[Short programming note: I have pledged to write a weekly tidbits thing from now until the end of the Cobbled Classics. If you don’t know why, can I recommend a some light reading?]
“Hey, did you see they are resurfacing the Arenberg Trench?” is what I thought would be the last thing I would hear before things got all hazy and I floated off in the direction of a bright white light. Sure, the days of French mayors smoothing over the rough surfaces we have come to know and love are basically gone. You’d be taking your life in your hands if you tried to tarmac the Carrefour de L’Arbe nowadays. But the great surfaces of the Cobbled Classics are prone to upgrading, and the potential for their character to be diminished in the name of rider safety is very real.
So it was with some sense of alarm that I caught wind of Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix’s work completed resurfacing the Arenberg Trench. The lag between my seeing the photo and understanding the French was long enough to lessen the shock from “cardiac arrest” to “drop everything and find out what the fuck is going on.” I emailed Les Amis, studied the photos, checked out the second set of photos, and can report the following.
The Arenberg Trench has in fact been undergoing a significant makeover this week. According to La Voix du Nord, and looking at photos from Les Amis, it appears that the resurfacing covers the initial 900 meters of the 2300-meter “track.” From this photo you can see that the makeover begins at the infamous entrance to the Trouée d’Arenberg, a slightly descending horror-show taken by the pros at dramatically high speeds.
At the top edge of the photo you can barely see the Stablinski monument, in case there is any doubt about which end this is. La Voix calls it a 900m project, so about where it flattens before rising slightly to the far end (in the race anyway) is where things are left alone.
Les Amis are apparently setting the stones in concrete, which serves their stated purpose of making the track safer for the race. The culprit is grass and moss, which makes the stones too slippery, a concern that has come close to getting the Trench booted from the race over the last couple years. Personally I suspect that setting the stones in concrete serve another purpose, discouraging theft of the precious rocks, though when I asked Les Amis they said it was solely about safety. Still, the Koppenberg got cemented for this reason, so I wouldn’t be shocked if it was on the minds of... whoever owns the Arenberg Tench.
OK, so the real question is, will the race be different? Les Amis keep saying it will be harder than before, and I’m not sure what that means, but from the glimpses we have, I can express some confidence in their efforts. First of all, they know a lot more about what it means to preserve the essence of Paris-Roubaix than some hyperbolizing American with two trips over the Trouée to his name. If some French bank bought the strip and decided to “improve it,” I can’t say I would be so trusting, but these guys seem worthy of the benefit of the doubt.
Secondly, it looks like they are just resetting things the way they were. Backing up, the Arenberg cobbles get their fearsome reputation by being a giant fucking mess of broken stones spread over an endless, unforgiving straight line that seems to go on forever. Worse, the crowning that occurs in older cobblestone stretches often forces riders to the highest line on the stones, but if Baby Jesus loves you enough, that crown continues on down the middle of the road for a while and you just surf across the stones. If you have done something to offend your god or gods, then instead you get the Arenberg Trench, where the crown comes and goes at will, pushing you off your cozy line and onto uneven, possibly off-camber lines and generally scrambling for (relative) safety.
Some or all of those crowns may still be there when Les Amis are done. Certainly the last 1400 meters, left alone, will still feature that madness. Just as importantly, the nasty stones haven’t been replaced with new square blocks. Check these suckers out:
This is not fun riding. Which is what makes it all so fun, of course. All that taken together, it seems like the net result of this makeover will be positive, and might even be just what the Arenberg Trench needs to gear it up for another century of excitement.
Oh, and Les Amis are also resurfacing the Sars-et-Rosières secteur, not one I really know, but if they are devoting the back-bending time and not inconsiderable money to this, it’s undoubtedly for a reason. Oh, and if you want to support their good work, go here to make a donation.
One last Paris-Roubaix note, there will be a secteur Michael Goolaerts, the second secteur of the race near Briastre where the young Belgian suffered a fatal heart attack during last year’s race.
And finally, I am not getting too deep into the Omloop just yet, what with it being eight days away, but I can report that Mathieu van der Poel will not be teasing us with his winning form from the Tour of Antalya next Saturday. The cyclocross world champion will start his Cobbles season at the Nokere Koerse a couple weeks later. Sit tight, it’ll be worth the wait.
Oh, and speaking of the Omloop, I am pledging to ride my bike every day from Omloop Saturday until Tour of Flanders Sunday. I don’t really know why, but it seems like a good idea and I’m pretty sure I will be in the mood for some miles, weather notwithstanding. I’m going to earn those morning frites this year.