Reviewed: Paris-Roubaix: A Journey Through Hell

04.10.2009 | 12:28 pm

200904101042.jpgYesterday I got a big ol’ coffee table book in the mail: Paris-Roubaix: A Journey Through Hell, by Philippe Bouvet, Pierre Callewaert, Jean-Luc Gatellier, and Serge Laget, and published by VeloPress.

And after reading all 224 pages (OK, actually I mostly looked at the pictures, but there are a lot of pictures, and I looked at them very studiously), I had the following astute observations and questions:

  1. This book has a lot of really cool pictures.
  2. I didn’t know a tenth as much about this race as I ought to, and now I want to know more.
  3. I am really glad that Versus is going to be broadcasting some of this race this weekend.
  4. Does it really take four guys to write a 224-page book? I mean, did they need to get it done in one day or something? I swear, I got all tired out just typing the list of authors for this thing, and confess I briefly considered just saying it was written anonymously.

A Road Race That Should Be A Mountain Bike Race

Up until spending some time with this book, my clearest memory of Paris-Roubaix was watching A Sunday in Hell while riding my rollers a few winters ago. The thing is, while it’s an interesting documentary, there are big stretches where there is no riding at all. Which made it a difficult video for someone who’s only barely capable of forcing himself to ride the rollers anyway to stay interested.

I bring this up because this book captures the racer’s experience about as well as it could be captured without actually letting you swing a leg over and join in.

And I get the feeling that the Paris-Roubaix is a really terrific mountain biking race — or maybe a really, really epic cyclocross race — that for some reason is ridden on road bikes. In spite of the fact that calling a lot of the course a “road” is the very definition of “euphemism.”

I mean, you can bet Jacques Cadiou (1967, photo on page 89) wishes he had been riding with beefier rims:


A helmet probably would’ve been a good idea, too.


After reading this 224-page book, you know one thing for certain: the authors of this book love this race, and they feel their love pretty darned intensely. Consider the image / caption pairing here:

Belgian star Eric Vanderaerden’s legs are dead, his eyes coated, and his nose stuffed. he has trouble breathing. With his face a mess, he’s drawn like a magnet to the north, like a lost soul emerging from a Rembrandt canvas.

This writing is a little (OK, a lot) purple, to be sure, and the over-the-top verbiage goes permeates the book. I kinda suspect that this is a translation issue. Undoubtedly originally written in French, this kind of prose probably sounds about right in the source language. In English, on the other hand, it feels a little bit like a someone is standing too close to me, talking louder and louder and gesticulating like a madman, occasionally poking me in the chest: tactile punctuation. “Don’t stand so close, man,” I want to tell Messrs Bouvet, Callewaert, Gatellier, and Laget.

But still: you know for certain that these guys care more than just a little bit about this race.

And now they’ve got me excited about watching this race this weekend. So this book’s done its job.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Paris-Roubaix but are curious to see what it’s about before the race this weekend — or if you know it very well and want to relive the punishment — Paris-Roubaix: A Journey Through Hell is a good way to get caught up.


  1. Comment by bikemike | 04.10.2009 | 12:55 pm

    the BEST road race in the universe. i’ve been to thousands of other galaxies so i know this for a fact.

  2. Comment by MikeonhisBike | 04.10.2009 | 1:17 pm

    Thanks for the write up on the book. I’ve always wanted to see this race. I’ll have to check it out on Vs. By the way, is the Century to Nowhere still on? I’ve got a Dan Henry painted on the floor right in front of my trainer so I’m ready to go. No getting lost for me.

  3. Comment by matt (ming) | 04.10.2009 | 1:42 pm

    i got this book for christmas. its great, the tone i got from the books is that the bevy of authors think the race is the hardest thing in the world,,,ever,,,while being the most glorious and beautiful thing in the world,,,ever,,,

    but some great pictures. and a good read

  4. Comment by Jenny-Jenny | 04.10.2009 | 2:42 pm

    Wow, nice review. I’m sure the race will be on at our house this weekend

  5. Comment by Hilslug | 04.10.2009 | 2:54 pm

    I think one of the saddest bike scenes I have ever seen was a Paris-Roubaix a few years ago with George Hincapie sitting off in a ditch, holding his handlebars. They snapped off while riding through one of the cobbled sectors. He fell, breaking his collarbone. If I remember correctly, he was in tears. After the suffering, the velodrome finish seems a little out of place. They need to end it in a boulder field or something.

  6. Comment by LindaLoo | 04.10.2009 | 5:13 pm

    “tactile punctuation”-love that!

  7. Comment by Lucky Cyclist | 04.10.2009 | 6:44 pm

    The Heber Valley century is the closest I will probably ever come to P.R.
    Fun to watch people with really expensive wheels cringe as they roll up to a couple miles of dirt road.

    I’ve never heard of the Heber Valley century. Are they doing it again this year? When? Sounds like a job for the MonsterCross! – FC

  8. Comment by sansauto | 04.10.2009 | 7:50 pm

    You spoke of missions yesterday, I served mine in Northern France. The missionaries were pulled out of Roubaix after one got stabbed or something. I was able to visit on a day trip and it’s a pretty rough town. Guys warming their hands over fires in 55 gallon drums, cars on street corners with all of the wheels stolen and cars that had recently been burned were all common sites. The area around the city was really pretty.

  9. Comment by tim | 04.10.2009 | 10:10 pm

    jeez, I thought parts of Liverpool were rough :)

  10. Comment by Fer | 04.10.2009 | 10:24 pm

    My brother gave me this book a while ago, and I love it. It is so colorful with its language and those great photos.

    Win Susan!

  11. Comment by aragorn | 04.10.2009 | 11:03 pm

    I’m jealous. I put it on my gift wish list. My wife thought I was joking.

  12. Comment by Bjorn 4Lycra | 04.11.2009 | 12:54 am

    This is what bike racing is all about. One day, one bike, very little team work and some of the worst roads in the world with the most variable weather conditions. I should point out the roads are only so bad because they have been there for so long. These days the gladiators and warriors using them are on bikes
    What other race could you have with the commentators calling the race talking about the leaders and suddenly a phone call comes through from Australia (so the story goes) pointing out that the leader our Stu is some distance down the road and they are looking at second. Phil embarrassed no way just talks up Stu without missing a beat. Then after slogging it out all day the winner gets to hold up a chunk of road over their head to celebrate. Brilliant.

    My relatives that still live there insist Roubaix is a much nicer place these days altho they still hunt missionaries (only joking) and a couple of my mates insist parts of liverpool (Anfield for instance) have indeed gone a bit soft.
    Happy easter everybody.

  13. Comment by Miles Archer | 04.11.2009 | 9:38 am

    Sounds like a great book. I will no longer complain about the worst stretch of road in Contra Costa County* and instead pretend it’s part of P-R.

    *bottom part of South Gate rd in near Athenian School in Diablo.

  14. Comment by Matt | 04.11.2009 | 11:55 am

    It’s gonna be a GREAT race (again)! I will have my fingers crossed for George…hopefully THIS is his year! He absolutly HAS to win this race at least once! Certainly no cyclist is more deserving.

    And Hilslug…I agree…I vividly recall when his bars snapped off right at the stem that year…he was still holding his handlebars, sat straight up as his bike veered towards the left gutter…and down/over he went. And he was PERFECTLY positioned for the win too…riding was looking to be his year finally. Such is life…hopefully this time is the one. I will surely be rooting for him!

  15. Comment by Alaskan Dave Down Under | 04.11.2009 | 4:13 pm

    We’re getting the last 3.5 hours live down here tonight on SBS. The usually start just before Arenberg.

    I’ll be recording it.

  16. Comment by Clydesdale | 04.11.2009 | 6:30 pm

    I have this book also. Very, very nice, although I can’t read too much at a time or I get an irresistable urge to beat myself with a bag of rocks while rolling in a mud puddle. That’s the only other way to get as close to the feeling of the race. There are some good clips of some of the past races on youtube.
    I have to agree with Bjorn4 I’m not sure it’s such a great feeling to get hammered into oblivion for 6 hrs and then the reward for finishing first is trying to lift 25lb’s of granite cobblestone over your head :-o

  17. Comment by Dan O | 04.11.2009 | 11:49 pm

    It’s a cool book. I borrowed a copy from the library a few months ago.

    Also – don’t forget about the 1976 documentary – Sunday in Hell. Well worth checking it.

    Looking forward to the coverage tomorrow on VS.

  18. Comment by Mike Roadie | 04.13.2009 | 4:51 am

    Sounds like a beauty.

    I’ll root for Tommie B….again!

  19. Comment by Mary | 04.13.2009 | 7:17 am

    I gave this book to my husband for Christmas this year, and promptly grabbed it right back so I could read it! It really was fun to read – and look at the pictures! But, the book also makes me want to go take a shower and have a nap, that’s how much it brings you into the race. There is a nasty stretch of road on our regular bike route, filled with bumps and disintegrating asphalt, which we have – of course – christened Paris-Roubaix Road. We are definitely fans of this race!

    We watched PR on the live feeds online (so much more entertaining to watch a race in languages you don’t speak! guessing what they are saying adds enormously to the fun!), then watched the Versus coverage yesterday evening to get the Phil&Paul experience. Between Friday night and Saturday, to get in the right mindset to watch PR, we watched A Sunday in Hell and Hell on Wheels (okay, that one is Tour de France, but still counts as PR prep!). (Umm, that sounds like a lot of couch potato time, but I swear my husband also ran 20 miles, and I hiked 6 and rode my bike for a few hours!)

    It was a very fun weekend. But, of course, would have been so much better if Hincapie had won (or even ended up on the podium!). Darn those ill-timed mechanicals! They can happen to us all.

  20. Comment by Matt | 04.13.2009 | 8:59 am

    Well, I know where Derek Zoolander got Magnum from now.

  21. Comment by Rocket | 04.13.2009 | 7:50 pm

    well i stayed up late and wathed the race for a while, the Ardennes Forrest sorted the men from the boys. if any of you saw Stuart O’Grady win two years ago you might remeber that eh explained that it was like a boys own adventure, foreign fields and roads that put the frighteners into you. what a race it is the queen of classics no doubt. i wanted George to grab a victory but alas not to be, he is the next best thing to an aussie

  22. Comment by yeagermeister | 04.14.2009 | 12:56 pm

    I have this book (but I haven’t read it). I love this race (yet haven’t been).

    However, in honor of it, on Sunday my wife and I rode 89 miles (not quite 161) and rode 2 (not quite 18) gravel roads (not quite pave) on the route. I’m certain we had more elevation gain, though.


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