The Trench

The Trench at Wallers-Arenberg the first year it was included, 1968

This 1968 photo of the the sector at Wallers-Arenberg shows what it must really be like to ride Paris-Roubaix.  The cobbles are uneven and the holes are deep; the safety of the gutter is dramatically reduced by the deep mud.  At 95km from the finish, the race can’t be won here, but it can certainly be lost.

I’m not speaking of personal experience because the only cobblestones I’ve ever ridden are the smooth stones in the Netherlands and the semi-legitimate stones on Queen-Anne in Seattle, but racing over the cobblestones of Belgium and Northern France takes a special touch that can’t be taught.   Riders talk about being sore for ages after arriving in the velodrome at Roubaix; mechanics speak of destroyed, serviceable wheels.

But these terrible stones don’t appear to affect everyone in quite the same way. I saw Paris-Roubaix for the first time on an old World Cycling Productions VHS of the 1991 edition.  I watched in awe as the riders jolted over the stones and struggled through the dust.  Suddenly, Marc Madiot seemed to simply float away on the sector of the Carrefour de l’Arbre.  There was something different about the way he rode.  He was in a cadence that seemed somehow in sympathetic vibration with the road surface.  His bicycle moved smoothly beneath him while simultaneously bouncing and jolting over the rocks.  He wasn’t mashing a huge gear, but he also wasn’t spinning.  Riding on the cobblestones appears to be a perfect balance between harmony and chaos.  I know this on some level from climbing some of the steep cobbled ramps on Queen Anne; on some days – when I stay on top of my gear with just the right touch – the stones seem to almost push me up the hill.  Other days, it seems like every rock stands up to slap my wheels back and every turn of the pedals is a loosing battle in a struggle to get to the top.

This seems to be be corroborated by Roger de Vlaeminck whose mechanic claimed that while most of the rider’s wheels after the race were useless and as such discarded, de Vlaeminck’s were always perfectly true, were serviceable, staying in the team’s rotation.

A light touch on the roughest stone in the world.  Amazing.

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20 Replies to “The Trench”

  1. Great picture. The cobbles, old school style, black and white – awesome.

    Paris-Roubaix is one of the coolest races on earth. I think the first time I saw it (besides in magazines) was a show on CBS in the ’80s. I had some races from that era on VHS tapes, but in a moment of stupidity years ago – tossed ’em all – including the CBS coverage of LeMond’s ’89 Tour win. Looking at the condensed, now vintage CBS coverage would be fun now. Too bad I dumped ’em. I’m an idiot.

    I’ve watched “A Sunday in Hell” a bunch of times, killer documentary of the ’76 Paris-Roubaix. I’m sure you dudes have seen it as well. If not, check it out ASAP.

    Someday I’d love to see Paris-Roubaix for real and ride some of the sections. Man, that would rock….

  2. I’ve been reading about Ambrosio rims. Sounds like a smaller boutique wheel manufacturer that gets re-branded for guys like Boonen who prefer these shallow profile rims on the cobbles. They’re certainly cool looking and may be available in North America at some point. Of course the Big Baby won Flanders on 303’s. A pair of either would be sweet on the ALAN.

  3. @Dan O
    That picture blows my mind. I stared at that for ages before even realizing where I was. The story about how that sector of cobbles was found gives me goosebumps. I love the guys riding single-file down the gutter, with the truly hard men on the ridge in the middle. They say it is harder to ride in the middle but the risk of a flat is smaller, since all the sharp stuff settles in the gutter, where’s it’s smoother and easier to ride.

    A Sunday in Hell is probably one of my favorite movies. Along with Stars and Water Carriers, The Impossible Hour, and La Course en Tete. There are some great modern films, though – The Road to Paris by the blokes who do Rouleur is my hands-down favorite, though. I’ll watch that Sunday before watching the race. Not a bad way to spend a Sunday.

  4. @Marko
    I’ve built a few wheelsets and it’s a really, really fun project. You start off with a pile of spokes, a hub and a rim. Then you start to thread spokes in and you have this loose mess of alloy in your hands. But then you twist the hub inside the rim and suddenly the wheel takes shape. Then you start to tighten the spokes and it’s all feel from there until your wheel is born. It’s very cool.

    I love the carbon wheels but I miss the artistry of a handbuilt wheel. I’m planning on building a set of three-cross box-rim wheels for Keepers Tour 2011 on the stones. Studying up on what to build, but Ambrosio is a clear front-runner.

    I, for one, like that the Belgians stick with the box-rims. They also age their tubulars like a fine wine and generally have a little company in the Netherlands sew them up and relabel them per their sponsors. The amount of custom and specialized gear that’s broken out for this week of racing is incredible.

  5. @Dan O
    Dan O me boyee, I too recorded every TdF, Giro, Classic and World Championship I could on VHS and just tossed every fucking one this last Fall as I was moving. Scores of ’em. I consoled myself with the idea that they were on VHS and my VHS player was buried somewhere in the backyard and all those races must be available from WCP. But my vinyl albums still await conversion to digital, if they are not melted into an ingot by now. No one plays Jethro Tull anymore?!? The kids don’t get it.

  6. @frank
    Great photo Frank. Everyone’s socks and wool shorts are still unsoiled, it must be the first section of nastiness. And there is a tire ruining hole dead ahead on the crown of the path, no helmets, no pussy glasses, it’s all haul ass. These guys are all Hardmen.

    Does #100 have a spare sew-up tire under his saddle? Maybe a frame pump too? I’m still in violation of the full frame pump rule as those little pumps suck and CO2 cylinders are for girls.

  7. @john, @Dan O

    Lads: fear not. Our Media-Czar Velominatus Krx-10 (who also did the kit and new site design) will be undertaking the coolest project in the world: converting his scores and scores of old VHS footage to digital and posting it all right here at the Velominati. BOOM.

    And, I’ve converted some records to digital and it’s OK, but don’t bother; just bust out your record player again. The ritual of flipping through the records, selecting one, laying it on the turntable – then cleaning it and resting the needle gently into the groove is just like friction downtube shifters.

  8. @john
    I hope you at least have that goddamn thing popped into the rear triangle as indicated in Rule #30.

    C02 is for girls? Dude: they explode. It’s basically like riding around with hand-grenades in your back pocket. Sounds to me like something a hardman would do.

  9. @Dan O

    Dan O :

    Someday I’d love to see Paris-Roubaix for real and ride some of the sections. Man, that would rock….

    See it for real next year, Keepers Classics Tour 2011!

    My Roubaix Sunday/Monday is gonna be sweet. Sunday I’ve organised a ride “Welly-Roubaix; Hell of the North (Island).” We’re cruising out on the road to a place where there is a 20km out and back section of gravel road, then back into town and a finishing lap of the local velodrome. Maybe a shower if they’re open. Beers of course.

    Monday morning 9am the delayed tv coverage of the race starts, and me and a mate or two will be drinking Duvel, Chimay etc and cooking up some frites en mayo. A Classic Monday morning for sure.

  10. Magnificent photo. I shall partake of the London Classic, 40miles of bumpy, cobbly, shite roads around London (actually that’s most of them at the moment) before finishing up at a pub in the South London Alps to watch it on the big screen (taking care to observe Rule #22.) Looking forward to some Flaanderen grit.

  11. :archive trawler:
    @Dan O
    I need to get myself A Sunday In Hell (de Vlaeminck. De Vlaeminck comes to the front, powering across the cobbles). Cycle Sport gave a free video away with their first edition and it had a segment of A Sunday In Hell included. I used to watch that video the night before races as preparation. On Sunday, I was De Vlaeminck

    We went to watch Roubaix in ’03 and an obvious place to watch the race was Arenberg. We took our bikes. You can’t hit it fast as it has a gate across it, but you get to 30kph without much effort. And it goes on, and on, and on…

    @marko @frank
    my race wheels are Ambrosio tubs. None of this carbon stuff for me. Ambrosio are not a boutique brand, they’ve been around for years, but like FIR have lost out to Mavic and the encroachment of carbon and factory-built wheels.

  12. @Jarvis

    My race wheels are Ambrosio tubs.

    My God. I would be very interested in picking those up if you ever put them up for sale, mate.

  13. They are Chrono rims “only” laced to circa ’98 era Ultegra and are a salvage experiment. After a tune-up at my approved wheel-builder they didn’t explode when my lardy-arse raced them in a couple of crits last year.

    I have another pair of Ambrosio Chrono rims hanging up waiting for the day I can:
    a) afford to lace them to very nice, light hubs
    b) find the time to do the above

    I will bear your offer in mind.

  14. I advocate riding the biennial P-R sportive (even years – next one is 2012). Gravel is nothing like pave. (Gravel is perhaps a better analog for Teo Bro Leon, rather than P-R.) What do the Rules say about riding in the gutter (not that this option is open to the pros anymore, the barriers erected to keep the crowd back force the peleton down the throat of the Trouee)? Is it OK to ride in the gutter if you win? I rode most of the Arenberg on the cinder track alongside the cobbles. I am not ashamed about this. At the finish my hands were swollen. I couldn’t open a jar for a fortnight. Savage.

  15. @Nof Landrien
    I think finding a way to preserve your fillings is acceptable. I don’t think there’s anything in the Rules that says anything about deliberately destroying yourself and/or your equipment. If there’s a crash in front of you, you’re allowed to avoid it – you don’t have to crash too, just because it’s more painful that way.

    I say, if you’re hard enough to do that ride, then you can ride where ever you please.

    Christ that sounds brutal.

  16. I have a riding buddy named Greg – this will be relevant in a moment.

    In southeast Idaho we have what is called “chip seal”. You take perfectly smooth, virgin asphalt – if you are on said asphalt and there is a tailwind you are in “Gregtopia” – and you coat it in tar and then lay down a layer of fine gravel (and hopefully they come along and sweep up the excess within a week) – if you are riding on said chip seal and there is a 35 kph headwind you are in Gregatory.

    The point of all this is that you’ll be cruising along in the lower 40’s and all of a sudden you are on chip seal and you realize that you are going 5 kph slower. The amount of concentration it takes to keep your pace up on 10 or 20 klicks of mere chip seal is physically and mentally draining so I can’t even begin to comprehend what it must be like to spend hours on the cobbles – chapeau

  17. I was on one of my regular routes yesterday morning, when the road turned black. Brand new layer of asphalt, until it turned out that it was all loose. To compound the problem, the rain started coming down. Another half kilometer up the road I passed a dump truck who had accidentally leaked the asphalt all over the place. In addition to skittering over the loose gravel, it took me a half hour to clean all that crap off my bike…

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