Immediately following the 1985 edition of Paris-Roubaix, CBS reporter John Tesh caught up with Dutch cyclist Theo de Rooy, who'd abandoned the race, and asked him how his day had gone. "It's a bollocks, this race!” said de Rooy. “You're working like an animal, you don't have time to piss, you wet your pants. You're riding in mud like this, you're slipping ... it’s a pile of shit.”
Tesh had a good laugh, pulled himself together and asked the mud-splattered rider whether he'd ever ride it again.
"Sure," de Rooy replied, "it's the most beautiful race in the world!"
That exchange adequately sums up the tortured relationship between the romance and reality of one of cycling's most storied races. Paris-Roubaix is a one-day road racing classic (the third of five on the UCI calendar) that's staged in northern France near the Belgian border and is famous for its many pavé (pah-vay), or cobbled, sectors.
First run in 1896, the race has only been halted for two world wars. In 1919, just months after the close of WWI, the fierce artillery shelling and horrific trench warfare along the Western Front had so badly damaged the course—bomb craters ripped the roads and shattered towns lined the route—that journalists referred to it as "L'Enfer du Nord"—the Hell of the North. The name stuck.
Such a name inspires both admiration and fear in the hearts of would-be competitors. There's much to be loved about it. It's a long slog for a single day, at roughly 300km (186 miles), but brims with raw, explosive energy. It's a single glorious battle to the long, drawn-out campaigns that are the Grand Tours. Here, there's no time for grand team strategies and anti-climactic breakaway catches that end in bunch sprints.
The rough, cobblestone roads cross wide-open fields that are scoured by cold, North Sea winds. When it rains (which is frequently) riders wallow in mud while the headwinds sap their legs. Punctures and other mechanicals are de rigueur. The fight is as dramatic and as dogged as any that's every happened on these grounds, and it usually goes to the cyclist with the most guts and the strongest legs.
This year's race, the 111th edition, happens this Sunday (April 7). The course runs 254km (158 miles) from Compiègne, a city outside of Paris, to Roubaix, and contains 52.6km (32.7 miles) of torturous, bone-rattling cobbles that will test even the strongest of riders. Belgian Tom Boonen won last year on a huge 50km breakaway, stomping his nearest competitors by nearly two minutes and securing a record-tying fourth victory. But he broke a rib last weekend in the Tour of Flanders and will sit it out, making two-time winner Fabian Cancellara the favorite.
To see live updates from the race this Sunday, follow along on the official race website. If you want to watch live video footage (and, really, who doesn't?), check in with steephill.tv for live streaming options.