Hundred years war in `Hell of the North'

Robin Nicholl celebrates the centenary of the Paris-Roubaix classic cycling race
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The gnarled route of the Paris to Roubaix race has left a deep and lasting impression over the last 100 years, mainly on its contestants.

Queen of the Classics or Hell of the North, whichever nickname you choose depends on your fate in the oldest, toughest and dirtiest race whose reputation stems from 56 kilometres of cobbled farm tracks.

On Sunday, nearly 200 racers assemble in Compiegne, north of Paris, to race to industrial Roubaix, near Lille. In 1896 the first winner, Josef Fischer, spent nine hours in the saddle. This weekend's 270 kilometres should take the successful seven and a half hours.

The route remains as traditional as croissants, but riders are no longer paced by tandems, cars or motor cycles, and they don't have to sign in at checkpoints. Telegrams giving updates on the race were sent to the finish from villages on the route in 1896. Now millions watch it on worldwide television.

The flatlands of northern France have felt the heat of many conflicts, and l'Enfer du Nord got its name when the race organisers saw what First World War shelling had done to their beloved route.

It was hell long before that, grinding men and machines in its "jaws", those uneven cobbles known as paves to the French. The dung-coated soil filters on to the course, and a farmyard odour wafts from the showers as weary finishers swill off their muddy masks and caked legs.

Bernard Hinault won in 1981, but the five-times winner of the Tour de France said: "I detest this stupid race," an opinion strengthened when a dog sent him crashing.

The course has survived plans to tarmac its distorted path, even to the point of raising a petition. There have been great performances, unexpected heroes, many broken bikes and broken dreams, and enough injustice to keep an appeal judge busy for years.

The victory fanfare rang out over the Roubaix Velodrome in 1908 but Cyrille van Hauwaert, the leader the crowds expected to see, had been detained by the police. A gendarme at the velodrome gates insisted on checking the tax plate on the Belgian's bike and refused to let him pass until he had seen that it was a current disc. His lead was enough to ensure that his victory, and Belgium's first of many, was safe.

In 1927 Joseph Curtel was carried shoulder-high by fellow Frenchmen as "La Marsellaise" rang out. Then, resisting abuse and threats, an official announced the verdict had gone to a Belgian, Georges Ronsse.

Two years later Ronsse crashed on the final corner of a cinder-track finish and ran into second place, his damaged bike on his shoulder. When the judges stopped the main field from contesting the finish, the disgusted crowd invaded the track, angry that a prestigious race should be decided on cinders.

Jean Marechal was stripped of victory in 1930 because he had forced his Belgian rival, Julien Vervaecke, into a ditch. Fate was against Vervaecke: in 1940 he faced a firing squad.

Roger Lapebie was first home in 1934 but was disqualified for using an unofficial machine. He borrowed a woman's bike from a spectator when his own had a puncture.

Britain still awaits a winner. Barry Hoban was third in 1972, but Sean Kelly has twice given Ireland success. Fischer's inaugural victory is also remembered for a gutsy Welshman, Arthur Linton, who was giving Fischer a hard time until a wandering dog felled him.

It was no easier for Fischer. A bolting horse, then cows blocking the course, had the German twitching before, covered in bouquets and clutching a glass of champagne, he signed the finishers register 30 minutes before the second rider, Charles Meyer, arrived. Linton was fourth, 43 minutes and many punctures after Fischer. Four months later Linton died of typhoid fever.

Nine months after the 1949 race the official result was altered and victory was shared by Andre Mahe, who had entered the track through the door of the press tribune after being sent off course, and Serse Coppi, to whom victory had been awarded for being first to complete the correct course.

Canada's Steve Bauer did not have to wait so long, but in 1990 it was just as agonising. His photo-finish with Eddy Planckaert went to the Belgian by a centimetre. "To come so close and not win. That hurt more than anything," Bauer said. It sounded like an echo in hell.