When Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix talk about scheduling posts, they tend to mean jamming wooden stakes into the cloying soil.
When they talk about year-on-year growth, they’re talking about the grassy verges in this post-industrial part of Northern France or the moss that creeps in over the dank winter months.
They may have finally joined Twitter the other week, but the philosophy of the Friends of Paris-Roubaix is very much pave first, tweet later.
It’s just as well: they are integral to the successful running of one of the sport’s most celebrated races. Without this group of volunteers, who first came together in 1977, the biggest one-day race on the calendar would not take place; at least not in its current, irresistible guise.
Cobbles appear an enduring symbol of permanence – as if the worn granite runs through the earth in this part of the world and is simply exposed where the surface has been scraped away. Yet were it not for the concerted effort of Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix they would likely no longer exist at all.
Early editions of Paris-Roubaix never sought out the cobbles – they were just part and parcel of racing north from the capital, as they were in most other early cycle races – but in the 1960s and 70s roads like these all over France were drowning in tides of asphalt and concrete.
Believe it or not, not everyone understood the romance inherent in a series of disintegrating farm tracks caked in slop and manure. Astonishingly some people didn’t agree that they were anything other than a positive reflection of a region or a race. We can’t think why.
But changing times and the efforts of former world champion Jean Stablinksi, who lived in the area around the first sector of race cobbles in Troisvilles and died in 2007, ensured Roubaix became the celebration of cobbles that it is today.
The race is now a vehicle for preserving the stones, objects that president of Les Amis, François Doulcier – whose day job is managing an assembly line in an automotive factory – and his team of volunteers believe are a vital part of France’s rural heritage as much as an irreplaceable part of the cycling world.
Yet even when local farmers and councils can be persuaded to stop salivating at the sight of a fully-loaded cement mixer, the cobbles don’t look after themselves. Like a centuries old row of teeth, sometimes the stones need a dentist.
“Our problem now is that there has been some very heavy farming equipment driving over the cobbles this winter, and it has damaged the underlying layers of the road,” Doulcier explains.
One of the biggest threats to the stones comes from souvenir hunters. The Trouée d’Arenberg is a particular blackspot, which is actually not half as troubling for Les Amis as it is for an amateur rider who generally only learns that a stone has been prized from the crown of the road in the split second before he or she completes a brief trip over the front wheel and onto the ground.
And whether it be the mossy covering of the Arenberg, subsiding stones on the Carrefour de l’Arbre or muddy caking on Orchies, annual cleaning and maintenance is essential.
Winter 2017 and the repaving of the cobbles around Orchies is halted by snow
Each year the volunteers – whose ranks are bolstered by students from local horticultural colleges – repair and re-pave individual sectors that need it most, drawing on a stockpile of cobbles housed near Roubaix.
Each year one lucky cobble gets mounted on a plinth and handed to the winner of the race, destined to spend a charmed life inside living rooms, display cases and cycling events.
A trio of cobbles in Fabian’s sauna (Credit: Emily Maye)
For those students this is learning about landscaping the hard way; trimming shrubberies and pruning verges in June will be a doddle compared to hammering in 10kg lumps of granite while a fierce February wind bites into your bones.
For all the Friends it’s hard labour, but the ultimate labour of love.
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