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Cafe Bookshelf: Know Your Pavé!

Crib Notes
Title: PARIS-ROUBAIX: A Journey Through Hell
Authors: Mssrs. Bouvet, Callewaert, Gatellier, and Laget
Publisher: Velo Press
Pages: 224
Order: here
What is it? A large-format book of photos and essays explaining the history and nature of Paris-Roubaix.
Strengths: Well-organized, expertly researched, fascinating anecdotes, beautiful/chilling photos.
Weaknesses: Authors frequently given to flights of hyperbole.
Rating: ★★★★ (4 of 5)

[N.B., this book has been out for six months, and you may have read reviews elsewhere already. Fair enough, but Flanders-Roubaix Week is all about celebrating the great races, which this book does splendidly. Also I asked for a media copy to review in February, and, well, VeloPress did their part. So here goes.]

In sports we often cite "history" to describe anything older than ten minutes... silly, of course, but there you have it. Compared to, oh, Ultimate Fighting, Cycling makes a better case for having an actual history: it's old, it's not remote from humanity, it's been run primarily by newspapers and painstakingly recorded. But for events like Paris-Roubaix and some of its contemporaries, history isn't the right descriptor, it's geology.

Geology studies the physical landscape, created by piling layers of material on top of the last one, slowly grinding and compressing and eroding into something new. Cycling's relatively "ancient" events aren't altogether different: they too reflect layers of mundane matter that over time have evolved into something completely unique and, in the case of Paris-Roubaix, strangely beautiful.

If you could make a crosscut through the race, you'd see those layers which, mundane on their own, have converged and formed today's great Classic. There's the forlorn Nord-Pas de Calais region, scarred by repeated invasion and economic downturns once staples like textiles and coal collapsed; culturally blended with Flanders and even sporting the Leon de Flandres on the coat-of-arms. There are the roads, decrepit and difficult on the best of days. There is the history of Cycling's great champions, of course, as well as the older history of great riders from a more intrepid era. There's the tension with modernization, which once threatened to transform the race into a dull, flat sprinter's romp. All these layers are what make the race interesting, fearsome, and great.

Paris-Roubaix: A Journey Through Hell is easily the most comprehensive effort to perform that crosscut and allow English-speaking fans a chance to examine those layers. The book, cleverly progressing on dual tracks of history and the course of the event, intersperses short essays and scads of photos which walk you through the race's layers, and take you from the start line to the Roubaix Velodrome's concrete showers. This is how a race of such stature should be experienced.

More on the flip...

The essays profile selected editions, riders, and bizarre happenings, which give you a strong flavor for the event:

  • Learn about the original candidates for the "Mr. Paris-Roubaix" title, guys like Octave Lapize who ditched his ship-dock day job to become a three-time winner and cycling legend, before perishing in WWI.
  • Meet local boy Jean Stablinski, possibly the only person to work in the mine under the Arenberg Forest and ride across the same land as a participant.
  • Follow the race through the "five stations of the cross," where the drama has played out in the modern era, and explore the various finish lines in and around Roubaix.
  • Discover the evolution of the course, from the decisive Doullens climb, now paved over and abandoned, to the near-extinction of pavé and the race itself until spared by the efforts of Jean-Marie Leblanc and local volunteer groups who still care for the course.

The book's strength lies not in the writing, but in the research and the photos. Almost the second you crack the cover, the drama of the race explodes off the page. The second two-page photo, circa 1988, shows KAS rider Alfred Acherman belly-flopped on the Arenberg Trench pavé, his yellow kit and pathetic pose blasting out of a background hazy with dust. It's a scene that needs no elaboration, just as stories like Raymond Poulidor's five flat tires in 1976 or the endless shots of mud-caked faces tell you all you need to know.

But the book elaborates nonetheless, and to a fault. Now, Paris-Roubaix has always inspired hyperbolic reflection, and to this day commentators and writers throw around the word "hell" like it's a punctuation mark. If you're hyping an article or a broadcast, I suppose it's OK to fall back on this body of cliche. For this book, however, it's a distraction.

Because it's so well-researched and the subject is so effectively presented, the inherently dramatic stories and quotes and pictures grip the reader well before the first drop of varnish is applied. In such a comprehensive format, these elements cry out to be left alone to speak for themselves. Yet time and again, the writers feel compelled to embellish. I get it, it's what writers do: add value with language. Here, though, the pervasive, unnecessary adjectives fight against the story and almost cheapen its effect.

Still, it's a pretty minor complaint: the subject matter is way too good to be kept down. The pictures and stories can't really be diminished by excess verbiage. And if the editors could have done a better job paring down some of the language, they did a masterful job of laying out the book, taking you from the race's origins, to the course, to its heroes, and finally to the showers at the Roubaix velodrome. I love how each chapter concludes with a series of relevant photos, a layout that lets the reader pause and soak in the story some more. By the end, you feel as though you've ridden behind the race's history in a media caravan, all the way to the finish... exhausted, dirty and thrilled.