This story is a chapter from Richard Moore’s book Étape: 20 Great Stages from the Modern Tour de France, which assembles the greatest days of modern Tour history into a Tour de France of incredible victory, glorious failure, shocking revelation, and beautiful memories. Moore assembles an incredible cast of interviews with riders including Armstrong, Cavendish, Fignon, Hampsten, Hinault, Julich, LeMond, Merckx, Roche, and others. In the words of those who were there, Étape recreates each day vividly and reveals the beauty and the madness of cycling’s greatest race. Enjoy!
Tuesday, July 01, 1980
Liege to Lille
236.5 km/146.9 mi flat, cobbles
The French call it pavé. It sounds exotic and benign—it could be a succulent cut of beef—but for cyclists it has a different mean- ing. It is the pavé that defines Paris–Roubaix, the “Hell of the North” one-day classic that includes 20-odd sections of cobbles, or pavé; hell because these cobbles are not the small stones polished by thousands of cars in a city, but large, uneven boulders planted in mud, arranged to run in narrow strips across the plains and fields of northern France and Belgium.
They are roads, but rarely used as such these days and hardly wor- thy of the name. Some are maintained purely for the purpose of meting out punishment once a year, around Easter time, to the cyclists of Paris–Roubaix.
Every decade or so, the pavé is featured not only in Paris–Roubaix but also in the Tour de France. In 2004 it was the pavé that destroyed the hopes of the Basque climber Iban Mayo. In 2010 it did the same to another stick- thin climber, Fränk Schleck. On that occasion, even Lance Armstrong, who had capitalized on Mayo’s misfortune six years earlier, was a diminished figure, caught behind the carnage and reduced to chasing shadows, or younger, faster versions of himself, over the bone-jarring stones. “Some- times you’re the hammer and sometimes you’re the nail,” said Armstrong after the stage. “Today, I was the nail.”
Paris–Roubaix lends itself to great suffering and great quotes. Arguably the best is Theo de Rooy’s following the 1985 race, when he crashed, withdrew, and vented, “It’s bollocks, this race. 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 piece of shit. . . .”
“Will you ride it again?” asked the reporter.
“Of course. It’s the most beautiful race in the world.”
It’s dangerous, the pavé. In 1998 Johan Museeuw fell in the Arenberg forest section during Paris–Roubaix and nearly lost his leg; in 2001 Philippe Gaumont broke his femur; in 2010 Fränk Schleck broke his collarbone. The weather matters. On dry days the dust kicked up by the bikes and vehicles fills lungs and leaves riders coughing for days. But when the rain falls, the challenge and danger are of a different order. A very different order indeed.
On July 1, 1980, it poured. It was a gray, bleak day as the Tour prepared to leave the industrial Belgian city of Liège, to head west to Lille. Five days earlier, the Tour had started in Frankfurt, then dipped into France, to Metz, before crossing another border to Belgium. Bad weather dominated those early stages. But the fifth stage, to Lille, looked set to be the worst of the lot. The rain was unrelenting. The wind blew hard across the northern Eu- ropean plains. “Thousands were by the roadside, sheltering under trees or huddled by their cars,” as one report put it. “If stages 2 and 3 were purga- tory, then stage 5 was hell.”
Hinault hated riding in the cold and he hated the pavé. He had ridden over the cobbles in the 1979 Tour, when, unusually, they came not in the first week of the race but on stage 9, from Amiens to Roubaix. On that occasion, he punctured and lost over two minutes to Zoetemelk. That was the problem with the pavé. It didn’t respect strength, form, fitness, or reputation. It could be a game of chance. Hinault hated it. He called Paris–Roubaix a “nonsense,” and worse, “a race for dickheads.” In October 1979, when the 1980 Tour route was announced, and it in- cluded two stages with pavé, 5 and 6, Hinault was not happy. After lead- ing the riders’ strike at Valence d’Agen in 1978, he threatened the ultimate protest: another strike.
Thirty-three years later, I am sitting with Bernard Hinault in an outdoor café in, of all places, the Chelsea Flower Show in London. As incongruous a setting as any, the equivalent might be meeting the Dalai Lama at a bare-knuckle boxing match. Refined gentlemen and women, on a break from wandering around the display gardens, drink cream teas in the café, unaware, certainly, that there is a Badger in their midst. A Badger sipping cappuccino from a paper cup.
His presence is explained by the fact that Yorkshire will host the start of the 2014 Tour de France. They have a specially commissioned Tour- themed garden, beside which Hinault obligingly poses alongside various dignitaries, as well as the Tour director, Christian Prudhomme.
When we sit down, and Hinault casts his mind back to 1980 and the pavé, he seems to have modified his stance, a little. “I always say to young riders at the start of their pro careers: ‘Ride Paris–Roubaix.’ Why? Because the day you have to ride the cobbles during a Tour stage, you’ll know how to ride them.”
During the 1980 Tour de France, Hinault convinced the other riders to join a truce; the wet cobbles were very dangerous. Why take the risk?
But then, continues Hinault, “I saw the TI-Raleigh rider, Jan Raas, attack. And when that happened, I thought, ‘Right—this is war.’
“They wanted to play?” asks Hinault. “They were going to lose.”
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