Paris Roubaix takes place this weekend. It’s the best of the classics and has the most mythical cachet. The seminal document of the event is “A Sunday in Hell”, by Jørgen Leth, a beautiful and beguiling film; “Maertens, De Meyer, Dierickx, Godefroot, De Vlaeminck… and Merckx… leading”.
I went over to watch the event in 2009, spending the weekend in Lille. I spent the Saturday riding the last few sections of pavé before sweeping into the velodrome and riding two laps. On the second day I watched the race and was staggered by the speed and skill of the peloton and the way in which Tom Boonen piled on the pressure towards the end of the race, forcing the pace over the cobbles.
I remember several things quite clearly: the bike-destroying magnitude of each cobble; the joy of being in a country where cycling is the national sport; and the brutality of professional bike-racing. Rarely has the gulf between the professional and the amateur been so starkly reinforced.