You know how some events in life seem to have a silent soundtrack? You can’t actually hear it out loud but whenever you witness that event it’s playing in your head.. Paris-Roubaix – the brutal cobbled classic that takes place this weekend in Northern France – is such a great race that, for me at least, it has two soundtracks. There is one that I hear before the race starts and in the early kilometres, and then there’s another, entirely different one that takes over as soon as the riders approach the first section of pavé. That one one pretty much stays on repeat until, hours later, the race enters the famous velodrome in Roubaix and someone wins the most iconic (and ironic) trophy in cycling – one of the massive granite blocks that has caused so much pain on the way to lifting it.
Neither of the songs that rattle around my head as much as the riders rattle over the stones are Tricky’s “Hell Is Round The Corner” but the title alone is a strong contender in the week leading up to the race known as ‘The Hell of The North’. Instead the thought of Paris-Roubaix coming brings a smile to my face and somewhere way down inside I start hearing deep, sombre choral music..
Jorgen Leth’s 1976 film of Paris-Roubix, “A Sunday in Hell” is a masterpiece. It features Merckx, De Vlaminck, Ritter and the other géants de la route of the era on a typically chaotic edition of the race. About half an hour in there is a passage of slow motion images and a male-voice choir simply intoning the words “Paris” and “Roubaix” over and over again. It’s incredibly moving and the sound has stuck with me ever since I first watched the film many years ago. I cannot think of the race without hearing it in my mind. The timeless, monk-like chanting conveys a singularity of purpose and devotion to a cause that is necessary to conquer the course. It echoes the extra focus and sense of mortality that many pro-riders say that they feel when coming to Compiègne for the start. It says, “Roubaix is special, Roubaix is different.”
Once the riders arrive at the pavé the tempo changes and new sounds come to the fore. All Hell breaks loose and the allusions to battle and war come thick and fast. Riders fight for space and the best strategic ground. They attack and counter-attack. Injuries are commonplace. Many of the cobblestone sections date back to Napoleonic times and the piece of the music which best defines the beginning of the end of that era – Tchaichovsky’s 1812 Overture, often performed with live cannon-fire – could well be the one that plays as the riders blast through the Arenberg Trench or surge across the Carrefour De L’Arbre.
But the 1812 has the theme of retreat at it’s heart – Napoleon’s Grand Armée suffered catastrophic losses at the hands of the Russian Army and only one tenth survived the freezing journey home – whereas Roubaix is a race that is all about attack. Mathew Hayman, the veteran Australian rider who won the race in 2016 at his 15th attempt, has said that it is not a race which is defined by those who drop away but by those who forge ahead. It’s an attacker’s race. And it’s in that spirit that the music which plays in my head during the final couple of hours of the race is a full-on, gung-ho orchestral blockbuster.
Richard Wagner wrote Ride of Valkyries in 1851 as part of a much longer opera but the adoption in 1979 by Francis Ford Coppola of its most famous section for the helicopter attack sequence in ‘Apocalypse Now’ recasts the piece as a tool for both self motivation and psychological intimidation. The helicopters of Colonel Kilgore’s Air Cav come in low across the flat sea towards their target in a fashion that mirrors the approach of the riders to many of the cobbled sections. It’s the calm before the storm and it is imbued with rising anticipation and fear. The music swells in synchronisation until eventually, inevitably, they arrive and the shit hits the fan.
Perhaps it’s because we’ve been denied a proper wet Paris-Roubaix for fully 15 years that the music for the tropically-set Apocalypse Now resonates with the images of Northern Europe I see in my head. Tom Boonen on his incredible solo ride in 2012, Van Summeren in the dust and heat-haze a year earlier. I get the feeling that the music will change again when we finally get to witness a slippery muck-fest once more. Something darker, greyer, grittier.. Probably by Underworld. But certainly not either of the two Euro-pop calamities called “Paris-Roubaix” that can be found on Spotify. Do NOT search for them. Their crimes against music have reserved for them a Circle of Hell far, far below that occupied by the cobblestones of Roubaix…
Our 2017 Paris-Roubaix print will be available shortly after the race.
OUR PREVIOUS ROUBAIX EDITIONS ARE HERE