ROUBAIX, France (VN) — In December of 2011, officials with the Amaury Sport Organization (ASO), owner of Paris-Roubaix, paid a visit to the famed Arenberg Trench and didn’t like what they saw. The jagged 2,400-meter path, revered as the race’s most brutal stretch of pavé, was increasingly covered in moss. Concerned that the growth could pose an unacceptable risk to the peloton, ASO’s Jean-Francois Pescheux warned area officials that, without cleaning, the iconic Trouée d’Arenberg would have to be omitted from the race.
Fortunately for cycling fans, Francois Doulcier was ready to lend a hand. Doulcier, an automotive assembly line manager by day, is the president of Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix, a volunteer organization dedicated to preserving and maintaining the race’s historic cobblestones. With the group’s assistance, a street sweeper returned the Arenberg cobbles to an acceptable level of peril in early March 2012 — and will now do so quarterly as a means of preventing future problems.
Like France’s answer to The Lorax, Monsieur Doulcier speaks for the pavé. Repairing cobblestones is difficult, physical labor. But don’t call it work.
“Fixing the cobbles is a passion for us,” insists Doulcier. “It is not really work. It’s what we love.”
As the group enters its 35th year of operation, Les Amis (“the Friends”) enjoys widespread support from both local government and the race organizers themselves. But getting here was a long, bumpy road. In 1977, Paris-Roubaix’s beloved pavé was teetering on the brink of extinction as asphalt began blanketing the nation’s rural roads. The race itself wasn’t faring much better. Many here believed Paris-Roubaix to reflect poorly on the region for precisely the same reasons it has become legendary amongst cyclists: Riders caked in filth, enduring poor weather and brutal conditions. As it happens, not everyone considers the “Hell of the North” an appealing tourism slogan.
Luckily both the race and its cobbles enjoyed a Renaissance of sorts in the early 1990s, due in no small part to Les Amis. Having convinced property owners and local governments of the historic, cultural and economic benefits of the region’s pavé, the group — which boasts roughly 200 members worldwide — began shifting its role from advocacy to maintenance.
Under Doulcier’s direction, a core group of 12 to 14 volunteers works year-round in partnership with local horticultural students to monitor and repair the race’s 27 cobbled segments. Their goal: the elimination of ruts, potholes, and mud.
With access to a stockpile of historic cobbles, the group replaces missing or broken stones, using concrete, sand and rubber mallets to secure them in place.
But don’t worry, Les Amis aren’t making the segments easier to ride — just safer. “We say ‘the cobbles are hard enough, we don’t need [these additional hazards] on the pavé,’” Doulcier explains.
A successful repair job for the group is one you’ll never know took place. The volunteers take great pains to match the height, look and spacing of each stone to those surrounding it. But some segments are more difficult than others.
In 2012, the Arenberg Trench presented a unique set of problems for Doulcier and his compatriots. Because the iconic cobbles are now closed to automotive traffic (which actually helps to keep other segments free of debris), the Trench became unusually perilous in the fall of 2011.
“The problem was that we had moss and mud covering the cobblestones,” recalls Doulcier. “When they were dry it was not a big problem, but when the cobbles got wet? It was a catastrophe waiting to happen.”
In December 2011, the group attempted to clean a 40-meter segment using a floor polisher equipped with special metal brushes. The results were impressive, but the backbreaking work left Doulcier convinced that a new approach might be in order.
“The work was just too hard to do by hand. It was a good try but very hard on our arms. We were very tired and hadn’t come close to finishing the entire segment.”
So with 700 euros in backing from the local government, the group contracted with a street sweeping company in March. When ASO officials came out to inspect the segment, they were pleased: they graded it among the hardest to ride, but satisfied devotees by allowing its inclusion in the race.
As it turned out, moss was only half of the problem. Doulcier estimates that the group also replaced some 60 Arenberg cobbles taken as souvenirs over the 12 months following the race’s 2011 edition.
“Theft of the Arenberg cobbles is a real problem,” he notes. “We replaced at least 60 this year, with many taken directly from the haut du pavé [segment’s arched spine, a high-traffic area for cyclists]. It’s a very dangerous thing because the riders can fall and injure themselves. It’s criminal, really.”
Still, there’s something to be said for a race so deeply compelling that tourists flock from around the world for a chance to pilfer stones from its roads. It would appear that things have changed for the better since 1977?
“Oh, yes,” agrees Doulcier. “Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix have succeeded in changing the image of the race. Now the people of Northern France love Paris-Roubaix and want to preserve it — just as they wish to preserve the cobbles.”
Indeed, Doulcier sees the race as a reflection of the region and its people.
“The values of the race are also the values of the people of Northern France. We are hard working and courageous — just like the riders of Paris-Roubaix. This is why the race holds a special place in our hearts.”
Individual memberships in Les Amis de Paris Roubaix cost 20 euros and include a newsletter and regular e-mail updates. For more information visit the organization’s website at www.lesamisdeparisroubaix.com.