In the early 1960s, people didn't care about the Paris-Roubaix bicycle race as much as they do now.
It was known as "that short race started to promote a velodrome." So the organizers of the race introduced a novelty: They found the worst, most beaten-down farm lanes, paved with "bread loaf-sized pieces of cobble" to hold the race on.
New York Times cycling journalist Ian Austen says that turned the simple race into an important one, known now in the cycling world as a "monument."
Its treacherous paths have inspired slow-motion videos. People started to tune in just to see the ridiculousness of it.
Skinny bike riders being forced to race skinny race bikes over about 30 miles of terrible terrain. The cobbles are now famous. They're even protected.
"It's the most bizarre thing," says Austen. "They are these roads where their deformity is protected by law."
For riders, it's a challenge to survive. Crashes are constant. And it doesn't matter the conditions. "Wet or dry, it's equally bad. When it's dry the dust makes the cobbles slippery, plus you can't see, and plus you're choking on the dust," he says.
And when it's wet, that means muddy, slippery stones and something that looks more cyclocross than road race.
"So it's a race that riders either love … or completely detest," Austen says.
Oh, and then there's the trains.
"They never stop the trains for races," Austen says. "The riders are supposed to stop. This leads to disputes about fairness [for] riders who did get stopped by a train, and monumental stupidity involving riders trying to cut in front of trains as they are barreling down the tracks."
It's stuff like this that makes for good television. And it's the anachronistic feeling of the race that makes Austen love it. He says it has no place in modern cycling. But that's exactly why it's wonderful. Unlike most races, you never know who is going to win. It's just as likely the favorites snap their bike in half or fall into a ditch as it is they finish the race.
About that finish — it ends in a decrepit velodrome. There's a new one next to it. But it doesn't have the history of the old one. Sometimes, the race comes down to two riders spiriting toward the line, millimeters separating victory from defeat.
And for the winner, prize money and fame — but also something more important: a name in a shower stall in a dingy public shower room.
"The place is just awful," Austen says. "But it's also one of the holy temples of professional cycling."
They also give you cobblestone, just to remind you of the pain you endured to win. Or, maybe, just to be cheeky.
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