGAIN! Suffering mightily, Van Steenbergen dug deep and drove himself to stay on Coppi's wheel. They peaked the hill together. After the race Van Steenbergen revealed, “If Coppi had attacked just one more time I would have cracked.”

Resigned to the outcome Coppi led into the packed velodrome. Van Steenbergen tucked neatly behind the Italian for the final lap, drove hard off the final banked turn of the track and sprinted to the victory.

Paris-Roubaix is the most prestigious one-day classic and in 1952 the “ Hell of the North ” created a Clash of the Titans that will be recorded by history as the greatest classic of them all!

P-R April 13, 1952
245 Km, St. Denis (north of Paris) to Roubaix (Velodrome)

1. Rik VAN STEENBERGEN (Bel) 5h50'31”

2. Fausto Coppi (Ita)
3. Andre Mahe (Fra) +11”
Starters: 154
Finishers: 95
Average Speed: 41.938 km/h


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