“A Century of Paris-Roubaix” by Pascal Sergent has all the makings of a wankerbook. The format is coffee table. The original French has been translated by Joe the Plumber and copy edited by his sister in between jar-shaking sessions while cooking meth. Worst of all, at the outset at least, is the approach to rendering Paris-Roubaix’s history into words, which is done like the race itself, beginning at the beginning and slogging through every cobbled, rutted, nasty, miserable year from 1896 to 1995, listing the palmares of every winner and listing the top ten finishers of every race with detailed descriptions of what happened to whom at which juncture.
But what looks bad out the outset turns into a very solid read.
Paris-Roubaix is really simple
The whole fucking century of races could be summarized thus: Legit contenders, plausible hopefuls, and what-the-fuck-am-I-doing-heres line up to race. Everyone bonks, gets worn out, crashes, punctures, or breaks some weird part of the bike like the handlebars or the pedal or some other part that never fucking ever breaks even when you get hit by a car.
Six racers or less remain with 20-km to go. Some Belgian dude named “–inck” or “–ooy” or “–erckx” wins. Like all great French races, the last time a Frenchman won was back in 1766.
Winning Paris-Roubaix is even simpler than describing it. 1) Stay towards the front but not at the front. 2) Don’t crash more than four times. 3) Attack with 40-km to go. 4) Solo in or win the sprint. ) Be Flemish. There. Now you too can win at Roubaix.
The devil is in the details
The real treasure in reading this book lies in the details. Sergent’s annual recaps bring life to the small things that make the race a monument. The dude who first rode the course to see if it was suitable for a race found it ghastly, nightmarish, and undoable, while the man who came up with the idea in the first place thought it would be “child’s play” for any worthwhile racer.
In 1904 they held a second Paris-Roubaix in the same year, only the entire 265-km were ridden on the Roubaix velodrome. What a bunch of nuts…hunh?
In the early days there were controls where the riders had to get off their bikes and sign in; they likewise dismounted at feeding stations. For many years the first big split in the race occurred at a hill in Doullens, and the split there was often the deciding move of the race. It wasn’t until 1968 that the Arenberg Trench made its first appearance. These and numerous other fine points show how the race has fluctuated and shifted over the years.
The human element is as detailed and fascinating. When the first Italian, Jules Rossi, won in 1937, the flummoxed band at the velodrome didn’t know the Italian national anthem, used as they were to dominance by the Belgians and the occasional French winner, so they played a soft, stylish tune that sounded suspiciously like the Marseillaise.
The awesome thing about the coffee table book format is that it’s filled with pictures; fantastic ones. So even though everyone in your family yawns and walks away when you start talking about cycling, and especially when you mention Belgians with unpronounceable names, this book will absolutely attract interest. Before long, they’ll be asking you questions, and allowing you to play to your strong suit, which is making shit up.
“Hey, Dad, who is this?”
“That’s Toady Wampers, 12-time winner of the Tour. He won P-R that year in a 300-km solo break.”
“And what’s this?”
“That’s the finish line in Helsinki. One year they raced from Madrid to Helsinki, all on cobbles. Everyone died. It was very sad.”
Finally, you can appreciate this book by reading this review, as it’s no longer in print and is hard to find, and when you can find it (I got this from Alibris) it’s a whopping $25. Compared to some of the other dreck in the Cycle Sport reading list, though, it’s worth every penny.